A Philosopher's Blog

Determinism, Order & Chaos

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on November 10, 2014

As science and philosophy explained ever more of the natural world in the Modern Era, there arose the philosophical idea of strict determinism. Strict determinism, as often presented, includes both metaphysical and epistemic aspects. In regards to the metaphysics, it is the view that each event follows from previous events by necessity. In negative terms, it is a denial of both chance and free will. A religious variant on this is predestination, which is the notion that all events are planned and set by a supernatural agency (typically God). The epistemic aspect is grounded in the metaphysics: if each event follows from other events by necessity, if someone knew all the relevant facts about the state of a system at a time and had enough intellectual capabilities, she could correctly predict the future of that system. Philosophers and scientists who are metaphysical determinists typically claim that the world seems undetermined to us because of our epistemic failings. In short, we believe in choice or chance because we are unable to always predict what will occur. But, for the determinist, this is a matter of ignorance and not metaphysics. For those who believe in choice or chance, our inability to predict is taken as being the result of a universe in which choice or chance is real. That is, we cannot always predict because the metaphysical nature of the universe is such that it is unpredictable. Because of choice or chance, what follows from one event is not a matter of necessity.

One rather obvious problem for choosing between determinism and its alternatives is that given our limited epistemic abilities, a deterministic universe seems the same to us as a non-deterministic universe. If the universe is deterministic, our limited epistemic abilities mean that we often make predictions that turn out to be wrong. If the universe is not deterministic, our limited epistemic abilities and the non-deterministic nature of the universe mean that we often make predictions that are in error. As such, the fact that we make prediction errors is consistent with deterministic and non-deterministic universes.

It can be argued that as we get better and better at predicting we will be able to get a better picture of the nature of the universe. However, until we reach a state of omniscience we will not know whether our errors are purely epistemic (events are unpredictable because we are not perfect predictors) or are the result of metaphysics (that is, the events are unpredictable because of choice or chance).

Interestingly, one feature of reality that often leads thinkers to reject strict determinism is what could be called chaos. To use a concrete example, consider the motion of the planets in our solar system. In the past, the motion of the planets was presented as a sign of the order of the universe—a clockwork solar system in God’s clockwork universe. While the planets might seem to move like clockwork, Newton realized that the gravity of the planets affected each other but also realized that calculating the interactions was beyond his ability. In the face of problems in his physics, Newton famously used God to fill in the gaps. With the development of powerful computers, scientists have been able to model the movements of the planets and the generally accepted view is that they are not parts of deterministic divine clock. To be less poetical, the view is that chaos seems to be a factor. For example, some scientists believe that the gas giant Jupiter’s gravity might change Mercury’s gravity enough that it collides with Venus or Earth. This certainly suggests that the solar system is not an orderly clockwork machine of perfect order. Because of this sort of thing (which occurs at all levels in the world) some thinkers take the universe to include chaos and infer from the lack of perfect order that strict determinism is false. While this is certainly tempting, the inference is not as solid as some might think.

It is, of course, reasonable to infer that the universe lacks a strict and eternal order from such things as the chaotic behavior of the planets. However, strict determinism is not the same thing as strict order. Strict order is a metaphysical notion that a system will work in the same way, without any variation or change, for as long as it exists. The idea of an eternally ordered clockwork universe is an excellent example of this sort of system: it works like a perfect clock, each part relentlessly following its path without deviation. While a deterministic system would certainly be consistent with such an orderly system, determinism is not the same thing as strict order. After all, to accept determinism is to accept that each event follows by necessity from previous events. This is consistent with a system that changes over time and changes in ways that seem chaotic.

Returning to the example of the solar system, suppose that Jupiter’s gravity will cause Mercury’s orbit to change enough so that it hits the earth. This is entirely consistent with that event being necessarily determined by past events such that things could not have been different. To use an analogy, it is like a clockwork machine built with a defect that will inevitably break the machine. Things cannot be otherwise, yet to those ignorant of the defect, the machine will seem to fall into chaos. However, if one knew the defect and had the capacity to process the data, then this breakdown would be completely predictable. To use another analogy, it is like scripted performance of madness by an actor: it might seem chaotic, but the script determines it. That is, it merely seems chaotic because of our ignorance. As such, the appearance of chaos does not disprove strict determinism because determinism is not the same thing as unchanging.


