Friday, August 5, 2011

Notes towards an eventual essay on Causality (concluded)

"The law of causation  is the guiding rule of science;  but the categorical imperative -- the dictate of duty -- is the guiding rule of life."
-- Max Planck, The New Science.

“Che sera sera” is a truth of logic, not a version of determinism.
-- E. J. Lemmon, “Sentences, Statements, and Propositions” (1966)

Finally we turn to the matter of determinism.
For long, the center of mass of this question, lay within science.  Certain credentialled individuals, ignoring their own obvious Free Will, were pleased to assert the thesis that we are all robots, and that everything is completely pre-determined and predictable within this meaningless universe of billiard-balls.   This preposterous proposition ran counter to the evidence of our senses, as well as to the teachings of the Church.  But then, the heretics in question  were insensible to either.
Yet by now -- quite surprisingly -- the thesis of universal determinism has been refuted from within science itself -- und zwar, in two remarkable and unexpected and independent ways.
The better known of these  comes from quantum mechanics -- Heisenberg uncertainty; the collapse of the wave function; all that.  That pretty much comes across to most of us  as magic, and I wouldn’t blame people for not rushing uncritically to embrace something that they do not understand.   It’s probably true enough, I’m not calling it into question;  but one doesn’t enjoy it when something basically alien and only semi-comprehensible (as quantum theory notoriously is, even to its practitioners) is cited as sole proof concerning something fundamental to our lives.  (For similar reasons, it’s a dead-lousy linchpin for explaining the possibility of Free Will, as Penrose wished to do.)
The less well-known, but more easily verifiable, comes from within classical (pre-quantum) physics itself, once the math got hefty enough.   First, it was proved, over a century ago, that something so modest as the three-body problem (three masses orbiting one another in empty space) is analytically unsolvable.  Next, mathematical progress in nonlinear dynamics  sharpened our understanding of just how wildy  Nature can -- and typically will -- go off the radar.  (For details, look up “chaos theory”, plus some relevant remarks here.)
These new perspectives are very welcome, from a scientific and mathematical standpoint, though they just go to prove what no Christian ever doubted for an instant. 

In terms of the contemporary sociopolitical scene in America (I do not say: scientifico-philosophical, since that scarcely exists), none of the above is of the least consequence.   The denizens of McWalAmerica know nothing of math or science, and care less.   Yet a sort of dwarfish deformed offspring of (bleak, godless, but bold and parsimonious withal) classical Laplacian determinism, has slithered forth upon our shores, born of Dan White out of Oprah.  The goal of this degenerate tendency (the only defense for the proponents of which, is Diminished Capacity) is to absolve us of responsibility for our own actions -- and, conveniently, our own crimes -- thus reducing the moral stature of mankind to that of the insects -- or, if these be too admirable (get thee to the bee, thou sluggard, and the ant), perhaps the paramecia.

As often, G. K. Chesterton was early on the scene with trenchant comment.  Here he squibs the medical-excuse defense, in his 1912 parable, Manalive:

Perjury is a variety of aphasia, leading a man to say one thing instead of another.  Forgery is a kind of writer’s cramp, forcing a man to write his uncle’s name instead of his own.  Piracy on the high seas is probably a form of sea-sickness.

To see that this parody by no means stretches beyond the facts, compare this actual case -- only the latest of innumerable such things -- documented in this morning’s L.A.Times:

August 5, 2011
An appointee of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa assigned to oversee dozens of neighborhood councils resigned after FBI agents raided his home looking for evidence that he or others downloaded child pornography.

Abrams, 63, submitted his resignation Wednesday and said he did not know whether he was a target of the investigation. Asked about the search warrant, Abrams said he had surgery earlier this year to address a tumor on his spine. That growth, he said, ultimately affected his brain and caused "behaviors that were completely out of character."

Asked if those behaviors included the downloading of child pornography, he responded: "That's a legal question. You'd have to talk to my attorney."

In a separate interview with CBS2, Abrams said a "split personality" caused him to go by the name Boywonderusa — the account that the FBI contends was used to download pornographic images of children.
Villaraigosa said Thursday he was appalled by the news and said Abrams told him he was "sorry for everything that has happened." The mayor also said Abrams' explanation wasn't something he had heard before as "a reason for this type of thing."


