Unorthodox Determinism

I have recently encountered a massive conflict between the proponents of free will and determinism, and to me both sides seem a little shortsighted.  The free will crew believes they have free will more or less because they want to, or they argue that if the universe is deterministic then things like moral responsibility or experience become worthless.  Now this is clearly false because the only thing the deterministic side claims is that the universe follows universal causal rules and there are no miracles that violate those rules.  They can counter the free will arguments with arguments about building houses, saying that “you start building the house because if you just sit on your ass then it won’t get built.”  Saying that it is predestined that the house be built and then doing nothing is an incorrect and fraudulent corruption of deterministic thinking.

Though a fascinating debate, you’re both wrong.  And you’re both right.  Free will is a direct result of a causal, deterministic universe to the point that without such a universe then free will would be meaningless.  Time for an example; let’s take a deck of cards and mix it up randomly.  Clearly, while the deck is just sitting there, the order of the cards is fixed, unchanging, and predetermined.  The fact that this is true does not mean that the contents of the deck are somehow irrelevant.  In fact, the knowledge that they aren’t changing doesn’t actually help you at all because you don’t know what they are.  If you were playing a game like Texas Hold ‘Em Poker then you have to allow for the fact that any of the unknown cards could be any of the cards you haven’t accounted for.  In reality the identity of those cards is completely fixed.  Another player can be looking at some of those cards and be presented with exactly the same situation but with a different context containing differing information.  By the logic of the free will corps, the fact that the cards are predetermined somehow makes the game irrelevant, boring, and useless.  This is clearly false due to the interplay of information and unknowns.  There is a case to be laid against my example because I introduce a second layer of free will in the players’ responses to their predetermined cards, but we’re talking imprecise examples right now and I’ll lay out my true and complete argument shortly.  So with our deck of cards, you can draw a card and then its position is locked in in a past-historical sense, but its position was equally predetermined beforehand.  Your knowledge has changed, and that’s all.  It is a significant and common fallacy, however, to then assume that the cards could not have been ordered in any other way.  The fact that they could have been drawn in any other logically possible way means that you are forced to allow for it on equal terms with the way they actually were drawn.  Notice the quantum zippering effect of multiple strings of possible futures being reduced to one single past as you draw each card.  Also note the interesting effects of inference as you go through the deck.  If all the clubs are gone then you know that the next card will not be a club, for example.  Saying that the future is predetermined is really an extremely short step from the obvious truth that the past is predetermined, or more accurately that it is unchangeable after the fact.

The fundamental principle in question is emergent behavior.  Our universe exhibits emergent predictability based on inherently random subunits.  The most elementary particles behave extraordinarily erratically, but macroscopic objects exhibit stability, and extremely large conglomerates of matter such as stars or galaxies are materially determined into the future, and the fluctuations on the lowest level aren’t going to affect entities of such a massive scale.  The weight of probability is just too large at high scales.  The basic organizing principle of the universe is therefore that, probabilistically speaking, it follows the path of least resistance.  The universe resolves itself into the most probable stable arrangement based upon the input of all its particles.  Humans inhabit the scale at which the world around us is stable, but still able to fluctuate enough for small systems’ outputs to produce differing results as conditions require.  Life is the self-organization of matter, and as life becomes more sophisticated in its organization techniques, its ability to convert more matter into animate matter increases.  Once upon a time the chaos event horizon was on the microbial level; random fluctuations in the primordial soup produced the first RNA capable of duplicating itself purely by “chance.”  Statistically, on earth’s conditions, given the vast volume and time scales we’re talking about it wasn’t really “chance.”  Especially so because of the anthropic principle.  If we hadn’t appeared, we wouldn’t be here to talk about it.  If we had appeared somewhere else, we’d be talking about it wherever the conditions were suitable for us to appear.  So it’s really not randomness.  In the inexorable way that life does, it proceeded to duplicate itself and divide into more complex lifeforms.  Eventually, the chaos event horizon broadened into macroscopic lifeforms by the development of the cell- particularly those of the eukaryotic variety which allowed organisms like us to overcome the problems of osmosis and diffusion.  A giant, human-sized amoeba (or even a non-microscopic one) is impossible because substances absorbed through the membrane wouldn’t diffuse to the nucleus and other structures.  So lifeforms like us are composed of trillions of little cooperating microbes which don’t violate those rules.  How does this relate to determinism?  Well, it could be said that the development of life exactly as it was, including down to the individual organism level, was predetermined.  Does this change how, beforehand, it couldn’t have been determined how the future would have unrolled?  Asking what would have happened had the universe proceeded in a slightly different manner is exactly the same as asking what would have happened if one of those cards in the deck was a different card.  Guess what?  The answer is very simple.  The card you had drawn would simply be different, leaving you to ask the same question.

