“Devs” Is an Excellent Series, Except…

Devs is a science fiction series that’s streaming on the Hulu service. You have to pay for Hulu, but they usually have a free trial for new subscribers. If you have the right kind of Spotify account, Hulu is free.

The people who made Devs have done a brilliant job. The scripts are intelligent, the actors are talented. One thing that sets it apart is that it’s visually stunning. It’s a TV show that looks better than most big-budget movies. One reason it’s so good is that it’s written and directed by Alex Garland, the filmmaker hugely responsible for 28 Days Later, Ex Machina and Annihilation.

Another thing that sets Devs apart is that it concerns the nature of reality. Is the universe deterministic? What is the correct interpretation of quantum mechanics? Are there multiple worlds? Do you and I have free will? Should we be held morally responsible for our decisions if we couldn’t have chosen otherwise?

I haven’t finished the series yet. Maybe when it’s over, my opinion will have changed. I think Aristotle said we should judge a work of art as a whole.

What motivated me to write this post, however, was that one of the characters, Lily Chan, is now faced with what might turn out to be a truly momentous decision, possibly the biggest decision anyone has ever made. (A determinist would say I had no choice — the history of the universe made me start writing.) It isn’t giving much away about the show to say that Lily has been told she will be at a certain place later tonight and, assuming she is, things are going to go terribly wrong. She and her friend both think it’s crazy to think anybody could reliably predict such a thing, but at the same time she wants to make sure the prediction doesn’t come true. How should she make sure of that?

Here are two options:

(a) She and her friend, who are in the beautiful city of San Francisco, should get some cash, turn off their phones and start driving. They should drive as far away as possible from the place she’s predicted to be later tonight. They should definitely not stay in San Francisco, since it’s only a few miles from where the big, bad event is supposed to happen. Come on, Lily! Run away!

(b) Lily and her friend should stay in her apartment in San Francisco, but not go outside. That should be good enough.

If you were in her situation and you wanted to prove the prediction wrong, which option would you choose? Would you choose (a) or (b) to make sure the very, very bad thing didn’t happen?

This is a TV show. Which option does she choose?

I think we all know the answers to these questions.

Free Will Again

British newspapers pay more attention to philosophy than American papers do. That partly explains why the Guardian published two articles about Julian Baggini’s new book, Free Will Regained: The Possibility of Free Will.

Baggini’s principal thesis is that we have “free will” in the crucial sense of that phrase so long as our actions reflect our important beliefs and desires. Philosophers call Baggini’s view “compatibilism”. It’s the claim that free will is compatible with determinism. Even though every event in the history of the universe, including everything we think or do, might be the result of what happened previously (plus the laws of nature), we human beings are free and make real choices in the morally relevant sense. We are morally responsible for our actions even if determinism is true.

Both of the Guardian articles endorse Baggini’s position. The first was written by Terry Eagleton, a well-known Professor of English Literature. It’s labeled as a review but it’s really a statement of Eagleton’s views on the nature of freedom. This is the paragraph I found especially interesting:

Can we still be free if we could not have acted otherwise? Baggini is surely right to claim that we can. In fact, most of the things that matter – being in love, composing a superb sonata, … feeling horrified by the slave trade – have a smack of inner necessity about them, as this book argues in a perceptive chapter on art. What defines the self most deeply are the sort of commitments from which we could not walk away even if we tried. The point, however, is that we don’t want to. Freedom from such engagements would be no freedom at all. True liberty lies in being able to realise such a self, not shuck it off.

The other article is by a Salley Vickers, an English novelist. This paragraph corresponds to Eagleton’s:

The book’s central argument is that while it may be true that we could not in any given circumstance have acted otherwise, that is an impoverished definition of freedom and by no means the same as saying we have no freedom to choose. Our choices may be rooted in our physiology, our genetic makeup, but out of these arises something that was once called “character”, and it is this that is the final arbiter on choice.

So, is it true that a person was free to do X, Y or Z even though that person could only have done X? To me anyway, there is something odd about saying that I freely chose to live in New York instead of Montana, but I couldn’t have lived anywhere except New York.

The easy answer to this conundrum is that, in discussions like this, we are using different senses of words like “free” and “could”. Ordinarily, those of us who decide where to live do so freely if nobody has a gun to our head. We might prefer urban density to wide open spaces, or have better job prospects in New York or have been scared by a cowboy the last time we visited Bozeman, but unless something out of the ordinary, like being hypnotized, compels us to choose one particular place to live, it’s perfectly acceptable to say we made a free choice. If nothing out of the ordinary happened before we decided where to live, we could have lived somewhere else if we wanted to.

However, there is a different sense of “could have been different”. That’s the one that’s kept the free will discussion going all these years. Suppose that nothing out of the ordinary happened before you made your decision. You did some research, thought about it for months and then picked New York. Why would anyone deny that you made a free choice?  

