Chaos theory and doubts about determinism

I’ve mentioned a few times before that I’m not a convinced determinist, at least not of the strict or hard variety.  I have three broad reasons for this.  The first is that I’m not sure how meaningful it is to say something is deterministic in principle if it has no hope of ever being deterministic in practice.

The second is quantum physics with its inherent uncertainties, uncertainties that we know bleed into the macroscopic world by the very fact that we know about their existence.  If they didn’t bleed into the world, how would us macroscopic entities know about them?  (If you hold to an interpretation of quantum mechanics that posits unobservable determinism, see my first reason.)

The third reason is chaos theory, the fact that inherent uncertainties in any measure we might make means that many dynamic systems are indeterministic, even in principle.  Along those lines, I discovered this documentary on chaos theory on Amazon today.  If you have an Amazon account, and an hour to spare, it’s a fascinating show.

If you don’t have an Amazon account, or don’t want to spend an hour on it, this Youtube is a pretty good shorter introduction to it.

Are you a strict determinist?  If so, what do you think about chaos theory?  Or quantum uncertainty for that matter?

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13 Responses to Chaos theory and doubts about determinism

  1. keithnoback says:

    I don’t think quantum indeterminacy has anything to do with causal determinism – predictability, sure, but those are two different issues. I think that on an analytic basis, yeah, determinism is how things work, what with causal closure of the physical realm and all (I hate that phrase, but it gets the point across). I also think that determinism is a fascinoma, and entirely uninteresting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re teaching me new terms: causal closure and fascinoma. Thank you! Causal closure, as distinct from physical determinism, makes good sense to me.

      But I’m curious how you see that quantum indeterminacy can have macroscopic effects (allowing us to observe them), but not have anything within that effect’s influence have its determinacy compromised. Is it that you hold to the many worlds or some other deterministic interpretation of QM? Just wondering.


      • keithnoback says:

        Even a truly random event is subject to explanatory reduction. As you point out, how else would we know about it, and more to the point, how else would we know that it was ‘random’? I don’t think anything else is required for determinism to hold, from an analytic standpoint. Remember, if you are Laplace’s Demon, i.e. you somehow have access to a complete explanatory reduction, you can’t predict the future; that statement has no meaning for you. You just know it. And that is an absurdity, even if you can defend it in principle (the notion of that sort of analysis, not the knowing part – that’s right out the window). So I agree with you that the meaning of determinism is questionable since unpredictability is a fact. Causal closure probably is a better way to think about it, but there are no Causal Closure Demons or weighty Causal Closure Tomes to bash over an opponent’s head, so people will probably continue to go on about determinism, free will, compatibilism, etc. It’s just as silly and implacable as a philosophical zombie.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Mordanicus says:

    The video is quite interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. agrudzinsky says:

    Chaos theory is somewhat enigmatic to me. Theories exist to predict things. Isn’t it funny to have a theory about unpredictable things? Predicting unpredictability… It’s a zen concept.


    • LOLS! I had the same sentiment. But I think the value of chaos theory is in predicting how much uncertainty cannot be avoided in predicting the state of certain systems. Of course, predictions of uncertainty are probably themselves subject to uncertainty, etc, which also might be a zen concept.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. People mean multiple things when saying “X is deterministic”. 1) X is not genuinely random. 2) X can be predicted. 3) X has free will — it stands outside the causal chain of physics, is not bound by it, and hence can truly “choose” to act.

    I don’t think chaos theory is randomness, although how it stands with (2) depends how one defines “prediction”. AFAIK, one can’t analytically predict a chaotic system, but one can run a simulation. However, the sensitivity to initial conditions and limited measurement fidelity may render any real prediction in this sense moot.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Excellent point about distinctions. A few quick observations. 1) by itself seems unfalsifiable to me if we can’t do 2), but of course that doesn’t mean it isn’t reality. 3) seems to assume that there is a causal chain. If there isn’t one, but someone’s choices are still fully constrained by the laws of physics, does that lead to free will worth having?

      Also a good point that chaos theory isn’t necessarily randomness. It’s more about imprecision spreading and multiplying until it makes the range of possible outcomes too wide to be useful. It’s possible that randomness “sneaks” in somewhere in the imprecision, but the nature of imprecision being what it is, that may never be testable.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. The gap between science and bourgeois philosophy is increasing exponentially. I recommend the epistemology of dialectical materialism to you. You might explore as lead-ins Neoplatonic and mystical philosophy and the philosophy of the concealed priest Hegel. Phil Stanfield


    • Thanks Phil. I know you write a lot about that on your blog. I can’t say I’m a Marx enthusiast, but do you have a brief summary entry that you could recommend?


      • Hello SelfAwarePatterns, the reason I recommended dialectical materialism is because it was developed on a philosophical tradition that recognises that the world is a unity of opposites (and which explores that unity). Marx and Engels took that tradition and correctly stood it on its feet in a material world. Yes, I have the highest regard for Marx and Engels but I am not a Marxist – reflecting my disagreements with Marxism, how can one be a ‘follower’ of a person when that person’s epistemology has at its very heart the engine of contradiction and change?

        May I suggest beginning with mysticism because its methods became the philosophical core of dialectical materialism – Nicholas of Cusa’s On Learned Ignorance (in 3 sections) is extremely important (and amazing). You could also dip into many of my short posts from Cusanus, Hegel, Marx, Engels and Lenin re- the (poetry of the) unity of opposites.

        Bourgeois ideology has attempted to paper over its shortcomings re- science with concepts such as ‘chaos theory’. Philosophers in the mystical and dialectical materialist traditions expressed it far better – and with far more integrity. Best regards, Phil

        Liked by 1 person

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