Predictability and Meaninglessness Pt1

Physicist Steven Weinberg famously asserted that “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless,” by which he meant that the more we discover about the universe the more we are disappointed to find that it is rather indifferent to our existence instead of somehow intending to produce us and nurture us. He did not intent to simply reiterate the gloomy sentiments of Ecclesiastes 1:18: “for in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” Instead, Weinberg was making a specific claim about the absence of teleology or intentional design in the cosmos. Human beings love the mysterious because it inspires awe and teems with exciting, magical possibilities, making any discovery a bitter sweet endeavor. Perhaps Weinberg is simply lamenting the closing off of these magical possibilities in favor of the one possibility that happened to check out. That one possibility is no longer magical, but just another scrap of inert knowledge. Freedom is the density of the cloud of possibilities that surrounds an object, and thus a discovery that closes off many of those possibilities in favor of just one does render the object of this discovery less free than we may have hoped. Regardless, Weinberg’s remark hides a deep assumption about the relationship between knowledge and freedom that is at the core of our fears about determinism and fate. Put simply, we all assume that if something is predictable it is therefore not free. In fact, we routinely think of predictability as the measure of something’s freedom. This otherwise sound assumption is entirely abused, however, when we add that something predictable is therefore completely lacking freedom.

The reason that Free Will has been so adamantly defended in western philosophy, aside from the intuitive feeling of Free Will that accompanies intentional action, is that human actions are so darned unpredictable! “Because we are the most unpredictable things in the known universe, we must be the most free,” many philosophers reason, “and therefore the most meaningful.” Though this is good reasoning, it sets us up for a disappointment every time science discovers something about human nature that renders human beings more predictable. Similarly, the assumption that the universe is a teleological process driven by an omnipotent god who cares about us and so forth sets us up for disappointment every time we discover something new about the universe that doesn’t have god’s fingerprints on it. “Perhaps,” one might argue, “this is simply the way it is and we are in for a lot of disappointment so long as the scientific project continues.” Though this may be true in the case of finding gods fingerprints, it is demonstrably false in the case of uncovering human freedom. In fact, the more we discover about human nature, the more freedom each enlightened human can wield! If some economist discovers some algorithm that predicts perfectly which shampoo we will pick up on isle 5, publishes his findings in Psychology Today and enjoys great success, then whoever reads this article has an enormous incentive to arbitrarily vary their shopping habits, thus altering the truth of the algorithm. As mentioned in previous posts, human beings have a feedback loop in their motivational apparatus that naturally varies actions whenever they prove to be predictable. As Rollo May tells us, “when one encounters destiny, one finds anger automatically rising in one, bus as strength. Passivity will not do.” “The possible responses to destiny range from cooperation with at one end of the spectrum to fighting against at the other.” We have both options available to us as part of our destiny, as well as every option in between these poles. We can, like Beethoven before writing his Fifth Symphony, “seize fate by the throat!” or we can go with the flow. Thus, human beings are causally determined to be predictably unpredictable! Though predictability is a measure of something’s freedom and every time we discern some reliable law of human behavior this law delimits our freedom of action, we have a curious ability to thwart our own laws of action especially when someone catches on to them. So the law is a soft limit on our freedom of action, unlike the “hard” limit that the law of gravity is a measure of. But even this “hard” limit of gravity is necessarily limiting some ability or power which the object was free to do if not for this limit of gravity. Thus, that object is partially free, partially limited, but never completely lacking freedom.

