Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Beginnings and Endings; Free Will; Objectivity; Science

Please forgive me if these three topics seem hopelessly unrelated, at least the first from the second two. They formed part of my meditations on similar topics.

I realized recently (and I forgive those readers who do not have access to my fiction works-in-progress) that I tend to write and Game Master with a clear beginning and clear end in mind. Other writers and GMs (since a GM is a writer working with drastically different constraints), I imagine and have seen, have a less clear idea of what the ending will likely be and let the middle ground shape what their conception of the ending is. In that respect, they're as surprised as anyone else when things turn out very strangely.

Now, mind you, my endings are never really complete endings (they typically have somethng after them: Changing of the Guard comes after Final Battle, in turn coming after the Councils). More importantly, if my players were to do something drastic or my characters simply feasibly could not accomplish what I wanted them to (yes, a writer's characters cannot do anything she asks of them: they are independent entities, and I am as surprised as anyone else when I discover something about them), the ending would change.

I think that my general concept, though, is excusable. For one, it gives a narrative structure. The real point are the things that happen inbetween, for it is not a foregone conclusion that good will triumph, it will only triumph because of some advantage that I discover as the characters develop. Secondly, the greatest stories of all, human stories, are almost 100% (I cannot say 100%, for reasons that will become clear later) this way: the beginning and end, birth and death respectively, are very well predicted and known. This does not contribute one iota to discovering what happens inbetween.

After all, I'd imagine it was a foregone conclusion in Tolkien's mind that good would triumph, even if it may have surprised him that Gollum would deliver (inadvertantly as it may be) the final death blow to evil.

Now, one of these days I will have to write a story where I do not have an ending in mind and the path is chosen by the way the characters develop. But right now my skill is most honed at discovering the inbetween.

This got me thinking about the nature of free will. I truly do believe that humans have it. However, as I discovered, this is in essence an empirical question. (I'll comment on this a bit later). So I will have to prove it not by broad philosophical references, as many try to do, or disprove it either by the same mechanisms, for neither will suffice. Empirical evidence only will do.

At least intuitively, it seems to me that most people share (in practice, when not deluded by philosophers) a notion of free will. They believe when they get up that they can choose whether or not to put on shoes (perhaps they will pick sandals or flip-flops indead). They believe that they can choose whether or not to speed. Perhaps they have disagreements about what they can or can't do, but at least there is an idea that there is a voice in the head that is selecting things consciously and making decisions.

A rebuttal could be that people's decisions are conditioned by all sorts of things outside of their control: societal and cultural mores of morality and fashion and behavior, the weather outside, war and famine, the limits of their very intelligence and body, etc. But this will not do.

For one, all of these are limits to free will. None of them establish without much further argumentation that no free will whatsoever exists. One does not have to believe in an omnipotent humanity to believe that in general people make decisions, even if those decisions are as basic as putting on pants or shorts. As Chomsky argued in his academic smackdown of B.F. Skinner, there is a fundamental difference between someone forced under torture to do particular things and a rock falling to the ground when dropped, and no degree of philosophical sophistry, semantics and solipsism will change that.

Then there are the questions of how much these actually stop people. Many people avoid fires, but some people (firefighters) seek them out and risk their lives to jump into the infernos and recover living beings and property. Others may dance on coals or burn themselves for self-flagellation or martial arts training. Cultural limits, while serious, are clearly not complete, as within cultures there is a tremendous amount of variation. As we saw with the civil rights movement (and, in fact, all successful political movements), it is possible to change attitudes simply by commitment.

Studies done at my alma mater, UC Davis, demonstrated that people can learn compassion even at an older age: To quote:

"'The adult brain is more changeable than we thought,' Shaver says. Standard wisdom once said that the only significant change in adults' brains was death of nerve cells. But new evidence shows that nerve growth can reshape the brain throughout life. Shaver views this finding with optimism.

'It may be that you can change your brain to become better, happier and more beneficial to other people,' he says."