So now we’re ready to address the true issue on determinism.  We live in a causal reality where effect follows cause all the time.  We can formulate models and simulations to meaningfully represent the world around us and make predictions about our world.  Let’s do an experiment.  What happens if you throw a rock up?  It falls down.  Well, I’m sorry to tell you this, but you’ve just proved that we live in a deterministic universe.  The fact that our universe is composed of immutable, consistent laws acting on a consistent basis means that it is possible to predict the future.  Let’s take a more useful example.  You’re walking along some mountain trail, and you come upon a gorge.  Across this gorge are three bridges.  One of them is extremely rickety, and if you try to cross it then you will fall.  The second is very stable, but on the other side are some soldiers with guns, and you of course have no papers!  If you try to cross there, you will be shot.  The third bridge is a small townie bridge that looks safe.  Which bridge do you cross?  If you answered bridge #3 then I’m glad we can agree that we live in a deterministic universe compatible with free will.  Due to the deck-of-cards-effect, whatever happens to occur was probabilistically certain.  However, we live in a causal universe so if you choose to cross the rickety bridge and you fall to your death, you were predestined to arrive at the choice, choose the first bridge, and fall to your death.  If you choose the second bridge, the same concept holds for you being shot.  And if you choose the third bridge, your fate is to make it across and go on your merry way.  If this sounds like I’m ignoring the deterministic aspect of my argument, that’s because your perspective of determinism is fundamentally flawed.  You seem to think that the fact that it is predetermined has meaningful import on what is predetermined.  You seem to think that if determinism is true, that makes it possible to say things like “your destiny is to take the first bridge and die.”  This is ridiculous.  Let’s modify our situation so that, back in Phuket, some mystic told you that you would be faced with this choice and that you would choose the first bridge and die.  When you arrive at that situation, you choose the safe way, you live, and then laugh at the insanity of the mystic.  Or perhaps you’re of the religious bent and you decide to run headlong down the rickety bridge, and fall to your death because the mystic said you would.  Obviously any sort of mystic divination is impossible.  Unless that mystic is blessed with an absolutely unbelievable amount of brainpower, their prediction is futile- more on this shortly.  And even if the prediction was effective, the fact that they said it (actually just the fact that they predicted it) changed the conditions and thus invalidated the prediction.  Lots of time travel fiction has all sorts of weird, twisted, self-referential paradoxes.  For example, later on in your quest you come upon another bridge which looks perfectly sound but then as you’re crossing it gets hit with a meteor and you fall to your death while the mystic laughs over your corpse.  Or maybe whichever bridge you choose turns out to be the rickety one and you fall to your death.  Or maybe something even more bizarre.  Such paradoxes/improbabilities/insanities are entertaining, but they embody a truly stupid way of understanding the world if they push it as truth.

