The peak of science-ness, or something like it, the very idea of determinism, amazingly enough, rests upon a fairy tale, a fairy tale complete with demons and magical powers!
To wit, i am talking about determinism as the idea that having the position and speed of every particle in the universe you could know everything: Past, Present, Future, just for starters, but also everything that is subjective (would be just a side-effect of the particles interacting), everything that is probabilistic (would be merely incompletely observed) and so on.
Well, the guy that fleshed the idea out (it was certainly latent in more than one scholar’s mind) was Laplace. To explain it, he created a story of a demon! It would be a demon that would know all the particles’ data.
It turns out, after a little wikipediaing, that he actually didn’t talk about a demon, he just said “an intelligence”. Looks like he meant “a mind without a body”, for he is quick to add that that “eso non exeste“, that the all-knowing is basically not-gonna, that it is just a fairy tale. I guess he would not like the way i put the thing.
Because he did know that this thing of knowing everything is magical. It is magical in the “indetermination” sense, that it is impossible to both measure a speed and a position at the same time, but it is also magic in another, more subtle, and yet more crippling sense — a sense, by the way, that makes it almost impossible for my sensible, sound, reasonable arguments to dispel the tale.
This sense is that this demon violates the physical laws. It makes more than one thing occupy the same space. It can stuff more than one bit of information into one bit of matter. Information occupies little space, true, but it does occupy some space. It’s like he fits 30 gigs of porn into a 30 meg drive.
So what goes is that the demon/intelligence is supposed to not be physical. If determinism is to even make sense then it requires an intelligence that is not material, that is not limited by matter, that is independent. But, and it is a but the size of the universe, the very point of determinism is that nothing is independent of matter.
Let me just take a minute to make this sound more serious: Determinism consists of the idea that all that exists is subject to chains of causes and effects, and that those causes and effects are physical ones. Further, Determinism implies that there is no effective differences between classes of causes, or to put it less precisely, that everything follows the same principles. So for example there is no difference between sociology and physics. It is not meaningfully different to calculate the trajectory of a particle and to calculate the outcome of an election.
The problem is that this idea only makes sense if the reality is equivalent to a calculation. Not only all reality exist as ideas, as information that could in principle be knowable, having the information is equal to the presence of reality itself: Once you know everything the past and future are presented upon your eyes. In other words, Determinism requires that there exists an intelligence in the first place, and that «Reality» be equal to that intelligence.
Realists will often claim that while it is impossible to build a computer to calculate the universe you can take the universe as a machine to calculate itself. This claim is insidious: It feigns humility, but in effect lays down assumptions about the heart of reality itself.
It is insidious, because Determinism never actually states those, but takes them for granted. I do not claim to know Reality to work differently. What i DO maintain is that the nature of reality is way too big a topic to be taken for granted.
In fact, all relativism gets accused of excessive analysis all the time, when in fact the opposite applies: Determinism is primarily a metaphysical claim — a claim about the nature of the universe — while relativism is more comfortable without those unwarranted, untestable universal claims.
It is very important, and very subtle, not only that Determinism is Metaphysical, but also how Determinism derails into Metaphysics.
The original anti-metaphysical rant comes from Aenesidemus and the Pyrrhonists and it was more a “meh” than a “it’s wrong”. They didn’t prove metaphysics false, they suggested that very little was gained from pursuing metaphysics. The Sceptic stance on metaphysics is not opposition, it is disinterest.
At face value, Determinism also attempts to diminish the importance of metaphysics. In fact, Determinism presents itself as the champion of the fight against metaphysics. But their fight is a very different fight than the Sceptics’. Determinism does not get bored by Metaphysics, it does not ignore it: Determinism gets enraged by it.
And, by all means: Suit yourself. If Laplace wants to make a great campaign against Metaphysics, to my tastes he can knock himself out. It might even be interesting for the purposes history of science to investigate why did he have such a loaded reaction, but from the standpoint of philosophy Laplace’s discourse remains as flawed as Descartes’ “Method”.
To anyone who’s ever read Descartes’ famous text it stands out that there are a lot of crafty words around very feeble concepts. “I think therefore I am” seems like a master coup, but just as you get interested his arguments derail, finally getting to “Existence can’t be false because God can’t either”. What? If you were going to claim “God did it”, why go to all the trouble? (Not to talk of “He can part the seas, why the hell wouldn’t be able to lie?”, as this is probably his trap with that argument…)
When i originally read Descartes, i was disappointed by the book itself, but enthusiastic with what, at the time, i called “his attitude”. I was latter to discover, it consisted mostly of a diluted form of Scepticism, a school of thought that pre-dates Descartes by almost 2k years. Not only that, “Discourse on Method” was composed as a refutation of Scepticism. A refutation of something from which it takes almost all of his fruitful ideas.