In response, the behavioral studies done by Pavlov and Skinner on humans almost universally failed, which is why they have passed into disrepute and Skinner seems to be cited more often as a philosopher than a scientist. I cannot find Chomsky's rebuttal to Skinner that was featured in The Chomsky Reader, but there is the review he wrote: . When, for example, they gave candy to children to encourage better test results, they found that test scores went back to normal or lower when the candy was removed, while the test group saw slow improvement because they had learned study tactics. People are not pigeons, and even the ability to train animals is rather limited. Choose dogs and pigeons, creatures used to humans, and you can get good results. Try training a hummingbird or ants and you may get a different result.

How could there be a scientific basis for free will? Isn't science deterministic?

Wrong. And this is a common mistake anti-science folks from all over the Left and Right make. Science is not about determining everything in the world. It is about determining what is possible and fearlessly facing what actually exists. Science has some problems, and I will discuss them, but this is not overwhelmingly one of them.

Modern chaos theory, in fact, has formed a basis for some to speak about linguistics (language typically being associated with the free will literature, for some reason). After all, what does chaos theory say?

1) Anthropogenic numbering and limitations, such as rounding at decimal points, can turn small influences over a number of manipulations into rather large ones.

2) Even with completely perfect numbers and sources as well as total omniscience, there are some things that are beyond certainty.

There is a chance, however infinitesimal, for localized reversal of entropy if the aggregate results of quantum flux were to generate it. The whole universe nowadays seems to perhaps not be one reality but a few closely intertwined ones, with numerous possibilities for random events.

Everyone knows about the gremlins that strike complex systems: the bugs that pop up seemingly at random when working with computers, for example.

All of these things establish that it is possible to have something outside of the purview of science to determine. Science's role then would be to find what it could about the limits and abilities of the human will.

These ruminations have caused me recently, since I have more fully read and dealt with Hume, to understand that so many things that are treated as philosophical questions are merely empirical ones. Does God exist? An unanswerable empirical question outside of the reach of our epistemology, but an empirical question nonetheless. What about the soul? What governmental systems will work? All require empirical answers.

And, of course, all empirical questions are subject to a lack of absolute certainty.

First of all, even in very ironclad structures of logic and math, no finite number of cases establish a general principle. Three right triangles that have sides such that A^2 + B^2 = C^2, where C is the hypotenuse, does not establish the Pythagorean Theorem. Only a general proof or an infinite number of cases will establish it. In science, there are no general proofs, because there are no axioms to work from.

Second, in the real world, even an infinite number of repetition of "A follows B" does not establish that "A causes B". We may see every time that when we walk to an automatic door it opens, but this does not establish that our psychic power opened the door - it could have been a mechanical result of the door itself. There may be a 100% correlation between the number of bums and doctors in a city... and yet the real causal influence could be the size of the city.

Hume concluded that we can only INDUCE (not DEDUCE) scientific truths and thus that no statement of empirical fact or causality could be philosophically ironclad. However, it could be highly probable and very instructive, informing better moral activity. In this way, Hume argued that we try to find a degree of certainty to satisfy our moral, intellectual and emotional "passions".

The Matrix example, of course, illustrates the real point: How do you know what you're feeling is real? Could not some powerful force be deluding you? Descartes introduced this concept, but he hastily put away his omnipotent demon. I think there is no reason to believe that God isn't fucking with us, whatever She is.

Science then becomes the search for the best available theory to explain the most recorded phenomena. It sounds like a wholly reasonable activity to me.

I can, of course, recognize science's limitations. Science can trivialize wondrous things; it can be imperially applied to cases where the evidence does not support it as a way to bludgeon opponents; it can be used to generate the machinery for violence; it can attempt to make value questions factual ones and thus disrespect faith and ethics; and so on.

A microcosm of science (and I can comment more extensively, of course, but fundamentally I feel that it has its place): Yesterday, my Mom was talking to me about Jack Parsons, who was a somewhat quirky individual and found out that he needed asphalt one day for his explosives by watching a crew making it. I in turn pointed out Michael Albert's argument that a science devoid of a sense of wonder, feeling, hunches, intuition, and a healthy dose of mysticism would be in the Dark Ages and the one we have that in fact has all those things (remember: Pythagoras was not just a geometer but a cult leader, and the Muslims of the post-Roman period combined their distrust for idols and graven images with beautiful geometric pictures) would be messing around with genetics. Then my Mom smelled the sea and began talking about ancestral memories, and my Dad (a science/math type guy) said (as they were mixing a fertilizer for the garden), "Oh, that's the algae."


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