Curiosity as a Purpose of Life

One of the most common questions religious believers ask atheists is where we find purpose in life, what makes our existence meaningful and worthwhile. I’ve written about this subject on Ebon Musings, but I want to add to my answer. Both atheists and theists can give the usual answer of wanting to do good in the world, helping our fellow human beings and so on, but I’ve realized that atheists can offer another answer, something that believers genuinely can’t say: atheists are inspired to go on living by curiosity. We want to know who we are and why is it that we’re here.

In a proximate sense, of course, we do know the answer to this question. The evidence tells us that our species arose several million years ago, descended from hominid forebears. Through excavating fossils and comparing DNA, we can trace our evolution back through early mammals, through therapsid reptiles, through the first tetrapods, almost all the way back to the origin of life. Our family roots aren’t in doubt. But in a larger sense, we want to know: is there a reason why the universe exists? Is there a reason why it’s the way we experience it, and not some other way – was there any necessity to the whole scheme, or was it just chance? What else (or who else) is out there in the cosmos that we haven’t yet discovered? What will be the fate of humanity, and what role will we play in whatever’s to come?

These questions must have answers, and they may be answers that we can find out. But in the meantime, they’re great mysteries, tantalizing us with the promise of unseen truth, awaiting discovery like hidden treasure. We’re motivated to live because we want to witness the joy of finding out. We want to see what the answers will be, and when it comes to our own future, we can even help create them. In the atheist worldview, the universe is like a wiki, and it’s our task to cooperate in writing it – to uncover the truth, tell the as-yet-untold story of existence, and define our place in it for ourselves.

Members of organized religion, by contrast, can’t say this. They believe that they already possess final truth about the reason for the universe’s existence: God created it to glorify himself, and humans to worship him and have fellowship with him. They believe that nothing else we could learn, nothing we could ever find out, is as true or as important as these central dogmas. And they believe that the future, if not already foreordained, will inevitably unfold in accordance with God’s omnipotent will, and nothing we can do will change the outcome. To them, the universe is a final draft, a closed canon; we’re just characters in a script, and the ending has been written since the beginning of time.

But even if we don’t know the true answers yet, we can be certain that these ancient, anthropomorphic religions clearly aren’t them. These beliefs are too human-centered, too small; they reflect the narrow, provincial perspective and overblown self-importance of their creators in according humanity a privileged and central place in the workings of the cosmos. Even more ridiculous, they postulate not a creator worthy of the vastness we observe, but a pathetic and irrational creature that thinks and acts just like the alpha male of a chimpanzee tribe: benevolent toward his obedient servants, violent towards strangers and outsiders, jealous and obsessed with whether everyone is paying him sufficient homage, constantly fearful of competition. These primate instincts don’t define the universe.

But then, what does? What’s the deeper meaning that underlies it all? Is there some sort of intentionality, some incomprehensible sentience that constructed the universe for a purpose unimaginable to us? Or is nature truly blind and insentient, and it’s simply inherent in the nature of complex and dynamic systems to give rise to local condensations of complexity like us? Is our cosmos the only one there is, or do we live in a quantum multiverse where our world and our lives are just one winding pathway in an infinite set of ever-branching ramifications? Are we someone else’s dream, simulation, or science experiment? Is intelligent life common in the cosmos, or incredibly rare and precious?

These questions are staggering, but I don’t find it inconceivable that someday we, or our distant descendants, will be able to answer them. Even if we’ll never know, I want to be able to say that we gave the attempt our greatest effort. This curiosity, the urge to reflect, to explore and to know, is a sort of hunger, and trying to sate it is part of what gives my life meaning and drives me onward.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://Www.bigdummy.com Erik

    Wow. That really hit home. Thanks for putting into words something I could not do myself.

  • http://beliefblower.com Renee Hendricks

    You’ve managed to put into words *exactly* what I feel and question. Fantastic bit of writing!

  • karen

    Very true.

    The bummer about mortality, for me, is not fear of hell or even “the void” (I won’t be around to experience it) but about missing out on what happens next in this great journey of the universe.

    I think contributing to it and finding out as much as we can while we’re here is definitely a noble purpose.

  • Gino

    I like what you have written, but I am still with a lot of questions. But before I start, let me disclose a bit about myself since i do not want to be forthright. I have been a Christian believer for 30 years, however, I have always held that my faith had to stand up to scrutiny at all levels–intellectually, emotionally, spiritually and most importantly, factually. I have degrees in Math, Chemistry, Computer Science and an MBA from a top Ivy league school, and intellect has always been very important to me. At the same time, I have held to the strong belief that our senses are not enough to know the universe. It is this belief that has been challenged as of late, and because of it, I have had to reexamine the basis of my faith.

