What does determinism determine?

There is a lot of discussion whether free will is possible in the world where all events are determined by physical laws.   Let’s stop and meditate on the word determined.  What does it mean?  It seems to mean that if we knew the current state of a system with coordinates and momenta of all atoms and molecules, we should be able to know also the state of the system in n seconds from now. There are too many ifs here, don’t you think? First of all, the system must be closed, i.e. confined to itself and isolated from external influences. This implies not only that the system cannot exchange particles with the outside world, but also energy (heat, electromagnetic radiation, or whatever other forms of energy there might be). That’s quite impossible. We might not even be aware of all forms of energy out there considering the “dark matter/dark energy” problem. We also must know the state of each and every atom in this closed system. One atom in the system or coming from outside with unknown state can throw all determinism out of the window.

Just look at the image above.   Can we practically determine the position of every ball after the cue ball hits the pyramid?  The movement of every ball is strictly determined by the Newton’s laws.  What seems to be the problem?  The problem is that we do not know the exact trajectory of the cue ball, where it hits the pyramid.  We do not know the exact alignment of the balls in the pyramid (I am not talking about any quantum principles here).  We do not know how every fiber of the table cloth and every microscopic groove in the table will affect the trajectory of every ball.  We don’t know if all balls are exactly spherical, whether their mass is equally distributed, how many scratches and imperfections they have.  We don’t know if the table is leveled or tilted to one side.  So, OK.  Trajectories of the balls are strictly determined by the Newton’s laws (if we ignore relativistic effects).  That’s what makes this game possible.  But how much is anything “determined”?

And that was a fairly idealistic environment.  Reality usually looks more like this, except the balls are in Brownian motion.

Determinists say that every event is caused by another event.  Let’s stop and meditate on the word caused. What do we mean by that?  Causality is nothing more than another mental construct.  It’s a way to describe relationship between events. In certain cases, when one event follows another event, we say that event 1 caused event 2. But it’s simply a special kind of connection between events.  Which we construct in our mind.  The relationship needs to follow certain rules outlined by Hume (e.g. event 1 must happen prior to event 2, event 2 must always follow event 1, etc. — Hume lists 8 attributes of causality) After spending the last 15 years of my career analyzing “failure root cause” of semiconductor circuits, I realized that that there is no such thing as “the root cause”.  Finding “the root cause” comes down to finding practical and reliable ways of achieving desired results.  Some ways are better than others and some results are more desirable than others.  When a car “accident” happens, we can say that it was caused by distracted driving, slippery road, poor visibility, condition of the car, the tree standing in the way, etc. All of those can be considered as causes of the accident. But there is no magic that determines “THE ROOT CAUSE”.  It’s possible to say that the tree caused the accident because if the tree were not there, the accident would not have happened.  We can even blame evolution that “caused” the tree to exist.  But it does not make any practical sense.  I know the cause of all plane crashes — gravity.  Is this the cause people look for?



We also seem to have freedom to pick and choose the causes of events:

“It all comes,” said Pooh crossly, “of not having front doors big enough.” “It all comes,” said Rabbit sternly, “of eating too much.”

To complicate the matters, an observer is a part of the observed system and inevitably affects the system’s behavior.  Think of turning on the light to see what’s going on in the dark room.  What will you see?  You will see what’s going on in the room right after you turned on the light, not what had been going on in the dark.  In some cases observer effect can be neglected, in some cases, not.  So, the very act of inquiry into natural causes of events adds an element of free will to these events.  Some things seem to be there just because we look.  There is a Russian proverb “If I knew where I fall, I would put some straw there”.    Knowing that an event will happen can change that event.

Now, let’s stop and meditate on the words physical laws. What are they?  Aren’t they also mental constructs allowing us to describe the world and make useful predictions?  Most physical laws operate within a certain idealistic model of the world and ignore “second-order” effects.  What constitutes a “second-order” effect depends on the application.  We can ignore relativistic inaccuracies of Newton’s laws when we play billiards, but when we design a GPS system, we have to take them into account.  When we launch a satellite, we account for the mass of the Earth, perhaps, the Moon, perhaps the Sun.  How about the effects of the gravity pull coming from the billions of distant galaxies?  Probably, not so important.  But second-order effects do exist even if we choose to ignore them.  And we never know when they become too large to ignore.  We also cannot pretend that we know all physical laws.  There are a few that we happen to know.  But I’m certain that there are quite a few of them that we are not even aware of.  Determinism seems to be just another such idealistic model of the world which only makes sense for certain applications, but not others.

Anything left from determinism that has not been reduced to absurdity yet?  Good luck with determinism, Mr. Harris and Mr. Coyne.

See also:


23 thoughts on “What does determinism determine?

  1. It seems to me that what you’re saying is that because we cannot determine for ourselves the outcome of extremely complicated events, then therefore they are not deterministic, as if our comprehension of it makes the slightest bit of difference.

