Sunday, April 4, 2010

A Series of Self-Cancelling, Lovely Paradoxes

The established pattern of my thought processes is that I get funny notions into my head and sort of let them stew in there for a while, for no apparent reason and with no obvious trigger. Such has been the case with what I present today. This won't be structured and it likely won't be pretty. Think of it as a philosophical doodle—just a sloppy sketch that may or may not contain a kernel of something worth pursuing in a more formal structure at some point.


Based on what we generally know about physics [not including quantum mechanics, which very few of us have any reasonable conception of], it seems to me that a perfectly sane person might reasonably conclude the following: If we could accurately model the position, spin, direction, and velocity of every particle in the universe at any given moment, it would be theoretically possible to plug that data all into an imaginary supercomputer and predict with perfect accuracy the exact state of everything at any future point in time.

This has to do with inevitability [a sane, if faulty, notion]. It does not have anything to do with predestination [an insane notion, that happens to be widely held thanks to the human animal's almost unlimited capacity for belief in religion].

This idea, inevitability (and even predestination, if you are so inclined), is at direct odds with our experience. We know, to our cores, based on everything that we've experienced every day of our lives, that we make decisions. We can choose. We can always choose! To think that it was inevitable for me to type this sentence seems rather silly. Surely this was not inevitable! The future contains infinite possibility.

While it's absolutely not true that "anything is possible", it's also plainly obvious that the future is largely a blank canvas—that our decisions, our thoughts, our imaginations can lead us in any number of directions. If you do accept, based on religious notions, that everything is predestined, then you must [MUST!!!] accept that there are no wrong decisions. You can decide to go to church on Easter Sunday or you can decide not to. But if you decide not to (or if you decide to), you really didn't decide at all. You did exactly what your God wanted you to do, so clearly there is no reason why your absence from (or presence in) church should cause you any worry/shame/nervousness/unease/etc. (or any sense of doing right/pride/confidence/etc.) at all. You had no choice whatsoever.

This is silly, right—this notion that you have no free will at all, that you are incapable of making even the simplest decision, that everything is unalterable and completely predetermined?

So, looking toward the future, we can logically deduce that everything that will happen is bound to happen. Your brain is just a collection of molecules, each made up of atoms, arranged in a unique way, but governed by inescapable laws that determine exactly how they will interact. Everything is inevitable, simple cause and effect. However, we know based on our experience that we do think, we do judge, we do weigh our options, we do make decisions, we do have choice, we do have free will. Paradox, right?

Even those of us who accept predestination/inevitability on religious grounds (as opposed to logical/mathematical/scientific grounds) simply can't shake the idea that we have free will. In fact, it seems to be a basic tenet of lots of religions: mankind is special, specifically because we have free will. Still, the idea of "destiny" seems to be fairly pervasive in our culture, even though our entire experience rebels against such an idea.

The future is not exactly limitless [again, not everything is possible], but it is filled with infinite possibility.

On the other hand, what about the past? Well, clearly only one series of events led to this moment. The current state of things is the unique and absolute consequence of the totality of everything that has ever happened leading up to it. All well and good, right? This one is harder to argue against than the idea that the future is inevitable. It's also harder to argue against than the idea that the future is undetermined—that it is absolutely unpredictable, thanks to free will [choice, options, decisions, and yes even a degree of randomness—and yes, I know that I haven't really mentioned randomness up to this point—see my dismissal of quantum mechanics from the discussion].

However, there is a plainly logical paradox as regards our conception of the past as a fixed series of things that occurred. It's more subtle, perhaps, than what I've mentioned about the future. Think again of the idea of plugging the current state of all matter into an imaginary supercomputer and being able to predict any future state of all matter. Can we, theoretically, do the same for the past as for the future? I think not. Here's my logic: With a body of standing water, you can interpolate how many molecules will evaporate in how much time. With good enough data, you can predict when rain will fall and when snow will fall, etc., theoretically right down to the size and shape of the drops and flakes and the velocity with which they will hit and what temperature they are and what effect the wind will have on them. But there is nothing in a standing body of water that will tell you which water molecules came from which raindrop, when. Essentially, you're looking at an effective stasis, ultimately revealing nothing of what brought it to its current location.

Of course, to a great degree, this whole discussion focuses on a fairly small scale. Specifically, "human scale". In terms of mega scale operations (for example, the movement of galaxies and stars and even planets), the calculation model works very well in both directions for quite a long distance along the time line. Things get murky very long ago, largely because our computers and their software aren't as sophisticated as they could be, but also because the farther back you go, you see that you're more and more approaching the idea of stasis [see standing water discussion, above]. Things also get a bit iffy very far into the future, if for no reason other than that we can't predict the effect that our descendants or the descendants of other sentient (or even non-sentient) life forms might have. The moment our activities have any influence on the spin or trajectory of our planet or any other heavenly body is the moment when super-long term predictive models get wonky.

All right. That ends this philosophical doodle. I hope you've enjoyed it. I really like the idea of ending it on the word "wonky", so that's what I'll do.


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