Science isn’t Broken; It’s merely Incomplete

Christie Aschwanden writes at length on the question of whether or not Science is Broken in the FiveThirtyEight blog.

Christie points out a lot of good things – science is hard, the incentives are screwy, and even good science can change outcomes based on a different analysis. Based on these points and lengthy interviews, she declares:

I’ve spent many months asking dozens of scientists this question, and the answer I’ve found is a resounding no.

Christie Aschwanden

There’re a few problems with that statement, though, as well as the reasoning Christie uses through the article. The author isn’t incorrect in saying that Science isn’t broken, but that does not imply that Science is doing just fine. While retractions and new results do show the scientific system is working, the rate at which we see them can and should be improved.

My background, if you read the Skeptical Methodologist, is in software. In software, we have a four pillar system of quality – Testing, Peer Review, Static Analysis and Design. Not everyone seems to recognize this, though.

Often you’ll run across engineers who believe that testing is the only way to quality – that peer review and other methods are either wastes of time or just evidence that someone didn’t test hard enough. Test, test, test – it’s a monistic theory of quality that can lead to myopia.

From a quality perspective, there are things that are just really hard to test for. We’re lucky, though, as these things are easy to spot in peer review, or through static analysis, or through design methods. It’s only when we use all the arrows in our quiver that we get the best results and produce the best software.

Likewise, there’s a bit of a scientific monism running around, and I think when we start talking about this monism – science as the only or even best way to truth – we get in trouble. We become close minded about other sources of truth – and we run into the same problems of trying to test for all defects in software. Other sources of truth are valuable not because they compete with science, but because they complement science.

How we set up our scientific models – an issue pointed to in the article – can’t itself really be answered by ‘traditional’ science. It does, however, have guidelines in philosophy, namely hermeneutics. The idea there is that how we chose to see the problem we’re trying to solve affects what answers we might see, and that’s valuable. Double checking that our hypothesis is coherent and that our conclusions properly draw from our results, these borrow from the philosophical field of logic and are not necessarily native to empirical science.

Checking our peer’s results, not necessarily looking for fraud but just understanding another human being can catch things that all the rigor in the world might miss, that’s the social circle of our lives, not necessarily empirical science. Looking at the higher system of science, the systems of incentives and what reporting body reports to whom, what prevalent theories – and their owners – might have to gain or lose in prestige by newer competing theories – this is all politics. Political and Economic scientists may have good things to say here in making the process more effective, but not traditional empirical science.

Some might argue that good peer review, unbiased modelling, and fixing incentive structures, that’s all part of ‘good’ science, and when you don’t do it, that’s ‘bad’ science. This runs afoul of the ‘no-true-Scotsman’ fallacy, unfortunately, as basically no matter what one detractor might say about science, the proponent will merely say “no, no, no, that’s not TRUE science. TRUE science avoids that.”

Instead, I see science as but one means of discovering truth, and I see the hard sciences in particular as methods using mathematical theories backed with instrumented empirical evidence, gathered by large enough means to run statistical tests on. I define this kind of science narrowly, and by that definition, this kind of science is incomplete. We need other sources of truth to compliment it – testing with our peer review, static analysis with our design methods – to make it better.

Asking scientists whether science is broken misses the point – anyone with a political mind would tell you that. You need to be asking everyone involved in the system, as well as actually properly define what system it is you’re trying to talk about. Science, with a big letter S, needs more input from more fields – it can’t go it alone. We can’t keep just adding on new methods and rigor to what we have and claim that NOW we have GOOD science – we need to acknowledge that our path to truth is always an improving process, and not merely because of new evidence.

New procedures, new incentives, new methods and new models will all be developed, and those all improve what we know about the world too when combined with good empirical science.

When fighting the monster that is our ignorance about the natural world, we need to use every arrow in the quiver.

Did Ayn Rand hit the Glass Ceiling?

While the author and philosopher Ayn Rand may have happily been in favor of the glass ceiling, describing herself as a chauvinist, this doesn’t exactly set her apart amongst other writing colleagues.

Other’s who wrote during the same era included an unrepentant Nazi and a couple that routinely slept with underage teenagers.

There isn’t a philosopher alive or dead that doesn’t have a commentator accusing them of being contradictory, or who’s private lives were weird and not really in line with what we expect. Why is Rand held to some higher standard?

We can compare her as a woman to Simone de Beauvoir, but we have to be careful. De Beauvoir both had a path to fame through her lover, Sartre, as well as was French. More importantly, she seemed to espouse views that were “okay for a woman to have”. Even today you see women more or less lead towards Women’s studies or Feminism in philosophy – as if they didn’t have comments on metaphysics that had nothing to do with estrogen. While we’ve made headway, there still is a sneaking suspicion in many departments that if you’re studying a woman philosopher, it’s going to be about Feminism.

