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Of Mop Haired Scientists and Demonic Puppetry

June 18, 2019
- Surya Raman, Sudhang Varshney

A word of warning from the authors : this article is long and extensive. We would be remiss to not let you know that this is a laborious read. However, we are certain, that the brave ones, who will journey through this merciless sea of words, shall surely find it to be an exhilarating and fruitful exercise. This warning also acts as a perfect segue to the article.


What Does It Mean To Be Certain?

An omniscient being is defined as an entity that knows everything there is to know. For the theists among us, this could be God. For the purposes of argumentation, it is assumed that such a being exists. The being knows everything there is to be known about the present, and all the laws governing all possible interactions between and within systems in the universe. These interactions are the pathway through which we sense the flow of time and the universe moves from one state to another. Say for example, this being knew the position of every particle and every way they influence each other. It could, then, prophesize the exact state of the world a second later. Applying this iteratively, it follows that the exact description of the universe was set in a cosmic stone since time took birth. This essentially leads us to a deterministic world and a predetermined future we have no control over. This being is Laplace’s Demon - named after Laplace, who came up with this line of reasoning to prove determinism.

“We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.”

—  Pierre Simon Laplace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities

A seemingly obvious fallacy here is the assumption of such an omniscient being, but closer inspection proves otherwise. The information necessary to determine the future would still exist- irrespective of the existence of this being- and hence the world would remain deterministic, the only difference being the absence of an entity that can access this information.

However, there is the possibility of another tenuous flaw in the above line of reasoning. Another underlying assumption here is the existence of a complete description of how the universe functions. That is, the assumption that the continuum of states of the universe follows a certain set of laws which we call scientific principles, the search for which is the motivation of scientism and scientific research. However it is imperative to keep in mind that at the end of the day, every model we construct to explain the world around us will always be false. It is debatable to claim that we can know everything about a particular system when we ourselves are parts of it ( to develop an intuition, ponder on this - can an omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent entity create a stone it cannot lift itself? That is, if we are the part of a physical system, governed by the laws that constitute its preamble, can we actually unravel every piece of information within that system?) . But some models are useful. Newtonian mechanics permit acceleration of systems to superluminal speeds, which is known to be impossible, but it does serve to predict cosmic motion to a beautiful extent.

One such model is the non-intuitive behemoth called quantum mechanics.

“If the present is known exactly, the future can be determined.”

According to a philosophical interpretation of quantum mechanics (called the Copenhagen Interpretation)[1], it is the premise and not the conclusion of the above statement which is false. This interpretation posits the existence of an inherent indeterminacy[2] in physics, and by extension, reality- a direct result of the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics (the Uncertainty Principle).

“God Does Not Play Dice.”

The aforementioned philosophical stance on reality never fell into good favour with our favorite mop haired scientist - Albert Einstein.

“In living through this ‘great epoch’, it is difficult to reconcile oneself to the fact that one belongs to that mad, degenerate species that boasts of its free will. How I wish that somewhere there existed an island for those who are wise and of good will! In such a place even I should be an ardent patriot!”

— Albert Einstein (1914), “Letter to Paul Ehrenfest”

His vexation is decidedly not subtle. He agreed that we could not know the present in its entirety. However, he emphasised on the we. He believed that the extrapolation of the fact that we encounter indeterminacy everywhere in physics, to the generalisation that reality is inherently indeterministic, was too much of a stretch. The hidden variable theory[3], as it was called, took shape along this view - the claim that fundamentally everything ran smoothly along the tramlines set by deterministic one-to-one models that were tragically out of the reach of human comprehension (he went so far as to call some quantum phenomena ‘spooky’) at the moment. Essentially, there might be some fixed variables which lead to the probabilities of a system as claimed by quantum mechanics, which are hidden from us and what we only observe is the resulting probabilistic and unpredictable observations. His friends, Podolsky, and Rosen smiled in agreement. It was difficult to stand up to the goliath of the scientific world, and the philosophical interpretation of quantum mechanics remained nebulous for an excruciatingly long time.

Three tumultuous decades of passionate debates, discussions, fistfights and armchair rants passed before a resolution started to emerge and culminated in groundbreaking experiments and inequalities (beginning with John Stewart Bell’s famous theorem) that have settled[4] the matter to a certain extent (though critics of these proofs still persist). Any physical system is indeed determined by a probabilistic wave function. Einstein’s qualms with the quantum theory seemed to have been satiated.