My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page


15 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. TJB said, on November 10, 2014 at 8:44 am

    According to quantum mechanics, strict determinism does not exist. For example, it is impossible to know when a uranium atom will fission. This is not due to lack of knowledge about the uranium atom, but is a fundamental property of quantum mechanics.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 10, 2014 at 12:44 pm

      The problem is determining whether quantum mechanics has got it right. While there are plenty of equations and theories, all we observe is what we get not what might have been. The indeterminacy is a hypothesis that there is chance rather than strict determinism. But, as I argued, a quantum universe looks just like a deterministic one from the inside.

      Determinism once ruled a large part of science, then it was dethroned. Perhaps it will be king again. One thing about having a historical perspective on science is that it leads one to realize that there is no final science-at least not until either there is no more science or we get it completely right. So, we have the BTOD (Best Theory of the Day) and then we get another one. Then another. Repeat.

      • ajmacdonaldjr said, on November 10, 2014 at 6:42 pm

        Physicist Lee Smolin believes both relativity and quantum theory are wrong. As he says, there have been no advancements in theoretical physics in the past 80 years. The Trouble with Physics: http://leesmolin.com/writings/the-trouble-with-physics/

      • T. J. Babson said, on November 10, 2014 at 9:43 pm

        “The problem is determining whether quantum mechanics has got it right.”

        Mike, you will admit, I hope, that the scientific underpinnings of quantum mechanics are a lot more secure than those of anthropogenic global warming (AGW)? And yet you, as a Democrat, are presumably willing to sacrifice the standard of living of billions of people because of your certainty in AGW?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 12, 2014 at 1:09 pm

          Well, we can still use quantum mechanics even if the metaphysics is in error. It is well supported, but so were its predecessors. It is very useful, as were some of its predecessors.

          Global warming doesn’t rest on any metaphysical grounding (as a theory); this makes it somewhat less problematic. The evidence that we are influencing the climate seems quite good and it is certainly not a wildly implausible or crazy claim. But, it could be in error. After all, it is inductive reasoning and that can always yield a false conclusion.

          I don’t advocate addressing climate change in ways that will cause needless damage to the standard of living of people. Rather, my view on what should be done about the problems presented by climate change are what are also good ideas for other reasons. I favor renewable energy primarily because we will need it as the non-renewables become exhausted. I favor reducing pollution because of the health hazards. Interestingly, everything I think should be done would be acceptable to a rational person who denies man-made climate change. This is because the impact on the man-made climate change is a secondary (or less) reason. Likewise, I favor addressing the increased storm activity and flooding not because they are supposed to be caused by us but because defending our cities, towns and croplands from such things is a good idea, regardless of what is causing these problems.

          Since climate change has been made a political issue, as a practical matter of tactics I prefer to present solutions that do not focus on “we are to blame” but rather “here are problems we need to address, even if climate change is BS.”

          • ajmacdonaldjr said, on November 12, 2014 at 4:20 pm

            You should write a post about this catcalling controversy. Do men harass women on the street because of their genes? (determinism?) or because they are morally reprobate? (free will?). Video: Why Do Men Harass Women On The Street? http://gothamist.com/2014/11/12/street_harassment_catcall.php via @gothamist

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 13, 2014 at 4:57 pm

              It shall be so. On Monday. I’ll practice catcalling this weekend to get some data.

          • T. J. Babson said, on November 12, 2014 at 6:45 pm

            “I don’t advocate addressing climate change in ways that will cause needless damage to the standard of living of people.”

            Mike, in order to make a dent in climate change billions of people will need to remain in poverty who would otherwise be lifted out of poverty due to economic growth.

            By siding with the Dems on this issue you are condemning billions to live in poverty.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 13, 2014 at 2:53 pm

              I disagree. First, hardening cities against storms and flooding will require construction projects and that means jobs. Second, adding solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources to the infrastructure will also mean opportunities for new corporations, new jobs and more competition in the energy field. Third, the technological spin offs should also create opportunities as well. Fourth, the development of cheaper, more efficient renewable energy sources will help power the development of third world counties, which will result in more business opportunities, jobs and profits. People can make a lot of green going green.

