So I stumbled onto Determinism recently. It’s something that I’ve seen and recognized for years but it’s only been in the last few months that I began to study it. Simply put, the physical laws which we observe within the universe, the same ones that apply to us and all other living things, doesn’t make room for free will. Philosophers have been debating this for millennia now but as we gain a stronger understanding of the universe, it’s become a rather bold assumption that we’re the ones in charge.
It’s a difficult concept for most people to wrap their heads around. Some will suggest that if they stopped controlling themselves, they’d lay in bed and waste away. I would suggest that they try it. I’d bet good money they don’t last a day. At some point, you’re going to have the urge to get up and do something. And while you’re up, you might as well do something else. And so on, and so on. But even if you did manage to stay in bed and waste away, it wouldn’t be because you decided to or because you chose to give up control. It would be a result of the series of events which led to that moment. You might think of it as a decision but the motivations, the considerations, and everything that went into that decision was present before the decision was made. It was the only decision you were ever going to make. What we typically think of a decision is more of an inflection point.
I was trying to describe this to a friend and it wasn’t easy. He’s big on having control of his own destiny. I was too.. we were very similar in that regard. He along with most of the world don’t like the idea that they aren’t in control of their actions. And it seems silly to suggest otherwise. If you’re not in control of your actions then who is? If I tell myself to do something, I’m obviously the one doing it aren’t I?
A puppet is free when it believes it has no strings.
There’s a great scene in West World where Maeve is learning that she’s an AI for the first time. The technicians tell her that everything that she does and says is according to her programming. She persists and claims that her actions are her own and that she has free will. To prove her otherwise, they show her a tablet with her speech algorithms on it. She looks down and sees that the screen had predicted everything that she said. And as she was about to comment on it, the screen predicted that too. She couldn’t reconcile what she was seeing with her core programming and started to glitch.
Are we so different? Our programming resides in our subconscious and we behave according to our programming. The difference seems to be that if I were to show them what they were going to say or before they said or did it, they could still choose to believe otherwise. A remarkable and curious feature of the human mind. I think a part of it may be that this perspective results in such a fundamental shift in how reality is perceived, that people need a clear and reasonable path to map this philosophy on to their normal lives. You can’t just say that free will doesn’t exist. You have to show why it doesn’t exist, and you have to show how it’s just a more honest way of seeing the world that we already know. Easier said than done… but I had a shower thought.
I’ve said that the field of math is a demonstration and perhaps even evidence of determinism. I’ve even suggested that an equation as simple as 2+2=4 represents a microcosm of a deterministic universe. Yesterday, it also helped me better understand this inflection point that we call a decision.
If you thought about the number 10 and a big number 10 popped up in front of you, it would be reasonable to assume that you were responsible for creating that number 10. If you did it 1000 times in a row and it popped up 1000 times, you would probably declare for certain that you were responsible for creating each of those number 10s. But what if I told you that not once during those 1000 times that a 10 popped up in front of you, did you look behind you. You were so focused on the product of the equation, that you never took the time to look for the equation itself. For each of those 1000 times that a big number 10 popped up in front of you, there was a 5+5 behind you. Without the 5+5, there would be no 10. With the 5+5, the only number that would appear ahead of you is 10.
You…. are the equal sign.
That decision, or that inflection point, is where cause meets effect. It’s where the equation leading up to that inflection point creates a product. It’s where everything that was becomes what is. It’s where everything that goes into making a decision becomes the path that you choose to take. Except you didn’t really choose it because everything that went into that decision was only going to produce one path forward. And that’s ok. If I was going to choose to be any part of an equation it would probably be the equal sign. It’s like being in the front seat of the roller coaster. You might be strapped in and on rails, and there’s no guarantee of safety, but you get to see all best parts as they happen and one way or another, it’s going to be an incredible ride.
One thought on “Decisions in Math”
“Free will” is when a person decides for himself what he will do, free of coercion or other undue influence.
“Freedom from reliable causation” is an irrational concept. Without reliable cause and effect we could never reliably cause any effect, and would thus have no freedom to do anything at all.
When you fall for the bait-and-switch, replacing “free from coercion and undue influence” with “freedom from reliable causation”, you end up in a slew of silly paradoxes. So, don’t do that.
The problem with the puppet analogy is that there is no puppet master. Neither the Big Bang, nor the “laws” of Physics, have any interest at all in what we do. But every living organism has an interest in satisfying its own needs of survival. And every intelligent species acts deliberately to sustain and improve its quality of life.
Physics, unfortunately, can only predict and explain the behavior of inanimate objects. The “laws of nature” are derived by observing reliable patterns of behavior in the class of objects being studied. Physics does not observe living organisms. So it cannot explain or predict their behavior. We have other sciences to do that.
Physics can explain why a cup of water rolls down a hill. But it has no conceptual structure to explain why another cup of water, mixed with a little coffee, hops into the car to go grocery shopping.
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