Back in university, I had this idea that the universe was unfolding like an elaborate chain reaction. I asked a friend who was taking physics and he shot down the idea, talking about chaos theory. I didn’t quite understand what he was saying but he knew physics better than I did so I left it. About 15 years later, the idea is still stuck in my head.
I’ve since learned that the idea is not an original thought and that it’s largely referred to as determinism. The reading that I’ve done on it fascinates me, particularly because it’s an area which draws the attention of mathematicians, physicists, and philosophers. For many years I’ve understood these individuals to be among the most genuine seekers of truth. By no means am I an expert in any of these fields, but I’ve made some observations I can’t seem to disprove.
It rests on a 4 physical laws:
The Law of Conservation of Energy states that the total energy of an isolated system is constant; energy can be transformed from one form to another, but can be neither created nor destroyed.
- The Law of Conservation of Mass states that for any system closed to all transfers of matter and energy, the mass of the system must remain constant over time, as the system’s mass cannot change, no quantity can be added nor removed. Hence, the quantity of mass is conserved over time
- Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity expresses the fact that mass and energy are the same physical entity and can be changed from one to another.
Newton’s third law states to every action there is always an opposing and equal reaction: or the mutual actions of two bodies upon each other are always equal, and directed to contrary parts.
Whatever the entirety of existence is, a universe, a multi-verse or something else we have still yet to comprehend, in it’s totality, it’s still a closed system. And within this closed system, we have a set amount of matter and energy, which in effect, are the same physical entity. In this closed system, nothing can be created nor destroyed. If every action can only produce an equal and opposite reaction, every action operates with a fixed outcome. It’s why 2+2 always equals 4. When you ask why something has happened, you’re identifying cause and effect. But every reaction is also an action in itself, like ripples from dropping a rock in a pond. If you go to that last ripple that hit the shore and ask how it got there, you’d follow a chain of causation back to the rock that was dropped in. Then you could ask why the rock was dropped. Or how the rock got there. The reality is that this chain of causation goes back further than even the existence of the rock or the lake. It likely goes all the way back to the big bang. In all likelihood, it goes back further than that. Perhaps when the universe is done expanding, it will reverse course, eventually collapsing in on itself at the exact point and moment that another universe begins.
The problem with this theory seems to be the inability to prove or disprove it. If someone believes in free will, this is a direct challenge to their beliefs and they’ll want to see proof. I was big on free will when I was younger, if someone was talking to me about destiny, I’d say something like, ‘show me what I’m destined to do and I’ll just do otherwise’. Within the theory of determinism though, that entire conversation and outcome are just part of how the universe is unfolding. As is everything that I’m discussing now.
It occurred to me that if determinism is true, it would be theoretically possible to predict the future to 100% certainty. The problem with testing that theory is that just like a math equation, to calculate an outcome to any level of certainty, you need to know the variables and how they’re interacting. Considering how interconnected everything is, and how little of the universe we’ve yet to grasp, it would be all but impossible to know every variable necessary to predict the next link in the chain. But if you could, theoretically, you could make that prediction with 100% certainty.
So if we accept that we may never be able to test this at a universal scale, can it be proven on a smaller scale? I asked myself, in what situations do we know 100% of the variables and look to predict an outcome? Nothing in the physical realm.. our efforts in predicting weather are a classic example of not being able to see the entire equation. Then it hit me: Math! As simple as it may be, “2+2=” is a closed system in which 100% of the variables are known and we understand how they’re interacting. As a result, we can predict the outcome to 100% accuracy. And it doesn’t matter how elaborate the equation becomes or how many variables you include. As long as you know the variables and how they interact with one another, the next step in the chain can be predicted to absolute certainty.
Once this sunk in, a lot of other things started to make sense to me. One was particularly significant though, the question ‘Why?’. When you ask why something has happened, you’re looking at the chain. You’re looking for the action that caused the reaction. Or maybe you’re looking for the action before that, or the action before that. It’s easy to do through the distilled lens of math where you tend to deal with isolated instances of cause and effect. Physics seems to be where we observe how these variables interact over longer periods of time like seconds or years. I suppose then, it’s the philosopher’s role to ask why again and again, until we realize that it is the longest of all roads and one which will always and ultimately take us back to the beginning.
Am I crazy?
I’m envisioning a flip book, the kind that you would doodle an animation with. Each page is a universe wide, but only moment deep. Each page looks nearly identical to the last and nearly identical to the next, but as you start to flip them you see the universe unfold. Each page is a link in the chain of causality. Each page leads only to the next page. The story has already been drawn.
I would suggest that free will – the ability to make the universe as we see fit – is not our gift. Instead, it was the universe that made us as it saw fit. We were gifted with consciousness, the awareness of one’s self and their place within the universe. I’ve found this awareness to be deeply humbling while providing a great sense of appreciation. Consider that the matter and energy that makes up every bit of who I am has existed in this universe since long before I came along. Well before our species came along. Well before our planet was even formed. And through some crazy chain of causation, I exist today, with an ability to recognize all this, and write about it. And that even this moment here, is just part of the story.