    Having said that, I have a very fundamental question. From any study in physics we know that everything in our world/universe behaves according to the laws of cause and effect. It is wonderful, that our universe is so orderly that even very complex cause/effect pairs can be predicted by the laws of chance–mathematically predictable events. But just because these very complex events, can be analyzed by some very wonderful simplifying assumptions we model through statistics, does not mean that there is a real departure from cause and effect. Said in other words, if we had enough information, we would not have to rely on the laws of chance to predict how many heads or tails 100 coin tosses would yield, we would know exactly what the next coin toss would yield. With this as back drop, then we must conclude that everything in our universe is 100% predictable (predestined if you will), and by consequence there is no such thing as free will.

    Here is my question? Where have I gone wrong in my logic?

    Sincerely

  • RipleyP

    I often wonder if not having the freedom to explore curiosity has held the intellectual development of the species back. Some areas of exploration would have been considered heresy in times past. Some things may even be heretical in the current time.

    Of course there will always be ethical considerations associated with exploration that would act to limit exploration but it would be hoped such limits would be based on evidence.

  • Jim Baerg

    Gino:
    You might want to look up ‘compatibilism’ & free will. I regard it as the best position I’ve so far heard on the free will vs determinism issue.
    Richard Carrier discusses it (along with a lot else) in _Sense & Goodness Without God_.

  • http://religiousatrocities.wordpress.com Jon Jermey

    This is one of those questions I simply don’t understand. What’s my ultimate purpose? To stay alive, entertained, healthy and reasonably well-off as long as I can, and to assist my family and friends to do the same thing. Does that have any cosmic significance? No, why should it? The cosmos can look after itself. All I know is that I don’t like to be hungry, bored, sick or poor, and preventing or avoiding that is more than enough to keep me busy for the rest of my life. A species searching for Ultimate Answers is a species with too much time on its hands.

  • CharlesInSoCal

    Comment #4 by: Gino

    With this as back drop, then we must conclude that everything in our universe is 100% predictable

    Here is my question? Where have I gone wrong in my logic?

    Ebon’s post that discusses the Prediction Machine has some interesting thoughts on free will and the predictability predicament.

  • Clive Smith

    re: ‘Curiosity as a Purpose of Life,’ I have said and read lots on this subject and sincerely thank you for this piece of wonderfully articulated logic. Very well written and delightfully satisfying. I just astounds me, as I’m sure it does many of us, that so many well-read, well-educated and worldly people still believe that we have a Creator. Your assessment of our reasons for being excited about life are so right. And I am totally share Karen’s (comment #3) disappointment with knowing how much we are going to miss once we’ve gone. Bummer, I just love my life so much!

  • IrishmanErrant

    Gino. The thing is, there is actually no such thing as true determinism. Quantum physics and the Heisenberg principle are actually much stronger than we think, and the gist is that not only is there no way to predict a basic particle interaction from an experimental standpoint, predictions themselves are rendered impossible. At the smallest level, our universe is unpredictable not only to our human intelligence but to any intelligence. Determinism is antiquated and wrong to boot.

  • Prof.V.N.K.Kumar

    Just when I felt certain that the last word has been spoken or written on the subject, you have come out with a different perspective on “Meaning of life”, jarring me out of my complacency. This post is simply beautiful. People like you are giving people like me enough cogent reasons through your reassuring write-ups to be proud of our atheism/secular humanism in this religion dominated world.

    I simply do not know how to thank you for this.

  • L.Long

    Great post–looking at normal stuff from a slightly odd angle can be enlightening.

    Gino–Total predictability is a hypothetical construct that does not have enough proof to be even considered as a theory.

    From the religious point IF there is something beyond the trans-dimensional barrier that can only be crossed by death, you will soon find it and will deal with that then. Just as you can not really deal with tomorrow until you get there, today is wonderful enough and terrible enough to take all my energy.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Gino,
    In addition to what others have said, it’s not certain that everything behaves in accordance with cause and effect, in that we have observed instances of particles that come into existence without any apparent cause.

  • Quath

    Gino:
    The universe seems to be in some odd place between deterministic and random. Most macroscopic things appear deterministic due to statistics. However, underlying all of this is quantum theory which is not really based on cause/effect. Two great examples of this is the spontaneous generation of particles out of the void or entangled particles being linked across time and space.

    Now it could be that the universe is entirely predictable if we knew the starting random number seed (if such a concept exists). However, from what we can currently tell, we don’t know yet. From what I know so far, it seems that if you can step outside of our universe of time and space, the whole thing looks static and deterministic.

    But one thing that modern science really taught us is that real science may not line up with a beautiful theory or our preconceived notions. Einstein and Dirac both fell victim to this trap.

  • Dan L.

    Ebonmuse: great post. I’ve long thought of curiosity as one of the virtues of a skeptical worldview (yeah, I hate the word too), and it’s nice to see such an eloquent presentation of the idea.

