Determinism isn’t as certain as many assume

Conversation on yesterday’s post on free will has me thinking about determinism.

First, what is determinism?  According to Merriam-Webster, my favorite dictionary because they seem to be extremely good at cutting to the chase, determinism is defined as:

a theory or doctrine that acts of the will, occurrences in nature, or social or psychological phenomena are causally determined by preceding events or natural laws

So, the basic idea of determinism is that everything has a cause, and that any appearance of uncaused actions, such as mental ones, are an illusion.  As I argued in my free will post, I don’t think that libertarian free will is necessarily tied to determinism, but it’s pretty evident that a lot of people lean heavily on determinism as a reason for rejecting it.

Is that reliance justified?  Can we say with certainty (to the extent we can say anything with certainty) that everything has a cause?

The standard answer to that question is, no, we can’t.  Quantum events simply don’t behave according to our classic notions of how the world is supposed to work.  Many quantum events appear to be random and uncaused.  The foundations of determinism rest on indeterministic ground.

Why then are the laws of physics, above the quantum level, generally deterministic?  As it turns out, single quantum events can’t be predicted, but large numbers of them follow statistical patterns.  From these statistical patterns, deterministic regularities, natural laws, emerge.

Determinism is emergent.  The layers below it are not deterministic.  It is built on top of those indeterministic layers.  Another way of looking at it is that determinism is a model of complex indeterminate events.  A hard determinist should ponder that for a minute.

But, the fact remains that we have centuries of science which show that, above a certain layer, things are deterministic.  And once things are deterministic, that should mean that all of the higher layers of abstraction (chemistry, biology, neuroscience, weather systems, etc) should themselves be deterministic, right?

Let’s back up and ask again what we mean by deterministic.  What do we mean when we say something can be determined?  Determined by whom?  If no one could conceivably determine what a complex dynamic system will do, if it is only deterministic in principle, is it really still deterministic?  What does it even mean to say that something is deterministic in principle?

Chaos theory is a field of study on the inherent limitations of making determinations on complex dynamic systems.  The core idea of chaos theory is that no measurement is infinitely accurate.  Anyone who has ever taken a high school or college science lab knows that every measurement comes with a margin of error.

Increasingly precise equipment reduces that error, but can never eliminate it entirely.  As different measurements are taken into account, the errors multiply and snowball.  Add lots of complexity and constant change, and some systems become inherently unpredictable, inherently indeterminate.

Most people have heard of the butterfly effect, the idea that a butterfly flapping it’s wings can eventually cause a hurricane somewhere else in the world.  Small effects snowball into larger effects.  And the small effect of errors in measurement snowball into unpredictability.

Of course, a determinist could insist that a perfectly omniscient being, such as Laplace’s demon, could still predict the effects of such a system.  Quantum effects might be random, but that randomness doesn’t “bleed” out past the deterministic layer.

Except that they do.

Of course, the very fact that we are aware of quantum events shows that they do in fact bleed out into the macroscopic world, otherwise how would we be aware of them?  But a clearer example is a famous thought experiment, Schrodinger’s cat.

Schrodinger imagined a cat in a box, with a device designed to release a deadly poison to the cat if a quantum event takes place.  If we put the cat and the device in the box and close it, then wait until the quantum event might have taken place, the cat could be either alive or dead.

I’m going to skip any Copenhagen interpretation discussion here, but the important thing to realize is that the cat’s death or survival is not a deterministic event.  The cat’s fate is not completely causally determined by events before it was placed in the box.  Quantum events have affected a macroscopic event that should have been completely deterministic.

Although Schrodinger’s cat is a thought experiment, there have been real experiments (not endangering cats) to test the principle.  It is a reality.  Quantum events can bleed into the macroscopic world.

Of course, given the degree that we’re able to determine physical laws, such bleeding in nature must be incredibly rare and nuanced.  But we can’t rule out that it happens within the margins of error in our measurements.  And as mentioned above, the effects don’t have to be pervasive to eventually snowball in complex systems.

Determinism emerges at a certain layer.  There is no guarantee that it persists above that layer.  The effects of quantum uncertainty may be small at the deterministic layer, but it may be enough to cause indeterminate events to emerge at higher layers.

Determinism isn’t the slam dunk many assume it to be.

40 thoughts on “Determinism isn’t as certain as many assume

  1. Fascinating stuff, I wish I understood it more fully. As far as I can tell, quantum, uh, stuff has made absolute determinism obsolete. And how very interesting it is to consider a human mind from a quantum perspective. Can we ever truly comprehend how the mind works? Can a mind understand its own workings, or does that breach some sort of fundamental law?


    1. I tend to think that a mind can understand itself, although probably not intuitively. But that may simply be a pragmatic attitude on my part since anyone who has given up understanding it won’t keep trying.