Rand wrote on economics and ethics. She also wrote liberally unpopular views, though not too far afield of Neitzche. Speaking of which, she gets flak for not crediting Neitzche for much of her ‘objectivism’, however, since when do Philosophers ever properly credit each other? Why is it interesting and fun to find Luther’s hidden influences on Heidegger yet Rand is expected to dutifully cite her sources like some school girl we’ve allowed into the boys club?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not particularly interested in Randian philosophy. But in terms of having an impact, being widely read, the difference between her and Marx is one of degree rather than kind. Still, she’s derided as “not a real philosopher” and a terrible writer – even though history has spoken and she apparently writes in a way entertaining enough for many folks.

I don’t have an answer to this question, but it is worth asking – would she have had as much flak if she were a man? I mean, the chauvinism probably would have dismissed as just being “how people thought back then”. And we’d probably have let “him” off the hook on having some self-contradictions, just as we have most other philosophers. Certainly, there’d be plenty of academic skepticism – “he” would still be writing against the popular worldviews at the time.

Ayn Rand, the woman, though probably gets a double dose of “get the fuck out” in that she wasn’t talking about the things we “allowed” women to talk about back then, and moreover, she didn’t agree with what the men who were allowed to talk about those things thought. So she was a hack, a fad (that still keeps going and going), a false prophet whom we can criticize as truly hysterical.

Indeed, upon reflection perhaps Rand is a great example of how Philosophy, too, is Politics – no more or less than Science. Either she didn’t back the right party, or she wasn’t in the right ‘group’, more likely both.

Science Is Politics

Great coverage of how science works regarding Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

Science here, and in real life, means two things.

Science is a hermeneutic. It’s a focus on proof-by-induction, empiricism, mathematical formalism and falsifiability.

But it’s also something capable of being analyzed by another hermeneutic: politics. Science is something done by scientists, by human beings. And they’re susceptible to bias.

I find the chronic fatigue syndrome focus particularly fascinating because you can see a parallel to the so-called obesity epidemic: science that, when you really look at it, is relatively meaningless: no study has actually shown long-term success, but each one is twisted and spun to imply long term success is both easy and obtainable, thereby implying that the victim of these diseases is to be blamed.

Of course, there’s that clumsy hermeneutic again – science should never be about blame, it should be about what is. Politics is more often about blame, so we should be warned whenever any study could be used to imply fault.

Let’s not even start on the replicability crisis hitting psychology right now.

Is Dieting Evil?

Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses an interesting framework in his argument that liberals and conservatives fundamentally have different values – or at least, different weights on five universal values.

One of the values, purity, stands out. It’s what a social psychologist might invoke to explain religious prescriptions to avoid pork, the halo effect we get around doctors and other health care professionals, or why we have the adage ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness’. Ultimately, it describes the sense of moral good we do when we do ‘pure’ things – why we naturally assume natural fibers are better than synthetic ones, why we revile instinctively at pollution, why baptism is seen as a ‘cleansing’ of sin.

Keep that in mind, and consider the following – in a small study of 60 participants, it was found that those who bought organic foods tended to display anti-social behavior.

In other words, there is some small bit of evidence that when you use your willpower to do good in one area of life, you give yourself license to be more selfish in other areas of life.

Similar to the above, people’s purchasing and consumption of organic food – here considered a moral good under the label of purity – needed less of at least two other of the moral ‘flavors’ outlined in Haidt’s theory – “reduction of harm” and equality.

But organic food is not the only way we eat to be pure. In fact, I’d argue it’s not even the main way we eat to be pure. Today, during a conversation, this thought struck me as someone said, justifying their purchase of egg whites and vegetables, “I’m trying to be good.”

They were dieting or following a particular diet anyway that required them to use their willpower to deny foods they wanted.

If you gave me five minutes, I could probably name two dozen people I know personally who are attempting to ‘be good’ with what they eat. This rarely materializes in them eating ‘more’ of anything, despite us being told to eat more fruits and vegetables. Instead, it’s always ‘less’ of something. To be good, they need to eat less fat, or sugar, or alcohol, or salt, or dairy, or gluten, or non-organic foods, or caffeine, or beverages other than water. The list goes on and on.

Nevermind the ineffectiveness of most dietary approaches to get any sort of sustainable happiness – what kind of damage is our fascination with diets doing to society as a whole? If let’s say, one-quarter of the whole of American society is currently dieting, how much less ‘good’ is there to go around? Are we giving less to charity and more to low fat, organic food companies in raw dollars than is socially maximizing? Are we ignoring our spouse or our children’s needs because we were ‘good’ today and avoided salt? Are we less challenging of racist and bigoted beliefs that we hold because we ate turkey bacon today?