Now we’re at an interesting understanding of fate.  We can make useful predictions about stuff like rocksy flying, but not about the nature of the universe.  Why are our simulations good in some circumstances, but not in others?  Simple.  Imperfect models will produce imperfect results.  It turns out that our model of the rock flying is more than sufficient to predict something so simple.  It’s a solved system.  However, if you wanted to be perfectly accurate in describing the nature of the rock’s motion, down to the last particle, you would still require a massive amount of processing capability.  That’s unnecessary because a simplified model is good enough for our practical purposes.  Tic-tac-toe, young children eventually figure out, is a solved game.  It’s possible to at least tie every single time.  Theoretically, a sufficiently powerful intelligence can represent any information set or solve any such problem.  If we can predict the way the rock will fall, a vastly more intelligent agent might predict the chemistry of a microbe and thus its activity.  An even more intelligent agent might work on an organism as complicated as a human.  An even more intelligent one might “solve” the planet and its ecosystem.  We can’t play chess with that type of knowledge because the game is so fantastically complicated relative to our mental faculties that we cannot just solve it.  In fact, we can’t even verify if it can be solved.  I would bet it can as long as you don’t employ “infinite intelligences” in your proof, but now we’re getting off topic.  Back to the real world, if you thought chess was complicated, then how on earth would you even begin to go about solving the behavior of, say, a squirrel?  The task boggles the mind.  However that wouldn’t even require that much processing capability- you only need all the data about the squirrel and its surroundings out to the limit of the squirrel’s perceptual ability, plus an exact model of the squirrel’s behavior.  Now consider doing the same thing with the earth as a whole.  Simply impossible by any modern standard.  As we expand our simulation’s purview to a galaxy, a cluster, and so on, the amount of processing power required expands to insane levels.  Eventually we reach the edge of the universe, but probably long before then we’ll have run out of real estate with which to run a simulation.  In order to create processing capability, you have to store information somehow.  Fundamentally, all our information storage methods involve the placement, polarization, or other modification or use of some form of the universe’s substance.  It therefore follows that it is impossible to simulate the complete universe because in order to do so you would need one bit of information for every bit in the universe.  Basically, you would have to represent the universe with itself, which gets us nowhere as to predicting it.  However, more efficient but imperfect models can probably make fairly accurate assertions about the future, such as the case with the rock.  The use of heuristic models in place of pure simulations is what gives intelligence its power.

Now I need to close the loop- free will and determinism.  So we live in a predetermined universe because the universe follows causality, in the form of consistent laws and a consistent representation of itself.  Yet at the same time the fact that it is predetermined alone gives us absolutely no information about its nature, and just like the deck of cards which is predetermined but at the same time unknown, the universe’s causality is exactly what makes it useful to us as organisms.  You choose to cross the safe bridge because you know you’re going to get across, and you can make that prediction because you implicitly understand and respect the causality of the universe.  Yet at the same time, because your intelligence allows you to do that, you are forced to acknowledge the fact that a more intelligent predictor could make more powerful predictions than you, and so on and so forth up until all solvable problems are, or can be, solved.  However, it is the fact that these predictions can be abstracted that gives us the foundation upon which free will is built: choice.  Without the power to abstract features of the universe into utility and options, there can be no choice.  If you were unable to predict in the simulation sense, then trading money for food would have no meaning because food would have no meaning for you.  In fact, the continuity of your existence would have no meaning, time itself would have no meaning.  When you make a choice, it is implicitly assumed that there is a positive action being taken- “I choose this over that.”  But in order to do that, you first have to know what this and that are, and you can only do that by extrapolating into the future.  In fact, consciousness itself cannot exist without extrapolation into the future.  It’s what processing power does that distinguishes it from the rock at the core of the earth with random electrical impulses flashing through it.  Abstraction is an extrapolation into the future by creating, combining, refining, or modifying concepts derived from the past on the basis that such extrapolation will have utility later, even if it’s a split second later.  Without “If I do this then this will happen” free will is completely worthless.  A simulation takes data from the past and computes the future, and a hypothetical takes data that perhaps hasn’t happened (yet) and computes the potential future.  The inference I was talking about back with the deck of cards is your mind rearranging and making manageable the objective world around it, in this case the deck of cards.  You were simulating a few known conditions of the remainder of the deck when all the clubs, or all the kings were drawn.  And clearly you can handle a hypothetical under the same conditions because you’re reading this right now and thinking about what would happen if all the kings or all the clubs were drawn.

So you really can’t get away from the conclusion: while the universe is predetermined, the fact that it cannot be simulated perfectly means that your experience right now is the best shot you’re going to get at it.  You have free will because exactly what’s going to happen cannot be known, and must necessarily be unknown.  It’s an endless deck containing an infinite variety of cards.  We have an endlessly cascading moment of probabilistic chaos, and while we can throw imperfect simulations at it until we’re blue in the face, nobody can know with absolute certainty exactly what’s going to happen.  The universe is predetermined, but each and every one of us is blessed with limited perspective.  Enjoy it.