  2. Great post! Determinism as an emergent property is fascinating, especially since often the opposite is assumed; (pseudo)indeterminism from the emergence of the interaction of deterministic components.

    I think the determinism issue as it applies to people has nothing to do with predictability, as it does that people associate the core of who they are with their ability to freely make choices. To claim determinism (even if not practically predictable) is in their views to render them no more than a rock. On the other hand, to claim perfect predictability while still retaining freedom would be a lot less objectionable to many.

    That QM is called to play is I think due to people’s tendency to latch onto scientific concepts they don’t understand in order to further their own ends. As such, it’s more pseudo-science if not sheer desperation.


  3. I will agree that determinism on the long time scale is unlikely, but for the purposes of discussing free will in human beings, as in yesterday’s conversation, it holds. To examine how slim the odds are: a neuron’s sodium channel has a small chance be influenced by a quantum event to activate, but, a neuron requires several such activations to send a signal. Even if the neuron sends the signal, many signals are required to send the message. Even if a neuron sends a message, it is competing against other neurons which are suppressing its message, and this is just a single neuron, not groups of them working together, which would further negate the impact of any quantum event. In order for thoughts to be non-deterministic, many quantum events would have to work together, which is decidedly not quantum-ish.

    A prime example for indeterminism are the differences found in the cosmic microwave background radiation. These are the result of quantum fluctuation in the singularity, back when it was so compact that it behaved as a single quantum entity. These fluctuations are what ultimately caused galaxies and stars to form – without them, the universe would have been so uniform that nothing could coalesce.


    1. I agree that the brain works to minimize the effect of any randomness. Like a computer, it wouldn’t function properly if quantum effects were significant in its mechanizations. But my point was that if only one in a trillion leak through, at a rate initially insignificant to the immediate mechanizations, its downrange effects could snowball over time.

      I agree completely with the rest.


      1. I don’t disagree with you about snowballing. What I said is that, on the time scales of decision making, determinism can be held as true. Sort of like how Newtonian physics can be held as true so long as we don’t leave earth or investigate the very small – within its limits, it performs as advertised.

        Call it deterministic will, maybe?

        We’re viciously agreeing with each other again.


    2. Science has yet to prove that consciousness arises from brain function (electrochemical reactions in brain matter), and there is plenty of evidence (as well as reasoned arguments) that consciousness although obviously associated with the brain, does not arise from it.

      An good analogy would be the wireless internet which appears to come from the laptop and exist within the laptop and it is true that if the laptop dies the internet appears to die too. And yet the internet continues to exist after the death of a laptop, albeit in a less individualistic form (ie minus the web browser, graphics card and cookies)


      1. Hi Spinning For Difficulty,
        I actually wrote about the evidence for the mind being completely in the brain in a past post.
        TL:DR The effects of mind altering drugs, brain damage, and experiments on split brain patients demonstrate it pretty conclusively. I also point out why that doesn’t necessarily invalidate the idea of an afterlife.


        1. But the same arguments could be applied to a laptop to ‘prove’ that the internet is inside the computer and arises from the computer. Damage the computer or corrupt the software and the internet no longer functions, or functions in some reduced way. Add some fancy new software add on or upgrade your browser (the equivalent of taking drugs) and your internet experience can be enhanced or altered in some way.

          If the brain is acting as a receiver / decoder / processor/ filter of consciousness then it follows that damage to the brain will affect our capacity for consciousness on a scale of full consciousness to none at all.

          The effects of certain drugs are known to produce the same subjective reality, complete with beings who can be interacted with, in people from all sorts of cultures, all over the world and across thousands of years, even if they have no prior knowledge of how the drugs are going to affect them. In other words everyone who buys a plane ticket to Paris and flies to Paris experiences the same place and meets with the same people. In the physical world we would regard the collective subjective experiences of Paris as pretty strong evidence that Paris is real and exists objectively.

          As for the consistent realms people journey to with the aid of certain drugs, either they exist for real in some other-worldly dimension, or it has been suggested they might exist encoded within our DNA, rather like a user manual or instructional videos which have been installed along with software and can be accessed by clicking ‘help’.

          Of course materialists like to pooh pooh the use of drugs, which is rather like pooh poohing the use of artificial transport (cars, trains etc) and claiming any place reached by such transport cannot be a real realm.

          Anyway, there have been peer reviewed experiments demonstrating telepathy / premonition and other non local effects and abilities of consciousness which do not involve any drugs. Because science is dominated by materialism, there is no funding for such research (at least not in the public domain) but the results are there if you look for them. A non locally acting/ perceiving consciousness destroys the theory of mind being only a product of brain function.