There is some evidence that this may be the case. This is a philosophy blog, not a scientific one, so I can’t assign p-values here. Instead, speculation is welcome. Does dieting make us, well, more evil? Does being hangry all the time make us less able to see the needs of others?

I, for one, am going to look for this. I’ve noticed more and more that people who treat me in an anti-social manner are almost always somewhat hungry (by their own hand via dieting) or not sleeping. I’ve noticed a lot of back patting when someone lectures me on the fruits of eating organically. They have their moral narrative in life, and they needn’t any longer look for opportunities to act to improve equality, or reduce harm. No, instead, they stick to a particular diet and that diet guarantees they’ll get into Heaven. Or something.

Three Attacks on Determinism

And four explanations of some remaining belief.

Free Will Is Interesting

Free Will and its arguments are pretty interesting. Determinism and compatibilism are also interesting. The issue that often seems to come about in discussions is that to be a libertarian in this day and age – the free will believing kind – you often have to withstand quite a few sneers from your determinist colleagues.

Determinism is very in vogue. It’s hip, it’s sexy. It, along with some square glasses, is how you identify yourself as in the intellectual elite.

I can give arguments for free will all day. I have a few, some on the compatibilist side, some on the libertarian side. And sometimes, people even pay attention. Most of the time, though, I simply get the standard proofs of determinism thrown back at me, rather than any attempt to analyze the arguments I put forward.

So, it seems to make progress on free will, rather than offer what free will is or how it might work, we should rather attack determinism – at least up to the point where determinist finally stops thinking the standard proofs are a good rebuttal of any discussion of free will.

The Standard Proof

The standard proof of free will goes something like this.

Everywhere we look in nature, anything we see has some other cause. We see eggs, birds laid them. We see birds, they came from eggs. How’d the whole thing start? Because of evolution. A causes B causes C – the great chain of cause all the way back to the big bang.

When I hit the cue ball on a pool table, it has no choice in the matter of where it’s going – it’s fundamentally determined by the laws of physics. Momentum, acceleration, force. Since down to the smallest atom and up to the largest galaxy, these same forces are in effect and none of these objects have any sort of ‘free choice’ in the matter, why would we believe that we are any different? It’d be the height of hubris to do so.

The Three Musketeers

Or, why determinism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Ultimately, each of arguments deals with two major themes – computability (which we’re taking to mean some generalization of the ‘A causes B’ mechanism) and what people might call randomness, but probably shouldn’t. Finally, they all attack a common weak point in the deterministic argument – that it seems to rely on the idea of science from the 17th century.

Where do we stop? The Halting Problem

A more general introduction to the Halting Problem.

In a nutshell, the halting problem is a logical argument which shows there are some things computers can’t do. By computer, we mean a device which computes, which may also be the human brain, we really don’t know.

But we also mean mathematical logic. In fact, the exact same problem can be put in mathematical logic terms and it becomes the Incompleteness Theorem.

In a very similar nutshell, the incompleteness theorem states that no matter what axioms of math you chose, there will always be theorems you can ‘write down’ that are neither provable or unprovable using those axioms. I’m not a mathematician, so I am probably doing a lot of hand-waving right now. But the gist is, our methods of formal reasoning – computation and mathematical logic (which are more or less the same thing) – cannot do some things.

These things they cannot do? Well, as my Computer Science professor yelled at us over and over, these things are not “Vague things like, ‘What is beauty?’ or ‘What is love?’ These things are things you expect computers to do – like tell me if this loop halts or not!”

Does your program end – or not? Outside of certain heuristics, all we have is to run the program and wait. And there’s a whole bunch of programs that will run nearly until the end of time, and then halt, and a whole bunch more that will run right out past the end of time.

This means that any string of causal reasoning is most likely subject to the same issues. We haven’t really found a formal logic that gets around these issues, so until someone can show otherwise, the causal reasoning used to show determinism should be assumed to have the same holes.

That means that you can have any system in nature, formalize it, and there will be things that the system can do that you may, or may not, be able to prove about it. Constrain the system enough and you get a lot of strength with your theory. But the real world is entirely unconstrained, and any formal system rich enough to accurately describe it is going to have huge, gaping holes that naive logical arguments such as the standard proof won’t touch.

In other words, sure, the world may be fully determined, but not in such a way that I can algorithmize it.

Fuzz Factors: Chaos Theory

Speaking of computation, in the 1960’s and 1970’s, super computers were beginning to be used for weather forecasting. While debugging some of the forecasting software, engineers found that what the forecast predicted varied enormously from run to run.