In a very similar manner, Laplace’s determinism is a bastard son of Scepticism. It casts itself as Empiric — based solely on experience. But this allegiance no more than appearance. At the core, Determinism is Platonic. It takes Empiricism — a fundamentally Sceptic view of the world — under the condition that “Empiric” is not taken to be Subjective.
Empiric, even if we ignore the direct reference to Sextus Empiricus, means “experience”. It implies what is lived through, what happens to the subject, and the actions of people living and breathing. As such, experience must be subjective, in the sense that someone is got to experiment something for experience to exist. Thus knowledge is always a perspective, one take into reality, an exploration.
Ideas like “complete system of nature” or “whole information on the world” do not even make sense from an strictly Sceptic standpoint: As Laplace is the first to note.
To make “all of existence into an equation”, in Laplace’s words, means devising a system that is not physical. This is the “intelligence” or “Demon” — it cannot be bound my matter, it not only is impossible inside material reality, it also is contrary to the experimentation that Empiricism prefers. It is a body of ideas complete in itself, perfect in itself — and personal opinion is just an measurement mistake. Not only that, the system of universal ideas has properties, like internal consistency and regularity and mathematicality that set it apart from non-scientific ideas and human day-to-day life. It is the cave myth, all over again, in new clothing but all too familiar. A Platonic System, par excellence. This untarnished system of the universe is by definition beyond human experience. In fact, it works as a god — a final arbiter and authority.
Truth, for Laplace, is not what works, it is not what is valid to me personally, it is knowledge imbued with an authority whose size can only be compared with monotheism — even if he gives another name to it, and purports to “not need that hypothesis”.
All fine and well, but i wouldn’t shed 3 phrases to all that nonsense if there weren’t a deeper, difficult problem running underneath all of that. It goes more or less like that: Our contemporary world is built on top of Scepticism but it overtly maintains an anti-Sceptic dogma.
As per simple, direct, strict good sense, modern science is built upon Scepticism. It elects Method as its fundamental category — reflecting Scepticism’s emphasis on criteria for action instead of truth (or theory or metaphysics) — and it accepts that this Method must be mainly Empiric — reflecting Scepticism ethos of taking all ideas to be personal.
In this sense Scepticism isn’t even very radical, or devious: It is mostly cut-the-bull common sense. But on the other hand Scepticism is strongly neophilic: More than anything else it urges you, personally, directly, to just please open your eyes and try to grasp what’s around you.
And Determinism accepts all of the talk of Scepticism, that very talk that gets Relativists all sorts of criticism of being “all talk, no action”, but Determinism denies the very urge, that human responsibility, that contract that says open your eyes.
To Scepticism’s “Reality is whatever you make of your own life”, Determinism rebukes that “Reality is that which you have no choice but to accept”. The talk and the words are the same, no matter how you slice them, and by the way the words come straight from Sextus and co, but the ethos accepted is almost the exact opposite.
This form of betrayal is no monopoly of Laplace. For example, initially Structuralism had the aim of giving up static explanations of society, but it got corrupted into the claim that Structure itself is the (static) explanation of society. The initial amazement and puzzlement of early Modernists like Baudelaire or Gropius becomes the empty nihilism of Post-Modernism — which proceeds to accuse Modernism of being mechanistic. From the Korzibsky’s open-ended «the map is not the territory» esr extracts «truth is what makes the future less surprising» — looks like he was actually trying to create an example of neophobia!
The examples just seem to multiply.
The general neophobia of society adopts the tools created by neophiliac thinkers.
But is determinism, after all, utopian or dystopian?
It is easy to think that if you are just a machine, propelled forever onwards by chemical physical whatever forces beyond your control or understanding, it is easy to think that this would forever deny any of your responsibility and thus, your will. The person under determinism is not a person at all, it is just a pre-set device, the very worst connotation of the word «machine». This is a dystopia. And i would say that this is the easiest picture to make out of determinism. You could picture determinism in different ways, but it would require more fancy.
And still, Laplace created this story as a statement of victory.