    Again, for causation, you are generalizing large, complicated systems, saying that you can’t find a single cause for this large, complicated system (a car accident). But who expects to find a single cause for a system that involves trillions and trillions of atoms of varying elements in an assortment of arrangements? Determinism of larger systems is deduced from the predictable behaviors of simple systems.

    Your final meditation seems to revolve around the fact that we don’t know all the rules for all extremes of the universe. That’s nice, but given what we do know, determinism isn’t a bad estimate.

    Now, I myself don’t believe that things are strictly deterministic. We think that determinism goes right out the window on the quantum level, which is enough on its own to reject strict determination, but as you zoom out from the quantum level, these quantum waves coalesce into particles which behave predictably. So, from moment to moment, determinism reigns supreme, but over longer timescales, quantum effects might have some significant effect. For example, the quantum ripples in the big bang theory which eventually condensed into the first galaxies. But still, quantum randomness does not leave room for libertarian free will. Not that you said it does, but I have to head off Deepak Chopra.

    • A lot of this discussion revolves around confusion between determinism in principle and determinism in practice. In principle, yes, everything is determined by something else. But this statement is not useful for any practical purposes. As you mentioned, even in principle, physical laws are not deterministic at quantum level (which have no implications on free will because random choices do not exactly constitute “free will”). At macro-levels, we can talk of determinism and predictability to certain degree, with lots of assumptions which severely limit what we can practically determine and predict. My point is to show that these arguments are quite pointless. How useful is a statement that an event has a trillion of causes with most of causation mechanisms unknown?

      You might say that this post itself is fairly pointless and impractical. I would agree. I like self-refuting ideas. That’s one reason why I made the post. I like to remind myself that all I know can be considered false and wrong, depending on the point of view. It’s a useful exercise because it softens my attitude towards other people’s opinions and allows me to see their point of view. That’s the other reason why I made this post. But it can only be appreciated by people who are able to see this point. So, in a convoluted way, this post is still pointless.

      • How useful is a statement that an event has a trillion of causes with most of causation mechanisms unknown?

        It is useful because, even with the causation mechanisms unknown, we know that there exist these causes if we look for them, and everywhere we look, this holds true. Again, determinism of larger systems is deduced from the predictable behavior of the simple systems of which they are composed.

        Rather than distinguish between in principle and in practice, I would point to your earlier example of a closed system versus an open system. We are open systems, influenced by how much sleep we are permitted, the amount of sunlight we get, information we internalize from other sources. From your prior statement, from this perspective, we people are not deterministic. However, you can zoom out and view all humanity, sharing information with each other. More deterministic, but still influenced by weather, the sun, etc. Zoom out farther and view the solar system as a whole, and it is more deterministic still. Influenced weakly by nearby gravity sources and radiation, but a much more closed system than a single individual on Earth. Then continue on to the galaxy, galactic cluster, universe as a whole. You get the picture.

        Now zoom back in to that individual. If you adopt the perspective of an individual as the sole influencer of a body (a closed system), then the illusion of free will shall appear due to external influences, because the system is not actually closed. The only way to accurately view him is as a part of a whole universe, an open system within the universe. And that whole behaves, at least moment to moment, deterministically.

        That second paragraph is mostly for my own benefit, but in case it’s useful, I left it. The third paragraph blew a gasket and may have put me out for the night. It was worth it though!

        • When we consider systems with large numbers of elements, as the number of elements increases, random components of individual element’s behavior cancel out and we observe a deterministic behavior of the system as a whole, described by new parameters. This makes Newton’s mechanics and thermodynamics possible. We can predict behavior of gas despite the fact that we have no idea what each molecule is doing. It’s interesting to note that individual molecule of gas does not have such properties as temperature, volume, or pressure. But temperature, volume, and pressure supervene (thanks to keithnoback for a great term) upon coordinates and momentum of each individual molecule rendering them irrelevant. Emergence of the new properties at higher scales is a perfect illustration of Hegel’s principle of transformation of quantitative changes into qualitative changes so loved by Marx and Lenin.

          It’s interesting that people even manage to create a theory of chaos. By the way, it’s not necessary for a system to have trillions of components to exhibit chaotic (practically unpredictable) behavior — see the example of the double-rod pendulum in the Wikipedia article.

          Regarding your notion that at larger scales, systems become more isolated and more predictable does not always hold. It’s an unjustified inference based on observation of quantum mechanical and thermodynamic systems. It depends whether small random changes cancel each other. In some systems, small random changes of inputs cause random changes of other elements of the system leading to even more unpredictable and chaotic behavior. Markets and hurricanes are just two examples. Moreover, a pinhole in the barrier isolating a system can cause a catastrophic breakdown of the system transforming a system from closed and predictable to open and unpredictable. Think of a breach in a river dam or puncturing an air balloon.