It all goes back to the idea that human beings are part of nature and what happens in nature is determined by what previously happened. If we are physical beings, whatever happens in our bodies happens in accordance with physical laws. Hence, given the state of the world at time t – 1, the state of the world at time t can’t be any different from what it turns out to be. When you chose New York, your decision was merely one event in a chain of events that couldn’t have been any different. We might call this the “metaphysical” sense of “could have been different”. 

When the writers above say that we have free will even though we “could not have acted otherwise”, they’re saying that it doesn’t matter whether we could have done something else in this metaphysical sense. So what if the state of the world at t – 1 (before our decision) completely determined the state of the world at t (when we made our decision)? If we acted in accordance with our desires or character, and nothing extraneous or bizarre affected our decision, we acted freely. Determinism is compatible with free will.

This is the view endorsed in the two Guardian reviews and, according to one survey, it’s the view accepted by most academic philosophers. It’s a highly respectable philosophical position. Yet it strikes me as very odd.

A typical human life includes millions of decisions. Perhaps hundreds of thousands of these decisions involve conscious deliberation. Our decisions help define who we are: what we did with out lives, who we spent time with, where we went, what we sought and what we avoided. I find it extremely difficult to look back at the decisions I’ve made and see them all as effects of what came before. If my choices were all caused by what came before, that would make me feel less responsible for making those choices, even though my experiences and my psychology played major roles in determining what I did. To say that I couldn’t have taken a different path than the one I took, in that deep, metaphysical sense of “could have been different”, seems to make my decisions less meaningful.

Not only that, if determinism is true, everything the human race has ever done, whether good or bad, couldn’t have been otherwise. Adopting that idea would surely make some of us think differently about the past. Would we celebrate our achievements or regret our failures in the same way if we were determinists?

The situation is even stranger if we consider the future. If determinism is true, whatever I choose to do in the future will result from what has happened before. I won’t be choosing between truly possible alternatives. Should I merely wait to see what happens? 

Of course, whether determinism is true or not, there won’t be any noticeable difference. We will make decisions in either case, without knowing how much metaphysical control we actually have. We’ll find ourselves deciding this rather than that. But I’m pretty sure that if I were to think that determinism is true, I’d feel less responsible for my decisions, and that would probably affect how much I deliberated, which decisions I made and how I thought about other people.

What bothers me about compatibilism is that its proponents don’t seem to care whether determinism is true. They don’t think it would make any difference if it were true. Fortunately or unfortunately, we’ll probably never know whether it’s true or not. It’s not as if we could step back and observe an alternative history take place and we may never figure out whether quantum-level randomness affects our behavior. So our lives will go on as usual. But I think our lives would change if we somehow discovered or became convinced that determinism is true. It would be reasonable to view the past and future differently and reconsider the idea of moral responsibility. The compatibilists don’t agree and I find that odd.

That God Playing Dice With the Universe Thing Again

Quanta has an article with the intriguing title: “Have We Been Interpreting Quantum Mechanics Wrong This Whole Time?”. Far be it from me to interpret quantum mechanics at all, so I’ll merely quote:

…That nature is inherently probabilistic — that particles have no hard properties, only likelihoods, until they are observed — is directly implied by the standard equations of quantum mechanics. But now a set of surprising experiments with fluids has revived old skepticism about that worldview. The bizarre results are fueling interest in an almost forgotten version of quantum mechanics, one that never gave up the idea of a single, concrete reality.

The experiments involve an oil droplet that bounces along the surface of a liquid. The droplet gently sloshes the liquid with every bounce. At the same time, ripples from past bounces affect its course. The droplet’s interaction with its own ripples, which form what’s known as a pilot wave, causes it to exhibit behaviors previously thought to be peculiar to elementary particles — including behaviors seen as evidence that these particles are spread through space like waves, without any specific location, until they are measured.

Particles at the quantum scale seem to do things that human-scale objects do not do. They can tunnel through barriers, spontaneously arise or annihilate, and occupy discrete energy levels. This new body of research reveals that oil droplets, when guided by pilot waves, also exhibit these quantum-like features.

Assuming that continued experimentation confirms that the probabilistic behavior of these droplets and fluids mirrors the behavior of quantum-level particles, the question would be: Is this similarity a mere coincidence or does it indicate that there is an underlying deterministic basis for apparently spooky, indeterministic quantum events? 

To some researchers, the experiments suggest that quantum objects are as definite as droplets, and that they too are guided by pilot waves — in this case, fluid-like undulations in space and time. These arguments have injected new life into a deterministic (as opposed to probabilistic) theory of the microscopic world first proposed, and rejected, at the birth of quantum mechanics.

