Part of an ongoing conversation. A reader (or perhaps a clockwork collection of inanimate brain atoms) writes in to ask:
“Can one, by knowledge of mechanical causes, say beforehand which way Shakespeare’s pen will go, as it traces words on paper?”
Are we assuming that thoughts are atoms and that the conclusions and deductions and imaginations and speculations of a thought as it thinks are the same as the motions of an atom as it is moved by the impulse of external forces?
With this assumption, you ask whether thoughts can be “predicted” in the same fashion that atoms can be predicted. I submit that the question is based on a confusion of semantics. It is a meaningless and unanswerable question, like a zen koan. Might as well ask how many hours and minutes a pitcher can pour into a cup.
There are two senses of the word “prediction.” One sense is the type of deduction we use to conclude what the outcome of the motion of an inanimate bit of matter might be, provided we have a model that factors in all pertinent vectors of motion. The other sense is a judgment assessing what the action of a person well known to them will be. Scientists make “predictions” of the first type when saying whether two weights of different masses flung from the Leaning Tower of Pisa will strike the ground at the same time. Jurors or member of the Parole Board make a “prediction” of the second type when they assess what punishment, if any, will make the convict fit to be released safely into society again. (If the hypothetical question is being asked about a hypothetical universe that has been hermetically sealed away from reality, so that only scientific facts about inanimate objects can be discussed, and no jurors and no judgments exist, then it is a universe having as little relationship to the real world as the magical fairyland of Oz.) Let us keep this distinction in mind as we proceed.
The motion of atoms can be “predicted” (in one sense of the word) because and only because they are moved by external forces and because they make no motions not accounted for by eternal forces. They are not alive. They do not move on their own. They do not swerve. Atomic motions are defined and determined by the initial conditions in which the atoms find themselves. Hence, knowing the initial conditions allows a physicist to deduce the end result.
One can deduce deterministic events by knowing the initial conditions.
The deductions, conclusions, imaginations, visions, and speculations of a thinking being as he thinks do move on their own and are alive. They swerve. Such thoughts can be “predicted” (in an entirely different sense of the word) by someone who knows and loves the thinker, such as my wife can predict what I am thinking because she knows and loves me. She knows nothing about neural psychology, and not that much about biology. She is not examining my brain or taking the temperature of my left prefrontal lobe.
She does not know any, not one, none of the mechanical causes (assuming there is a tight relation between brain motion and thought processes, which I doubt) effecting or influencing the content of my thought.
But she can predict me. This is because she knows my goals and my preferred methods of approach. She knows my final cause, what I am driving at. This is not a rigorous deduction, it is a judgment call, an assessment based on a thousand unrecalled imponderables. Scientific deduction is not the only mode or method of reasoning open to the human reason: reason includes judgment.
Human actions can be predicted if one has a sufficient knowledge of the ends to which the man’s action aims and the means he has selected to achieve it. Human actions are not determined by the initial physical conditions, but are instead influenced by ideal end conditions, end results, goals or that for the sake of which the act is done. For this reason, human actions are called “indeterminate.” This word is often misinterpreted to mean that human actions break the laws of physics. Rubbish. The word means that the action, whether predicted perfectly or not, cannot be understood without reference to the end conditions at which it aims. ”
“To predict” is not precisely the same as “to understand.” If you see Shakespeare’s hand moving, and you do not speak English, then you will be able, perhaps, to predict the muscle motions from the nerve motions, and therefrom deduce the pen motions, but you will not understand what it means, and you will not “predict” (in the juror sense of the word) what his poem will be, even if you “predict” (in the scientist sense of the word) exactly what his finger motions are.
Why this distinction?
The category “means and ends” applies to human action and human action cannot be described without reference to that category, with the exception of describing biological or ballistic motions of a human body, alive or dead. Because the human action selects means and ends, human action is not determined by initial conditions.