          I’m not sure if the universe as a whole is a closed system. Who knows? With these multiverse theories, we don’t know if we could ever get to such thing as “the whole universe”. Which, again, undermines the practical value of determinism.

        • There is little value in the notion that all events must have a cause. The concept of a “root cause” appears to me very subjective. “Finding the root cause of failures” happens to be in my job description for the last 15 years. Consider an example. A customer returns an integrated circuit exhibiting a failure: one of the parameters is out of spec. What can be considered the “root cause” of this event? From quality perspective, the first question is “how did this circuit get to the customer passing the internal quality control system?” After analyzing the QC test program, we may find that, for example, we test audio distortion at 1000Hz whereas the part fails at 100Hz. We modify the test program to test at larger range of frequencies so that these defects are now screened by the test program. As far as the customer is concerned, the issue is closed. Did we fix the failure root cause? No. We don’t know why the part failed in the first place and we merely converted a quality problem into a yield problem.

          Upon further analysis, we may determine that circuit design is sensitive to process variations. E.g. when transistor threshold voltage approaches upper limit of the process spec, the probability of digital failures increases leading to increased percentage of parts failing QC test. What do we consider the root cause of these failures — design or process? We have a freedom to choose here. We can change the circuit design to tolerate larger process variations or we can tighten the process control spec to avoid these variations. Circuit design is, usually, more expensive than turning a knob on a machine in the fab. So, even with determinism and physicalism, we can choose what to accept as a “cause”. We can choose our restrictions, if you will. E.g. we can choose to live in a society and subject ourselves to the laws of society and enjoy relative freedom from restrictions imposed on us by nature (e.g. travel around the globe in one day) or we can choose to be free from society and its laws and live in isolation. In the second case, we will be even more restricted by nature because we will not be able to enjoy protection from predators, the elements, and scarcity of resources. It’s a different topic.

          In quality control, there is a practical rule called 5 whys. The rule says that it’s sufficient to ask the question “Why?” iteratively only 5 times. The answer to the fifth “Why?” can be considered the root cause for practical purposes.

          • When we consider systems with large numbers of elements, as the number of elements increases, random components of individual element’s behavior cancel out and we observe a deterministic behavior of the system as a whole, described by new parameters.

            But the only reason you are describing their behavior as random is because you personally can’t account for the velocity of each and every element, and yet we know that each one has this property. Basically, it seems that you are claiming that determinism is only relevant to a certain number of whys. But this is an economic, not a scientific concern. Why account for the cause of something to the tenth level when only five will get the job more than done? It is like counting pi to a thousand decimals. Ten is more than useful for virtually any endeavor, but we know we can go much further. Likewise, we can know that there are causes for everything we see, even if we can’t find an initial cause. Artificially drawing the line and saying that, “Beyond here is indeterminate,” is just that, artificial. You throw around this word, “random,” as though it means genuine randomness, but all you mean by it is that it is beyond the number of whys you are willing to ask.

            Of course, the only reason to look so deeply into determinism is for the sake of free will. Or rather, for the sake of rejecting the concept of free will. So how many whys does it take for the concept of free will to be rejected?

          • I am not debating whether determinism is true. I am debating the usefulness of this concept beyond the philosophical notion that everything has a cause and is determined, in principle. Your Pi example is a good one. Of course, all decimals of Pi are determined. And if we care what the 500-th decimal of Pi is, we can determine it. But if we don’t care, we just consider it “random”. So, whether a number is considered random or determined, seems to be just a matter of how much we care about it.

            You throw around this word, “random,” as though it means genuine randomness, but all you mean by it is that it is beyond the number of whys you are willing to ask.

            Exactly. With determinism, not only we have to reject the concept of free will, but also such concepts as “random” and “probability” which seem to be very useful concepts for many purposes. (Decision making is one of them.)

            So how many whys does it take for the concept of free will to be rejected?

            Again, if we want to reject the concept of free will, we, certainly, can. But it seems to be a useful concept, along with randomness and probability.

          • I am not debating whether determinism is true. I am debating the usefulness of this concept beyond the philosophical notion that everything has a cause and is determined, in principle.

            Seeing as your original title was, “Forget Free Will, Does Determinism Exist?” you can forgive me for being confused.

            With determinism, not only we have to reject the concept of free will, but also such concepts as “random” and “probability” which seem to be very useful concepts for many purposes.

            No we don’t. It’s called abstraction, and it’s ok. Free will is a convenient abstraction for successfully going about the day to day life – there’s no sense in contemplating the arrangement of your atoms to decide what to have for dinner – but it has some nasty side effects. Namely, things like laying the blame upon the individual rather than the world that individual has lived in. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t lock up psychopaths, but the idea of the self made individual is certainly pure bull on several levels. This is why recognizing the abstraction is important.