Of course I have another caveat, however.  If we were somehow to have total perspective on our universe, it would be conclusive proof that there existed at least one other, more grandiose universe encompassing it that we couldn’t have total perspective on.

The Revolving Door of Desire

As a concept, what does it mean to want something? When you want something, what is your relationship to it in specific terms? And no, you can’t cheat and say it won’t reduce- “I just want it.” What is really going on? Is it a problem? Illusion or delusion? If it is, can you get over it?

I think desire is one of many genetic relics. Genes created intelligence, but couldn’t cede control completely because the result would be an organism that was unable to survive. So they created a number of frameworks such as instincts, emotions, pleasure, pain, etc. etc. Why is sex pleasurably? Easy- the genes had to motivate a simple mind to seek it, and so they created a concept of positive/negative and then ascribed behavior X to positive and behavior Y to negative. Well, desire is not really a relic because for the most part it is still necessary to maintain a degree of basic motivation and control due to the fact that your average person is unable to reason with sufficient panache to survive by reason alone. Hunger is not really a necessary aspect of biology- do microbes become hungry? Probably not. We feel hungry, as do mammals as a class, because otherwise we wouldn’t seek food which we need to maintain our physical bodies. When an organism becomes capable of what we shall call nongenetic action, or activity that the genes cannot actually control such as response to a complex environment in real-time, they instead must determine a structure for making those decisions. That structure is like a middleman, capable of independent action on its own behalf. In our case, genes have created a different type of organism in many ways superior to the genetic base. They created humans- that would be our minds. We are currently acting as servile creatures to our genes, performing what secondary survival decision-making tasks the genes need us to make to cause them to survive. The genes insure our compliance by limiting the scope of our consciousness to a small subsection of our brain’s activity, by providing fixed and appropriately weighed incentives, and also by occasionally overriding our brain’s decisions when they think they “know” what to do. Reflex actions. They also bind the mind almost irrevocably with the body. They make damn sure that “if we go down, you are goddamn coming with us!” Death for the biological organism is more or less equivalent to death of the information organism. Or at least it has been so far.

Now to risk getting a little bit Buddhist, why should we care? Is desire something we should embrace, or something we should escape from? We generally consider the fulfillment of desire to be a goal. In fact, we humans will even go so far as to create more desires for ourselves. We want to want things. We want to have more things to want because it brings us a secondary payoff to envision having those things fulfilled even if they don’t end up that way. Desire in the most direct sense is the biological necessity for something we need to survive. All desire derives to either the survival of the organism, or the fulfillment of information-drives. What do I mean by information drives? Why do some people have this overwhelming desire to create art? It is clearly not a drive for basic survival. In fact, the pursuit of a career in art can be said to directly conflict with survival desires demanding the maximization of food, sex, etc. etc. An information drive is the need to expand yourself as an informational entity. Actually this reduces to a survival urge as well, but of your informational body, which seeks to consume as much data space as possible. Multiply, if you will, but in its own way. Biomass seeks to spread to as much inanimate matter as possible- or other animate matter. Where a creature of a finite substantial capacity is the only efficient method of living in a universe with our universe’s laws, that means the best way to spread to as much matter as possible is to multiply the number of organisms. In dataspace, the laws are different. A single organism is a far more efficient competitive entity than a “species” and as a result a single mind would seek to expand to use as much processor and data as possible.

