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

Hi Howard,

And besides . . . we already admit exceptions for the quantum realm.

Speaking of which, the local chaos of the quantum realm is amazingly predictable when generalized globally. The accuracy of probability calculations approaches certainty. As an aggregate, the quantum realm is about as concrete as the "normal" realm (is there a better term for normal realm?). I've always wondered: as a fundamental level of the universe, is there a clear line (or a shifting "gray area") between the quantum realm and the "normal" realm? Or is there no line at all? In the same way that free will is a seemingly contradictory product of causality, can the predictable laws of physics be a product of the unpredictability of our universe at its most fundamental level? Is the ancient Greek notion of opposites truly essential to how the universe works? Certainty from uncertainty? Order from chaos? Animate from inanimate? Everything from nothing? Free will from causality?

Who is that in your avatar image?
Free Thinker asked "In the same way that free will is a seemingly contradictory product of causality, can the predictable laws of physics be a product of the unpredictability of our universe at its most fundamental level? Is the ancient Greek notion of opposites truly essential to how the universe works? Certainty from uncertainty? Order from chaos? Animate from inanimate? Everything from nothing? Free will from causality?"


NAH! Probably not.

(Sorry, but when a pitch floats down the center and hangs in front of you, it's hard not to swing.)

Although I don't rule it out, there's little to suggest that randomness has lead to order, other than an admittedly perversely pleasing sense of irony. It is true that the macro-world is predictable, while at the quantum level it is uncertain. Each particle is described by a probability function, the "Schrodinger Wave Equation" being the prototype. This concept of a probability description is the basis of quantum mechanics.
Whereas the behavior of any single particle is indeterminate, the behavior of the average is perfectly determined. This all sounds rather incredulous but it's worth noting that QM has been massively tested, perhaps one of the best tested physics "laws" we know of. So, you are right in that randomness does lead to determinability. Of course, there is a chance, vanishingly small but not zero, that large objects in the macro world, such as you or I, might suddenly appear at the statistical 3 sigma point, rather then right at the expected Mean. It either happened to me recently - or I'm just getting senile.

Perhaps you're right, Gary,

I can't help but believe we're missing some fundamental insight into reality. It doesn't help that there is such a conflict between our prevailing paradigms of physics: relativity and quantum mechanics.

Consciousness appears to play an active role in reality at the quantum level. In the words of Robert Paster:

"Quantum physics stretches our understanding of reality. It is, in some interpretations, filled with dualities and contradictions. Matter emerges from, then disappears into, a great quantum vacuum. Particles can’t both be and be known to be. Matter shifts from existing to only having the potential to exist. The act of measurement distorts what’s being measured. Human consciousness seeps into the discussion of quantum physics. Our human acts affect what is true at the quantum level."

Our understanding of the universe is clearly missing some key ingredients. Nature abhors a void, so these mystical aspects of the quantum realm has engendered some pretty whacky ideas. I'm thinking, particularly, of "The Secret"; a best-selling book, authored by Rhonda Byrne, that seems to advocate consciousness as reality.

I think the way we tame the unknown is a projection of the structure and processes of the human mind. Our sensory-limited, pattern-seeking, intelligence confirms only what it is equipped to understand. Human progress expresses confidence in our ability to learn ever more about the world around us. I wonder how long it will take to reconcile relativity and quantum mechanics, if they are reconcilable . . . and if that will fill those fundamental gaps in our understanding. If it's going to happen, I hope it happens in my lifetime.
Hey Howard,

Sometimes, you really rock! :-)

I'm reposting your comment, below, because we had long ago reached the end of the thread (where replies are no longer facilitated). Your post deserves a new thread.

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.

Opposites do seem to play some sort of role in nature. I think it's more limited to principles. Trees, for instance, don't have an opposite. But, nonetheless, according to the latest scientific consensus, everything springs from nothing, matter springs from energy (and vice versa), the animate springs from the inanimate, and free will springs from causality. The ancient Greeks, were onto something that we still haven't figured out. How do opposites (or "contrast") figure into symmetry (if at all)? Simplicity is the essence of elegance . . . there's an answer before us: we just can't see it.

As an aside: I am in love with that particular 'yet' - you mention. And I find it seems to distinguish me from most theists. Faith seems to spring from an unwillingness to accept that there is just a vast amount of stuff we don't know and may never know (certainly true for us as individuals in this life.) Theists desperately want to believe that there will be some great revelation - where they will be told all and know all. Meanwhile, their god already does.

But for me - I am entirely enamored of the idea that there are far too many mysteries available for me to ever solve them all (or become privy to their solutions) before I die. Think about it - the best part of any experience is the reveal - the punch line of a joke, the first burst of flavor from a grape, opening a present on your birthday, an orgasm, etc. The second best part is the anticipation before hand - even if that involves fear as well as excitement.

But I find that absolute determinism sucks the fun out of the mystery as much as faith does - with the mild caveat that it might actually be right. Nevertheless, from my existentialist way of looking at things - I prefer to never run out of mysteries to puzzle out than to spend some eternity in a 'solved' existence - or even a lifetime in an existence I believe to be entirely solvable. That's just how I roll I guess.
Hey Howard,

Science has articles of faith too: assumptions that are unchallenged or unchallengeable. One of those is the belief that nature will yield her secrets if you know how to coax them out of her. Maybe that's a reasonable assumption. But are nature's secrets finite? Is it even possible, given enough time, that we can know them all?

I guess I'll have to check on our progress in a few hundred thousand years and see if humans are bored to death with their complete knowledge of the universe. Would it be heaven or hell?
That's one of my arguments with theists about heaven. I like to ask them if there is any room for advancement or improvement once you're there. If they laugh I know they aren't as religious as their ability to label themselves would suggest. If they are non-plussed - as if an eternity of same old same old would be just fine and they can't understand why anyone wouldn't want that - they are lost causes. But if they get vexed or puzzled by the question - I know there might be a chink in their faith armor they hadn't noticed before.


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