This comment interchange on a recent post begs for further discussion. Which I'll start off below after sharing a screenshot of the interchange.
Taking JB's second comment first, I understand why he feels this way -- that this blog is the wrong place for discussing "these kinds of subtle, abstract notions."
Despite the name of this blog, many commenters are fervent believers in some form of religion, and they aren't very open to talking about ideas that challenge the tenets of their religion. But I started this blog 14 years ago with the intent of fostering just the sort of discussion that JB talks about.
So let's see if we can discuss the admittedly subtle, abstract notion of determinism without resorting to religious, philosophical, or supernatural platitudes.
I'd put Spence Tepper's comment in that category. Determinism doesn't make a case for God. Most religions that believe in some form of divine being believe in some form of human free will. And even if someone argues this point, the very notion of God is extremely arguable.
Thus let's leave God out of this discussion of determinism.
Let's also dismiss Tepper's stark assertion that free will exists for humankind, which also is highly debatable, since most of the scientific evidence argues otherwise. Further, it is difficult to see how free will can coexist with determinism. Is Tepper really suggesting that the universe is deterministic, but humans have free will?
If so, where does that free will come from? God? A soul? But we're going to leave out God and other unproven supernatural entities, so that argument has zero credibility.
Let's return, then, to JB's provocative first comment.
I found it provocative because it makes me think, and that's a good thing. I've read and written a lot about free will and determinism. But this is a fresh idea for me: that determinism carries within it an inherent contradiction, because its apparent trueness can't be the reason someone holds that belief.
I look forward to JB speaking more about this, either in a comment or in an email message to me that I could share. Here's how I see what he said, which may or may not be close to what his understanding is. Because this indeed is subtle territory, I'll sort of circle around this issue in various ways.
(1) If determinism is true, and I believe it is, nothing exists outside of its bounds. This includes a belief in free will and a disbelief in determinism. Those also would be determined by prior causes and effects, as would a belief that determinism holds sway in the universe.
(2) Chance, to my understanding, is unknown determinism. "Chaos theory" isn't actually chaotic in the usual sense of the term. It simply refers to complex systems dominated by feedback loops in which small effects can have large causes, and it is impossible for humans to understand the dynamics of the system in sufficient detail to predict its behavior. But chaos theory is deterministic.
(3) Quantum mechanics may appear to be a refuge for genuine chance. However, as I've written about recently, no one knows the underlying meaning of quantum phenomena. Some theories (many worlds, for example) are deterministic. The Copenhagen interpretation isn't. Regardless, determinism seems to rule in the realm of everyday objects, which is where we live.
(4) I agree with JB that trueness alone can't be the reason someone accepts determinism. That would be only one among many different causes that lead to someone, like JB and me, embracing the idea of a deterministic universe. However, a longing for scientific objective truth is stronger in some people than in others. Even if this longing is determined, not freely willed, it still is a causative factor in how people look upon the world.
(5) Douglas Hofstadter wrote a book called "I Am a Strange Loop." I loved the title. I spent two years in a Systems Science Ph.D. program. Back then (1970's), and also now, feedback loops were recognized as a valid way of conceptualizing how the world works.
(6) Loops can exist within loops. A belief or a feeling that free will is true can exist within a larger deterministic loop. For example, I believe in determinism, yet in my daily life I have a feeling that I act and choose freely. This is akin to me knowing that the Earth rotates around its axis, yet I feel "the sun is setting" when I see it sinking below the horizon.
(7) Maybe this is what Tepper is referring to when he spoke of both determinism and free will existing. If so, I agree that we can have knowledge that X is true, yet wrongly have a feeling that Y is true. This is why science is our best way of knowing, since feelings and intuition can lead us astray.
(8) Many books I read accurately say that evolution and natural selection don't care about truth, they care about survival and passing on a being's genetic heritage. This might be part of what JB is getting at. Finding truth isn't an inherent stand-alone motivation for us humans. Even scientists (or especially scientists) acknowledge this.
(9) So again, science and reason are our best means of determining what is true about the world. Discussion, experimentation, hypothesis testing, skeptical questioning -- this is how we overcome human biases and blind spots. On our own, we always will be bound by our personal subjectivity.
Well, this is a start toward a discussion of the subtleties of determinism.
Feel free to weigh in on what JB, Spence Tepper, and I have said on this subject. Just leave God and supernaturalism out of the comments. Think for yourself. Use reason and evidence to make your case, not faith or feelings.