Sunday, April 09, 2006

Taking a Chance on Subjectivity

This world includes events that we label "chance" and "random," but what can these words mean? In a perfectly deterministic world they would be meaningless. Each event would necessarily happen as it does. From a given set of starting conditions, only one subsequent event would be possible. And only one event subsequent to that would be possible, and so on, in lockstep with deterministic causality. But we live in a nondeterministic world. And that’s a problem for science. Science as a philosophy, anyway. The philosophy of science is not only a deterministic one, but also one that limits the range of an event’s possible causes to preceding physical events. Quantum indeterminacy and the simple fact that I can will my fist to open and close--and it happens!--tells us that the range of possible causes has to include factors other than preceding physical events. “Chance” and “random” are not explanatory terms. They are descriptive terms. They describe events whose causes are unknown. If the causes were known, then the events would be merely determined, and there would be no need to invoke “chance” or “random.” Science then weaves an even more tangled web by invoking terms such as “emergent” and “self-organizing” to account for things that it can’t explain. These terms imply that not only are some events indeterminate (“chance” or “random”) but furthermore that they occur without any cause at all! Typical applications of all these terms—chance, random, emergent, self-organizing—illustrate the nominal fallacy: the mistaken belief that naming something explains it. It seems to me that what we mean by these labels is that from a given set of starting conditions a number of subsequent events are possible. This implies that nature includes decision-making agencies that select among the possible events and decide which actually occur. The only non-deterministic agency available is subjectivity. Even a random-number generator in a computer operates deterministically. It might produce its output after running a very complicated algorithm, but the result nonetheless is determined by the initial input and the algorithm. FNORD Using subjective agency to resolve the conundrum of causality in the context of so-called chance and random events is a Whitheadian resolution. I think the difficulty in making this argument is not with its logic, but with a cultural prejudice that wants to dismiss such thinking as "mystical". That prejudice is unfortunate. Hopefully, the culture of science eventually will admit that subjectivity is not reducible to some epiphenomenon of matter, and the taboo against such "mysticism" will be relaxed. In the meantime, one has to wonder how science can claim a rational supremacy over religion, when it admits acausal (“chance,” etc.) events. It seems to me that we have three candidate explanations to account for chance/random/emergent/self-organizing events: 1. The natural world is almost a perfect determinism, but subject to supernatural interventions that violate or supersede the normal laws of nature. In this theistic view, chance or random events are coercions from beyond—miracles in the classic sense. This position suffers from the usual criticisms of theism, such as theodicy. 2. The natural world is not a perfect causality. Some events in it occur inexplicably, without any cause whatsoever—yet being truly random, with no preferences of outcome, they not only fail to turn the world into utter chaos—they coincidentally happen to fall in general alignment so as to maintain this amazingly stable, dynamic living world. This position suffers from the staggering statistical improbability of such coincidence. 3. The natural world is not a perfect causality, because every occurrence in it includes an agency that chooses which of the available possible subsequent events actually occurs. This position is compatible with a modified (what Hartshorne called “neo-Classical”) theism: Actual events are products of the normal causal influence of past events and the subjective feeling of God’s persuasiveness. Hence, actual events generally proceed in step with the habits of normal causality, but any particular actual event can accept (Whitehead’s term is “positively prehend”) the influence of creative novelty and violate the prediction of normal causality. Rocks have little capacity to do so. Human beings have a considerable capacity to do so. This position it seems to me has metaphysical teeth—it balances the empirical demonstrability of “the laws of nature” with the empirical demonstrability of nature’s indeterminacy. It just seems more satisfying to account for nondeterministic events by resorting to some causal agency rather than to acausality, which strikes me as a blatant non sequitor and not an explanation at all. Assigning ontological causal agency to subjectivity opens the door equally to the will of God and to the wills of human beings to harmonize and inject novelty into the events of this world.