It was later realized that tiny changes in the inputs of wind speeds, humidity, and so on, were leading to much larger changes in the outputs. As these phenomena – discovered in computation but attributed to dynamical systems themselves – became more well known, it gave us terms like the butterfly effect, chaos theory, and fractal to all describe the behavior of these systems.

Computer engineers can push back the veil of what’s chaotic by increasing the significant bits in a simulation – allowing the model to store more and more detail. But it’s ultimately a losing proposition, as doubling the precision (a large undertaking) might make the model accurate to another day out (a small win).

Additionally, we can always make the models themselves better, or apply heuristics such as building multiple models and averaging their results. Thus, weather forecasting today is still much better than it was in the 1970’s, but we’re still ultimately fighting the same chaos driven battles in our weather models.

These phenomena show up everywhere, from the financial markets to synapse patterns in the human brain. The issue here, in regards to computation, isn’t that chaotic models or random. It’s that determinism doesn’t mean what you think it might mean – something may be fundamentally deterministic, yet still need to be modeled as something fundamentally free. Our models of the exact weather in downtown Dallas next year on this date are going to be very vague, at best, and it’s best – if we have to plan for weather next year on this day – to treat it as free, as something that will be decided and figured out at a later date, maybe even on the day. Like a person, or a cat.

This is primarily a compatibilist argument against determinism – that determinism doesn’t really mean what people think it means. I can have the equations for fluid dynamics, but its tiny errors in my weather model that will ultimately dominate what happens in a week. But this can also be combined with the argument below to introduce a truly libertarian point of view – tiny, infinitesimally small things, tend to determine what happens over the course of time. And those tiny, infinitesimal things are random.

It’s Turtles All the Way Down: Quantum Mechanics

Let’s go back to the original standard argument. Billiard balls hit billiard balls, atoms hit atoms, planets hit planets. Or they orbit them, or whatever. Everything seems to be determined, so why would we be any different?

Only that’s not at all how the real world works.

Aristotle is criticised a lot for making claims about the world that he could have figured out from observation weren’t true. We all know about his theory that heavier things fall faster – but he also claimed women had different numbers of teeth. How hard would that ‘experiment’ have been to pull off and double check?

But here we are again, making grand gestures about how the world works that we know fundamentally are untrue, then using those gestures to make claims about the human condition.

First, as described above – planets don’t orbit. Beyond a small system, we get into the N-Body Problem, which is the archetypical problem for chaos. A moderately sized system of planets becomes increasingly difficult to predict as time goes out. It’s not billiard balls.

But even more damning, atoms don’t work that way. We know atoms, and their constituent particles, are heavily determined by quantum mechanics which has a huge element of probability to it.

In fact, the same thought experiment – the pool table – can often be seen in both domains. A teacher of quantum mechanics might say ‘particles aren’t at all intuitive, it’d be like hitting a cue ball straight at the 8 ball and having it ‘jump’ right around it and miss’. Meanwhile, our smug determinist might say ‘atoms behave just like billiard balls, one hits the other and it goes off where momentum says it should go. It’s determined all the way down.’

But it’s not. It’s not determined at all.

To sum up, where we are – we aren’t like planets, they’re subject to things like the butterfly effect. And we aren’t like atoms, they’re subject to quantum mechanics. So the naive determinist is left saying that we occupy the Newtonian space in between where everything’s determined by simple equations, and thus not free. And she’ll go on to say that to believe otherwise would be the height of hubris.

But isn’t the world telling us we’re different? If, by nothing else, showing us that everything is a bit different? Planets aren’t like particles, but people are still like billiard balls?

Let’s not ignore the fact that we’ve already shown the brain is heavily chaotic, and it exists on such small scales that quantum effects are in play there. So, taking what we know about the current world, there’d be very little reason to believe that human behavior is deterministic in any useful way beyond statistically. Adding on to the fact that the conceptual model for a brain is a computer, and we know what kind of issues those run into that seem undecidable (a kind of indeterminism), and we have a wet squishy quantum mechanical device that thrives on chaos, implements a computer of at least Turing completeness (and thus subject to the halting problem) and we claim that thing is fully determined? It’s like… the least determined thing.

Isn’t this just randomness? That’s not Free Will

Yes. No. Kind of.

A lot of people like to say if something’s not determined, then it’s just random. It’s arbitrary. This comes mostly from free will not having much of a positive definition. We define it, often, via negativa. The libertarian has her work set out for her, she somehow has to prove that something’s not determined, not random, and not magic, because those are the rocks that will be hurled at her, often in that order.

