What is Fixed and What is Free?
If the universe was not determined in some sense, then we could not make any scientific predictions. If, however, we did not have free will to choose among alternatives, there could be no moral judgments. This contentious issue confuses many of us, as we tend to either capitulate to free will and lose scientific predictions (which is often what religions do), or deny free will based on our current successes in empirical predictions (which is often what science does). This post discusses why both these positions are false, and how deterministic predictions can exist without compromising free will and morality.
Table of Contents
The Drama Analogy
Let’s begin with an analogy, which we can build upon through the course of this post. Consider the following dialogue from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream:
HERMIA: I frown upon him, yet he loves me still.
HELENA: O that your frowns would teach my smiles such skill!
HERMIA: I give him curses, yet he gives me love.
HELENA: O that my prayers could such affection move!
HERMIA: The more I hate, the more he follows me.
HELENA: The more I love, the more he hateth me.
HERMIA: His folly, Helena, is no fault of mine.
HELENA: None, but your beauty: would that fault were mine!
The dialogue above comprises two distinct components: (1) the characters, and (2) the sentences the characters speak. We can easily take out the characters out of this dialogue, and obtain the following:
I frown upon him, yet he loves me still.
O that your frowns would teach my smiles such skill!
I give him curses, yet he gives me love.
O that my prayers could such affection move!
The more I hate, the more he follows me.
The more I love, the more he hateth me.
His folly, Helena, is no fault of mine.
None, but your beauty: would that fault were mine!
If we read such a drama, we could know what will be spoken, but we would not know who will say what. Our knowledge of what will be spoken can be completely deterministic, but our knowledge of who is enacting which particular sentence in the dialogue will be completely indeterministic.
Characters in a drama allow us to connect a succession of dialogues. For example, HERMIA in the above dialogue can be consistently seen as being cold towards her lover, while HELENA is consistently seeking someone who doesn’t seem to love her. We could probably swap HELENA with HERMIA in the above dialogue and nothing would immediately seem out of place (in the limited context above), although some of these dialogues would appear to be inconsistent with what is said elsewhere in the play.
The point is this: the dialogues in the drama define the events but the successive connection of these events to a character draws a trajectory. The events could be fixed, but the trajectories could vary. Thus, for example, HELENA may speak some sentences where she frowns upon her paramour, and other sentences where she desperately seeks him. Likewise, HERMIA may seek her paramour sometimes, and frown upon him at other times. Such dynamic shifts in role play will not violate the fact that the same dialogues were spoken, and the events can therefore be predetermined. It will, however, confuse the audience a lot, because they won’t truly know whether they are lovers or haters.
We can see that by changing the characters in the dialogue, we won’t change the dialogue itself. And yet, we will change the succession of sentences spoken by a character, which then effectively creates new kinds of characters: some of them are lovers, others are haters, and yet others are confused about their affection or dislike. A single sentence typically doesn’t define a character; it is the succession of sentences that defines characters. Therefore, the dialogues can be fixed, but the characters can vary.
The Play is Underdetermined by Dialogues Alone
As we can see, if the play only describes the dialogues but not the characters, then the play is underdetermined: we can potentially attribute different dialogues to different characters, thereby creating many different plays. Many such plays will not make any sense; for example, if we attributed a king’s dialogues to a servant, and vice versa, the play would appear to be very confusing. Likewise, if a character sometimes loves another character, and sometimes hates them, the story will appear very inconsistent and confusing. Such confusing plays would ultimately be deemed meaningless.
Among all possible permutations of dialogues and characters, therefore, only a few are meaningful. For the play to make some sense, we must assume that underlying the utterances, there are personalities which have intents, goals, and values, which resonate with their utterances. If the utterances are inconsistent with other utterances, the character would be considered lying, confused, or vacillating. A completely random combination of dialogues and characters won’t make any sense at all.
