Macro level determinism is false

by Neil Rickert

In a recent post at his site, Jerry Coyne writes:

But physics does not have to be complete for us to accept determinism on a macro level.

Clearly, Coyne believes that there is determinism at the macro-level, which I take to be the level of ordinary objects such as we use in our everyday lives.  He is not alone in that belief in determinism.  It is a view I often hear.

That view is false.

The evidence from physics is clear.

Perhaps the simplest evidence, is that of radioactive decay.  This is known to be in accordance with the exponential probability distribution.  And the memoryless nature of the exponential distribution pretty much rules out the possibility that decay is deterministic.

And then there is the strong evidence for quantum indeterminacy.

“But,” you say, “those are all examples of micro-level indeterminacy.  They are not evidence of macro-level indeterminacy.”

Physicists carry out experiments that demonstrate quantum indeterminacy.

“But, again, those only show indeterminacy at the micro-level.”

There are published research papers about quantum indeterminacy.

“Again, these only show micro-level indeterminacy.  They do not show macro-level indeterminacy.”

The important thing to note, here, is that a physics experiment is a macro-level event.  The publication of a research paper is a macro-level event.  Physics experiments that demonstrate quantum level indeterminacy do so by amplifying the quantum level events so that they cause macro-level effects.  Those experiments themselves are examples of macro-level indeterminacy.

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21 Comments to “Macro level determinism is false”

  1. This is an important for physics, but not for metaphysics as long as it doesn’t violate causal closure (which it doesn’t).

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  2. I will say that the quantum indeterminacy and radioactive decay indeterminacy that we have observed only imply that we can’t determine the outcome of the events. It does NOT mean that the events aren’t deterministic and that they don’t follow fixed physical laws (even if we don’t know what these laws are). It is likely the case that the level of determinism that we see at the macro-level (e.g. macro-kinematics, etc.) is supported by a fundamentally deterministic micro-level. Based on the experimental evidence so far, we’ve gathered that it APPEARS to be random, not that it IS necessarily random. Imagine a black box with a gnome inside that rolls a dice and spits out the number to us like a magic 8-ball or a random number generator. To a physicist with all the knowledge of the happenings inside the box, we have a completely deterministic system (i.e. the physics of the die roll would determine what side of the die would be facing up when it stops moving), and thus it isn’t actually random, even if it can be used as a random number generator for all practical purposes by the user outside of the black box.

    We can’t prove either way that quantum events or radioactive decay are truly random events. We can show that we don’t yet know of any deterministic laws that describe these phenomena, but it may be that these relationships are forever out of our grasp. We have shown that there is an extremely large degree of order and predictability to macro-scale events (as long as there is enough data available to find the predictable relationships). I can drop a ball from the top of a building and predict very accurately how fast it will move in the future when it is halfway toward hitting the ground, when it will hit the ground, etc. All rational thought relies on some preconception of cause and effect. Causality is all around us, and truly random events require acausality to exist in nature — which is not only something that is impossible to prove, but goes against everything else we’ve seen in nature (all the degrees of causality that is). My two cents…

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    • I will say that the quantum indeterminacy and radioactive decay indeterminacy that we have observed only imply that we can’t determine the outcome of the events. It does NOT mean that the events aren’t deterministic and that they don’t follow fixed physical laws (even if we don’t know what these laws are).

      Yes, there could be “hidden variables.” This is acknowledged by all. However, the science shows that such hidden variables would have very weird implications. I see that Physicalist has already pointed this out.

      Imagine a black box …

      If there are hidden variables for the apparent quantum indeterminacy, then the known science shows that they could not be local. That is, they could not be inside that black box.

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  3. 1. “It does NOT mean that the events aren’t deterministic and that they don’t follow fixed physical laws (even if we don’t know what these laws are).

    We do know that there can’t be deterministic laws of this sort if causal influences are prohibited from traveling faster than light. The work on Bell’s theorem establishes this.

    2. If we want to understand effective determinism at the macroscopic level, we need to focus on processes. Yes, whether the physicist writes “spin up” or “spin down” is not determined according to quantum mechanics.

    However, the process that goes from the physicist’s looking at the spot on the screen to the physicist’s writing “spin up” is a deterministic process.

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    • Your distinction between events and processes is a good one.

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    • Physicalist,

      “We do know that there can’t be deterministic laws of this sort if causal influences are prohibited from traveling faster than light. The work on Bell’s theorem establishes this.”

      Actually, Bell’s theorem only proves that quantum theories must violate locality and/or CFD. We can have a local hidden variable theory, as long as one drops the assumption of CFD.