But this still doesn’t mean that we have figured out the true nature of the world.

Even if for a moment we assume that reality is, in fact, probabilistic, and not exact, this still does not entirely guarantee the existence of free will. At this point, we define free will as absolute freedom to choose what to feel, what to do, and how to do it. If we assume that the universe is probabilistic, then we must also accept another fact that comes along with it (through quantum mechanics): a variety of factors contribute to the disparate probabilities of the occurence of different events and we essentially have no control over choosing the probabilities of these events. This therefore does not guarantee the existence of absolute free will, since we do not control just how probabilistic the things we do on a daily basis are. It can however be accepted that the future is probabilistic, and that these probabilities depend on a multitude of factors and hence the universe is not entirely deterministic - at least not in the way we think of determinism, where the universe follows one set path, and everything that happens, happens with infallible certainty.


Compatibility Theories

The existence of an omniscient entity like a God clearly does not allow for the existence of free will. However, compatibilists have a convenient workaround. Compatibility theorists believe that determinism and free will can co-exist. Their workaround to the problem of Laplace’s Demon, is to change the definition of free will. Compatibilists define free will as having the freedom to act on one’s motivations without external coercion, while accepting that one does not have the freedom to choose one’s motivations. Arthur Schopenhauer summed it up neatly :

“Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.”

The problem with these theories is quite obvious - the definition of free will has been contorted according to convenience and the new free will barely resembles what we initially started with.

The common consensus on deciding if someone is accountable for their actions is to determine if the person could have done otherwise. With this as our context, we come across Frankfurt’s Counterexamples. Frankfurt’s argument tried to disprove the principle of alternate possibilities, which states that a person is morally responsible for his/her actions, only if they could have done otherwise.

Here is a typical example of Frankfurt’s assertions:

In an election, a person X must choose between, A or B, and it is given that she is likely to go with B. She will decide against B only if she considers the failures of B in the past. Unbeknownst to her, B plants a chip in her head that will make her choose B if she ever happens to considers the past. B decides to use the chip only if she considers the past. As things happen, she doesn’t consider the past, and decides to go with B.

Frankfurt, here, was trying to prove the co-existence of free will and determinism by showing that an individual could be held morally responsible for his/her actions, even if they lacked the freedom to do otherwise. It becomes paramount, here, to analyse the relationship between X’s inclination to go with B, and X’s subsequent decision to go with B.

If X’s inclination to go with B and the subsequent decision to go with B are related deterministically, then the argument collapses under its own weight. In trying to prove that people are morally responsible for what they do even if they do not have the freedom to do otherwise, Frankfurt was essentially trying to prove the existence of free will in the presence of a God, or essentially, the co-existence of free will and determinism. However, in his reasoning, if he assumes a deterministic framework, then he is begging the question, that is, assuming the very thing being debated.

On the other hand, if the relation between X’s inclination and decision is indeterministic, then the chip in her head can not predetermine what her decision would be, it is only after her choice, that the chip will be activated, which would then be external coercion, and X would have encountered different options before being forced to go with one. Thus, X is morally responsible for what she chose, but encountered multiple options in the process of doing so.This again defeats Frankfurt’s argument.He had to prove moral culpability in absence of other options.

Frankfurt’s Cases are not easy to comprehend in one read.[5]

The Significance Of This Debate

It is fair, at this point, to ask the need for this unnecessary hurling of ponderous words and facts, when Average Joe blissfully smokes away his days, living under the illusion of free will.

The implications of the existence of free will or determinism are far-reaching and have been discussed for centuries. Free will is closely related with the concepts of moral culpability, responsibility, sin, praise, punishment etcetera. The problem is simple enough : if the world is deterministic, then nobody is responsible for anything they do - whatever happened could not have been changed, and the universe is merely following its predestined and immutable path. How then can we praise someone who does good for society, or equivalently punish someone who harms it? If someone microwaves their pet squirrel in a drunken haze, is he culpable for the painful squeals of the innocent rodent? He couldn’t have done otherwise in his stupor, but then he could’ve chosen not to drink to begin with. But isn’t his decision to inebriate himself determined by a complex rigamarole of social factors beyond his control that shaped his personality and hence his choices?. It is here that we encounter the principle of alternate possibilities again. A deterministic world would then render the concepts of praise and sin utterly meaningless.

Why Though, Do Notions Of Praise And Sin Exist?