The quest for meaning, value, and intention, therefore reduces randomness in the play. The quest for meaning entails that the characters speak grammatically correct sentences. The quest for personal integrity means that these grammatically correct sentences are mutually consistent with each other, and do not keep wavering from one stance to another. The quest for intention means that the collection of mutually consistent statements are aimed at achieving some goal. And the quest for morality implies that these goals have to deliver some ultimate happiness to the speaker.
While we can conceive infinite combinations of characters and dialogues, the quest for meaning, truthfulness, good intentions, and moral happiness, keeps decreasing this arbitrary choice. Given a set of utterances, there can be a world that is totally random, meaningless, disorganized, and unhappy, and another that is completely meaningful, organized, well-intended, and morally happy. The difference arises from how dialogues are matched to characters, and who says what.
Every play weaves a story comprising of dialogues and characters, but ultimately also portrays a moral, such as good wins over evil, the world is temporary, love ends in tragedy, and so forth. Depending on how the dialogues are matched with the characters, it is possible to construct different stories and morals out of the same dialogues. We can perceive the dialogues by our senses, but we must perceive the story, the character, their intentions, and the moral of our story by our minds. We cannot see the story and the moral by our senses, we cannot decide whether they make sense or not, and we cannot judge whether the story is good or bad, if we only had dialogues, without characters.
The Underdetermination Problem in Science
The above problem of matching events to characters also exists in science. The empirical measurements of science are like the dialogues in the play: we could completely predict all the dialogues (empirical measurements) and the description of nature would still be incomplete. Empirical measurements alone don’t constitute science, because there are infinite different ways in which these events can be connected into trajectories, each of which portrays a different story of the world.
To weave a story about the world, scientists hypothesize object concepts, which are the characters. These characters are used to connect the events into trajectories, and the occurrence of the events is attributed to the characters. Unlike a play, however, we stop short of attributing goals and morals to scientific object concepts (characters). Nevertheless, if science were only about empirical observations, then it would also be incomplete, just as a play is incomplete without characters. To complete the play, we need to define both dialogues and characters, which is achieved in science by hypothesizing object concepts, their causal traits, thereby creating a story of the world.
The problem in science is that we can build infinite stories out of the same observations, like we can use the same dialogues to create many different plays by permuting the characters over the same dialogues. In principle, all such trajectories are permitted by science because each one of them explains the same events—which is what science empirically measures. This means that the same world can be explained by infinitely many theories (which draw different trajectories), because we can only observe the events, while the connection between the events exists only in the theory. This means that science is stuck with the problem of figuring out how to select one story out of potentially infinite stories about the world. Empirical measurements cannot be the criteria for selecting such stories, because these measurements are consistent with all the possible stories.
Willard Quine called this the Underdetermination Problem. The idea is that theories (stories) are underdetermined by measurements (dialogues). How you pick the story from the dialogues is the choice of the theoretician. Infinitely different possible stories are consistent with the dialogues, because these stories will simply join the events into trajectories in different ways. To even weave a story out of the dialogues, we must add many assumptions to our observations, beginning with characters, then their personalities and beliefs, then their goals, then their moral stances, etc. The world of sensual observations is incomplete without these successive levels of assumptions.
The Choice – Randomness or Mind
Let’s collectively call all these the “mind” (although ideally we need to use different words for them). The plain fact is that we can see the events, but we can’t see this “mind” by the five senses. What we can’t see, however, is essential, because without it, there are infinite stories of the world. The “mind” therefore solves the problem of random infinities. The choices made by this “mind” construct stories and plays out of dialogues. The story has to make sense to us, it has to appear consistent, define a purpose, and ultimately portray a morally acceptable message. To make this story about the world, we must understand the “mind”, how it makes choices, how these choices create different stories out of the same facts, and how these stories create different life meanings for us.
