Monday, December 26, 2016

5.  Randomness vs Indeterminism

A standard point in classical compatibilism is that the philosopher's idea of "power to do otherwise than done" (people being blamed for exercising their powers, almost like an annoying super hero of fiction)  has a sufficient realistic form in doing otherwise in different circumstances, at different times, with different determinants.  This idea is intuitively appealing except there is no deep analysis of how circumstances change or vary in a relevant way.  Everything is different in different circumstances, so how does this apply to conscious choices compared to anything at all, imagined differently?   The idea is virtually a tautology lacking specific content and so begging the question.  It seems yet another way in which philosophy confines itself to broad abstractions.   Everything else belongs to another discipline, a special science, not suitable for treatment as philosophy.

The concept most missing in the philosophy of mind at least, compared to the science of control is randomness.  The random and unpredictable parts of nature are seldom the focus of explanations just because they are unpredictable limiting what can be said about them.  Explaining the unpredictable is almost an oxymoron.   Science did not bother to explore randomness fully until the late twentieth century in a mathematical analysis entitled Chaos Theory.  Science had focussed on natural laws, which could make predictions useful in engineering or otherwise.  Randomness hardly satisfies that interest.   The practical need is predicting solutions to problems known to work (which is more likely to supply funds than other research).  A popular advice was that even though a gaming device such as a roulette wheel could appear random, this was only an accident of ignorance, not knowing all the physical measurements involved in determining the spin.  Randomness, it was cautioned, did not over rule natural law, and was not indeterminism.

Of course, Quantum Theory or Quantum Mechanics in atomic physics brought in notions of inherent probabilities in sub-atomic particle events.   Despite the randomness, much practical electronics and chemistry depends on those principles.   As it has been pointed out though, laws of probability are just as much constraining as the simpler kind, just in more complex ways (allowing predictable electronics application).  It has been argued that quantum probabilities represent an avenue for realizing the magical indeterminism traditionally associated with free will.  It is a very common recourse encountered in those of a scientific bent seeking to solve the problem.  Yet it has been pointed out by philosophers of such as Oxford's Ted Honderich,  that probability does not logically present any kind of gap into which miracles can penetrate the deterministic side of things.  Even randomness is lawful.

Quantum probability can be one sort of randomness but is not clearly the source of most random qualities in the environment.  Macroscopic objects average out the uncertainties of their subatomic components (which then take special instruments to detect).   There was a topic of Statistical Mechanics in classical physics before Quantum Theory, dealing with given randomness rather than its source; gas molecules are randomly distributed etc.   Attention turned to randomness in physics when, following the roulette wheel advice, attempts were made in the late twentieth century to predict weather more accurately by expanding data collection, and the attempt failed.  Deeper investigation (weather being a well funded subject) then revealed  the basic laws of motion, applied to fluids such as the atmosphere, create random distributions in simple interactions in certain cases, especially those involving non-linear equations of motion (such as the law of gravity with inverse square form).   There were many examples long known just not worth analyzing at the time.

 The chaos principles turn out deeply imbedded in mathematics apart from physical application, in familiar qualities of fractions not represented by a ratio, called irrational, such as the diagonal across a square with length the square root of two. When expressed in decimal form an infinite number of digits is required to represent the length, and the digits never repeat any pattern, infinitely, with endless variation  (the circle ratio Pi is the most famous such irrational number).  Physical forms of such relations turn out to exist and explain how all sorts of things are scattered or endlessly  vary in unpredictable ways, following paths named "strange attractors", compared to  regular ones like a planet's orbit.  The strange ones make a different orbit on every revolution (sometimes with enormous effect as when an asteroid wanders into the earth to the demise of all the dinosaurs, who could make life difficult for philosophers).   Computer scientist Stephen Wolfram presented examples of very minimal digital computations with this property in his innovative book, "A New Kind of Science".   In the roulette wheel determinants are certainly there, but are just infinite in extent, at the microscopic level.

 Randomness is easy to produce without recourse to the weirdness in quantum physics, whatever its importance, just in making a gaming device, employing natural random mechanisms ubiquitous in the environment.   There is no mere accident of ignorance, but a fundamental principle of randomness in the laws of motion themselves, whose very strictness creates the opposite in a certain sense.  It can seem a bit Zen like, but so does Einstein's relativity to laymen.   Nature is then divided into realms of order and chaos (including all gaseous matter with random molecules) and interactions between them (such as biological evolution) prominent in common experience and fundamental to goal directed action overcoming randomness.  However inevitable, fate turns out more complicated than treated abstractly in philosophical concepts.  Destiny encompasses random variation, putting oracles and sears out of business (never did pay well anyway).  The relation is poetically expressed in a Chinese religious symbol of the Tau, the sinuously divided circle with black and white halves (and a dot of each side within the opposite, expressing complexity).

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