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.

 

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Lessons from Gaming #2: Random Universe

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 22, 2014
Call of Cthulhu (role-playing game)

Call of Cthulhu (role-playing game) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My experiences as a tabletop and video gamer have taught me numerous lessons that are applicable to the real world (assuming there is such a thing). One key skill in getting about in reality is the ability to model reality. Roughly put, this is the ability to get how things work and thus make reasonably accurate predictions. This ability is rather useful: getting how things work is a big step on the road to success.

Many games, such as Call of Cthulhu, D&D, Pathfinder and Star Fleet Battles make extensive use of dice to model the vagaries of reality. For example, if your Call of Cthulhu character were trying to avoid being spotted by the cultists of Hastur as she spies on them, you would need to roll under your Sneak skill on percentile dice. As another example, if your D-7 battle cruiser were firing phasers and disruptors at a Kzinti strike cruiser, you would roll dice and consult various charts to see what happened. Video games also include the digital equivalent of dice. For example, if you are playing World of Warcraft, the damage done by a spell or a weapon will be random.

Being a gamer, it is natural for me to look at reality as also being random—after all, if a random model (gaming system) nicely fits aspects of reality, then that suggests the model has things right. As such, I tend to think of this as being a random universe in which God (or whatever) plays dice with us.

Naturally, I do not know if the universe is random (contains elements of chance). After all, we tend to attribute chance to the unpredictable, but this unpredictability might be a matter of ignorance rather than chance. After all, the fact that we do not know what will happen does not entail that it is a matter of chance.

People also seem to believe in chance because they think things could have been differently: the die roll might have been a 1 rather than a 20 or I might have won the lottery rather than not. However, even if things could have been different it does not follow that chance is real. After all, chance is not the only thing that could make a difference. Also, there is the rather obvious question of proving that things could have been different. This would seem to be impossible: while it might be believed that conditions could be recreated perfectly, one factor that can never be duplicated – time. Recreating an event will be a recreation. If the die comes up 20 on the first roll and 1 on the second, this does not show that it could have been a 1 the first time. All its shows is that it was 20 the first time and 1 the second.

If someone had a TARDIS and could pop back in time to witness the roll again and if the time traveler saw a different outcome this time, then this might be evidence of chance. Or evidence that the time traveler changed the event.

Even traveling to a possible or parallel world would not be of help. If the TARDIS malfunctions and pops us into a world like our own right before the parallel me rolled the die and we see it come up 1 rather than 20, this just shows that he rolled a 1. It tells us nothing about whether my roll of 20 could have been a 1.

Of course, the flip side of the coin is that I can never know that the world is non-random: aside from some sort of special knowledge about the working of the universe, a random universe and a non-random universe would seem exactly the same. Whether my die roll is random or not, all I get is the result—I do not perceive either chance or determinism. However, I go with a random universe because, to be honest, I am a gamer.

If the universe is deterministic, then I am determined to do what I do. If the universe is random, then chance is a factor. However, a purely random universe would not permit actual decision-making: it would be determined by chance. In games, there is apparently the added element of choice—I chose for my character to try to attack the dragon, and then roll dice to determine the result. As such, I also add choice to my random universe.

Obviously, there is no way to prove that choice occurs—as with chance versus determinism, without simply knowing the brute fact about choice there is no way to know whether the universe allows for choice or not. I go with a choice universe for the following reason: If there is no choice, then I go with choice because I have no choice. So, I am determined (or chanced) to be wrong. I could not choose otherwise. If there is choice, then I am right. So, choosing choice seems the best choice. So, I believe in a random universe with choice—mainly because of gaming. So, what about the lessons from this?

One important lesson is that decisions are made in uncertainty: because of chance, the results of any choice cannot be known with certainty. In a game, I do not know if the sword strike will finish off the dragon. In life, I do not know if the investment will pay off. In general, this uncertainty can be reduced and this shows the importance of knowing the odds and the consequences: such knowledge is critical to making good decisions in a game and in life. So, know as much as you can for a better tomorrow.

Another important lesson is that things can always go wrong. Or well. In a game, there might be a 1 in 100 chance that a character will be spotted by the cultists, overpowered and sacrificed to Hastur. But it could happen. In life, there might be a 1 in a 100 chance of a doctor taking precautions catching Ebola from a patient. But it could happen. Because of this, the possibility of failure must always be considered and it is wise to take steps to minimize the chances of failure and to also minimize the consequences.