There is no conflict between the determinism of events (dialogues) and the freedom of creating a story (play), because they operate in two separate ways: the events are confined to one location in space and time, while the story joins the events across many distinct space-time locations, creating trajectories. The events can be fixed, and the trajectories can vary. But if the trajectories are fixed, then the events will be fixed too. In that sense, the science that begins in observation events will always be incomplete, but a science that begins in trajectories can completely describe the events too.
The Many Paradoxes of Modern Science
Classical physics constructed determinism by postulating objects, not events. These objects had to have an “initial state” to create events in the universe. Many problems followed from this premise:
- Defining the initial state of the universe itself became a choice, because there were so many possibilities; we could in principle calculate the original state from the present state, but that required knowing the entire universe’s present state, which was practically impossible, because we have no way of knowing the entire universe’s state at any given moment.
- Since the theory assumed a finite number of distinct particles in the universe, and became indeterministic if the number of particles were changed, we could no longer speak about the “origin” of the universe, when there were a fewer number of particles which divided into more particles. Making the assumption of particle splitting would itself render the theory indeterministic; we thus had to assume that all these particles must have existed forever, and the universe too had to be eternal—i.e., without an origin and without an end.
- Since the universe has no beginning, we could not speak about the time when the universe had some “initial state”. The “initial state” ultimately becomes a hypothetical construct, which can never become real, because there is—in principle—no beginning in the theory.
- Since the questions of beginning and end are rendered meaningless, and inconsistent with classical physical theory, and everything at the present moves deterministically, there is no choice, hence no moral judgment, and therefore no moral responsibility. We cannot ask ourselves how we came here, or why the universe originated—the biggest questions of mankind forever—because the question of origins is incompatible with the theory.
I’m happy to report that we no longer believe that Newton’s theory is true. But I’m also sad to say that scientists still carry on with the same essential ideologies that Newton created: namely material particles, physical properties, and push-and-pull forces. In Newton’s picture of the world, we only have one type of character in the play—the material “particle”. This character is capable of only two dialogues: “go away” (pushing) and “come near” (pulling). To explain the multiplicity of the world, it is then essential to assume that there are many instances of the same character (the particle)!
The modern replacements of Newton’s physics, therefore, suffer from many problems:
- We cannot predict how many and which types of characters exist in our play. Depending on how you observe the world, you can find a different set of characters, different in their count. Effectively, our notion of reality—i.e. that something exists independent of our knowing—is now incompatible with science; what we see is not because it exists independent of our knowing, but rather changes as we keep using different experimental setups to observe the world.
- We cannot predict when a character will say “go away” or “come near”, even if we could define the characters by choosing a specific type of experiment. Thus, even after having made a choice of knowing the world in a specific manner, we still cannot predict what will happen, or when a certain type of event will occur, when an atom will break or coalesce, etc. So, our experimental measurements are partially pointless because we cannot predict the future.
- We cannot explain why some characters speak synchronized dialogues, even though they are far from each other. The irony here is that if we assume that matter travels in space, and therefore needs a certain amount of time to arrive at a destination before an appropriate response can be determined, then synchronization can only occur after this delay. However, we observe that objects can behave synchronously without a delay, implying that matter is not traveling.
In one word, modern science is “indeterministic”, and this problem is described via other words such as randomness, probability, incompleteness, underdetermination, and so forth. Clearly, the attempt to build a deterministic science (which would be devoid of free will and morality) has failed. We can take this to mean that morality and choice must exist. But if we don’t have determinism in some sense, then there are no predictions, and that would entail a collapse of rationality itself.
I don’t believe the failure of prediction means a victory for choice. I would rather contend that we have to conceive determinism and choice in a new sense: the events can be determined, and trajectories can be choices; everything that will happen can be predicted, but who will do it cannot be predicted.