          1. Except that we have evidence for the internet, and if my laptop dies, I can buy another one and have the same internet experience. I see no evidence that bodies or brains can be exchanged that way. It’s an analogy many might want to be true, but I can’t see any justification that it is.

            Peer review in an of itself doesn’t imply legitimacy, particularly if the journal in question doesn’t have a good reputation. Science isn’t so much dominated by materialism as it is by the need for empirical evidence or some other indicator of reliable knowledge.


          2. “..Except that we have evidence for the internet…”

            And we also have evidence for non local nature of individual consciousness, as well as the non local nature of consciousness as a whole.

            Naturally if you never pursue evidence you can ensure a situation where you never gain certainty for yourself (even if others do).

            This seems to be the situation currently. The world view of most scientists, and often their life work, depends on consciousness being inside the brain, and inside the head of people and nowhere else.

            In this respect they are like Egyptologists. Point out rainwater erosion on the Sphinx which proves it just be at least 10,000 years old and they will deny their own lying eyes and make up the excuse that it can’t be true otherwise there would be other sites that old…… and when other sites like Gobekli Tepe are discovered which are at least 10,000 years old they still deny the evidence.

            It seems everyone BUT mainstream scientists are exploring the true nature of consciousness. Even the military are doing it!


          3. “…Except that we have evidence for the internet, and if my laptop dies, I can buy another one and have the same internet experience….”

            Hang on a minute. You’re arguing my position now 🙂

            We (humans) are aware of the internet as as kind of ‘collective consciousness’ which computers tap into, but computers only experience the internet subjectively as if it was all happening inside of them. And in my analogy the computers represent humans. There is no third party looking on objectively from the sidelines.

            So you’re basically saying the ‘collective consciousness’ reality of the internet can only be determined from a third position which can see what is objectively going on (ie a bunch of computers all hooked up to an internet which mostly exists ‘out there’ on giant servers in warehouses).


          4. Spinning,
            I appreciate your viewpoint. Unfortunately, I see a common pattern here.

            You make assertions. I note the lack of evidence. You assert that there is evidence but that it’s ignored or suppressed by the scientific establishment. I note the lack of evidence for that. You make additional claims about evidence that is ignored, suppressed, etc. Loop until fatigue.

            I think it’s best to understand we see these things differently. But I do thank you for visiting!


      2. … and there is plenty of evidence (as well as reasoned arguments) that consciousness although obviously associated with the brain, does not arise from it.

        You can’t really just say there’s evidence and leave it at that.


          1. Gotta call Chinese Room on the hardware/software analogy. Interactionist substance dualism is pretty much defunct in philosophy of mind, and for good reason. The mental substance brings nothing to the game. That’s why we now have all those verminous property dualists shambling about the place :).


  4. While I agree with you that determinism is not such a critical issue as it is made out to be, I am not sure what you mean by emergence. Emergence as a philosophical concept has some serious difficulties, namely with causal exclusion. If you mean that determinism is a category of behaviors which we observe (supervening on some unfathomable base condition), then again I think that’s a defensible position though again, I think that turns out to be a fairly bland statement.
    Causality is how we come to know about things. Quantum events are still events (the waveform changes, collapses, etc.) they are just unpredictable locally (as you point out). We observe quantum events through their causal interactions regardless of our ability to build a predictive model of them. A truly inert entity would be invisible to us and we would be unable even to talk about it except perhaps apophatically.
    For that reason, libertarian free will is incoherent. Everybody thinks that they form their ideas and make decisions because of something, which is to say something determines – provides a reason for – their thoughts and actions. Even if you are like Nietzsche and suspect that thoughts come to you unbidden, you assume that something intrinsic to the thoughts places them in physical, psychological and temporal context. The alternative is something which the psychiatrists call “thought insertion” and is one manifestation of psychosis.


    1. My use of the word ’emergence’ is in the weak sense typically used by physicists, not in any magical sense. For example, temperature is an emergent property of the kinetic energy of molecules.

      I agree with you on libertarian free will.


    2. But don’t determinists also believe in some sort of ’emergence’? Rather than being an ongoing process they push all the emergence back in time to a hypothetical event of infinite emergence when all mater, energy, time and the laws that govern it emerged from nothing in a single instant.

      For this reason, haven’t determinists just swept emergence under the rug? ….. rather like atheists claiming god created the universe but then promptly disappeared leaving a godless universe behind!

      Or have I misunderstood the typical determinist position? (quite possibly)

      (bold added) “….For that reason, libertarian free will is incoherent. Everybody thinks that they form their ideas and make decisions because of something, which is to say something determines – provides a *reason* for – their thoughts and actions….”

      How about ‘opportunity’, instead of ‘reason’? That’s how I would describe it.


