Every single event we cannot accurately predict represents one of two conditions (or a mixture of the two):

1. a lack of information or ability to process that information on our part
2. true randomness

The only way to empirically prove that an outcome is predictable is to accurately and repeatedly predict it. Therefore, the only empirical proof of absolute determinism would be to demonstrate a flawless method of universal prediction - a precise theory of everything - that approaches perfect reliability across an extremely wide range of ongoing systems of causation.

Strong induction and the progressive track record of math and science would appear, according to Occam's Razor, to make determinism a highly likely scenario. However, for this to remain true on an absolute level (not even as proof but as strong likelihood)  we must first assume what may very well turn out to be a false dichotomy. Many strict determinists present an either/or picture of the universe that says either determinism is always true or it is not true at all. Since we can see it in action in so many ways, it must, therefore, always be true. While this represents strong induction, it is not empiricism.

For one thing - we can never empirically witness an effect without a cause because we will never be able to recreate the conditions that caused it - since it was not caused. Therefore, any effect with an unknown cause, could represent an effect without a cause. The minute we can precisely reproduce an effect - then we know it can be caused. Until then, we can only assume it must have a cause. Therefore, a causeless effect is not falsifiable. The burden of proof is on the affirmative claim - which, in this case, would be the claim that a particular event had a cause. The singularity that 'preceded' the Big Bang is a prime example of an event or condition that must be proved to have a cause, or we must assume that it did not have a cause, since the burden of proof is on the claim that it did have a cause.

String theory suggests that eleven dimensions may be necessary to contain the 'causal gestalt' that would describe a version of an absolutely predictable universe. Dark matter and energy might help explain why the universe appears to be expanding the way that it is - yet we can't put our finger on that yet either. We still don't know why matter has mass. Why is gravity an asymmetrical force? Why does time appear to be a one way dimension? How did so much matter survive and so little antimatter? What about the horizon problem? There remains a great deal of mystery in the universe. Some of it may be unsolvable.

So, at this stage of the game, absolute determinism is not empirically proved or provable. And, if there is the possibility of completely unpredictable events - then there is the likelihood that those unpredictable events entered the causal gestalt - because they are likely to have deterministic effects which, in turn, become causes.

Since the causal gestalt is intertwined throughout everything (the iron in my hemoglobin that carries the oxygen to my brain so I can think originated in the furnace of a supernovae many light years away, for example), any degree of randomness in the causal gestalt represents some degree of randomness in the collective components of that gestalt that is me. This includes any random aspect of environmental stimuli that my consciousness encounters and is shaped by as a result of that encounter.

Thus, we can talk about relative determinism, or virtual determinism, or practical determinism, or even deterministic probability and be reasonably certain we can rely on it. Perhaps we are compelled to. But, as long as there is any possibility that some things happen for unpredictable reasons, human beings are likely to behave, to some degree, unpredictably as well.

If this unpredictability is actual, then it may very well be that our emerging consciousness becomes, through evolution, better and better at adapting to some degree of utter unpredictability even as we become better and and better at predicting outcomes. This adaptation could be seen as true creativity - an actual ability to extemporaneously adapt to completely unforeseeable events.

So, we are left with little reason to abandon the possibility that our words and actions might be just a little bit more than the inevitable toppling of dominoes into each other. So far, the argument against adopting an existential perception of actual agency is not airtight.

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Replies to This Discussion

The words of any single article are not random, although they are usually not selected to form a numerical pattern. However, by skipping between articles the distribution of letters and characters approaches that of their frequency in the language being used. However, for grins, let's consider other machine means of generating a random set of numbers.
If one is word processing, the time between keystrokes, once normalized to the average time, fits a normal distribution very well. This method is used by some encryption programs if you have them generate the "key".
A backwards biased diode is an analog device that has been used to produce random values. Again, one normalizes it to its average intensity and then produces a series of 1s and 0s as it varies around that average. If you were to listen to that signal, it is a static-like hissing. Again, the output fits a Gaussian distribution very well, as theory suggests it should.

I can not prove that these methods produce truly random values. I can say that, to my knowledge, there is no promising ideas suggesting how any vale in these series could be determined, given full information as to the "state" variables just before they occur. In quantum theory, then Uncertainty insists that randomness is real. It takes just a single failure to put that theory into the trashcan, but so far, it has worked!

Lol - yes - I guess the real question comes back to if ANYTHING is actually random. Certainly, pseudo-random numbers can be made to be impossible to tell from those generated in the real world.

However, I bet if I practiced with a particular coin, I could begin to do better than a 50/50 on the result of a coin toss. Consider the skill a knife thrower learns in order to stick the blade into the target from an eyeballed distance, rather than the hilt, etc.
Ok, I guess we've beat that aspect up enough for a while. Allow me to change the subject a bit.

Is there free will?

