Monday, November 30, 2009

Night thoughts about determinism

I've always rather detested the idea of determinism. Life without free will seems meaningless and futile. Things on big scales might be deterministic - planets don't just zoom off - and things on the smallest scales might may be equally so, albeit probabilistically - the odds are beyond doubt - but surely for us middle-sized creatures free will must reign.

But consider the subject of humans and their religions. The matter of religious belief or unbelief would seem to be the ultimate exercise in free will, but is it? For it seems not to be a moral thing, nor a logical thing. It would seem to be a genetic thing not under our control.

For instance, I was born to be incapable of faith in a received religion. The very idea makes my hair hurt. The logic of the matter - gosh, isn't it a neat coincidence that the religion I was born into just happens to the only true one! - utterly prevents me from adopting it. For a person with my genetically imposed sort of brain, it simply can't be done.

But others have to suffer a similarly imposed genetic fate: The deep need to give themselves to these stories, regardless of logic. Faith beats everything else. The beliefs of 80-90 percent of the people in the world (never mind that they believe entirely different things) make that clear.

So, while I can talk about logic and evidence, others can talk about leaps of faith. But the important question is the same in each case: do any of us have any choice? Perhaps not. Perhaps it simply has to do with the kind of brain our genetic heritage gave us.

To be sure, history shows that religions always fade away. Sometimes only after thousands of years, sometimes next week. But there's never a shortage. I knew a Christ figure once, one of so many that dot the landscape in every generation. For every Christ or Mohammed or Joseph Smith - rare successes - there are hundred of other candidates. This one, named Curly Thornton, was a young evangelist who blew into Montana with a small flock of (mostly female) adorers, considered himself the chief spokesperson for God, ran for governor, lost, and last I heard died in a hotel room in Chicago. I suspect, and worry, that his brain left him little choice but to lead a flock to glory. When I revealed in the newspaper that one of his pretty young supporters had financed the last few months of his campaign, he assured the press he would pay her back. He didn't. But what he did do was sincerely believe. I could tell he really did. But what I had no way of knowing was whether he had a choice in the matter.

Religions are a dime a dozen. But then, unfortunately, so is most everything else. I firmly believe that the (scientific) truth is out there. But can man, genetic children of mindless one-celled creatures, even get close to it on his own?

We're already come a long way, and I insist on thinking we can indeed do it on our own. But then I would, wouldn't I?


  1. No need to worry about determinism any more. Thanks to "spooky action at a distance" locality is just an illusion for us middle-sized creatures. An illusion at least until quantum computers show up and break all our encryption. But that will most likely be followed (non-deterministically I'm sure) by quantum key distribution, so at least we'll know when some gentleman reads our mail. Who knows maybe my wave function would have collaped if he didn't read it. Damm him I could be jumping through two slots at the same time right now. :)

    On the other hand this is pretty much exactly what I would think, isn't it?

  2. Today's Dr. Phil was about Curly Thornton and his cult. Wow, theft, beatings, rape and pedophilia. Its a good thing you aren't one who falls into those things.