Why determinism isn't true and human freedom is real (explained in about 15 minutes)

Physicists may talk a big game but it's all show

Why determinism isn't true and human freedom is real (explained in about 15 minutes)
Photo by Dan-Cristian Pădureț / Unsplash

Something gave physicists the idea that they understand everything about reality because they understand how the microscopic parts move

From Lawrence Krauss to the late Steven Hawking, physicists have had no trouble taking pot-shots at philosophical ideas.

Which wouldn't be so bad, if only they weren't wading out into philosophy themselves... only to do it with less skill than a stoned second-year philosophy undergrad.

That's what happens if you wander into a field of study unprepared. If I wandered into the physics department and drew pictures in crayon, they'd tell me to get lost.

When a physicists wanders into the study of wisdom, they get a lot of articles in the press. Go figure that one out.

Not that it's hard to figure. If you aren't an expert in a topic, it's not possible to tell the good from the bad.

Physicists get the benefit of the doubt because of prestige. They've got a lot of math... that non-experts don't understand... and there's a certain weight to that.

But when they wander outside their expertise, they get things as ugly as anyone.

Why physics isn't the final answer

Let's say you walk into your kitchen for breakfast. You get out the bread, butter it up, get ready to drop it in the toaster.

Then a masked maniac with a baseball bat kicks in your door, and before you know what's happened, he's inexplicably bashed your toaster to smithereens before fleeing back into the sunrise.

You aren't having toast now, are you?

Even aside from the shock and surprise, you physically can't make toast. The toaster's bashed up.

Now here's where you have to think about this for a second.

According to the best theories in physics, nothing's lost.

All the matter and energy of your toaster is accounted for.

Physics only describes particles and forces between them, using systems of mathematical equations.

You don't find any concepts like "toaster" in its theories and laws.

Working toaster, broken toaster, a physicist can't tell the difference. The concepts of "working" and "broken" aren't part of fundamental physics.

What you need is an engineer who knows how to fix things.

But surely the toaster behaves according to the laws of physics?

Naturally, yes. You can describe the physical behavior of the toaster in every respect.


You need a toaster to explain a toaster

Physics can tell us why physical events happened.

It can't say anything about the purpose of those events.

Why did the toaster heat up?

Because of the laws of physics which describe the properties and behaviors of the toaster and its parts

Because it's breakfast time and I wanted some freakin' toast

Which answer is right?

You don't have to dwell on the toaster. It's just a metaphor (I hope that's clear).

You can say the same about almost anything that's interesting in the world that concerns human beings.

Living things. Oak trees, cats, pigeons, E. coli bacteria.

Other people. Things other people do.


Can you explain how the letters on this screen make up the words that you're reading? How the words add up to the thoughts in your head as you read?

Do the words mean things because of the physical laws that determine the emission of light on electronic screens?

Are written words fixed by the physical properties of a printed page?

No way.

None of this stuff is part of physics.

Even if physics "explains" stuff, in some general, abstract way, the physical laws don't tell you much that's interesting. It's too remote and too abstract.

If that's right, then why do many physicists claim they can explain everything with abstract equations and therefore there's no free will?

It's because they do philosophy badly

And they're ignorant of the history of their own ideas and beliefs. A one-two combo of hubris that gets them into trouble.

If you look back in the history of ideas (doesn't matter if you want to call this "philosophy" or not), you'll find lots of materialists.

This goes back to the beginning, with an old Greek thinker named Democritus. Democritus thought that the only thing that existed were atoms and empty space. Sound familiar?

Materialism by itself is fairly innocent. It's the belief that the only fundamentally real things are the material substances that we can observe and measure.

That sounds reasonable enough at a glance. Until you ask the hard questions. What about numbers? You need numbers to do science, but they can't be material.

What about the mind? What about rationality? How do you get thinking into a materialistic universe? How do you separate good thinking from sloppy reasoning?

And if you don't have thinking, much less good thinking, how is anyone here to even think about the question of whether the universe is made up of only matter?

It gets worse.

Today's cutting-edge materialist runs together three different ideas

Besides materialism, there's two extra things they have to smuggle in:

Reductionism claims that scientific explanations of high level events must ultimately translate into explanations in the terms of the lowest level theory.

This means that toasters and peace lillies are ultimately described by the particles that make them up, and the differential equations that describe how those particles move.

Machines and plants aren't 'really' real, you see. They're just arbitrary collections of particles and the mathematical laws that show how the particle-lumps move around.

Dead things are no different from living things. Broken machines and working machines are just matter in different piles. Allegedly.

Determinism claims that all physical events have a sufficient physical cause.

That's a fancy way of saying that everything that happens, happens because some other physical event caused it to happen. And since that cause is a sufficient cause, there's nothing else you need to say about it. Physical events cause other physical events, end of story.

Only... is that the end of the story?

Physicists will pat themselves on the back at this point for being very smrt and having all this math and science.

But there's a piece missing from this argument

Notice one key detail.

Not one of these three claims -- materialism, reductionism, and determinism -- is a question for science to answer.

Shocking? Then show me the experiment that "proves" materialism.

Don't spend too much time on this. There is no such thing and there can't be, even in principle. Materialism isn't the kind of claim you can prove or falsify, at least not by "looking at the science".

It's a metaphysical claim about the nature of what exists.

The same goes for reductionism and determinism. Both of these are philosophical claims, which have been around for thousands of years. Not even exaggerating, the Greeks and Romans were talking about these exact ideas before Christ.

"But science has shown..."

No it hasn't.

Go back to the beginning. Modern science started with the work of folks like Bacon, Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton.

That early science began by isolating very specific, highly controlled experimental conditions. This makes it easy to determine things like the rate of a falling object. It makes it simple to establish laws of mechanics that show how objects in highly simplified, abstract situations move.

The laws are always an approximation. The abstraction is not the concrete reality.

Abstraction gives you a lot of power, but it comes at a price. You have to get rid of all the interesting stuff -- like the qualities of an object that you can't weigh and measure -- in order to get at the explanation.

That's been true since day one.

Knowing what a falling apple has in common with an orbiting moon is one thing.

Moving from that general principle to the belief that there is no difference between apples and moons takes a leap of faith.

The science has shown? Nah.

The science has supposed.

You've got to argue that the abstract mathematics is somehow "more real" than the objects you can see and touch and taste and smell.

That's philosophy. Philosophy requires giving reasons and making arguments.

Ain't none of that in the physics.

But Richard Feynman said that philosophy was as useful to science as ornithology was to birds

Ornithology would be pretty useful to birds if they had it, so I don't think that's the point you want to drop against philosophy.

Anyhow, Feynman's point is almost true. If you're working with mathematical equations and well-defined experimental conditions, you don't need to think too hard about deeper questions. You just need to do the math.

But if you're going to put your head up and mouth off about universal truths that apply to everything everywhere and always, you need a little more understanding.

That's not physics anymore. That's not seeing "what the science says". That's the point when you've wandered back to the philosophy department. Landmines ahoy.

The highly bizarre test-cases that consume physicists tell us something interesting. No doubt about it, as modern engineering wouldn't work without this knowledge.

But establishing the laws of the smallest stuff doesn't tell you too much about the behaviors of the big interesting things that we actually live with.

You don't get biology, economics, social science, computers, or toasters from dogmatic materialism.

Size matters. The principles that work at higher levels aren't the same as the principles of the smallest things.

The laws of physics apply, yes, but they aren't the only rules in play.

In all that I didn't even say one word about freedom. You'll have to tune in for part 2.

In the mean time...

Just because a physicist said it doesn't mean it's right or true

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