On the other hand, the category “determined by initial conditions” applies to inanimate objects, which react rather than act, and do not select how to act, and do not have ends and do not choose means to achieve those ends.
Atoms are controlled by the past. They are dead. They do not make decisions. They do not have a point of view. The chain of cause and effect goes from past to future.
Humans are controlled by the future. I work and speak and act because I foresee what will happen if I do not work and speak and act. I am a living being. The chain of cause and effect goes from future to past.
No system can map the future-controlled causation of freely willed goal-directed actions onto past-controlled causation of will-less and goal-less dead reactions. Pretending Shakespeare’s hand is not alive is not a legitimate basis for a question.
But we have strayed from the question. Let us ask it again:
“Can one, by knowledge of mechanical causes, say beforehand which way Shakespeare’s pen will go, as it traces words on paper? “
Obviously not. What a silly question. I cannot even imagine why anyone would ever think such a thing was possible. Shakespeare is not a robot. And even if he were, the programmer who programmed him would be the real Shakespeare, and the robot nothing more than an elaborate tool he uses to write down what his genius inspires him to write, and the programmer’s actions are as mechanistically unpredictable as the robots actions are mechanistically predictable.
But let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that you could.
What if you predict one thing, and Shakespeare decides to write something else?
What if Shakespeare is looking over your shoulder, and he has his brain-reading thermometer in your ear, and he is using his own science of predictive brainology to predict exactly what you will predict about him, and he decides merely out of sheer perverse stubbornness to do the opposite of what you predict?
And what if he knows before you make any decision, how you will decide what you will decide when you are deciding to react to the fact that he is deliberately trying to mess up your prediction? Your predictive brain science should be able to deduce before he knows what you will do what and how he will know it, which means that you, in turn, can predict his prediction of your prediction of his prediction of how you will react to his messing up your prediction: and if so, you can mess up his prediction of your behavior before he makes that prediction. But on the other hand, he could predict this of you before you predict it of him. And so on, ad infinitum.
Let us turn away from Shakespeare, to someone less perverse and less willing to mess up our nice science of predictive brainology. Consider Pythagoras.
Can one, by a knowledge of mechanical causes, say beforehand which way the pen of Pythagoras will go, when he discovers the Pythagorean theorem?
Could someone who does not know or understand the Pythagorean Theorem, merely by a close and subtle enough examination of mechanical causes, predict the Pythagorean Theorem before Pythagoras discovers it?
Or would one need a knowledge of, say, the science of geometry to understand and predict the Pythagorean Theorem?
If your answer is that a predictor ignorant of geometry could study the brain atoms of Pythagoras and deduce his famous Theorem without knowing any geometry himself, let me ask this: could someone who does not know the first thing about physics, merely by a close and subtle enough examination of mechanical causes, predict the next great theorem of Stephen Hawkins before Hawkins invents it?
If the answer is again that he could, then could someone who does not know the first thing about physics, merely by a close and subtle enough examination of mechanical causes, predict the next great theorem of Zephram Cochrane, or Nils Bergenholm, Andrew Jackson ‘Slipstick’ Libby?
(Note to non-Geeks: these persons are imaginary scientists of the future who invent faster than light drive.)
Could our predictor also predict the discoveries of Morlock scientists of A.D. 802701? What about the discoveries of metempsychosis/time travel techniques of Ptath of Gonwonlane of A.D. 200,000,000?
(I will point out that long term predictions are perfectly possible in areas where the pertinent facts are known. I know, for example, that on the date A.D. 10032 November 1 Venus occults the star Regulus; I know that in AD 12,000,000,000 Sol is shrinks to become a black dwarf, and that in AD 100,000,000,000 the Virgo Supercluster is converging into a single galaxy.)
If this predictor would be able, by merely an investigation of mechanical causes, to learn beforehand every discovery to be made by every physicist ever to exist in the future, can he predict the workings of his own brain so as to learn those discoveries from an examination of his own brain atoms without going through the tedious process of determining and deducing the location of the brain atoms of all the scientists yet to be born?