      Also, causal influences are assumed to not travel faster than light, but the speed of light is only a limitation through 3D/4D space. If causal influences (at a fundamental scale) utilize another dimension (that has a zero-distance in our 3D/4D space), then instantaneous causality can be accomplished without violating relativity. It just has to be accomplished in another dimension (which we’d likely have no ability to access if any exist).

      My main point here being, that Bell’s theorem doesn’t disprove ultimate determinism in the universe. Since determinism is associated with a high degree of order (in a sense) and we see a high degree of order and predictability in the universe, in my opinion, the most simplistic assumption is that the universe is deterministic (ontologically speaking). We may not be able to determine every event in the universe, but the laws of physics that exist, the order that exists, etc., all suggest that determinism is a likely property of our universe (even if not proven so).

      With regard to QM history, I would expect that if one tries to reduce the world into smaller and smaller parts, starting with parts that seem understandable and predictable (macro-scale), one will eventually get to a point where they no longer understand the dynamics, or just can’t physically measure any smaller. This assumption of our limitations from both an experimental and epistemological perspective, fits in line with what we’ve discovered in QM so far. We no longer fully understand the dynamics that are dominant at that scale, and the only way to find out more about how something works (from our experience) requires more experimentation and/or digging to a smaller scale (reductionism seems to be the most popular philosophy). Digging to a smaller scale becomes increasingly more difficult as high energy physics has shown, so we’ll likely never be able to solve this one, if for no other reason, due to the energy requirements for digging smaller and smaller.

      “However, the process that goes from the physicist’s looking at the spot on the screen to the physicist’s writing “spin up” is a deterministic process.”

      However this process that is deterministic is made up of quantum scale events that many argue are indeterministic, thus if the process is composed of indeterministic constituents, then the process as a whole can’t be deterministic. Thus, it is more likely that determinism has led to a seemingly interdeterminate dynamic (from our perspective due to our limitations of knowledge and experimentation), then after scaling up, we are led to the degree of macro-scale determinism that we are used to seeing in our everyday lives. This is my opinion on the matter.

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      • My main point here being, that Bell’s theorem doesn’t disprove ultimate determinism in the universe.

        Science does not deal with ultimate truth.

        We can neither prove nor disprove “ultimate determinism”, though we probably cannot define it either. Apparent indeterminism could always be due to hidden variables. And, if there is determinism, then our science is suspect (the universe might have been “cooked” so as to give us misleading results). So evidence for determinism cannot be trusted.

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        • Neil,

          “Science does not deal with ultimate truth.”

          I agree.

          “We can neither prove nor disprove “ultimate determinism”, though we probably cannot define it either.”

          I agree that we can’t prove nor disprove it. Just as we can’t prove nor disprove ultimate indeterminism. All we can do is look at the world around us and make an educated guess. I do think that ultimate determinism can be defined however, even if people don’t want to agree on a definition. I would say that if every event that happens in the universe is fixed and could not have happened any other way if the same initial conditions were met (whatever those events and conditions happen to be), then we have a deterministic universe. I do agree that we can’t assume that ultimate determinism would follow the causal laws that we comprehend including the laws of physics. However, since we do have evidence for those causal laws, assuming that ultimate determinism is the case, it is reasonable (although we can’t be certain) to suspect that some form of causality is the case.

          “And, if there is determinism, then our science is suspect (the universe might have been “cooked” so as to give us misleading results). So evidence for determinism cannot be trusted.”

          And if there is indeterminism caused by randomness, then our science is also suspect, because causality (which science relies on) would not be universally consistent. Since apparent indeterminism could always be due to hidden variables, we can’t trust evidence for indeterminism either. So in that case, evidence for determinism or indeterminism can’t be trusted. Yet, it is still so darn fun to talk about, isn’t it?

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          • I do think that ultimate determinism can be defined however, even if people don’t want to agree on a definition. I would say that if every event that happens in the universe is fixed and could not have happened any other way if the same initial conditions were met (whatever those events and conditions happen to be), then we have a deterministic universe.

            How do you define “event”?
            How do you define “fixed”?
            How do you define “same initial conditions”?

            Since Einstein’s criticism of simultaneity, we cannot define an event based on things happening simultanously. Because everything is hurtling through space at high speeds, we really cannot talk of the same place.

            To define determinism would seems to require a god’s eye view of the universe as a definitional language. We do not have that kind of access to our universe.

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          • Neil,

            “How do you define “event”?”

            I would define an “event” to be the complete state of the universe (even if we can’t know what that is) at any single instant and based on the constant motion we observe, I would assume that each state is completely unique from any other temporally adjacent state. In other words, the change we experience in the universe is the action of one event changing to another, ad infinitum.

            “How do you define “fixed”?”

            I would define “fixed” to mean that any state in question is unchanging. In the context I was using in my comment, fixed implies no other possible outcomes if initial conditions/states were repeated.

            How do you define “same initial conditions”?

