This is an excerpt from the book series Philosophy for Heroes: Continuum. You can get a copy here.
The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.
—Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism [Arendt, 1973, p. 474]
The word “science” is Latin (scienzia) for knowledge. But it means so much more than what we covered in the first book. There, we discussed our cognition and how we can conceptualize the world. Among the central concepts we have discussed are:
ENTITY · An entity is a “thing” with properties (an identity). For example, a plant produces oxygen, a stone has a hard surface, etc.).
IDENTITY · An identity is the sum total of all properties of an entity (e.g., weight: 160 pounds, length: 6 feet, has a consciousness, etc.).
PROPERTY · A property refers to the manner in which an entity (or a process) affects other entities (or other processes) in a certain situation (e.g., mass, position, length, name, velocity, etc.).
CONFIGURATION OF A PROPERTY · The configuration of a property relates to the intensity of a certain property of an entity.
EFFECT · An effect is the change caused to the configuration of the properties of an entity (e.g., the heating of water changes its temperature).
PROCESS · A process describes the mechanism of a cause working to an effect (e.g., if you put an ice cube into a glass of water, the cooling of the water is the process).
Here, we actively create experiments to discover more about the world. This approach is the path of a hero: not to be a passive bystander, but instead to interact with his or her environment. This interactive approach also poses new challenges where we no longer can simply look at entities (and ourselves) being strictly separated from each other. Instead, we have to look at a continuum of entities. Instead of looking at reality as a series of snapshots or discrete entities, we are looking at infinitely folded recursive processes. Many processes in nature cannot be understood by purely entity-based thinking and language. We say that “it is raining” instead of talking about the positions of individual raindrops. In this book, we will talk about a number of such processes, from quantum theory to evolution. Nature is not concerned about our predilection to dividing it into small parts in order to understand it, nature is a continuum.
The question now is, how does it really work? What machinery is actually producing this thing? Nobody knows any machinery. Nobody can give you a deeper explanation of this phenomenon than I have given; that is, a description of it. They can give you a wider explanation, in the sense that they can do more examples to show how it is impossible to tell which hole the electron goes through and not at the same time destroy the interference pattern. They can give a wider class of experiments than just the two slit interference experiment. But that is just repeating the same thing to drive it in. It is not any deeper; it is only wider. The mathematics can be made more precise; you can mention that they are more complex numbers instead of real numbers, and a couple of other minor points which have nothing to do with the main idea. But the deep mystery is what I have described, and no one can go any deeper today.
—Richard Feynman, The Character of Physical Law [Feynman, 1994, p. 139]
Why should one state follow from another at all? Why is everything not “frozen?” Why do entities act according to their properties all the time? Could they not act in one year like this, and in another year like that?
To answer these questions, let us take a step back. In Philosophy for Heroes: Knowledge, our approach to knowledge required the universe to be deterministic. A deterministic view of the universe means that one (and only one) state follows from a previous state: every event has a cause, and every cause is an event. Before we discuss the findings and interpretations from physics, let us re-examine the concept of determinism on a purely philosophical level. Causality means that effects have causes. That means that the properties of an entity are realized. And the only way “nothing” would follow an entity is if the entity ceases to exist.
CAUSALITY · Causality refers to the effect of one or several entities on another entity in a certain situation (e.g., an accident is no random occurrence, there are one or several causes which led to the accident, such as lack of sleep, a technical defect, poor visibility, etc.).
One property of an entity could be that its other properties change over time. This is something we can observe. We might need a lot of time to observe seemingly random changes and find their underlying pattern, but we would find them eventually. A current example for this is Tabby’s Star, a star 1,480 light years from Earth. With the help of telescopes, a group of amateur scientists have noticed a strange, seemingly random pattern of changes in brightness. At this point (2018), it is unclear what is causing it. For example, orbiting planets would show a very regular pattern of changes in brightness. All options are open, from planets with ring systems like our Saturn, huge artificial (alien) structures, irregular dust clouds, or large comet showers. But we know there must be a cause and it is not the sun because the sun does not violate its own properties.
Now, let us look at the opposite scenario. If our universe was not deterministic, what would that mean? In such an indeterministic world, entities would not act according to their identity. The effects we could observe would no longer help us to identify their causes and thus the underlying properties of an entity. In addition, in an indeterministic world, our own perceptual faculty and cognitive system would be based on indeterminism. This could still “work” if it is merely small particles jiggering randomly. In large numbers, the randomness of individual particles would not matter.
Imagine a large choir, singing a song. Even if a few people sing the wrong words or sing in the wrong tune, you can still hear the actual song. It could also be compared to radiation: our body can handle some radiation without problems. But eventually, the damage due to random destruction of individual cells adds up. Likewise, this applies to a higher, logical level as well. If we cannot be sure that the words we say or understand from another person are really the words we wanted to say or that the other person said, a conversation is impossible.
If everything were random, something like the human brain could not exist. Such complex structures can emerge only when there is some sort of pattern in the laws of nature. So, the question is not whether the universe is deterministic or not, but how “indeterministic” (if at all) it is. Evidence shows that the degree of “indeterminism” or jiggering in our universe is relatively small. That we exist is proof that stable systems like our bodies can form despite the jiggering at the particle level. The question remains whether we live in an indeterministic world that allows a certain level of order at the macroscopic level (biology), or if we live in a fully deterministic world.