Reasonable Determination

Two things used to keep me up at night when I was a teenager: Determinism and Eternity. Looking back, I guess I was pretty geeky to have esoteric concepts keeping me up at night, but that was the truth. Eternity, often mistaken for infinity, is, of course, time unending. This concept, I still have a problem with. I could never logically wrap my head around the idea that Heaven was all that great if we had to spend all of eternity there. It was the beginning of my personal fall from grace, and it’s left me the good-natured heathen that I am today.

Determinism, on the other hand, I’ve come to accept and, almost, embrace. And the two things I can thank for that are quantum physics and artificial intelligence. I guess I’m still pretty geeky as an adult, too.

Determinism is, loosely, the concept that once the universe was set in motion, it had to end up in this state. Newton was a big fan of determinism, which is why he often used a clock to demonstrate how orderly and precise the universe is in its running. During Newton’s time, however, the Big Bang wasn’t the model for the beginning of all things. It was believed by scientists, as it still is by some, that the universe was eternal, never beginning, never ending. The discovery of the expansion of the universe in the early 20th century put the kibosh on that. Since the universe is expanding, it must have been much smaller at one point, and, this is what got Determinists all a-lather, it must have come from a single source, a beginning point. If someone could discover the conditions at the very beginning of the universe, so it was thought, one could trace the entire history of the universe to its present state, and beyond. The laws of physics described all interactions from little atoms to giant galaxies, and therefore, the universe was just like a giant billiards table—if you knew the initial set up, you could make a pretty good guess on how it came to its present state of seeming randomness.

That was the deterministic view. Of course, the computations would be enormous; it wasn’t really thought that anyone could have a complete model of how the universe ended up in the present state, but it was nice to know that it was possible, until that interloper of classic physics came to the forefront, the quanta.

There is little need for a discussion on quantum physics in this essay, since I don’t understand more than a fraction of it anyway, but there are some key concepts to quantum physics that I’d like to share. The first is Schrödinger’s Cat. This was a thought experiment put forward to underscore the ludicrousness of quantum physics in the real, or macro, world. It is also unbelievable cruel to cats whose owners have access to nuclear material. To imagine this scenario, put a cat in a box with a vessel of vaporized poison and a small amount of radioactive uranium. Close the box, and don’t peek. Now wait a given amount of time for the uranium to decay and send off a beta particle; there is a 50% chance that it will do so. Did I mention that the stopper to the vessel of poison would disintegrate if it came in contact with a beta particle? Well, it will, and poison the cat, if it does. But, and this is the where the gold is, you don’t know if it will or not. There is an even chance that it will or won’t kill the cat. Quantum physics says that the uranium exists in a state where it has both decayed and not decayed, until observed, and then the “waveform collapses,” and then only one or the other can exist. So, according to Schrödinger, the cat exists in a state of both life and death until we peer inside the box. Once we do, we either find out that we have a very pissed-off cat, or a doorstopper.

And it is ridiculous. Do not doubt that Schrödinger’s Cat is an exercise in anything but silliness. The cat, herself, can act as a reasonable observer, and nothing on the macro-level of things is actually in this dual-existence state. So what good is it? It exposes a crucial part of quantum physics, which is that if sub-atomic particle has a choice to go left or right, it will do both, until something observes the particle, which makes that collapsing waveform thing happen, and, to the universe, the particle only took one path. It is the dual nature of these tiny particles—they are both waves and particles, until we look at them, and then they settle down.

This, initially, looked to blow determinism out of the realm of plausibility. The universe suddenly got a lot more random and disordered. But in the 1960s, a little noticed paper was published that changed everything, yet again. In simplest terms, it discussed the propagating nature of quantum physics, and what may actually be happening when an electron, let’s say, is observed going through the left slit, as opposed to the right one. This idea, too, said that the electron actually goes through both, as previously thought, but instead of its waveform collapsing when observed, the observer is just in a universe where it went through the left one. There is another universe where the electron went to the right when observed. Both happened; both exist. Within twenty years, the science-fiction ramifications were popular knowledge. Imagine, every decision that we’ve ever made, has split the universe into every possibility of that choice.
It brought back determinism, bruised and limping, but viable again. We could, theoretically, run the universe through a film projector backwards and find out the initial conditions, and therefore we could look towards the future and play out all the scenarios that may happen in the end. Of course, since quantum fluctuations still exist, the possibilities for the end-run are huge. If all the computing power in the world could have been able to forecast the future from a clockwork universe, which it couldn’t, the additional computing power to solve the quantum universe would probably sap the Earth of all its power.

Which brings me to artificial intelligence (AI). AI is overestimated, and the concept that I am concerned with is more of the decision-making abilities of modern computer games. The more computing power the average home system has, the better the algorithms get for making the little people in your computer game look like they’re having a good time. In this case, AI is the ability for the software to anticipate and react to the user in more complex ways. The computer is still dumb, and no software is even close to achieving thought, but we can play simulation games over and over again, and each time the outcome is different. A small change in variables produces totally new results. Compare this to Pac Man. No matter how many of the little dots he ate, he’d just have to eat more. It was the same thing over and over, and in those games, good players were those that picked up the pattern that was built into the software. If the player went up at a specific time, the game would react the same every time. It was perfect example of clockwork determinism.

Modern games are much more of the quantum physics determinism. I can’t make the game do whatever I want, which would be complete free will, but I could decide to buy a particular couch for my Sims, or I could insult another character in my favorite role-playing game. Somewhere, on someone else’s computer, the exact same conditions existed, but that player did something different, and the outcome changed. I can do whatever I want in the parameters of that particular game and in this particular universe. Maybe it is all programmed in, but as the choices increase, I can’t tell the difference anymore between forced, determined action, and free will.

As Rush says, I will choose free will. I used to believe that determinism was the opposite of free will, but I’m able to go to bed at night thinking that I can’t tell the difference between a wide-open expanse of deterministic choices and total free-will, since no matter how much I may want to sleep, I can’t, and no matter how little I want to think about eternity, I will.