The issue is randomness itself is a poorly understood subject. We saw quantum particles, the stock market, and rolls of the dice are random, but in fact, only one of those things is believed to actually be random. The other two are chaotic events – hard to predict, and so we have a statistical distribution that approximates them very well (a random walk maybe, and a 1/6 uniform distribution).

Quantum mechanics is the only place in physics that we really do think is ‘random’, and it’s so unintuitive it’s probably better to not use that word in quantum mechanics at all. We’re pretty sure that hidden variable theories – i.e., theories what treat particles like die where the true state is actually determined just hard to get at – are all false. Meaning that quantum particles really do seem ‘random’, and not like the randomness of the die.

But the idea of randomness came from games of chance, which aren’t ‘random’. Wouldn’t it be easier to say that quantum mechanics isn’t ‘random’, while dice are? Dice are chaotic, they can be modeled via a distribution, and so we call them random. Quantum particles – in themselves, not in the systems they produce – are not necessarily chaotic. Rather than modelling them as a distribution, they may actually be a distribution. This is an entirely different thing, and we shouldn’t use the ‘r’ word with them.

Does that mean that I think quantum particles are ‘free’? Not necessarily. I’m saying we have a thing that doesn’t fit into any one of our defined categories – i.e., determined or random, and that thing is quantum particles. Since I don’t think ‘random’ is a good word for quantum particles, I don’t think systems that might be influenced by said particles are necessarily ‘random’ either.

Since this is primarily an attack, I’ll stay mum on positive accounts of free will. My main emphasis is that a completely unique phenomenon – not entirely unlike randomness in the Newtonian world – underlies all of reality, one where the word ‘determinism’ doesn’t really make sense to apply. And so accounts of reality that claim everything’s deterministic are simply false.

The Four Horsemen

Or, why we still seem to be irritated by this.

I’m betting right now you’re reading the above and saying

“This idiot doesn’t understand computation/dynamical systems/quantum mechanics/determinism.”

And that may well be true.

But if you’re anything like my archetypical determinist, I have a feeling that I had no chance to sway you because you cling to determinism for reasons unrelated to logic. I mean, let’s be honest, there are good arguments to make for determinism and none of them rely on a 17th century Newtonian understanding of physics and the world.

There’re a few conceptual problems you might have to break through first before you’re fully willing to take on the argument that determinism may be false, or erroneous. Even knowing all I do about the above, I still see cause and effect everywhere, even in my own decisions. What is that intuition that leaves us thinking determinism has merit?

Language Games Part Un: Breaking the Law

The Laws of Physics are entirely a human invention to recognize patterns.

These laws are frequently referred to by determinists as ironclad, the things that drive nature, and something we cannot escape. This is because they’re using a rather quaint notion – the actual idea of a law – where the term laws of physics came from. Again, we’ll see the issue lies in borrowing terminology in a literal sense from the 17th century.

When patterns in nature appeared to be so reproducible that science became possible, and the period that we now call the scientific revolution was underway, a common metaphor for these phenomena was they seemed so universal as to be laws. Laws like the king makes – inescapable.

Of course, our thinking on jurisprudence has evolved quite a bit since then, and we’ve also gotten rid of kings. Even today, when talking about the laws of physics, it’s an area of active research to see if they change – are they different from universe to universe in some grander ‘multiverse’? Have they changed over time? Could they be different for different parts of space?

Laws of physics ultimately were, and ultimately still are, patterns we observe in nature that are predictable, and the mathematical formalisms we use to communicate those patterns. They are a language we use to express ideas, and the idea of them as laws is fundamentally a human and social construct.

That’s not to say gravity doesn’t exist. That is to say that our concept of gravity is nothing but the repeated observation of such, and experimentation and prediction on the same pattern we’ve seen elsewhere to see how well it generalizes. The idea is just our mathematical formalism insofar as that formalism is both useful and relatively error free. All physical laws ultimately boil down to inductive reasoning.

And inductive reasoning is itself something we have to take on faith.

Language Games Part Deux: Confusing Correlation and Causation

Or just causation.

Speaking of loops: The circular reasoning of causal determinism

Above I mentioned that our laws of science are little more than instances of inductive reasoning. They’ve proven super valuable, and our metaphors of laws and math to describe them are very useful. Whenever we find an issue in our understanding, we amend our theories to account for it. This is all fine.

But I argued that ultimately we can’t say the laws of physics are something out there in the world if they’re ultimately nothing but a metaphor we use to understand and communicate patterns we’ve seen in nature.

This same argument can be extended to strike at causal reasoning itself.

We talk about cause and effect as if the two things are actually out there, in the world. But in reality, they’re mental tools – tools we use to make sense of the world, but we shouldn’t mistake the map for the territory.