      1. I… think… what you’re saying is that determinists propose that the universe is deterministic since the big bang. If you believe there is a god, then there is your cause, and determinism may still remain true. If not, then you have to consider one of two options: that the universe was formed from existing material, or the universe was formed from nothing. If the universe was formed from existing material, a cause is required, and the ball just gets pushed back further, much like asking, “Well who made god?” If the universe was formed from nothing, then no cause is necessarily required, because we’ve never empirically witnessed creation ex nihilo, and therefore cannot postulate conditions for it. If that is the case, then you might say that a deterministic universe emerged out of indeterminism.

        But, I don’t know anyone here who is arguing for a deterministic universe.

        Also, concerning “… rather like atheists claiming god created the universe but then promptly disappeared leaving a godless universe behind!” That is referring to a deistic, not an atheistic, belief.


        1. Right. Determinism theory is just pushing the ball further back and so it will always be an incomplete theory at best.

          “……. Also, concerning “… rather like atheists claiming god created the universe but then promptly disappeared leaving a godless universe behind!” That is referring to a deistic, not an atheistic, belief……”

          Right. Precisely my point. It’s a contradiction.


  5. Thanks for the clarification. This is boggy ground.
    Spinning, emergence is, generally speaking, advocacy for the old fallacy of composition. There are two versions potentially in play, one figurative and one literal. You can say the whole is not the sum of its parts in theory (weak emergence) or you can say that the whole is not explained by its parts in fact (strong emergence). In the first case, you have something like the relationship between chemistry and physics, where talk of spin and orbitals quickly becomes subsumed by a sleeker theory. There is an explanation of chemical reactions in the language of physics, but it is lost in time and space, i.e. it lacks relevance, and so we continue to speak of covalent bonds and oxidation/reduction reactions.
    In the second case, there is no good theory of chemistry in the language of physics, nor is there an explanation for chemistry to be found in physics. According to strong emergence, once the system of quantum fields reaches a critical mass, the whole system starts to have a causal influence on its constituent parts – it exemplifies a property not to be explained by analysis in principle. This is to say a certain ‘proteiness’, for example, is out there in the world, waiting for nitrogen, hydrogen and carbon to get together so that it can then make them get together in the certain way that they do in a protein. The trouble then is, what about the physics? If proteiness is out there doing things then we’ve got it all wrong about chemical bonds, entropy, charges, etc. – those things are not basic and worse, the analysis that led to our conclusions about the basic physics was a bit of a farce, as it could not, in principle, explain anything but itself.
    As to “why all the causality?”, I don’t think we get an answer to that one. We are trapped in our notions of where and when to the extent that we can’t be sure of what we say about the notions themselves. This is the why-is-there-something-rather-than-nothing question. That question will remain forever rhetorical, as we don’t have any working concept of the nothing implied. We might as well say terra incognita. You get at a bit of the same language problem with your objection to the use of the word “reason” to describe the basis for our thoughts and actions. I don’t think I have the right word there, as reason implies a theory with a theory’s predictive implications, rather than merely an explanation. Determinism is not a grand idea like that, and “opportunity” fits as well, I think.


    1. I agree. When I speak about emergence, I’m using the weak version. I don’t believe in strong emergence, although I’m forced to admit that it hasn’t been empirically settled. (Of course, this whole discussion is metaphysics, on matters that aren’t empirically verifiable.)


  6. Fantastic elucidation; it’s great you narrowed in on ideas that were discussed in yesterday’s absorbing entry. This is exactly the sort of indeterministic determinism that I was noting Dupre claims provides the possibility of libertarian free will. I just responded to your last comment on yesterdays entry, wherein I admitted that, if I understood you correctly, you raised a legitimate objection to libertarianism as necessitating substance dualism. Kudos. Respect the discussion you foster with your excellent writing on fascinating topics.


      1. I’ll 2nd ‘ausomeawestin’s sentiment – I’m still reading about free will and last night about “adequate determinism”. There have been other distractions as well like a John Bargh article on the cover of Scientific American.


  7. I would join the compliments on excellent writing on such convoluted topic.
    The idea that on different levels things look differently is excellent. It’s not always possible to explain the whole by examining the parts. One neuron does not have consciousness, but a few trillions of them do. Things may look indeterministic at the quantum level, then look deterministic at macroscopic level, then they look indeterministic again when we consider a system of a few trillion macroscopic components. As we zoom in and out, new properties emerge and fade. Here is a TEDx talk on this .


  8. The cat’s fate is not completely causally determined by events before it was placed in the box.

    But it is at least to some extent, It would be wrong on your part or anyone’s for that matter to ignore the events before it was placed in the box that form the whole gamut of causes that determines its fate at the end.


    1. Certainly anyone who carried out such an experiment would would be morally responsible for endangering the cat. My point was only that it’s impossible, even in principle, to predict the cat’s fate before the quantum event.


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