Determinism (mostly for Jenn Frank (but you might be interested also?))

So Jenn Frank wrote an astonishingly great piece ‘On games of chance, cheating, and religion’ and JP Grant added some thoughts of his own about the notion of ‘fairness’ in games, in an equally excellent response, ‘Fair Play’. Go read both of them now if you haven’t yet.

But I wanted to add a little something about the notion of determinism, the spectre of which Jenn mentioned in relation to things like the location of gold veins, being able to win at jeopardy or the scratch lottery, the notion of a ‘solved game‘, and the Christian theological tradition following Calvin.

In essence, if anything is ‘solved’ or ‘fated’ or ‘pre-destined’ what we’re saying is that it is determined in advance, usually by some set of rules which may or may not be discoverable. That’s kind of fine – there are some things which can always be determined in advance, like 8 plus 9 or that a (non-contradictory) square will always have four sides, but all these things only happen in the realm of ideas, as abstractions, or in artificially (arbitrarily?) closed systems. Determinism as a philosophy, ideology or religious doctrine concerns the nature of everything. Whether it’s Calvinism, Newtonian physics, belief in the Roman god Fortuna, or a new age sense of fate, they’re really all saying much the same thing – that everything is predestined, predetermined. Why? Because if any part of the universe is ‘out of control’ for whichever force does the determining (even the laws of physics) then the whole thing becomes irredeemable corrupted. One atom left beyond the powerful reach of our Calvinist God’s control could – no, would – undermine the whole basis of determinism. Even if this Calvinist deity is omnipotent and knows what this ‘out of control’ (hello free will) atom will do, the deity reduces the real agency of the free atom utterly and we’re now splitting semantic hairs over our definition of determinism (“If I have ‘free will’ but nothing I do could possibly ever change anything from it’s set course… how is that free again?”). And if it’s left up to “chance”… well, who’s omnipotent now? The point about a philosophy of a determinist universe is that it is so utterly totalising – it’s all or nothing, otherwise it’s not determinism.

But maybe you’re not convinced – after all, how do we know that it’s not deterministic? Well here’s where it get a bit tricky, because we really come to this question with a lot of baggage. Like Jenn says, we worry about the answers to these kinds of questions, and that makes us want to stay away from them, or at least makes us anxious about asking them. It’s also difficult because we’re already treading on the toes of philosophers, who all come with their own historically specific baggage, which in turn is already affecting how we’re even talking about this issue right now…

So if we’ve got all this baggage, where do we start? One way is to start by pinching the best idea that Science ever had, which is to say that we begin from a position of utter, naïve openness to revision – no problem is ever permanently closed to inquiry; no question is beyond asking; no contrary evidence is ever ignored for the sake of preserving our current (even working!) answers. This kind of attitude has actually gotten a bit of a bad rap lately because it’s been perverted and selectively deployed to spectacular effect by people with an agenda other than inquiry-for-inquiry’s-sake. As an aside, in Australia in 2007 over half the population polled in the affirmative when asked whether or not they believed in human influenced climate change. Since then that number has plummeted as tabloid media and right-wingers colluded together to cast unreasonable doubt on issue. We used to believe, but now it’s “not a settled science” once more. That’s not what I’m talking about – these people are no more presenting real challenges to climate science than Ron Paul is really going to take a libertarian position on women’s reproductive rights.

But back to the issue of determinism. What are the odds that the universe is deterministic? Okay, odds is a not a good way to phrase it. How about, ‘What are the possibilities with respect to whether or not the universe is deterministic?’ That’s a much better frame for the question, because now we can see that, actually there’s only two options – either it is, or it isn’t.

Well, actually we’ve already seen a bit of a third option, and that is that derminism is ‘unevenly distributed’ around the cosmos, or occasionally pops up in localised regions of time or space. But as we said at the outset, that’s not determinism – it’s all or nothing baby! Either there’s an actual, real chance that an atomic spec influences the fate of the rest of the cosmos, or there’s not. Implicit within our culturally-overburdened notion of ‘determinism’ is the assumption that all of the universe is consistently deterministic, otherwise… it’s not really determinism! Ta da! So we’re back to two options. The universe and everything in it is either deterministic or it isn’t.

From here we can go in a number of directions – perhaps we can draw on some fancy modern science and apply what we know about popular theories in advanced theoretical physics like string theory, ‘M-theory’ and other quantum mechanical frameworks. Or alternatively we could take the Pratchette-esque route and say that it’s ‘turtles all the way down’, and that rather than having a ‘bottom’, the universe just… keeps on going, all the way down, down, down into the depths of Hades and beyond. It’s hard to imagine such a thing, but it’s really quite difficult to say that it’s beyond the realm of plausibility. Still, it’s just as hard to imagine that this never-ending, fractal-esque universe behaved in anything resembling a determinist manner. Part of the appeal of determinism stems from it’s finitude, in the sense that something starts a chain that is predictable and utterly determined from the very outset.

So whether the universe contains an infinite regress of ‘things’ of increasingly ultra-tiny bits of stuff also impacts our assessment of the question of a determinist universe. If the very bottom level (let’s just say it’s quantum strings) is all irreducibly small and made of the same ‘stuff’ then how that ‘stuff’ behaves makes a difference to the nature of the universe. In fact, all the universe is is that stuff, and if that ‘stuff’ really is strings current thinking (as I understand) is that rather than being deterministic, stings are so weird that they behave based on probability. So whether or not you get out of bed and brush your teeth in the morning is underpinned by strange stringy bits with 26 dimensions all behaving in a probabilistic manner… and by that stage we’re not living in a determinist universe.

But before we go home with our new found suspicion that we’re probably (ah! ahahahahaha!) not living in a determinist universe, we should make one small detour back up to the realm of medium sized-object and remind ourselves where a limited kind of determinism does exist – and that is in abstractions, ideas and in arbitrariness.

And this is where we come back to games, because most games are exactly that – abstractions, rules, ideas, and arbitrariness incarnate. In their ‘pure’ (think platonic) form, every game probably could be deterministic, but games don’t exist as pure thought or rules because games are done, or they are played. Where are they played? In the universe. What is the universe? Probably not deterministic. And despite our best efforts, our lucky or careful organisation, there really is no predicting when the indeterminacy of the universe will intrude. Even these machines – these localised realms of determinacy we call ‘computers’ – depend on other things like the continued operation of the laws of electro-conductance, as well as on the manufacturing standards at Xbox HQ. And while it might even look as though certain ‘universal laws’ like electron conductivity are themselves ‘deterministic’ from the point of view of an engineer or software developer, we would do well to remember that these laws themselves are contingent. That is, at a certain point in the far, far, far, far distant future, at the end of the universe even, according to physicists these laws are going to themselves break down. If they’re  right then the universe will eventually have expanded enough to rip apart even atoms themselves. Try running your Xbox in that kind of an environment.

But hey, these predictions could be wrong – remember we’re not allowing ourselves the option of shutting down necessary revisions early. But at the same time, that’s also kind of appropriate. If we do live in a probabilistic universe, we may never really, truly and necessarily be able to prove it. That’s makes sense, I think, and it seems like a beautiful kind of symmetry, wouldn’t you say?