When you say:

“All effects have causes, therefore, my actions are merely the effect of some other cause, and I am determined.”

you have to understand I’m probably going to attack you on your assumption that there are real things such as effects and causes.

We can’t find these things through our experience. We use these things to structure our experience. It’d be similar to a microbiologist using a microscope and cleaning the lens frequently enough to suggest that perhaps dark matter is nothing but a smudge on God’s lens.

Wait, that’s a pretty cool idea. I’m going to steal it.

Anyway, we use tools to shape the experience around us – cause and effect is one of them. They ultimately have no standing in the physical world, though, and are assumptions we make depending on the context of the problem we’re trying to solve.

Moreover, determinism is just another word for cause an effect, basically. So the argument that:

“All effects have causes, therefore… I’m determined”

could be restated pretty easily to say instead:

“Determinism is true, therefore… I’m determined.”

Give yourself a nice pat on the back for that one, Bertrand.

If I’m gonna fight for a word, my word is Poontang.

Causation the word is a social construct, we use it communicate a belief about causation. Causation the concept is a way we shape reality. Neither the word nor the concept actually says anything that can be said to be true or false about reality but are ways to talk about and think about reality.

Ultimately you’re taking your statement “All things are caused” as a statement about the world when really it’s a statement about yourself. You’ve decided that something is important – made a value judgement – which is one of the freest choices you can make.

You can’t escape: Belief, Culture, and Standing

That nagging feeling that determinism is still correct? A lot of that is just you trying to fit in.

Let’s get out of the word games. You probably still aren’t convinced. In fact, you’re probably enraged I called science, an activity done by and for groups of human beings, a ‘social construct’. You’ve been told there’s objective truth out there, and you have it, and fuck everyone else.

In fact, you probably weren’t even told there was objective truth. You were probably laughed out of the room when you questioned it. I’m not here to propose relativism, but there’s an underlying dogma, faith, and culture to the belief of determinism. Ultimately, your holding on of determinism despite it being a somewhat empty and useless concept is tantamount to a Scholastic holding on to the literal Trinity. You’ve identified with the culture that pushes this stuff out so much that you’re not sure what you’re supposed to think anymore.

Here’s an experiment – let’s say you are frustrated with what I’ve said above. You have reasons to think I’m wrong. What’s the first thing you do? You probably share it with someone else (ooooh, something social) and say “This is such bullshit, isn’t it?”

You weren’t comfortable with your own arguments, you needed someone else to agree with you. This is like, the archetypical example of group think and culture. And no one is saying culture is bad. All I’m saying is, that emptiness you feel when you have something that seems so core as determinism questioned is what a lot of newfound agnostics feel, or any believer feels when doubts creep in.

You keep up the faith in determinism because all of your friends say you’re a moral… I mean, rational person when you do. You have a deep and abiding relationship with Jesus… I mean science. And they all like you, and you get to hang out with them and make fun of the nonbelievers together in your safe space.

Or maybe you liked my arguments, in which case, welcome to being on the outside.

The Depths of Hubris

No one’s buying that  brave face. Pessimism isn’t always right.

You see the accusation of the height of hubris a lot whenever anything makes human beings seem or sound special. They make reference to Galileo who was to Steve Jobs as Copernicus was to Steve Wozniak, about how he diminished the importance of human beings in the world by putting the Sun at the center of the solar system.

Isn’t it great to tear down humanity, point out how we’re not special, how we occupy and fight and die over some pale blue dot and it’s all so grand and we’re all so stoic about it and wonderful people?

When people argue over death and the afterlife, so often I hear some say that belief in the afterlife is a safety blanket that the religious have, that they’re just not brave enough to face the facts that we simply cease to be.

I’m not even gonna get into that debate, but I would like to point out that many religions have no concept of an afterlife, and some religions actively preach ways to avoid the afterlife. To Buddhists, annihilation is nirvana. They’d probably see atheists clinging to their certain non-existance as so much wishful thinking.

You gotta earn that annihilation, buddy.

-Buddhism regarding Atheists

Likewise, the clinging to determinism is also so much hubris. It’s the scientistic, humanitarian hubris that we actually know what’s going on. It’s pretending that despite us not knowing where most of the universe is, what quantum mechanics mean, or why we’re fucking ticklish, we still somehow grasp ‘most’ of the world, and we can cuddle up in that warm blanket and hide from all the things we don’t know.