            I feel like I’ve written on this before, but I can’t for the life of me find it. It was probably a comment.

            Also, yay for Dilbert.

          • I changed the title because I realized that determinism does exist as an abstract idea and a concept, but not more than that. I think, we converge in our opinions. It’s always satisfying. 🙂

            I agree that this discussion about free will has to do with blame and guilt.

          • there’s no sense in contemplating the arrangement of your atoms to decide what to have for dinner

            This, pretty much, summarizes the usefulness of neuroscience to solving moral problems.

    • Supervenience… Yes.

      Causal exclusion. If I understand this approach correctly, it suggests to disregard all notions of mental causes based on Occam’s Razor principle because they are simply not needed to explain physical movements of our bodies. It seems like a valid approach. But just one of many possible. It’s an answer not the answer. The principle seems to assume some freedom in what causes to exclude from explanations. I can agree to this. Although, technically, road quality may contribute to every accident, but in our study of multiple accidents, we may find that most of them involve driver distractions and focus on this as a cause disregarding other aspects of accidents as irrelevant. The question whether drivers can choose not to text while driving is still open.

      • … which goes back to your point about what we are really talking about when we talk about causes. Determinism and associated questions about free will are threatening, revolutionary, controversial – and of absolutely no consequence whatsoever.

        • Determinism has no consequence whatsoever.

          I need to remember this :-).

          Eschew obfuscation and espouse elucidation

          Say ‘NO’ to negativism

          You are unique, just like everybody else

          These little maxims remind me how screwed up our thinking and language are.

  2. My personal argument is that while it may be true, it cannot be ‘rationally affirmed’.

    To rationally affirm something is to say that you have successfully weighed evidence and made a decision on what to affirm and deny as more plausibly true then not.
    But determinism is one of those sort of…dizzying things. If I weigh the evidence for determinism and then weigh the evidence for indeterminism, and then determine to believe in determinism, I have made no decision. I have simply outworked the determined course of causal factors outside myself. And then there’s the determinists who are militant about it. That makes even less sense to me, if someone does not believe in determinism that means that they were determined not to(by factors outside of themselves). So why argue with them.

    I think that determinism could be true, but it would be hard to see how it could be rationally affirmed, since rational affirmation of it undermines the rationality used to affirm it.

    • Most of philosophical concepts are self-refuting. When I notice a problem with circular reasoning, I know that I’m, most likely, dealing with a philosophical question and not a scientific one.

      In one of the atheist forums I’ve seen people trying to reject theism based on the known paradoxes with omnipotence/omniscience: “Can omnipotent God create a rock too heavy for himself to lift?” or “Can omniscient and omnipotent God change an future event that he knows will happen?” There is Epicurean paradox involving benevolence, omnipotence, and the ability and will to eliminate evil. I don’t see how broken logic can be used as a proof of anything and why God has to play by our broken rules deliberately constructed as a logical trap and create stupid rocks at our silly demands. The rules are, basically: “if you play with me, you lose, no matter what you do”. The winning tactic is not to play at all. Then the stupid rules do not apply.

      • In my undergraduate career I wrote a paper called “The necessity of limited omnipotence for philosophical discourse.” I argued basically that the only way that any objections to God’s existence work (ex. The Problem of Evil, The Euthyphro Dilemma, The apparent contradictions in the attributes of God.) God has to have non-logical limits on omnipotence. Otherwise he can cause logical contradictions to exist in reality and it makes any form of argument about him impossible.

        So if such objections “Can an omnipotent God create a rock to heavy for himself to lift?” are granted, then you can no longer have rational discourse. B/c the laws of logic are useless in discourse.

        See I’m an advocate of the argument from the existence and usefulness of logic to the existence of a logical being that ordered the world, so I think that logic does a great job of explaining to some extent how God’s mind works. But there is disagreement among theologians about that, so I’m not firm on that.

        But yes, there is no reason he must conform to ‘our’ rules of logic.

        • Hmm… “limited omnipotence”. I need to meditate on that. Sounds like another self-refuting idea. It’s like “moderate excess”. I like the concept of “excessive moderation”. One cannot be “too moderate”. Or, should I say “one can be too moderate”? I’m confused… Our language is very weird. “Running noses”, “smelling feet”; “driving in parkways, parking in driveways”. I’m surprised people can use language to convey any coherent thought.

          • I don’t mean limited in the sense that “It’s an all that is not all” like that. I mean that certain statements such as “Married bachelors” or “Square circles” are nonsense and cannot be actualized by an omnipotent being. As Lewis once put it, “Nonsense is still nonsense even if you apply it to God.”

            But yes, I remember a Terry Pratchett quote, “We are trying to unravel the Mighty Infinite using a language which was designed to tell one another where the fresh fruit was.”

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