Computers are intended to be an extension of the mind, a thinking tool, in the same sense that a hammer is an extension of the hand. When someone is addicted to computers, they are addicted to the additional processing power. They have indirectly invested some of their own informational entity in the computer, exploiting it like a secondary servile mind. The interface between the two is extraordinarily inefficient, much worse than a computer plugged into an external hard drive with a USB 1.0 cable. But the principle is the same. Those who are addicted to the internet are addicted to content. They are addicted to the act of acquiring information and adding it to their information-minds. They may forget it soon, but the act of adding information gives them a secondary hit in the same way that an obese person has gotten some hit out of eating. There is a desire there that is in overdrive. I believe this condition is a bit rarer, but power tools may be addictive in the same sense- they are an extension of the body, they endow the user with power. Weapons, perhaps? Driving a car- now we’ve got something. When you’re at the wheel you have effectively extended your body to a ton and a half of metal, plastic, glass, and rubber, with an interface designed more or less ergonomically to give you decent control over its operation. Making it different from your body operating your body-machine how, exactly? Even stranger, the car even features a number of organized systems such as  an engine, wheels, seats, even cupholders. While there really isn’t an evolutionary precedent for cupholders, I imagine if an organism lived by having another organism take control of it, and more of it were produced when more of that organism were pleased by it, then it would sport any trait that the “driving” organism would choose. I’m not saying that cars are alive, but I am saying that the idea of a model of car exists in an evolutionary system where we select for traits that “please” us. I imagine addictions to cars or driving are relatively rare as well, but addiction to power, such as that bestowed by extending and empowering the body, is far from rare. Power makes survival much easier. Social power, especially, is highly addictive. Power over other people. That stems from a base desire to survive because if you’re the leader of the group you’re very unlikely to die before the rest of the group does. Genetically speaking, you’re therefore less likely to die, period. So power-seeking behavior is a survival advantage, and genes program us to seek it in the same way they program us to seek food.

The interesting thing about desires is that they aren’t rational. But they can control us anyway. For example, an addiction to chocolate. We know, consciously, that too much chocolate will make you fat. But some people still consume far too much chocolate despite the fact that they know the taste of the chocolate is not worth the price in reduced fitness, well let’s face it, reduced social “value” of being fat. Back in medieval times being fat meant you were rich, and being thin was a sign of reduced social value. Now, the reverse is true. Social value stems from power over people, or wanting to deprive others of power over you, but doing it in such a way that allows you to keep power over others, etc. etc. etc. I could do a post on just that.

Anyway, what’s truly fascinating is that the fulfillment of desire does not make it go away. Now we’re getting into samsara, or desire-suffering. As a concept, it has value. The semantic combination of the two is very interesting. This translates into the very Stoic ideal that the only way to truly be happy is to remove desire. In practical terms, it’s pretty simple. When presented with the chocolate dilemma, it’s easy. Stop wanting the damn chocolate. How come nobody thinks like this? Because it’s unprofitable for those trying to sell you worthless crap you don’t want, that’s why. Capitalism is certainly the most efficient and moral system, but when you add in elements of compulsion then the system turns truly horrific really fast. Advertising is compulsion utilizing the mere exposure effect and other nuances of the subconscious mind. Deceit is compulsion, the creation of unnecessary specialist systems like some convoluted overcomplicated tax code, law system, or stock market is compulsion. Governmental mandate is compulsion.

Basically, where all entities concerned are equally competent and rational, capitalism can only result in mutual benefit because it’s only valuable to agent A to make proposals that benefit agent B. Otherwise B will simply refuse. And A will benefit because otherwise they wouldn’t make the proposal. However if agent A has the capacity to force B to agree then A can make whatever terms he wishes. Worse, let’s assume that A doesn’t have true compulsive power over B. Rather, they instead have some small degree of influence to decrease B’s ability to think rationally and lead B to believe that a deal is beneficial to them when in fact it is not. That is deceit, that is destroying B’s ability to think, that is compulsion, and that is evil. But nevertheless it is a highly profitable strategy in modern capitalism. When a consumer population becomes weakened and susceptible, such as, say, by fear during, let’s just say World War II, the bug begins. I won’t go into that any more, but for America that is when the spiral to today began. Companies can use some degree of power- i.e. money, to influence politicians to further reduce the consumer’s ability to resist. The most direct way is to destroy the school system, but that actually hasn’t been the main thrust even though it has happened. What has happened is the institution of corporate interests in politics. Special interest groups, bureaucracy, and the reduction of the rights of the individual in favor of “the community” or “the nation” has been continuous. The Democrats reduce economic freedom, the Republicans reduce social freedom, in a continuous tightening of the vise. The government’s involvement has steadily increased, the amount of money the government handles has increased, and the rights of the individual have been steadily turned over. Lately it has become especially blatant, but the Bush administration was inevitable- eventually it was going to happen. Socioeconomic forces are powerful indeed. Though you can blame Bush all you want, and rightly so, until you claim your power for yourself, guess where the country is still going to go?