I guess at his time scientia was not as overpowered as today, for sure, he was years and years behind the atom bomb (regardless of what realists claim, the only beyond-discussion argument for science). But he believed. He for himself thought science was the tits.
So: Was he oblivious to how his determinism could be a form of prison? Didn’t he even think about it? Do not all the other realists?
To say that all spirit is matter in another guise, like Laplace, or to say that all matter is spirit in another guise, like Judith Berman, in the end amounts to the same. Everything comes from X. One essence. Very Jewish of them, actually.
The demon that Laplace imagined confuses itself with matter. Matter, in this fantasy, is an endpoint to Laplace’s faith — a faith that he would call empiric inquiry or somesuch, but that regardless works as a faith, in the sense that it is a belief that he can’t give up, an idea that thus become to a large extent what he himself is, that makes him the way he is. So, why does Laplace prefers faith in science to Catholic dogma? Even more — what does the social move towards »faith« in science, what does this move entail?
And it is very, terribly, easy to explain this move in terms of a pissing contest, a contest about who is smarter — a contest that in the end is just another form of who is more violent and cruel (realists tend to call this “effective”). Thus this dispute would prioritize science not for its epistemic content but for its structural harshness, exactly because it is harder to understand. This story fits pretty well with what we’ve been seeing. But i choose not to take that stance.
So: What’s the reason to move to science? If it is still a god, a force you cannot deny, why do proponents of science see it as a move towards freedom?
Because, you know, all of the science radical-fanatics tell you that their god, through its only son technology, is the sole possessor of power over the land and the skies and the depths, but so do all other fanatics. Technology, lest you not be fooled, is not about god’s powers (that realists call truth, but again so do other fanatics), it is about treachery — old age and treachery beat youth and skill every time. The same treachery can be achieved believing in any god you care to name — and quite a few of the “great scientists” that realists list as champions of truth were indeed full of faith, in all the flavours available.
Put in those terms, it would seem that the only possible explanation for Determinism is a fundamental misconception about Scepticism impact on society. It is Determinism that seems to believe that Scepticism opposes the precedent belief system. It is the NeoPhobic that recognizes the NeoPhilic as a revolution.
It is the ugliest man that kills god, Zaratustra has nothing to do with that. Zaratustra, indeed, wants no part in this chore — he says: “Out of my way!”. And there is a hint about who is this most ugly of the ugly, it is a philosopher that should have been served on a dish, long long ago.
Indeed, Determinism and all other forms of NeoPhoby think that Scepticism kills a dogma, and upon seeing the action, albeit lacking any hint of understanding, NeoPhoby jumps right in! If they are gonna take away its cherished dogmas, then it wants to be part of the butchery! He wants it so bad, in fact, that it puts the knife in the hands of the butcher.
Needless to say, Scepticism will have none of this shit.
Which brings us to the core of the problem: Determinism is destroying the clutches upon which it depends. If the fall will be just a comedy play, or if it will be a slip that brings the whole castle of cards tumbling down — who could determine that?
And, again, i couldn’t care a lot, really. For example, it would have been much more practical to me to have skipped Descartes and dived directly in Feyerabend, for sure, but then again i did proceed to Feyerabend one way or the other. Understanding is not easy, and as much as the myriad forms of Neophobia toil to confuse and hide Scepticism, and tries to scare other people into
worshipping er, accepting their scientific-sounding dogmas, they are really powerless to affect the internal creativity and curiosity of others. The interesting kids will sooner or later give up Asimov and flock to PKD.
But there is a risk, and even if i sincerely believe it is realists that are on the line of fire, mostly, i see this risk as big enough to potentially affect everyone.
And the risk is that: Neophobia, as most kinds of fear really, tends to hold over-tight, instead of hanging loose. It tenses. And thus it piles. It piles on top of itself. It creates clusters — not scaffolds but chains.
So for example the neophobia of Creationism, instead of being met by better and more sincere forms of religious interchange and ecumenism, it is opposed by a form of anti-religion that is exactly as dogmatic as — and i sometimes fear actually more. Instead of arguing that the idea of purposefulness in life brought to life by new religious currents has some similarities to the sense of amazement towards science that, say, Sagan describes in “light in the darkness” — instead some people prefer to argue that science is more powerful and if you disagree you’ll have to chat with the atom bomb!
Neophobia is rigidity. It is everywhere. And it is not a bad thing. But, exactly as everything else in this world (Relativism and Scepticism inclusive) its blind and unchecked version should be watched with a lot of care.