The Science of the “Mind”
This solution needs two kinds of theories: (1) that which deals in the prediction of events, and (2) which deals in the prediction of trajectories. The events are the physical component of the universe, and the trajectories are the “mental” component. By the events, we can say what happened—which in turn constitutes the where and when of the event. By the trajectories we must say who did this, why they did it, and how it was done. We are still asking objective questions, but we separate the questions into two classes: those that deal with the prediction of events, and those that deal with the explanation of those events. The primary difference is that who represents a material personality, why denotes their intentions, how defines the succession of states of a character.
The events thus are no longer merely material objects; they are, rather, symbols of meaning produced by sensing, thinking, and reasoning individuals. We cannot, therefore, simply measure the physical properties of the world. We should, rather, read the world. If we measure a book’s height, weight, and speed, we cannot know its meanings. But if we read the book’s content, then we can know both its meaning and its physical states. The physical states would be obtained by the senses, and the meaning by the mind; the physical state is what we predict, and the meaning is used to explain.
Scientists have been trying to describe the world by measuring the frequencies, amplitudes, and wavelengths, of atomic objects. They need to recognize that these frequencies, amplitudes, and wavelengths actually denote words. The occurrence of the words cannot be explained just as a function of their frequency, amplitude, and wavelengths. We must regard their occurrence as a manifestation of meaning, belief, intent, and morality, which precedes their appearance as physical entities. The connection between events—which produces trajectories and causal explanations—cannot therefore be based on what we can observe by the senses. Rather, this connection has to be made based on what we cannot see by the senses—namely, that word appeared due to a meaning, which was produced by a belief, which was caused by an intention, with the aim to find some kind of happiness.
Free Will and Determinism are Not Contradictory
The classic divide between free will and determinism is false. The dialogues can be predetermined but the characters may not be. When these characters are defined in successively more accurate ways, they constitute a tiered world of meanings, beliefs, intentions, morals, and happiness. Successive levels of causal explanations are needed to overcome the indeterminism of the previous level.
Determinism pertains to the events—the dialogues that will be spoken in a play. Free will pertains to the mental state that underlies these dialogues, and which connects the events. In some sense, what HELENA says at one moment is connected to what she says in the next moment, because HELENA is the same character. This idea of the character persisting through the dialogues is what allows a dramatist to make a play. If we take out the characters, then we are just left with dialogues, and there is no meaning, intent, or purpose, in the play anymore. Science too measures events, and then connects them via object concepts, quite like a dramatist connects dialogues via characters. These concepts and characters cannot be observed by the senses, because the senses can never perceive the continuity between successions of events. This continuity is established by the mind. In that sense, the mind is essential to do science, and the concepts it produces can never be reduced to the events it connects.
Our free will corresponds to our ability to construct varied theories about the world we experience. The misuse of this free will is constructing false theories, with imagined meanings and purposes in the world. The proper use of free will is to see the world in terms of the real meaning and purpose. Ultimately, therefore, the goal of science isn’t just measuring the events. It is rather knowing the purpose of why we are here, what makes our existence meaningful, and then using that to choose an explanation of the events. The explanation cannot violate the facts of the world. And, the explanation cannot be arbitrarily chosen to satisfy whatever fanciful meaning we imagine. The former indicates irrationality and the latter immorality. The truth has to be both rational and moral—and if so, then the true theory of nature cannot be found unless we first know the moral purpose of our existence.
If we are wrong about our moral purpose of existence, then that purpose will result in false intentions, false beliefs, and false concepts, which then produce false explanations of the world. We cannot refute these false explanations by observations—because there are infinite false narratives consistent with the observations. The process of eliminating such theories involves the choice of moral purpose, because that purpose will eliminate many intentions inconsistent with the purpose, which in turn will eliminate a lot of beliefs inconsistent with the intent, which will then eliminate several concepts incompatible with the belief. Fixing the moral purpose therefore becomes the choice of scientific explanation.
If we can’t fix the moral purpose, then we will keep changing the scientific explanation. If we insist that there isn’t a moral purpose, then there are infinite explanations. Morality therefore isn’t an unwanted addendum to science; it is the basis on which we choose one theory over another.