Keeping in mind the role of chance also helps a person be more understanding, sympathetic and forgiving. After all, if things can fail or go wrong because of chance, then it makes sense to be more forgiving and understanding of failure—at least when the failure can be attributed in part to chance. It also helps in regards to praising success: knowing that chance plays a role in success is also important. For example, there is often the assumption that success is entirely deserved because it must be the result of hard work, virtue and so on. However, if success involves chance to a significant degree, then that should be taken into account when passing out praise and making decisions. Naturally, the role of chance in success and failure should be considered when planning and creating policies. Unfortunately, people often take the view that both success and failure are mainly a matter of choice—so the rich must deserve their riches and the poor must deserve their poverty. However, an understanding of chance would help our understanding of success and failure and would, hopefully, influence the decisions we make. There is an old saying “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” One could also say “there, but for the luck of the die, go I.”

 

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The Secret to Artistic Success is…Luck

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on March 7, 2014
The Mona Lisa.

The Mona Lisa. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a writer and someone who teaches an Aesthetics course, the cause of artistic success is a matter that I find rather interesting. When I was an undergraduate I was involved in a faculty-student debate about artificial intelligence. In the course of the debate, I defended free will. The professor on the other side made an interesting point in claiming that I believed in free will because I wanted credit for my success. That remark stuck with me and I found it applied elsewhere, such as matters of luck (that is, chance that turns out favorable or unfavorable).

Since I have been a gamer for quite some time, I am well aware of the role (or roll) of chance in success. However, as the professor noted, I wanted credit for my successes and hence while I acknowledged the role of luck, I tended to minimalize its role. However, after having some modest success with my books and teaching Aesthetics for years, I came to accept the view that luck (that is, favorable chance) has a large role in success. Of course, this was a largely unsupported view. Fortunately, Princeton’s Matthew Salganik decided to investigate the matter of success and had the resources to do so.

In order to determine the role of chance in success Salganik created nine identical online worlds. He then distributed the 30,000 teens he had recruited for his experiment among these virtual worlds.  Each group of teens was exposed to the same 48 songs from emerging artists that were unknown to the teens. In return, the teens were able to download the songs they liked best free of charge.

One world was set up as the control world—in this world the teens were isolated from social influence because they could not see what songs their fellows were downloading. In the other eight worlds, they could see which songs were being downloaded—which informed them of what the other teens regarded as worth downloading.

This experiment was certainly well designed: each world is identical at the start and the test subjects (the teenagers) were randomly assigned to the worlds.  Given the quality and size of the experiment, the results can be safely regarded as statistically significant.

Given that the same 48 songs were available in each world, if quality was the defining factor for success, then it would seem to follow that each world should be fairly similar in terms of which songs were downloaded the most. However, Salganik found that the worlds varied a great deal. For example, 52 Metro’s song “Lock Down” was first in one world and 40th in another world. Salganik concluded that “small, random initial differences” were magnified by “social influence and cumulative advantage.” In short, chance was the decisive factor in the outcome. As a gamer, I certainly appreciated these findings and could easily visualize modelling this process with some dice and charts—like in games such as Pathfinder and D&D.

Lest it be thought that chance is the sole factor, Salganik found that quality does have some role in success—but much less than one might suspect. Based on additional experiments, he found that succeeding with a work of poor quality is rather hard but that once a certain basic level of quality is achieved, then success is primarily a matter of chance.

In terms of the specific mechanism of artistic success, a group of people will as a matter of random chance decide that a work is good. The attention of this group will attract more attention and this process will continue. Those who are drawn by the attention seem to engage in the reasoning that the work must be good and special because all the other people seem to believe that it is good and special. However, the work was

Interestingly enough, Leo Tolstoy seemed to have hit on a similar idea—although he obviously lacked the means to run the sort of experiment conducted by Salganik.  As Tolstoy said, “a work that pleases a certain circle of people is accepted as art, then a definition of art is devised to cover these productions.”  Tolstoy believed that approach failed to distinguish between good and bad art and thus he regarded it as flawed. With a tweak, this can be used to capture Salganik’s findings: “a work that pleases a certain circle of people is accepted as good, then it is believed by others to be special.”

Interestingly enough, the sort of “reasoning” that Salganik’s experiment seems to have shown is the Appeal to Popularity fallacy: this is the “reasoning” that because something is popular, it follows that it is good/correct. It also nicely matches the similar Bandwagon fallacy: that because something is winning, it follows that it is good/correct. Not surprisingly, this is grounded in the cognitive bias known as the Bandwagon Effect: people have a psychological tendency to align their thinking with other people. In the case of Salganik’s experiment, the participants aligned their thinking in terms of their aesthetic preference and thus created a bandwagon effect. The effect is rather like the stereotype of the avalanche: a small, random event can set off a massive tide. Given that the process of selection is essentially not a rational assessment of quality but rather driven by cognitive bias and (perhaps) fallacious reasoning it certainly makes sense that the outcomes would be decided largely by chance. The same, if his experiment extends by analogy, would seem to hold true of the larger world.

 

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