Oh -- I almost forgot.  The miscellaneous quotations that were to form the nucleus of an eventual essay.  Well, here they are anyway, mostly for vocabulary purposes (determinism/necessity/necessitarianism).

C.S. Peirce, "The Doctrine of Necessity Examined": "Its first advocate appears to have been Democritus."
"a strict necessitarianism" "The usual and most logical form of necessitarianism is called the mechanical philosophy."

Robert Lindsay & Henry Margenau, Foundations of Physics (1936), p. 189, contrasts “dynamical” (rigidly deterministic) vs. “statistical” theories:
Thermodynamics and radioactivity  refused to be completely understood in terms of the familiar dynamical concepts. … Ordinary dynamics, or its bolder offspring, the general mechanistic theory, not only becomes inapplicable or useless [in these domains], but leads definitely to results  contradictory to observation.

Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen,  The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (1971), p. 174:
Heisenberg’s [Uncertainty] Principle  offers no logical basis  for either determinism  or indeterminism.  On the contrary, its philosophical implication  is that neither thesis is experimentally testable.

Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen,  The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (1971), p. 175:
For a determinist, the withdrawing of the Red Sea for the Passover, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the genesis of life,  all are mythological miracles  until he can find a causal explanationfor them.  For an indeterminist, they are just possible results of the play of chance. … Indeterminism of the hard type  has no recourse against Broglie’s verdict that, with it, physics runs “the danger of remaining stuck in purely statistical interpretations, and thus becoming  completely sterile.”

Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen,  The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (1971), p. 183:
If one narrows down science … to a dynamical matrix, then one must swear by determinism. … And the same is true for … full-fledged indeterminism, which claims that everything consists of jumping electrons.

Mario Bunge, preface (1979) to third edition of Causality and Modern Science (1959; 1963):
Instead of becoming indeterminists, we have enlarged determinism  to include noncausal categories.
(Sounds like moving the goalposts, but it could well be justified in detail.)

Abraham Pais, Subtle is the Lord (1982), p. 442:
Born’s observation in 1926 that the absolute square of a Schroedinger wave function is to be interpreted as a probability density … goes to the heart of the problem of determinism. .. He wrote: “I myself am inclined to renounce determinism in the atomic world, but that is a philosophical question  for which physical arguments alone do not set standards.”

Gerd Gigerenzer et al, The Empire of Chance (1989), p. 276f, distinguishes five varieties of determinism: metaphysical determinism, epistemological determinism, etc.

Gerd Gigerenzer et al, The Empire of Chance (1989), p. 279: "Macroevolution may be random, regardless of the complete microdetermination of each mutation." 
This rather reverses an earlier view, according to which overall evolution proceded broadly by the laws of natural selection, the microscopiic source of selected variety being mysterious (prior to Mendel) or random.

Gerd Gigerenzer et al, The Empire of Chance (1989), p. 280: "necessitated by antecedent conditions"
"the Laplacian archdeterminist, Claude Bernard"


Matt Ridley, Genome (1999), p.  307:
The equation of determinism with fatalism  is a fallacy.  … Determinism looks backwards to the causes… not forward to the consequences.

In politically-correct circles, biological determinism (hereditarianism) was a no-no, while cultural determinism (environmentalism) was okay.   Ridley quotes a novel perspective on this:
Rich Harris lays bare just how much more alarming social determinism is thqn genetic.  It is brainwashing.  Far from leaving room for free will, it rather diminishes it.  A child who expresses her own (partly genetic) personality  in defiance of her parents’ or her siblings’ pressures, is at least obeying endogenous causality, not someone else’s.

A thought-provoking passage, especially as we shall ponder further upon the matter of Free Will.

Steven Pinker, in The Blank Slate (2002), notices a loose polemical use:

The radical scientists’ case against Wilson and Dawkins  can be summed up in two words:  “determinism” and “reductionism”.  Their writings are peppered with these words,  used  not in any technical sense  but as vague terms of abuse.

(Compare the snarling use of “liberal” by the populist Right in the U.S.)


  1. I honestly do not see where you are going with this. Let me address some thorns in my thoughts before I try formulate a broader response.