In addition to knowing all the discoveries of physics, our predictor, would, of course, be able to predict all the thoughts of all the sentient beings he might care to know. He could finish all the unfinished symphonies and fragmentary works of antiquity, completing the lost ending of Lucretius, the lost plays of Aeschylus, the Marsyas of Homer, or reaching into the future to read works of art yet unwritten, to examine the titanic novel THOSE WHO ERR by Paxton, or dwell upon the poems of Gwyn Rhys Jones, or study the intricate music of the cyclic dramas of Von Bremen, and the rich dream-imagery of TALIESIN IN LIMBO, or read the opening couplet of Teirney’s great mock romance: Sinbad am I, sailor of Ocean, Sailor of all the Orient Seas…
(Note to Geeks: these are all works of fiction yet to be written, as described by Lin Carter in his allegedly fictional short story ‘Uncollected Works.’)
And, in addition to predicting all the discoveries of all science, our predictor would be able to predict the discoveries, thoughts, subconscious thoughts, forgotten dreams, idle fancies and first drafts and unwritten diary entries of all poets, playwrights, thinkers, philosophers, scholars, as well as of every king, coroner, cabinet-maker, ditcher, delver, exorcist, ecologist, spy, silversmith, slave, and subhuman ever to exist. Amazing what merely the study of predictive brainology would allow one to learn!
Or would this predictor have to be omniscient, and know all of the secrets of the universe not yet discovered by physics, before he even began to make his prediction of what Pythagoras would deduce, much less deducing the discoveries of Zephram Cochrane, Andrew Libby, Nils Bergenholm, Hari Seldon, all the physicists of futurity, including his own discoveries?
If our predictor has to be omniscient before he begins his prediction, we are no longer discussing physics, but have verged into theology.
In other words, by asking whether mechanics can predict Shakespeare’s pen motions, we are asking, in effect, whether an omniscient being can predict the future by merely mechanical means.
My answer is no, not if the omniscient being merely attends to that slim segment of reality covered by physics, and if he ignores that much larger segment of reality covered by philosophy. Physics is a subset of philosophy: our thoughts about the material universe are a small fragment of the thoughts and ideals of the Platonic realm of ideas. We cannot make an accurate deduction of a complex system if we studiously and deliberately ignore more than half of the facts that pertain to the system, namely, the realm of ideas.
I am more likely to find out what Shakespeare will write next by walking up and asking him (“Hey, William! Whatchya gunna write next, eh?”) than any hypothetical semi-omniscient neuro-psychologists is by walking up and sticking a brain-thermometer in Shakespeare’s ear to take the temperature of his medulla oblongata.
In fact, common experience would seem to indicate that the first happens all the time (anyone can ask me what I will write next) and common experience shows that no one has ever deduced what someone was going to write next by a close examination of physical facts regarding the brain. Since an examination of the physical facts concerning the brain leaves out of the equation the one crucial bit of information, namely, what does Will Shakespeare want to write next, I do not allow that it is even theoretically possible.
How can you make a prediction about what Shakespeare will write if, by hypothesis, you exclude from your prediction his decision about what he is going to write next? How can you examine human consciousness if by hypothesis, you exclude from your examination the human consciousness that is the subject matter of your examination?
How can you make a judgment about what Shakespeare will do next if, by hypothesis, you limit yourself to mechanistic deductions from initial conditions, and do not avail yourself of the tool offered by human reason, namely judgment, to make the judgment? You cannot deduce a judgment any more than you can deduce an inductive conclusion: the mental operation is different. Induction is not deduction. Judgment is not deduction. Deduction is only used for inanimate and determined closed formal systems.
Can indeterminate human actions be foretold in the same way the determinate reactions of inanimate particles of matter to external forces be predicted?
So my answer is not just “no”; it is “hell, no.”