It’s arrogance. And the offense someone who claims to be evidence and reason driven takes to the mere argument is proof of it – if it was only reason that drove argument, people wouldn’t cling to anything. They wouldn’t have the motive to fight. This can all be a good thing – but it’s a bad thing when we pretend that’s not why we’re acting. When we don’t take responsibility for our actions and claim that was some sort of real, objective Truth and Science and Understanding and the American Way that drove us to despise mere words.

The Fifth Horsemen: I Find Your Abundance of Faith Disturbing

“Sure”, you say. “Maybe determinism looks bad now, but what about some future ideal science?”

Ah, the epilogue. So Newtonian determinism didn’t survive the halting problem, quantum mechanics or chaos theory. But still, some ideal form of determinism would. I mean, we all know such a thing exists as it must be true (I call this the ontological argument for damn near anything). Sometimes called physicalism, this is an extension on the deterministic cause that some ideal future scientific method will shed light on all these issues, and all arguments will be squelched for good.

Likewise, I posit that there is some ideal future teapot between the Earth and Mars and that we will find it someday when we have instruments that can peak into other dimensions, go backwards and forwards in time, etc… Therefore, I win, right?

I don’t fault anyone for believing in the merits of science. But this is a faith based argument – and again, faith can be a wonderful thing when you acknowledge you’re making a decision based on faith. If what you’re doing is faith based, but you flatly deny and point to some picture of the universal truth of Science as the reason you believe what you do, you’re being close-minded, inauthentic and you’re actually going to learn less about the world.

Does all of the world ultimately work in patterns? I think so, but I’m not sure. We don’t really have a good account of where all this shit came from, or what on earth we’re doing in it with all these feelings and experiencesThe question of whether or not some future science will figure these things out is an interesting one – is there true mystery in the world, or is all the world ultimately understandable?

This gets back to our earlier language critiques. Let’s say that there is a pattern of human behavior, but that we call this pattern ‘free’. We use other words like ‘reasons’ and ‘choices’ and ‘will’ in describing our theory of human behavior. Let’s say this theory gives a reasonably good statistical account of human behavior. Are we free, or determined? Ultimately it’s just word choices here. As I said earlier, free is not the same as random, and it’s not the same as determined. It’s not the same as unpredictable either.

I can’t really tell you what free is because that’s what this debate is supposed to be about. What does freedom me, and what does it mean to be free? I have thoughts here. But before I can get to any of those, I have to make sure others are disarmed from giving me their poor rendition of the standard argument for determinism and catch them up on all the math and science that’s been done for the past 200 years.


The prisoner’s dilemma is a thought puzzle set up in the following way. You and a friend have been captured by the Turkish “president” Ergodan, who’s accusing you of taking part in a coup. You know nothing about this and neither does your friend.

Your interrogators offer you a deal, though:

You snitch on him: he goes to jail for twenty years, and they give you $100K US.

You figure he’s been offered the same deal to turn on you, too.

Further, you are very confident if neither of you snitches, they’ll be forced to let you go. You’d counter sue the government and between the two of you, probably net $75K US each, for a total of $150K.

Finally, if you both snitch, no one gets any money and you both go to jail for twenty years.

So the dilemma is do you snitch and go for the greatest individual award, or do you refuse to snitch hoping for a greater group reward?

You and your friend are being held in different rooms and cannot communicate. What do you do?

A really novel strategy for this puzzle – albeit, the contestants can communicate – can be seen here.

The question sums up – do you trust and collaborate, hoping for a greater goal, or do you go rogue and work as an individual?

While there are many definitions of justice, I was starting to consider one related to this question. Is justice some sort of ‘metric’ for how much better off a single person is under society versus ‘on their own’? In other words, when people believe something is unjust, are  they perceiving that working with society will benefit them less than working as an individual?

Frequently we have this archetype of an unjust system being fought by some sort of vigilante, which would back up this impression that justice is about working inside society being more fair than what someone can get on their own.

(Caveat: clearly it’s nearly impossible to truly ‘go it alone’. The choice between working within society and working as an individual may be more a case by case sort of choice of what social rules to follow – do following the rules overall benefit me more than not following them? Or are the rules unjust and I should break some of them to get a better deal?)

What is Free-Will?

In this standard encyclopedia entry, Dennet and Wolfram both argue that free will may be compatible with determinism. Wolfram, in particular, argues that free will may be the same as ‘computational irreducibility’.

Certainly this makes sense – even if something is deterministic, in any system it may be so complex it might as well be treated as a ‘free variable’ that, for all intents and purposes, isn’t predictable in any useful way. This is not necessarily to imply that predictable and free will are opposites.

However, I wonder whether free will is still ‘more than’ or ‘different than’ mere computational irreducibility.

Just as I have argued when we ask “Can computer’s think?” we may actually be asking do they have subjective experience of their computation – the same line of thinking, the difference between words used to describe the subjective versus the objective – may apply here.