    First, “Obvious Free Will”: Well, obvious for whom? Obvious for you or obvious in an ontological sense? If it were the later we should have a workable definition of it, a definition that is somewhat stable and that not only explains the process of willing and deciding, but that also, preferably, enables us to make predictions. From what I surveyed from the relevant literature there is actually no workable, stable definition (I've seen about ten so far), and this after 2000 years of discussion. (Just as a remark on the side: a school I subscribe to thinks that free will is not only pretty much undefined, but it also does not me the criteria of an explanation.) Furthermore, I am still waiting for a proof of the core claim of free-willers, which is that our will is not determinate. Was it Hume or Russel who pointed out that someone who showed real indeterminate behaviour, like singing a hymn in the middle of a business meeting, before making a head stand and then killing himself, would be judged to be insane and not a prime example for the expression of free will, and that even by the free-willers?

    Second, why are deterministic non-linear systems non-deterministic, as I think you claim? (As a side note, I think you are guilty of a grave confusion of “knowing in principle” and “knowing in praxis”. Just because we cannot know in praxis does not mean it cannot be know in principle.) Just because we cannot predict future events does not imply that they are indeterminate. As I see it, you are simply affirming the consequent here. So, to reiterate my point, just because events are not predictable does NOT imply that they are in non-deterministic! The latter is what I think you claim. For example, predicting the shape of an ice cube from the shape of the puddle it leaves behind after melting, is generally impossible (in praxis that is). Are you thus implying that the phase transition leading to the puddle was non-deterministic? I am honestly at a loss here. Also, how does our inability to predict an event rhyme with free will? How could we predict what is free and what is not? This leads us right back to point one.

    Third, determinism does not mean absence of control, while, of course, in some cases it does. If you, for example, due to a brain injury or the like, lose your capability for empathy, even for modelling your own feelings, are you then responsible for misdeeds you commit? This is not only a problem for a model relying on determinism, but it is also an issue for you. If you are dualist there is either no reason for lenience toward anyone, irrespective of how damaged their brains are, because free will is immaterial. You might of course say that the damaged brain distorts or filters free will, but that leaves you in no better situation than the determinist. And, of course, if you are a non-dualist free-willer, viz. you assume free will is a product of the brain, you again have to answer the question exactly when free will gets impaired by brain damages, and how much.

    Fourth, why are you looking at who interprets determinism how (MacWalAmerica)? I am still at loss whether you intend to discuss the epistemic issue of determinism v. free will, and if not, what you actually are addressing here. Are you just pestered that some people (in your eyes) seem to invoke a bastard version of determinism?

    All this been said I feel actually not emancipated to deliver any general conclusions from your entry, since I for one see SEVERE epistemic issues with it, and second I do not know what you actually want to say here.

  2. I had just finished a glass of fine dry red Romanian wine, sitting in our flat in Bucharest, when I opened my email and was soon reading the following:

    Notes toward an eventual essay on Causality (concluded). Finally we turn to the matter of determinism.

    Being privileged to know the author, I smiled broadly and refilled my glass.

    A brilliant treatment of the topic, to be sure. While the modern tendency is to employ determinism in defense of depravity, it remains fascinating that the classical Calvinist belief has been toward urging virtue.

    I was raised in the Lutheran tradition before stumbling my way into the Historical Church, and so the Double Predestination (as we called their view) of the Calvinists was baffling to me. We taught, by the way, an importantly modified Single Direction Determinism--those who are damned damned themselves and good, those who are saved are saved by election. But the analogy that came with it still convinces me that it is ultimately no Determinism at all. Namely, if I offer you a dollar and you take it, then the most important thing is that I gave you a dollar. If I offer you a dollar and you, for whatever reason, refuse it, then most important this is that you rejected the dollar. And it's the same with Salvation. Of course on some level, you chose to take the dollar. But since the dollar isn't yours without the Gracious Giver, there's no point in dwelling on what significance your will in accepting the dollar is.

    And so it was that much of the Council of Trent was primarily directed against the Calvinists, whose Double Determinism (i.e., some dead babies rot in hell, because, well, that's how God wills it) was the first true heresy in Europe since the Waldensians.

    All that said, so often, when I see depravity and I assert that "There but for the Grace of God go I," it is not determinism, but a knowledge of my own willful sinfulness.