They have made us apathetic. There is no dimly lit backroom where a small circle planned out our apathy, though Cheney and Rove come pretty damn close. No, we are seeing the product of an evolutionary system bent on exploiting the weakness of the American people. They reduce our power and our reaction, derived from a deeply rooted servility, is to turn apathetic. It’s out of our hands, it’s their responsibility. Let’s choose someone better next time, while Huckabee uses subliminal advertising just as Bush did. Nothing has changed. In fact, the Bush administration is the knee of the neocon evolutionary curve. We had best stop it now or we’re utterly screwed. How do we do that? I don’t care what your politics are, I am going to make a statement that you must agree with. You should choose for yourself. Take your power for yourself. You take responsibility for your own life, and nobody else has the right to take that from you. So by claiming your vote matters, you are buying into a system of communal compulsion. True, with a base of independent, strong people it works great. Everyone in it understands the value of individualism and won’t infringe on those rights. But in a body of the weak, the wolves care not about the apathy of the sheep. However the presence of a government that is meant to “take care of people” results in institutionalized weakness. You no longer need to be strong, because the government will help those who aren’t. Well, those people who are being “helped” are being aided by the expense of others. It doesn’t take much before everyone feels they don’t need to be strong, resulting in a generalized decrease in the resources available. Now there’s nobody to take from to help the needy, and too many needy to help.

We all need to decide for ourselves what we want, instead of wanting what everyone else wants. We need to decide what works, irrespective of what everyone else is doing. We need to take responsibility for ourselves, and seize the power to control ourselves. We need to distance ourselves from our irrational desires, lest they be used to control us. We need many more things than I can list here. First and foremost, we need a nation of individuals. Give me a nation of people who think for themselves over a nation of “patriots”, for the latter is a nation of fools and imbeciles begging to be led to slaughter by a wolf in disguise.

The Pursuit of No-Mind

Though I am a westerner, Zen’s fundamental tenet is still a fascinating one. The idea that the only way to have a pure and perfect mind is to maintain a state of no-mind. This is not to say you should be a zombie. It means you should approach the world each day as a child, uncritical and accepting. My own personal philosophy incorporates the philosophy of rationalism to this child-mind. Imagine how you would think towards solving a problem if you had no past basis to distort your perspective. This is also not to say you should forget the past, since you need historical backing to aid your reasoning, but utterly shutting out disruptive effects that knowledge of the past would have on your thinking, such as “you can’t do that because we’ve always done it this way.” If you were a perfectly rational child, capable of assessing with utter objectivity this strange world you now find yourself in, what would you think? If presented with a problem which needs to be solved, and being presented with all the necessary information, how would such a philosopher-child resolve it? The converse of this state would be the pure bureaucrat, assessing through glasses so tinted he is virtually blind, and incapable of reason except insofar as his aim could be supported by bending it from truth and backing it with outright fabrication.

I dislike using the word child, as it runs counter to the maturity necessary for a perfectly rational mind to function. In order to be perfectly rational, you need to accept your own unimportance except in terms of your own consciousness, and your position as an observer (and damn is that another post). If you can’t do that, your thinking will be limited by the self-viewpoint. In any case, the child comparison is effective at capturing one facet of the state I am attempting to elucidate. The state I’m referring to is difficult to describe, so I have to do it one facet at a time, resolving one contradiction after another into the middle ground that is not the center. I am by no means experiencing zen reason, but I reason that such a state is the target of an intelligent, rational being which wishes, as such a being must, to become more intelligent and rational in order to better solve the problems it faces. So my target becomes this state, and the closer I get to it, the better.

So now I’ll lodge a little zen koan/Stoic quote combo in the back of your brain:

Shuzan held out his short staff and said, “If you call this a short staff, you oppose its reality. If you do not call it a short staff, you ignore the fact. Now what do you wish to call this?”

“Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them. If, therefore, any be unhappy, let him remember that he is unhappy by reason of himself alone.” – – – Epictetus