Indeed – what if ‘free will’ is synonymous with the “rich, subjective inner experience” of computational irreducibility? What if we not only considered the game of life – which is itself irreducible – but somehow also knew that it was also hard conscious? That it experienced? Would we then say that that game of life had ‘free will’? Or, at least, would we be comfortable with saying that it experienced free will?

In these terms, when we ask whether we have free will, or whether some other entity has free will, what we are really asking is two fold – does the thing experience, and is the thing computationally irreducible? Or perhaps what we’re really asking isn’t an objective fact at all – free will isn’t a predicate to assign an entity. Perhaps what we’re asking is does the entity in question experience free will? If free will isn’t merely irreducible complexity by an experiencing entity, but rather, the experience of irreducibility itself, then we’re asking a slightly different question than the above.

Going further, this renders the question of free will very different for humans as well. When we ask whether or not we have free will, it’s a moot point to say we’re entirely determined by the laws of physics. If free will is a question of experience rather than of behavior, then we’re asking a different question altogether than one of mere determinism. It becomes even more clear that merely calling free will ‘an illusion’ is a circular argument, as free will may be purely a phenomenological thing, having no real correlate in the cold, objective story we tell ourselves. It’s entirely an experience to be had, not a behavior to see in others.

Indeed, I’d say if you ask a few fatalists whether or not they feel like they have free will, or if they have had the experience of having free will, some may actually say no, that they have not had the experience. This is to contrast with others who may say that they’ve had the experience, but that it’s merely an illusion (which we parryed above).

To sum up, if free will is another term for both computational irreducibility, as well as the experience thereof, then to say that one does or does not have free will is a question of phenomenology and not physicalism or psychology.

Can Computer’s Think?

The ever biting Dijkstra once quipped, “The question of whether a computer can think is  no more interesting than the question of  whether a submarine can swim.” That is, he made the argument that thinking is a category of verb that would not apply to a computer or machine. I think this line of thinking can be abandoned for two reasons, the least of which is that we now have submersible robots that can best be described as swimming.

The question of whether computer’s can think is not, as it might seem at first glance, whether computers will be intelligent. Nor is it whether computer’s will be intelligent in the way that we humans are intelligent. There’s no magic threshold of intelligence after which computers cross we will claim that they think in the way we do – not generalized artificial intelligence, or transfer learning, or any other.

What we mean, I believe, by the question of whether computers can think comes from the difference of what we mean by think and what we mean by what computers already do quite well – compute. Computation, in fact, is something humans have been known to do, from time to time. So since humans and computers can clearly compute, what’s the difference between computation and thinking?

Again, I don’t think it’s a matter of degrees – there’s no threshold of generalized computation that we will suddenly call thinking. That way lies ever moving goal posts as people still struggle to define what they think is different between computers and us. And I don’t believe it’s simply semantics or categories either – there’s no emergent level of computation (a similar approach) at which suddenly the word ‘thinking’ applies.

I believe a similar difference in words come from these two – what is the difference between the world and the universe? Arguments aside that there may indeed be a multiverse, I think these two words generally describe the same thing, but from two different perspectives. When we talk about the world, we mostly refer to being in it. In other words, the world is that which is described by our subjective, rich, inner experience. The physical world, the world of sports, the World of Warcraft, all would be meaningless if there was no subjective, rich, inner experience of this world. Quite to the contrary, the physical universe is described quite objectively – divorced from any subjective viewpoint, in some sort of psuedo-skeptical grasp of the noumenal objective that no one being could ever, in actuality, have. We can’t experience the universe – we only experience the world, and guess at what the universe might be like.

Likewise, this applies to the question at hand: Can computer’s think? I don’t have an answer for you, but I at least know it’s not whether or not they can play chess, Jeopardy or identify cats. What we’re asking when we ask whether computer’s can think is whether or not they will have subjective, rich, inner experiences while they compute. After all, that’s what thinking is – it is the inner experience of computation.

Thus the ‘hard’ problem of consciousness (why this rich inner experience at all?) and ‘hard’ AI are actually hard in the same way – will we create thinking machines? Machines that not only compute, but experience that computation? It’s not a matter of information – although its clear information flux is at least correlated with rich, inner experience. Our thinking is not just ‘knowing’ that we’re computer – it’s not the reflexivity. After all, we’re conscious, hard conscious, of things far before we reflect on them. There’s a subtle relationship between the experience of a thing and the thing itself that we haven’t quite teased out, but at least we can identify that divide – that gap – between the experience of something and the thing itself as what we’re asking about when we ask, “Can Computer’s Think?”