On determinism

by Neil Rickert

If I were asked to describe the tree on the parkway in front of my house, I would probably give its height and its breadth.  That would come across as a deterministic description.  It is unlikely that I was say anything about the way that it flops around in the wind.  That’s the way that scientists and engineers tend to look at things.

An engineer working for an electric utility might be more interested in the way a tree flops around in the breeze, because that flopping around could cause the tree to knock down some power lines.  However, that engineer would probably just specify a radius of motion, so that he would finish up with what still looks like a deterministic description.

Scientists and engineers tend to prefer apparently deterministic descriptions, because those are the most useful for the purposes of control and prediction.  From the fact that the description by scientists and engineers does not include a description of the flopping around in the wind, we cannot conclude that the tree does not flop around.

Similarly, scientific laws are deterministic, because deterministic laws are the most useful for control and prediction.  But, from the fact that we use deterministic laws in our science, we cannot conclude that the universe itself is deterministic.

If I were to ask a poet or artist to describe that tree in front of my house, then the chances are that these artists would be particularly interested in the flopping around in the breeze.  What is deterministic and predictable can often seem boring to the artist, who delights in what surprises and what cannot be predicted.

Hmm, maybe the distinction between what the scientist sees and what the artist sees has some relevance to the topic of scientism, as recently discussed on Jerry Coyne’s site.

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