The more predictable something is the less free it is, and the less free it is the less meaningful it is. This is all sound reasoning. However, we should always hesitate before saying that something that is predictable is therefore completely unfree. We are prone to thinking of inanimate objects as completely unfree and therefore completely meaningless or pointless when in fact this is not the case. “Inanimate” can mean “without life” or “lacking the quality or ability of motion,” but there are no such objects in the universe that are without the quality or ability of motion as there is no “absolute” rest. “Inanimate” objects are not completely lacking freedom because freedom is possibility, as Kierkegaard rightly argues. “Possibility” comes from the Latin posse, meaning “to be able,” which is the same original root as the word power. Inanimate objects have the ability or the power to be what they are, which is neither inanimate, powerless, or completely lacking freedom. Energy is never destroyed or created, but is rather transformed into different forms, including material forms, as Einstein’s famous E=MC^2 showed us. Matter has inertia, which comes from the Latin word “iners”, meaning “idle”, or “lazy,” but it is nonetheless an active power to resist changes in its state of motion or rest. Thus, when two billiard balls collide, one is not, as we routinely postulate, “causing” the other to move, but rather, each is contributing to the event. There is no absolute frame of reference and so we cannot even say that ball A was moving while ball B was at rest, instead of the reverse! This billiard ball scenario is the paradigm of our notion of causation, but we never realize that the event is caused by the powers or abilities of each ball as they collide and assume instead that ball A was controlling the motion of ball B. Because matter and energy are never created or destroyed we know that objects don’t just pop into existence as entirely self-caused entities, are the product of prior entities and prior causes, and thus we assume that objects are entirely “other-caused.” However, this is yet another example of our routine confusion of parts and wholes, which was the subject of a previous post. The moon, for example, is just a lump of atoms, but those atoms or the energy that they embody have always existed, and therefore necessarily took part in the causal history of the moon. Thus, the moon is partly self-caused! This is why the moon has some freedom and why we cannot write off this inanimate object with the cavalier judgment that it is completely governed by things outside itself. The moon is part of its own causal history! We cannot say that the moon is totally controlled in its orbit around the earth by the earth’s gravity, because the mass of the moon contributes its own gravitational force to this orbital embrace.

“Perhaps,” we might object, “the moon is entirely governed or controlled by the forces of nature that are embodied in our laws of nature.” This also confuses parts and wholes and makes the false assumption that the moon is somehow apart from these forces of nature, instead of embodying them! It is incomplete to say that so-and-so was “barred by the laws of physics” instead of saying that so-and-so “was made possible by the laws of physics up until the point at which these laws barred that possibility.” That is, the forces of nature grant possibility and thus freedom to objects, but some of these forces oppose each other. The force of gravity does not stop the moon from jumping its orbit, but instead the force of gravity is embodied in the moon, the earth, and all material objects, granting them the ability or power to attract each other up to a certain limit. But this force of nature is not apart from these objects, which we often assume after we give the observation of this force a name such as “the law of gravity.” The law doesn’t act on objects, but acts through them.

The so-called inanimate objects are “all sail and no rudder,” but the “rudder” of external causes which bombard them do not somehow eviscerate, usurp, or control the boat entirely, as the sailboat resist these external forces with forces of its own. Thus, the direction of the boat is not entirely determined by the external “rudder” of the prevailing causal winds. Animate objects, on the other hand, have an internal rudder to a greater or lesser degree. A human being has a dominating rudder, which is to say that it can partake of many more external forces than lesser animate objects. We can marshal the forces of chemical reactions, material solidity, and electrical conductivity to fashion vehicles that can transport us outside our earthly atmosphere, seemingly conquering the force of gravity! Moreover, human beings uniquely have the ability to take down our sails, pausing for a moment in stillness, waiting for the right winds to kick up and take us where we want to go. It is in this pause, this silence, that we experience our unique freedom. We can wait and watch as the prevailing winds of fate swarm around us, a veritable cloud of possibility encompassing us as we exercise Sartre’s power of “No!” Reason, in this picture, is the little man on the boat pulling the sails down, adjusting the rudder, and checking his moral compass. Finally, human beings have yet one more kind of freedom that we can exercise when our sail and rudder are stuck, when the storm of possibilities around us mercilessly propels us away from our destination: we can choose to say “oh well, this isn’t where I intended to go, but this is certainly one hell of a trip and I’ll try to get some cool snapshots and trinkets wherever I end up.” We can turn an unintended detour into a new expedition without ever touching the wheel!

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