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Daniel Sportiello | Thursday, November 19, 2009

 The controversy between free will and determinism continues to rage. In one way, this is unsurprising: The same controversy has raged, in one form or another, for two millennia, and it is clearly a question near to us in our understanding of ourselves. In another way, however, that the controversy continues is deeply surprising: Since the rise of quantum physics, it has been clear that our world is fundamentally indeterministic — that nothing, including human action, is bound by determinate laws.

It was the realization of Pythagoras — a realization later echoed by Galileo — that mathematics could be used to measure not just fields and buildings but also the motions of the planets and even music. It was a short step to suggest that mathematics could measure all things whatsoever — that the cosmos, for all of its appearance of irrationality, nonetheless obeys a more fundamental order. It was the realization of Bohr that Pythagoras — and the two millennia of scientists who followed him — were wrong: The irrationality is no less fundamental than the rationality. We live not in a world of mechanism but, rather, in a world of probabilities: Fundamental particles do not even take on determinate position or number unless forced to do so by interaction — and, even then, their indeterminacy is merely shifted into another part of the system. The achievement of quantum physics is its ability to precisely measure and track this indeterminacy, nothing more. At the most fundamental level, matter is opaque to our understanding: Events not only are not but moreover cannot be predicted with precision. In this realization, one hears the echo of Neoplatonist laughter.

At the scale of human action, of course, quantum-physical indeterminacy tends to average out, yielding the more or less deterministic world that we experience; it is a short step to suggest that human action is also more or less determined. This suggestion is tempting — and would be more tempting, were the social sciences capable of predicting human behavior with anything even remotely approaching precision. Of course, this is hardly fair, since the same charge could be leveled against meteorology — and few have ever been tempted to ascribe free will to the weather. This only strengthens the point, however: None of the sciences, for all of their progress, seem any closer to capturing the entirety of phenomena in deterministic laws — a goal that seems to move, paradoxically, farther and farther away with time.

The truth, however, is that considerations like these are irrelevant: Indeterminism might be, in one sense, the conclusion of scientific investigation, but determinism is, in another sense, its first principle.

Scientific investigation of the world seeks the causes of the phenomena that we experience. In seeking the causes of phenomena, however, we assume that there are causes to be found: We assume that the phenomena that we experience did not happen randomly but, rather, had to happen given some conditions more fundamental. And if we fail to find the cause of some phenomenon, we assume that it is our investigation — not determinism — that has failed.

Kant would have called this a transcendental argument for determinism: it is an argument not that determinism is true — and, after all, it is not — but rather that we must assume the truth of determinism in investigating the world in which we live. It is because this point is insufficiently understood, I suspect, that the controversy between free will and determinism continues to rage. Indeed, the insistence upon free will is perhaps best understood as the acknowledgement that our scientific explanation of human behavior will always fall short — as will, for that matter, our scientific explanation of anything whatsoever.

The acknowledgement that determinism fails is only possible insofar as we can specify the determinate extent to which and way in which determinism fails — which is exactly what quantum physics does. But it also guarantees that perfect determinism — a theory that captures the entirety of phenomena with perfect accuracy — lies at an infinite remove from us. The price for free will is that we live in a world that is, at its most fundamental level, incomprehensible to us. Our knowledge of the world, expressed as it must be in general terms, will always be an approximation — that is, a falsification — of a particularity that no general analysis could ever capture.

Perfect determinism would be a theory simultaneously and paradoxically general and particular; it would be, in other words, God’s knowledge of himself. Which is to say, of course, that it would just be God — a self-determining determinism forever beyond human ken. The gap between this impossibly perfect theory and us is just the gap between the infinite and the finite — a gap that we cannot ever jump. Whether this renders our rationality tragic or merely absurd is, of course, a question for another time.


Daniel John Sportiello is in his second year of the Ph.D. program in philosophy. Listen to his radio show on WVFI every Sunday at 3 p.m. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.