            I would define “same initial conditions” to mean that the entire state of the universe (something we can never know, but that we can at least conceptualize) at any instant is identical to another point in time where a causal event occurred. So, in the context of my comment, if we are able to have the “same initial conditions” (as per the definition I just gave) as some moment in time where we’ve observed certain phenomena, and the exact same phenomena occur given those same initial conditions, then causal determinism is implied.

            “Since Einstein’s criticism of simultaneity, we cannot define an event based on things happening simultanously. Because everything is hurtling through space at high speeds, we really cannot talk of the same place.”

            However, if events are causally connected (A causes B, etc.), the causal order is preserved in all frames of reference (A came before B), so what Einstein showed with regard to simultaneity is beside the point. No matter what is moving through space and in which direction, we can still think of the universe as having a particular unique state at every moment of time (no matter who’s frame of reference you choose), and causal order is preserved. We may not ever be able to speak of the state of the universe in absolute terms, but that doesn’t mean an absolute state (including a deterministic causal order) doesn’t exist.

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          • I would define an “event” to be the complete state of the universe

            I see that as meaningless.

            I would define “fixed” to mean that any state in question is unchanging.

            And now you will need to define “unchanging”.

            However, if events are causally connected (A causes B, etc.), the causal order is preserved in all frames of reference

            But that’s a very simplistic view of causation. A more accurate view would be that everything causes everything and is caused by everything. It is all interconnected. We cannot separate things out, except by idealizing and over-simplifying.

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          • Neil,

            “I see that as meaningless.”

            You asked for a definition. I don’t think it is meaningless, although it may not support the point you are attempting to make.

            “And now you will need to define “unchanging”.”

            Sure. I would define “unchanging” to mean identical states for all instants of time under consideration.

            “But that’s a very simplistic view of causation. A more accurate view would be that everything causes everything and is caused by everything. It is all interconnected. We cannot separate things out, except by idealizing and over-simplifying.”

            I don’t deny this at all. In fact, I completely agree that everything is caused by everything, because ultimately I’m a non-separatist and believe that the universe just “is” and that it is “one”, or a single entity. Unfortunately, we can’t talk about anything without creating illusory boundaries, etc. To get back to what we were discussing, any view of causation (simplistic or not) involves relationships between variables and some form of change over time. We have observed many relationships between variables, and we’ve observed many forms of change over time. Since causation clearly exists, having determinism in the universe fits best with that evidence, even if it doesn’t completely negate indeterminism. Either is still possible, but determinism fits better with the causality that makes up the bulk of our reality. All the predictability that we have, our common sense, our rational thought, planning, etc., all are utilizing causality. Causality (and its deterministic qualities) are dominant in our reality.

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          • Sure. I would define “unchanging” to mean identical states for all instants of time under consideration.

            Also meaningless.

            We determine the state of something based on arbitrary conventions. You are talking about the state of parts of the universe that are completely unknown, and for which we have not settled on how to divide into states.

            It’s meaningless.

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          • “Also meaningless.

            We determine the state of something based on arbitrary conventions. You are talking about the state of parts of the universe that are completely unknown, and for which we have not settled on how to divide into states.

            It’s meaningless.”

            I wouldn’t say that it is meaningless, so much as it is unattainable and only useful for theoretical discussion, and so for all practical purposes we’ll never be able to use it to prove determinism. We can’t know the state of the entire universe, nor even the entire state of any fraction of the universe. These definitions just illustrate one way of showing what would be correlated with determinism. That was what my original comment (regarding definitions) was pointing out. But the definition/terms aren’t meaningless because we can conceptualize a “state” of something, and “lack of change”, and “initial conditions”, even if we don’t or can’t know how to quantify the “state”. We certainly can think of a “state” as simply what something “is”. We can also easily conceptualize what “lack of change” is, and what “initial conditions” are, etc. We may never be able to know what those initial conditions are or what the total conditions of any part of the universe (if we want to think of the universe as something that is composed of sub-sections or parts), but we can still talk about how it relates to determinism. It is philosophy my friend.

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          • But the definition/terms aren’t meaningless because we can conceptualize a “state” of something, and “lack of change”, and “initial conditions”, even if we don’t or can’t know how to quantify the “state”.

            That doesn’t say anything.

            Sure, I can declare the universe to have only a single state and to be always in that state. So it never changes state. That doesn’t help.

            What we need is a way of assigning states. It needs to be a way of assigning states that everyone would agree on. And here “everyone” has to include Martians or people from the Andromeda galaxy. As far as I know, there isn’t such a way of assigning states.

            We can also easily conceptualize what “lack of change” is, and what “initial conditions” are, etc.