            • T. J. Babson said, on November 13, 2014 at 3:30 pm

              Mike, I am all in favor of renewable energy for a wide variety of reasons, but if you look at the facts there is no way a gradual approach will make a dent in stopping climate change.

              By 2009, nearly every government in the world had endorsed the 2°C limit — global warming beyond that level was deemed “dangerous.” And so, every year, the world’s leaders meet at UN climate conferences to discuss policies and emissions cuts that they hope will keep us below 2°C. Climate experts churn out endless papers on how we can adapt to 2°C of warming (or less).

              Two decades later, there’s just one major problem with this picture. The idea that the world can stay below 2°C looks increasingly delusional.

              Consider: the Earth’s average temperature has already risen 0.8°C since the 19th century. And if you look at the current rapid rise in global greenhouse-gas emissions, we’ll likely put enough carbon in the atmosphere by mid-century to surpass the 2°C limit — and go past the 4°C limit by century’s end. That’s well above anything once deemed “dangerous.” Getting back on track for 2°C would, at this point, entail the sort of drastic emissions cuts usually associated with economic calamities, like the collapse of the Soviet Union or the 2008 financial crisis. And we’d have to repeat those cuts for decades.


            • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 13, 2014 at 4:55 pm

              I’m generally a pragmatist and a utilitarian when it comes to large scale ethics. So, if it is true that 1) climate change is real and 2) the only way to stop it would create far more harm then good, then we should not stop it.

              Since I have read plenty of science fiction, I can easily imagine humans adapting their technology to match the new world. If dealing with the consequences of climate change creates less harm than stopping it, then that is what we should do.

              However, I am not yet convinced that 1) we cannot stop it or that 2) the cost of stopping it would be greater than the cost of living with it.

              In any case, the earth would get on just fine without us. If something succeeds us as an intelligent race, I hope they do better than we did.

            • TJB said, on November 14, 2014 at 1:23 pm

              Comments, Mike?

              The US and China today announced what has been hailed as a historic deal on greenhouse gas emissions, with China agreeing to cap emissions around 2030 and the US committing to 26 – 28% reductions by 2025.

              What does this actually mean for the climate and for the damage that climate change might bring?

              Running the agreements through the PAGE09 integrated assessment model, and throwing in the EU’s pledge to cut emissions by 40% by 2030 for good measure, it appears that these agreements on their own give us less than a 1% chance of keeping the rise in global mean temperatures below the iconic 2 degC level in 2100. Most likely the rise will be about 3.8 degC . This assumes all other regions of the world continue to allow their emissions to grow along the IPCC’s A1B business as usual scenario. Annual mean climate change impacts will still rise to about $20 trillion per year by 2100, with about 2/3 of those impacts in poor countries.

              So while the deal may be politically important, statements about its ambition should be treated with caution.

              Update added 12:20 on 12 November 2014: Some have commented that assuming the rest of the world continues on the A1B business as usual path is unduly pessimistic. So I have repeated the analysis assuming the rest of the OECD matches the US’s actions of a 28% cut by 2025 (with the EU cutting by 40% as before), and the rest of the developing world matches China’s pledge to stop increasing emissions by 2030. The chance of staying below 2degC in 2100 rises to 1.1%, and the mean impacts in 2100 are now about $19 trillion. The underlying message remains the same: These pledges are only the first step on a very long road.


            • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 17, 2014 at 12:43 pm

              So, the assessment is too little, too late?

            • TJB said, on November 17, 2014 at 2:01 pm


  2. ajmacdonaldjr said, on November 10, 2014 at 6:46 pm

    Ward and Brownlee make a good case in their book “Rare Earth”. They point out many examples of how the solar system is set up just right in order for complex life to exist on earth. One example is Jupiter, which acts as a comet sweeper protecting the earth from comet collisions. Rare Earth: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rare_Earth_hypothesis

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: