01 July 2007

The stochastic man*

It's some time since Dr C posted the final installment in his epic "Information" strand, the one in which he delivered his coup de grace to free will. It's even longer since I realised where the landing point was to be, and started to fret about what I knew I would have to wrestle with. And it's too long, if a little less than either of those, since I promised to reply. In that time, despite the promise, I've written nothing at all in response until now.

This is a wretched post, in many ways. In far too many words, it will expose me as everything I argue we should not be.

As I've already said briefly, and touched on in the past, the problem is exactly the same as that which confronts many honest believers when confronted with something which contradicts holy writ. What, exactly, does one do in that circumstance?

The choices facing an intellectually honest religious believer boil down to reexamination of both the old writ and the new evidence, seeking an adjustment which would remove the contradiction. This is, of course, exactly the same as it would be for an intellectually honest scientist who would examine old and new evidence for the same reason. (In my experience, by the way, before anyone voices a knee jerk prejudice: both intellectual honesty and intellectual laziness are uniformly distributed amongst believers and nonbelievers, scientists and nonscientists.)

Some adjustments have been eye wateringly tortuous - like, for example, the idea that God laid down a spurious geology and fossil record just to fool us into accepting a fallacious cosmology and evolutionary theory. Others, such as the suggestion that creation in seven days was a valiant attempt by long ago peoples to think through their cosmology, using reason and the information available to them, and place it on a sounder footing than a randomly malevolent or benevolent animist spirit magic, are perfectly reasonable. Any intellectually honest atheist (amongst whom I hope I can claim a place) has to admit that, while there is no scientifically assessable evidence that a god or gods exist, there is no evidence of nonexistence either, so the room for honest manoeuvre and plurality of view is there.

One dilemma, in the days when divine edict was the only conventionally recognised basis for right and wrong, was how to accept religious doubt and still hold together any semblance of moral society. If a commandment, "thou shalt do no murder", was the reason for not killing, what would result from some members of society ceasing to believe in the god which had issued the commandment? The answer to that one, in most societies (even theocracies), has generally been agreement that murder is not wrong because God says so - it is wrong in itself, and God simply (and sensibly) flags up and underlines the fact.

So far so good.

But once we've accepted the principle that it's OK to think for ourselves, there's no obvious place to stop: we are on a slippery slope. Now philosophers don't like slippery slope arguments, and understandably so. But to philosophise is itself a slippery slope: we must question every underpinning assumption, and every assumption below that, and so on, until we reach either solid fact or the discovery that there is no such thing. And what we invariably discover, so far at least, is that there is no bedrock down there. As the flat earther said to the astrophysicist, "it's turtles all the way down". We always come to a point where at least one assumption has to be made if anything is to be built at all. Such basic assumptions are, in formal geometry, called "axioms", and I shall use the word here.

(I can hear you asking what on earth this has to do with Dr C's information thread and free will. I'll understand if you get bored and bail out, but I hope you'll sit it out.)

Descartes, the iconic originator of modern philosophical argument, chose as his starting point the declaration "cogito ergo sum": I think, therefore I am. In other words, "I shall accept as axiomatic the assertion that since I am thinking about this there must, therefore, exist a me which is thinking". Which seems fair enough; it was, in fact, not just fair enough but, at the time, an extraordinary intellectual achievement. To illustrate the impossibility of any really solid ground, though, a modern philosopher would dispute it. The statement "I think" already assumes the existence of an "I", so cannot be used as a base to kick off from in arguing the existence of that I. Descartes should have said something like "there is thinking".

Enough of Descartes; I don't want to get bogged down in his inevitably flawed heroism, he was just an example. The point is that we have to, ultimately, agree to accept an unproven axiom before we can proceed with anything.

In mathematics, this finds expression in Gödel's incompleteness theorem. I can't, strictly speaking, apply Gödel to philosophising in general nor to morality in particular. But this is a fireside conversation, not a philosophy exam, so for the moment I'll use him as a short hand for the general thesis which, for my purposes, I'll paraphrase as "no system can be fully described from inside that system".

So ... what happens when we burrow down the route opened up by assertion that murder is, in and of itself, wrong. To shorten matters somewhat, let's bypass intermediate stages and proeed by jumps. We start by asking "why is it wrong?" It doesn't take long to get to the idea of rights: that Able had a right to life, and by murdering him Cain violated that right. But, however passionately I agree with that assertion, it's quite hard to back up this idea of rights. Who gave me the "right to life"? I can't, any longer, say that God gave it to me - because I have already declared that I must have a system which does not rely on belief in God or gods, which works equally for believers and atheists. How about the idea that such a right is inherent, a "natural right"? That, too, I passionately believe - but belief is not proof, and it founders on (amongst other things) the fact that we were born in an ecosystem which made us prey to carnivores with (presumably) their own rights to live.

Most societies stop at that point and accept as axiomatic two assumptions: first, that within society each member has the right to life and second, that society itself (and therefore all members) collectively suffers if members go around killing each other.

That works reasonably well, in a rough and ready sort of way. Most members of the group don't want to be killed, and nor do they want their society to collapse, so they are content to accept the axioms as a working basis for life.

But ... but ... life and death is one thing (though even there, so many exceptions rear their ugly heads), but when you get down to subtleties like whether or not it's OK to eat too much when the next guy is hungry ... at that level, we rely on something called "conscience". In fact, even in clear cut issues of killing, conscience is the mainstay. Is it, to use the example of Foot's Trolley, OK to save the lives of x civilians in one country by taking actions which result in the collateral deaths of y civilians in country 'B'? Is it OK to invest in a pension fund which in turn invests in an armaments manufacturer whose products are used by country 'C' to oppress its own population? Matters of conscience, we are told.

Very little law is actually enforced formally by authorities; society is held together in a tangled web of habit, conscience and mutual fear So what happens if something comes along which makes both conscience and fear of punishment meaningless? A well known example of this is mental illness. Most developed societies have the concept of an offender doing "wrong" not because they are bad or wish to cause harm but because they are in some way malfunctioning. The conscience is not functional, or fear of consequence fails to convert into feedback which constrains action, and the penal code is modified to take account of this.

More radical, and less easy to assimilate into the existing sociolegal frameworks, is something like the suggestion that some individuals are predestined to commit criminal acts by their genetic inheritance. Illness can be treated as a localised social anomaly, dealt with as it occurs. Even the idea that a whole individual is irredeemably damaged can be handled at a pinch. But how to deal with the idea that a whole inherited line of citizens who, it is alleged, cannot avoid "wrong" behaviour in perpetuity?

None of those are as bad as it can get, however. They are localised (to a greater or lesser extent) instances of predestination, and therefore predictable within a wider context.

(I really am taking a long time over this ... anybody still listening?)

Both conscience and fear of reprisal depend on the axiomatic assumption that we can choose how we act (or how we do not act). If that assumption is false then so, finally, is almost everything we have built upon it. Not just systems of morality, but the very idea of morality itself. In fact, the idea that we can build anything at all is illusory. Ideas themselves may still exist, and even come into being, but we can never be agents in their genesis.

This is not the same thing a predestination, nor determinism, though it shares with them some implications: what we are placing where our illusion of free will used to be are systems, structures and flows of chreostochasticity.

The action potential threshold which Dr C describes is repeated across the components of our body, and across the bodies of those with whom we interact. Each of us is a huge chaotic but chreostochastic system of such potential thresholds, composed of chaotic but chreostochastic subsystems (eye, brain, liver...) and also part of the larger chaotic but chreostochastic system which is interaction between multiple individuals (human or otherwise) and their environment.

What decides whether General Loan's trigger finger twitches or doesn't twitch? Not just an action potential flipflop in his brain, responding to a signal along the optic nerve, but an uncountably large number of flipflops in the optic, auditory, olfactory systems, within the brain itself. The complex sensory responses are in turn decided by unimaginably complex interactions in the surroundings, encompassing human activity and such things as the drift of the breeze with smells of cordite and perfume, the pheromones of fear and rage, the sounds of life and death. Shifting potentials within his brain are shaped by holographic storage of past memory. Whether a suspected Vietcong sympathiser lives or dies in Saigon depends not just on the binary states of General Loan but on whether or not a butterfly flaps its wings in Argentina.

So, this is not predestination. Because nobody, however all seeing, could predict years in advance whether that man in Saigon will live or die. He is like Schrödinger's Cat, but in an infinitely more complex lottery: whether he lives or dies depends on how an ungraspably (and unmodelably) complex web of chance factors play out.

Nor, incidentally, does it stop there. Because, if the suspicions of physicists are justified, none of it exists anyway. Everything, from a hydrogen atom up through nerve and action potential to human being to star to galaxy is not real at all but a series of configurations of pure information - as if we were virtual simulations inside an immense computer.

Is there, anywhere in that huge chaotic but chreostochastic universe, which allows for General Loan to influence aspects of how the potentials flow? Perhaps so (we cannot fully describe our system from within) but it's impossible to tell, and I have not one scrap of evidence to support a legitimate assertion that it is so. Eddington and others suggested that quantum theory opens up again the possibility of free will, but that is not a straw at which I can, in good conscience, grasp.

So, everything I (or you, or General Loan) do was going to happen regardless of us: because that is how the cascade of action potentials fell. What use is there in talking about compassion, responsibility, pity, condemnation? If I stop to help an injured man on the road, or if I slit his throat and rob him, there is no moral difference because I had no volition and my action was simply the inevitable result of a myriad action potentials in chreostochastic combination beyond my (or anybody's) control.

It goes beyond the dramatic. I am not writing these words: they are assembled by the inexorable flow of those same action potentials.

Dr C condemns US or Isra'eli actions against civilians not because is caring, or they uncaring, nor because there is any moral difference whatsoever between he and they, but because that's the way a trillion trillion electrochemical dice happen to fall. He objects because he will object, and they murder because they will murder, and there's no point in bothering about either ... except that the cascade of potentials will make us care (or not) whether we choose it or not (and we cannot choose it or fail to choose it: it is chosen or not chosen by the random play of ... well, you get the idea).

Which is where I came in. Ultimately, despite my atheism, I am no different from a creationist faced by the logic of Darwin: and I don't like it any better. But I am luckier, because...

We can't choose what we believe. We either believe or we don't. I don't believe that there is a god; there have been times in my life (usually moments of personal peril, or of threat to someone close to me) when I would have dearly loved to believe ... but it can't be done, any more that a believer can voluntarily decide to disbelieve. I know, intellectually, that the arguments advanced to effectively and clearly by Dr C make it likely that free will is a myth ... but ultimately, at my deepest level, I am unable to believe it.

So, unable to believe in the absence of free will despite intellectual recognition of its probability, I am free (no ... not free ... bound by the play of chance) to ignore it and act as if its probability had never been demonstrated to me. I can go on railing against inhumanity and injustice as if they mattered. I can go on listening to Dr C talking of Iraq and Guernica as if he chooses to do so. And (this is the best bit) I don't even need to feel guilt over my blatant intellectual dishonesty and hypocrisy - because I haven't decided to act in this way: the chreostochastic confluence of potentials made it (and me) this way.

There's a limerick which I heard first from my mother as a child, later during the philosophy modules of my degree:

There was a young man from Deal
Who said "Although pain is not real,
When I sit on a pin
And it punctures my skin
I dislike what I fancy I feel."

*The title of this post is ripped off from a novel by Robert Silverberg (Silverberg, R. The stochastic man. 1976, London, Gollancz. 0575020792)

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