            So I’m on a place on the planet that is spinning around as the planet turns on its axis. In turn, the planet is moving around the. The sun is moving around in the milky way galaxy. And the galaxy itself is moving relative to Andromeda. And you want to be able to say that nothing is changing.

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          • Neil,

            “That doesn’t say anything.
            Sure, I can declare the universe to have only a single state and to be always in that state. So it never changes state. That doesn’t help.”

            I think you misinterpreted what I said. I’m not saying that we can declare the universe to have any state. I’m saying that we can say that the universe has a state in and of itself that is always changing. This change is what we witness as motion, time, etc. Even though we can’t know the state of the universe, we can conceptualize and say that it does indeed have a state. That’s what I was saying.

            “What we need is a way of assigning states. It needs to be a way of assigning states that everyone would agree on. And here “everyone” has to include Martians or people from the Andromeda galaxy. As far as I know, there isn’t such a way of assigning states.”

            I agree. There isn’t. I never said that there was a universal way of assigning states.

            “So I’m on a place on the planet that is spinning around as the planet turns on its axis. In turn, the planet is moving around the. The sun is moving around in the milky way galaxy. And the galaxy itself is moving relative to Andromeda. And you want to be able to say that nothing is changing.”

            I have no idea where you gathered this. I never said any of this at all. Can you clarify?

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          • I think you misinterpreted what I said. I’m not saying that we can declare the universe to have any state. I’m saying that we can say that the universe has a state in and of itself that is always changing.

            You were trying to define “determinism”. The sort of vague notion of state that you now want, would not suffice to define determinism.

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          • Neil,

            “You were trying to define “determinism”. The sort of vague notion of state that you now want, would not suffice to define determinism.”

            It think it suffices to define it. It may not suffice to make it a very useful definition, but it is a valid definition for theoretical purposes in this discussion. That was why I mentioned it. Earlier you said “We can neither prove nor disprove “ultimate determinism”, though we probably cannot define it either.” I was making a point that we can define it. If you would have said “We probably can’t come up with a definition that we can apply or test, or use practically”, then I would have agreed. I believe that we can come up with a definition however, even if it isn’t very useful (except for theoretical purposes). A common definition for “state” is something like: “the particular condition that someone or something is in at a specific time.” Just because we can’t know what the conditions are for some systems (e.g. our universe), doesn’t mean we can’t have a definition for “state”. We may disagree on this, but I think the main disagreement here is you seem to say that a definition has to fit some level of specificity in order to make it measurable or give it more meaning. That wasn’t my intention in my response. It was rather to explain how we can define “determinism” in a way that is correct, if only useful for theoretical purposes.

            To use another example, I could make up a word like “Zitterboomba”. I am going to define “Zitterboomba” to be “the number of dimensions of existence in the universe other than the three spatial (X, Y, Z) and one temporal dimension that we’ve previously defined.” I can use our currently agreed upon definition of “dimension” and expand on it (just like I can with the word “state”). Even if I can only measure 3 spatial dimensions (and perhaps conceptualize a temporal dimension), if other dimensions of existence exist (that are not necessarily spatial or temporal), and I can’t access or measure them or talk about them with any specificity at all (its impossible to talk about specifics regarding what other dimensions would be like since they are apparently inaccessible to us), does that mean that I can’t define the word as such, nor use it? I think I can define it that way and can use it for theoretical purposes. I can’t practically use Zitterboomba, but I can maintain such a definition and say something like, “if our assumption of their being no Zitterboomba is wrong, then quantum entanglement or non-locality may be explainable by a non-zero Zitterboomba value. We’ve defined spatial and temporal dimensions to be pretty specific things, and so it would be reasonable to say then that Zitterboomba can’t be temporal or spatial. We’ve limited space or spatial dimensions to 3, and temporal to 1. What exactly Zitterboomba would be is unknown, although we can conceptualize extra dimensions. If there are other dimensions of existence where events or aspects of events are occurring that we have no direct access to, then Zitterboomba exists. You may not like the definition, and may say something like “Lage, unless you define what those other dimensions are or are like more specifically, it is meaningless.” I say, no it is not meaningless. It is however only useful for theoretical purposes. When I talk about the state of the universe with regards to a definition for determinism, it is the same practical limitation. We all have an idea of what “state” means or can mean, and even if we can’t know what the “state” of the universe is or define it specifically, we can use it for theoretical purposes. I can say, “whatever the state of the universe was 15 minutes ago, if we were able to turn back time to the same initial conditions (i.e. the same state of the universe as it was 15 minutes ago), and it turned out that the same events happened in the same order (1:1 correlation between the states of the universe during the first passage through time as during the repeated 15 minute passage of time), then we have a deterministic universe. We can never use this definition of “state” to prove determinism. We can only use it for theoretical purposes, where in this case, it was to define determinism in some way.

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