Determining the Physical Consequences of Indeterminism

Part of a conversation that is evidently as endless as the torments of purgatory. The souls condemned to the cleansing flames, do, however, endure the hope that those on Earth will shorten their torment by their prayers. I wonder if the muses in charge of philosophical debates have similar offices: if so, say a syllogism for us.

“So, Mr Wright, does your notion of “free will” have any physical consequences or not? Or do you want to permit indeterminacy?”

I permit what I call ‘Indeterminacy’, but this may or may not be what you have in mind when you use the word, so, to avoid ambiguity, let me impose upon my patient reader by answering at length. If this answer sounds the same as things I have said before in answer to this question, keep in mind that I am merely a clockwork man like Tik-Tok of Oz, who must answer this question the exact same way whenever someone asks it, and, despite how weary my readers are with this topic, I cannot stop myself anymore than a clockwork can stop itself.

Let me answer the question by making a distinction between ‘objects’ and ‘entities’ — an object is a collection of atoms with no coherent governing principle, or, in other words, an object is a thing without a point of view. An entity is an organism or concept with a governing principle. Objects are moved by the impulse of other objects, such as a billiard ball moving by the impact of a cue ball, or a clockwork doll moving by the action of an unwinding mainspring. Entities move on their own, and for their own purposes, either to get something or two flee something.

This statement: “Deterministic physics states that only one physical state can evolve from a prior physical state, provided the prior state is specified with sufficient precision” is true when applied to objects.

When applies to entities, it is neither true nor false, merely meaningless.

By meaningless, I mean that it is not a statement we or anyone ever applies to the purposes and motions of entities, or if they do, only in a metaphorical and never in a specific way.

Philosophers talk in theoretical discussions about examining the brain-atoms of a chessmaster to deduce his winning chess move beforehand, but no philosopher has ever done this, and there are sound reasons to believe none ever will, not in this or any other universe. (One sound reason is that any universe where it were possible to treat the chessmaster like a Tik-Tok would be a universe where the philosopher was also a Tik-Tok, in which case he could not deduce winning chess moves from brain atoms because by being a Tok-Tok, the chessmaster is an object, a dead thing, who cannot make any deductions of any kind at all. Deduction is a process of deliberate thought; deliberation is another word for free will.)

The sad fact is that outside of the discussions of philosophers, no physicist uses the language of free will to talk about physics, and no determinist uses the language of determinism to talk about any topic but determinism.

Your question is one that jumps from one way people talk to the other way people talk, and in making that jump, you ask a question that does not actually mean anything.

This is unfortunately a confusing conclusion of mine, which I despair of trying to explain to anyone. Let me give you an example of the way people talk and the way they do not talk because they cannot.

This is the way people talk:

When John Wilkes Boothe decided to assassinate the Lincoln, it was as if he were walking down the corridor of time, and at a fork in the corridor are two doors: one where he goes to Ford Theater with his pistol and one where he does not. What lies beyond the door where he did not shoot is not unknown, it is unknowable: a matter for speculation in a Harry Turtledove book, but nothing else. Perhaps Lincoln would have served a second term; perhaps Reconstruction would have gone differently. Who knows?

From our point of view in the future, the door where Boothe did not shoot the Lincoln is not only one that cannot open, but it is a painted door, not a real door at all, not a real possibility, something that does not exist and has no reality: merely a may-have-been.

In physics, when discussing the reactions of objects to outside pressures, we assume as an axiom the rule that each state of the universe is determined by the prior state. The corridor of time is assumed to be a straight line with no doors and no branching corridors. This is a rule of the game called physics. The motion of the bullet as it leaves the barrel of the assassin’s pistol can be described by the physical science called ballistics if and only if we apply the rules of the game called physics to the discussion.

We cannot understand, we cannot grasp reality, if we do not apply the rules of the game called physics to the discussion of ballistics of the assassin’s bullet, in order to understand the flight of the bullet.