“This is a classical system that exhibits behavior that people previously thought was exclusive to the quantum realm, and we can say why,” said John Bush, a professor of applied mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has led several recent bouncing-droplet experiments. “The more things we understand and can provide a physical rationale for, the more difficult it will be to defend the ‘quantum mechanics is magic’ perspective.”

The great French physicist Louis De Broglie first proposed a deterministic pilot-wave theory in the 1920s. David Bohm famously proposed a later version. According to the article, John Stewart Bell, the author of Bell’s Theorem, which supposedly shows that quantum mechanics cannot be deterministically explained by “hidden variables”, was also a proponent:

In 1986, [Bell] wrote that pilot-wave theory “seems to me so natural and simple, to resolve the wave-particle dilemma in such a clear and ordinary way, that it is a great mystery to me that it was so generally ignored.” 

Of course, many physicists are skeptical, as they should be. Overturning the standard interpretation of quantum mechanics (the indeterministic “Copenhagen” interpretation) would be a very big deal. But doing so would make our universe much less mysterious (no more God playing dice). And it would allow physicists to give up the increasingly popular idea that there are many, many universes (the “multiverse” interpretation of QM). We might then go back to thinking of the universe as a unique, cozy place where everything happens for a reason.

A Guide to Reality, Part 1

Alex Rosenberg is the R. Taylor Cole Professor of Philosophy and chairman of the philosophy department at Duke University. He’s published more than 100 articles and reviews. Among his books are Microeconomic Laws: A Philosophical Analysis, Hume and the Problem of Causation, The Structure of Biological Science and Darwinian ReductionismLike most philosophers these days, he writes for an academic audience. In 2011, however, he published a book for a general audience: The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions.

The title is a little misleading, since Rosenberg derives his atheism from a more fundamental belief called “scientism”. That’s the view according to which, in Rosenberg’s words, “the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything”. Unfortunately, there is no word for a person who accepts scientism other than “scientist” and you can be a scientist without believing in scientism. For that matter, you can be an atheist without believing in scientism. 

On the other hand, if you’re sure of God’s existence, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality probably won’t change your mind. It’s a book for people who are willing to take science extremely seriously, even to the point of concluding that many of humanity’s most common beliefs are wrong. Since I’m one of those people, I enjoyed the book, even while disagreeing with some of Rosenberg’s conclusions.

Because The Atheist’s Guide is well-written and covers so much ground (for example, physics, evolution, perception, consciousness, free will, history and morality), I thought it would be an interesting exercise to work through it, explaining and responding to Professor Rosenberg’s views right here on this blog (while continuing to write about other things, like class warfare and mowing the lawn). 

If you want to consider the professor’s views first-hand and be able to correct my account of what he has to say (assuming you want to participate), the paperback and electronic versions are going for less than $15 online.

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Next time:  the relationship between science and atheism.

The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions by Alex Rosenberg

The author is a professor of philosophy at Duke University who usually writes books for other philosophers and people who aspire to be philosophers. This one was written for a general audience. Maybe that’s why the book comes on so strong. Borrowing Nietzsche’s phrase, it’s philosophy with a hammer.

I assume Professor Rosenberg chose the title, but it’s a little misleading. Rosenberg derives his atheism from a more fundamental view called “scientism”. He defines that as the worldview according to which “the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything”. Unfortunately, there is no word that refers to someone who accepts scientism except “scientist” and you can definitely be a scientist without believing in scientism. Plus, a title like The Guide to Reality for People Who Accept Scientism isn’t exactly catchy. So “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality” it is.

One way Rosenberg explains scientism is to say that physics fixes all the facts (except, presumably, for the facts of logic or mathematics). Physics says that all events in the history of the universe, except some at the quantum level, are determined by previous events and the laws of nature. Furthermore, the Second Law of Thermodynamics (entropy ultimately increases in an isolated system) is the “driving force” behind evolution, which is the result of haphazard genetic mutation. Evolution gave us minds, but our minds are nothing more than the activity of our brains.

Rosenberg concludes that we don’t have free will, introspection is generally misleading and thoughts (whether conscious or unconscious) aren’t “about” anything (since what happens in a neuron can’t be “about” anything — it’s just a tiny input/output device). Furthermore, there are no purposes in nature, even in our minds, and there are no ethical facts. Morality is just another evolutionary adaptation. In addition, we can learn nothing from history or economics, since human culture is constantly evolving.

Rosenberg expresses his conclusions with an air of almost absolute certainty, which is odd for someone who believes in science (maybe it’s not so odd for someone who believes in scientism). For example, he says that “what we know about physical and biological science makes the existence of God less probable than the existence of Santa Claus”. Perhaps he’s being facetious in that passage, but many atheist or agnostic philosophers would agree that God’s existence is a metaphysical question beyond the reach of science. Natural processes don’t count for or against the supernatural. Besides which, there is no evidence at all for the existence of Santa Claus.