A common answer to this question is the idea of positive and negative reinforcement – the same principles employed while teaching your little sibling to call you the greatest brother in Uttarakhand in exchange for an extra french fry and while educating your pet about the ethics of not urinating on your favorite Chikorita plush by not acknowledging his goodness as a boy respectively. This is the consequentialist view, the objectively intended consequence being a more ‘moral’ society.

However, we do not ordinarily praise or blame other people because - as a result of engaging in careful deliberation - we have reached the conclusion that it would be in our best interests to do so. Rather, we praise or blame persons as natural and reactive expressions of visceral responses to what we see people do. It is, hence, safe to assert that we do not ordinarily pre-decide on the usefulness of a compliment or a word expressed out of chagrin.

A critique of a world of objectivity sheds more light on the consequences of accepting a deterministic universe .We would still incarcerate murderers and thieves, and we would still sing praises for acts of bravery and philanthropy. But these actions and words would have a different, hollower meaning than they have for us now. Our praises would not be expressions of admiration or esteem; our criticisms would not be expressions of indignation or resentment. Rather, they would be morsels of positive and negative reinforcement meted out in the hopes of altering the character of others in ways best suited to our needs. An act of heroism or of virtue would not inspire us to aim for higher and nobler ideals, nor would it evoke in us a reverence or admiration for its agent. At best we would think it is fortunate that people occasionally do perform acts like these. We would consider how nice it must be for the beneficiaries and decide to encourage similar behaviour. We would not revulse from acts of injustice or cruelty as insults to the human spirit, nor be moved by such acts to reflect with sorrow or bewilderment on the tide of events that can bring persons to stoop so low. Driven by objectivity, we would recognize that the human tendency to perform such heinous acts is undesirable, a problem to be dealt with, like any other, as rationally and efficiently as possible. It seems then, that in order to embrace determinism, we would not have to do away with the concepts of praise and blame themselves - we would have to alter the attitudes and judgments these practices typically express. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to realise how this transcends into transforming every human relation into a form that seems far removed from the instinctive arena that makes us feel ‘human’ and which pervades in status quo.

Whether that’s a world we want to live in or not is debatable. This notion becomes concrete when we begin to search for answers to the following question.

Do Our Affiliations With Either Side Of The Debate Impact How We Behave?

A fascinating social experiment[6] was conducted within this paradigm by Kathleen D. Vohs and Jonathan W. Schooler. A group of people (Group A) were made to read anti-free will texts and another Group B were handed pro-free will texts. After this conditioning, the two groups were asked to give a test with the possibility of cheating to score higher and the amount of pilfering was quantified. As observed in the outcome, participants cheated more frequently on a simple arithmetic task after reading an essay that refuted the notion of free will than after reading a neutral one. This correlation persisted in another experiment, in which cheating involved active efforts from the participant. These findings suggested that the loss of accountability by believing in determinism had a marked impact on the actions of these individuals. Determinists were also observed to be less punitive[7] to deviant conduct than staunch proponents of free-will, though some studies claim otherwise.

In another study, Vohs and colleagues measured the extent to which a group of day laborers believed in free will, then examined their performance on the job by looking at their supervisor’s ratings.Those who believed more strongly that they were in control of their own actions showed up on time for work more frequently and were rated by supervisors as more capable. In fact, belief in free will turned out to be a better predictor of job performance than established measures such as self-professed work ethic.

Determining culpability for crimes is yet another major arena where the extent of free will involved is brought into the picture. The number of court cases, for example, that use evidence from neuroscience has more than doubled[8] in the past decade—mostly in the context of defendants arguing that their brain made them do it. And many people are absorbing this message in other contexts, too - at least judging by the number of books and articles purporting to explain “your brain on” everything from music to magic. Determinism, to one degree or another, is gaining popular currency. The skeptics are in ascendance.

C’est Tou Pareil

Perhaps the truth of it will never be known to us. It is possible that quantum mechanics is the truth and that the universe is neither random, nor deterministic, but probabilistic. Or perhaps reality is exact, and human beings might never access that precious nugget of information.

Knowing that everything one does has already been determined can be scary and reassuring at the same time. Having complete free will is no less terrifying - one is then responsible for all of one’s failures and dysfunctions. In this madness however, a silent observer lurks just out of sight. And there is peace to be found in that stranger.

And that silent stranger, is the absence of any meaning,to anything.



Further Reading:

Illustration credits: Shivam Maan, Prakhar Kothari