In law, when discussing the moral culpability or innocence of a defendant, we assume as an axiom the rule that each decision had another option: the criminal had a choice whether to commit the crime or not. He, and not his upbringing, his genes, the stars or fates or gods, bears the responsibility for his actions. The corridor of time is assumed to branch at every morally significant decision: yes or no, guilty or innocent. This is a rule of the game called morality. We call John Wilkes Boothe ‘an assassin’ because and only because we apply to the discussion of his actions the rules of the game called morality.

We cannot understand, we cannot grasp reality, if we do not apply the rules of the game called morality to the discussion of the assassin’s guilt or innocence, in order to understand the flight of John Wilkes Boothe after the murder.

Now imagine we are discussing not the shot that killed Lincoln, but the leap Boothe took when he jumped from the theater box to the stage. The motion of his body can be understood in a discussion of physics: he fell to the stage at 32 feet per second per second. The motion can also be understood in a discussion of law: in addition to the guilt of the murder, by fleeing the scene of the crime, the defendant is also guilty of a lesser crime of flight and evasion.

These two discussions never overlap except in very limited cases. Rarely would the physics of the leap from the theater box to the stage have any bearing on the guilt or innocence of a felon fleeing the scene.

Now, having said all that, let me say why I consider your question to be one no one can answer. Your question is based on a false assumption. You are stating, as if it is a rule that applies to all discussions of all types, a rule that only applies to discussions of physics. You say, “All states in the universe can be determined from the previous state.”

I humbly submit the real rule would say something more like this: “all the physical states of the physical universe can be determined during a discussion of physics from a previous physical state, assuming we only stick to discussing physics and do not change the discussion to some other topic.”

I consider your question to be one no one can answer because it is based on a false to facts assumption. It is as if you said, “Let us pretend that questions of law can be discussed and understood using only the rules, and vocabulary, and assumptions of physics, as if a legal argument and a proof in science were one and the same thing.”

I do not see what pretending that make any sense. It is the same as if someone were to say, “Let us put the assassin’s bullet on trial instead of the assassin, for clearly Lincoln could not have been shot had not the bullet viciously and with malice aforethought imparted kinetic energy to the body of the victim. Why did not the bullet decide to swerve, or keep the energy of its motion to itself, only tapping the President lightly?”

That is an example of the way people do not talk. We do not treat bullets as moral actors responsible for their own actions. There is no “their” there. A bullet does not have a “self” to be responsible or irresponsible to itself.

The bullet did not decide to swerve because bullets do not make decisions.

On the other hand, the physical universe would indeed have been different had John Wilkes Boothe decided not to flee the scene, but to stand over the corpse waving the bloody shirt and shouting defiance at the Federals.

No description of the ballistics of the scene could be understood or understandable if we lived in a universe where it is true that pistols can decide to shoot or not to shoot. No description of the morality of the scene could be understood or understandable if we lived in a universe where it is true assassins do not decide whether to shoot or not to shoot.

All that the determinist argument is doing is pretending that John Wilkes Boothe is an elaborate form of pistol: whatever his genes or upbringing or motions of brain atoms happen to be define the trigger; his thought process is a mere chemical reaction like the explosion of the black powder; the physical result of his act are like the discharge of the bullet. It is just an analogy or a metaphor. The determinist does not see it as a metaphor for some reason I cannot fathom: he thinks this awkward metaphor is real, despite that, as soon as the conversation turns to any other topic, he uses the same rules and vocabulary and categories and assumptions that apply to morality as anyone else.

I do not mean to pick on any particular determinist personally: all determinists make this same mistake, and they all show by the way they act and talk that they must use the category of free will to discuss the morality of actions the same as anyone else. It is inescapable. It is not a character flaw in them that makes determinists tacitly assume free will: it is the logic of the rules of morality, the metaphysical category involved in any discussion of morality that forces them (and us) to talk this way.

Your question cannot be answered because it contains a buried assumption that is false. You are applying a rule of physics to a topic unrelated to physics where the rule does not (and cannot) apply.

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