Of course, this is doorway back to randomness since "free will" implies non-causality (a tautology?). I believe there is Free Will because I can not conceive of sentience without free will. It is dare I say in this forum, a matter of faith (but not religion).

Hi Gary,

Thanks for joining the group and contributing your point of view.

You said that free will is a "doorway back to randomness since 'free will' implies non-causality (a tautology?). I believe there is Free Will because I can not conceive of sentience without free will. It is dare I say in this forum, a matter of faith." I have a couple of reponses to that.

I agree that most people seem to think that free will implies non-causality. I did until just last week. That's when I realized the laws of causality actually forces the conclusion that our prescient imagination (cause) MUST influence our choices (effect) if you apply those laws to the brain and its processes (which are, after all, the focal point of free will). This is explained more fully in the group discussion titled, "Prognostication: The Key to Compatibilism".

The problem with randomness or the indeterminate nature of the quantum realm is that they do nothing to explain free will. Free will must be purposeful, right? Random action could not be considered free will. They do, however, undermine absolute determinism by pointing out that not everything is causally determined. The universe, at a fundamental level, is indeterminate.

But the observable universe is outside the quantum realm. Unless you're asserting that quantum mechanics plays an active role in consciousness, I'm not sure how randomness or non-causality factors into free will. It's my understanding that the quantum realm is too small to include or engage neurological processes: the neurons, synapses, or electrochemical signals that pass between them, etc. That's been the criticism of the quantum theories of consciousness that have been postulated thus far.

If the brain operates under physical laws and causality is a fundamental physical law, then the brain and its processes should be understandable in terms of physical laws and causality in particular. If we think of causality in terms of Howard's dominoes, then an effect becomes a cause when it, in turn, affects something else. The following is simplistic and unscientific but, I believe, common sense can agree to it . . .

1). Environment, circumstances, heredity, experience, education, intelligence and other causal factors contribute to our mental experience of the world around us. [Cause]

2). We respond with conscious and subconscious levels of "thought" or other mental processes, including perception, memory, analysis and imagination. [Effect]

3). One of the mental processes, from #2, is "prescient imagination" which entertains varieties of potential future scenarios, anticipating cause and effect. These potential futures, in a mental feedback loop, gets mixed in with the other causal factors influencing our decisions. [Cause]

4). Our choices are continually informed by causal factors, including our predictions of future events and consequences. The influence of these predictions is to select choices that guide us down causal paths that will (hopefully) fulfill those predictions. [Effect]

Cause and effect, in this way, creates self-directed free will. Human imagination converts determinism into self determinism.

There is no need, in this process, for randomness or non-causality or the involvement of the quantum realm.
What is necessary to free will is the ability to do something for no reason. Otherwise, our choices are just the dominoes running through our head.

Now - we could call that 'choice' - but it would be fully compelled by the precise configuration of causation at that moment. That very well be what happens. But it is not what it feels like happens. Nevertheless- if it is fully compelled - it is not free will.
Hi Free Thinker, Thank you for the welcome. I'm delighted to have found this forum and have very much enjoyed reading through a few of the discussions. You and Howard and several others are great discoveries for me!

I think that you describe free will (or self determinism) as an effect of our ability to prognostication using any or all of the information available to our minds. If this is correct, I would call that mental extrapolation the result of an algorithmic response to a complex set of variable, rather then true free will.

Certainly when a problem become sufficiently complex, it may seem that the result is unpredictable, i.e. random. In meteorology, weather prediction is a good example of this. There are so many variables, with such a complex non-linear interaction between them, that the result frequently seems fully unpredictable. Yet I think that this is an illusion in that, if all of the variables and their effects were understood, the result would be fully predictable.

Relating to free will, I mean that if only prognostication - interpolation of possible interactions - was at play, then there would not be free will. If a thinking machine was supplied with a set of inputs and a set of algorithms with which to process them, the same result would occur every time that sequence was assembled. These identical input conditions can be called the "State of things" or just the state. To arrive at an unpredictable result, some unpredictable input must occur, so that the State is not deterministic. I understand that this is a very mechanical description of an intelligent mind, yet I think it is accurate. Our brains are complex sets of interconnected logic and memory units and operates by physical electro-chemical means, - they are machines. If the state of all of the brain elements at some instant could be duplicated, then the state of all future instants could be accurately calculated - unless there was some random event in one or more of those elements.

My personal epiphany many years ago was the realization that Uncertainty provided the random spark I needed to enable the existence of free will. When all else is identical, the appearance of an electron at a logic node is quite adequate to trigger a new response. For example, perhaps a chemical signal represented by a neuro-transmiter is right at the margin of being strong enough to stimulate a response from a neighboring neuron. One more electron and the neighbor "fires", whereas without that tiny boost it would not.

Of course I have no information at all to say that this is what happens. Perhaps the neighboring neuron fires on receiving the marginal signal because an instant earlier a stray beta particle passed through it and acted to sensitize it beyond its usual condition.

Once this new neural interaction occurs, a new possibility exists, a new thought. I'd guess that most such thoughts are just "noise" in the system. But true noise is random - and this seems to offer the non-deterministic element I need to understand free will.

Hi Gary,

I understand your example of a random electron triggering a new response but I don't see how that new response would be intentional or formative instead of random: an electron (nor the neuron or synapse it affects) doesn't have purpose.

Randomness is banished, by causality, to the quantum realm. You seem to agree when you point out the illusion of randomness in highly complex systems, like weather; yet insist on randomness (in the complex system known as the brain) in order to produce free will. That seems like a contradiction to me.

It appears we have a key difference in our definitions of free will. You espouse a necessity for free will to be indeterminate; requiring randomness. I don't agree. That's a false dichotomy -- it's not determinism versus free will -- it's a matter of compatibility. Free will is not a goal, it's a reaction.

It's a paradox. We have no choice but to be self-directed. We are causally self-determined.
If there is actual random, there is the possibility that an ability to anticipate some randomness may have emerged. It is difficult to imagine the mechanisms involved - because they would need to remain nuts-and-bolts - not some kind of woo woo.

However, if multidimensional concepts hold true, there may be some mechanism that is possible. Or, perhaps the synergy of all our senses is attuned to anticipate randomness more effectively than a reductive examination of each component might reveal such that our intuition and imagination may, to some small extent, be more successful than simple trial and error. This would mean that the 'mutation' of successful ideas accelerates the evolution of consciousness at a marginally higher rate than determinism would predict.

I'm not saying this is even possible. But if randomness does exist - even at such a small (yet fundamental) scale as the quantum level - and determinism prevails at the 'local' scale - nevertheless, there is a chance that the conscious gestalt is more effective than its components would suggest it could be.
That's pretty deep, Howard!

I actually understood what you wrote, too. :-) Such speculating is fun to mentally entertain but it takes a good writer to actually capture it!

I know that we're hard-wired to detect movement and this assists us in spotting patterns within chaotic scenery . . . but that's as close as I can get to an example of an ability to anticipate randomness. Wait a minute . . . if it's random, how can you anticipate it? Yikes! That's embarrassing, I was about to expand on an oxymoron. I think it's time to hit the sack.
Right now I look like Robert Frost - yet another in the 'communion of atheist saints' I revere.

In any case - yes - opposite. I contend (and I believe that this comes from being an artist) that you could call it the principle of contrast.

For example - once (if) the universe finally reaches heat death - in theory, everything will have reached an equilibrium with all the matter/energy diffused evenly and everything gone to its ground state. But I would argue that, at that point, nothing would actually, de facto, exist anymore - because there would (obviously) be nothing to detect it (the proverbial fallen tree in a forest of fallen trees with no ears left to hear anything) AND, even if there were something to detect existence - there would be no contrast - which is key to detection.

This is my argument for the primacy of nothing. Cold, vacuum, dark, etc. are all examples of an utter lack of anything. They are nothing (perfect nonsense) and do not interact with everything - except that, without contrast - light might as well be dark, heat might as well be cold, and there would be no space for matter/energy to move in if there were no vacuum.
Hi Gary,

Hard determinists will insist that (outside the quantum realm) just because we don't yet know how to predict something doesn't mean it's really random. They have a very simple reason for this: causality. As a principle that governs many "laws" of physics (i.e. the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the Third Law of Motion) it's exceedingly difficult to argue for ANY exception to causality.

I have seen, many times, this rationale used to deny randomness in even the most complex of complex systems: the brain and the weather. Complexity and even chaos, they claim, would be predictable if we knew enough about the variables involved.

Causality is taken to be a dogmatic article of faith. I say "dogmatic" because determinists can deny anything they can portray as random or indeterminate. That's a common tactic they use to deny free will. They insist free will is not deterministic and therefore violates causality.

Of course, if EVERYTHING (outside the quantum realm) is causally determined, then you can easily deny free will by defining it as indeterminate or random -- because nothing indeterminate or random exists. Such hard determinism is just a pat answer posing as scientific. Any theory that explains everything, explains nothing. That's why science has the principle of falsifiability. Hard determinism, by its absoluteness, is unfalsifiable.

Unlike hard determinism, compatibilism embraces both causality and falsifiability by holding free will to be deterministic.
Ultimately, determinism at an absolute level is strong induction. The reason you can't prove a negative is that you can't prove an absolute - and any negative would have to be considered an absolute.

A positive assertion can be made because, if something can be shown to happen, it can be said to happen. But saying that it happens every time because it has happened every time you tried it is like saying a black swan does not exist because every swan you have seen has been white. It turns out there are black swans - though they are extremely rare.

So, you can say that the universe exhibits determinism as a general, very strong, inductive rule. But you cannot assert that determinism is a universal absolute.


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