    Gino:

    From any study in physics we know that everything in our world/universe behaves according to the laws of cause and effect. It is wonderful, that our universe is so orderly that even very complex cause/effect pairs can be predicted by the laws of chance–mathematically predictable events. But just because these very complex events, can be analyzed by some very wonderful simplifying assumptions we model through statistics, does not mean that there is a real departure from cause and effect. Said in other words, if we had enough information, we would not have to rely on the laws of chance to predict how many heads or tails 100 coin tosses would yield, we would know exactly what the next coin toss would yield. With this as back drop, then we must conclude that everything in our universe is 100% predictable (predestined if you will), and by consequence there is no such thing as free will.

    As someone already pointed out, quantum mechanics suggests that perfect information is impossible — the act of gathering information (say, trying to locate an electron by bouncing a photon off it) destroys some other information (we don’t know the electron’s momentum after we bounce the photon off it). So yes, maybe if we had enough information, we could perfectly predict coin flips — only because coin flips are a macroscopic phenomenon. We’ll run into serious difficulties trying to get enough information to predict the decay of a radioactive nucleus for example.

    But let’s separate this from the question of “free will.” “Free will” is not defined nearly rigorously enough to deduce its relationship to physical determinism. Daniel Dennett, when asked if there is really such a thing as “free will,” replied “There is, but it’s not what you think,” and I think that’s the right attitude to have. The apparent contradiction between free will and determinism is just that — apparent. I personally think that once we can get more precise about what we mean by “free will” the contradiction will turn out to be based entirely on an error in our conception of what “free will” means.

    Long story short, unless we know what free will actually is (and we don’t) we can’t say it’s contradicted by determinism.

    Just to show you a potential problem with common sense free will, consider walking up to a T intersection and having to decide whether to take a left or a right. If the decision is truly undetermined, then it should be completely unpredictable to me which you choose. But in reality, choices like this have consequences, and we make the decision by weighing what we think the consequences are. Whenever we make a choice or a decision, we have reasons for that choice or decision even if the reason is simply that we’re choosing to be perverse (when you make a decision contrary to what reason would suggest).

    The alternative is we make choices without having any reason for making the choices we do — which seems intuitively wrong, my decisions don’t FEEL like they’re produced by a random number generator, there usually seems to be some reason for making the choice I do. But if there’s a reason, then there’s no reason to suppose there’s no deterministic causal chain from the reasons for my decision to the decision itself. From this perspective, the tension between free will and determinism disappears — free will is a deterministic phenomenon in which one’s mind weighs different possible actions against likely outcomes and then tries to effect the most positive (or least negative) outcome.

    So why does it seem like a contradiction? I think it’s because people think a lot in terms of, “what could I have done differently?” But in reality, they couldn’t have done anything differently, the question they’re asking is really “What would I have done differently with the information I have now?” It seems like there was an alternative in retrospect, but if you could actually put yourself back in the original dilemma with only the same information you had the first time around you would not (could not) choose differently.

    On the other hand, the feeling that you’re making choices is completely real. One might call that free will, but then you have to acknowledge that there’s no actual contradiction between real determinism and the feeling that one is making choices.

  • http://killedbyfish.blogspot.com feralboy12

    I’m not sure who said it (Carl Sagan?), but I’ve always been impressed with this:
    “We are the universe learning about itself.” Which sounds enough like purpose to make me happy.
    As for Gino’s predictability issues, and determinism and so forth, I would check out some basic stuff on chaos theory, complexity, and emergence (possibly James Gleick or Ian Stewart for starters). One interesting paradigm shift that came about from that was the realization that deterministic systems can produce behavior that appears random; simple equations, iterated, produce structures of amazing intricacy; complex results do not necessarily imply complex causes.
    I’m still trying to get my brain around it, but the idea that the universe requires a cause as complex as itself (or more complex) is one of the first casualties.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Compatibility is nice for a discussion of determinism vs. free will, but I think Gino is right that they are mutually exclusive if we also include the caveat that the determinism springs from an omni-max, perfect god. In that instance, there can be no such thing as free will and the idea of Xianity (us being punished for the free will actions of our forebears) becomes even more unsupportable.

  • archimedez

    Great post Ebonmuse.
    Curiosity is a basic “drive” or motivation in ourselves as humans and is evident in other animals that have complex brains. When well-placed, curiosity, is perhaps one of our greatest and most important elements. It’s what drives us, so to speak, to seek truth and solve problems.

  • Dan L.

    @feralboy12:

    Think it was Sagan in one of the first two episodes of Cosmos…was watching that the other week and I think I remember him saying that. Great quote.

  • Katie M

    @feralboy12 and Dan L.-”We are a way for the cosmos to know itself” is the exact quote, I believe :)

  • http://www.gothicatheist.blogspot.com Cyc

    Wonderful post, as so many have already said. Whenever I am asked what purpose I could possibly find in existance without a deity, this is always my rationale. The drive for knowledge is something I find overwhelming, intoxicating. It sparks within me a feeling that, upon comparison, is what many religious seem to describe as a ‘spiritual’ experiance. I know there is nothing mystical about it, but is my brain getting a bit loopy over the implications of a new concept.

    The search for and aquisition of knowlege is as close to the platonic archaetype of beauty I have ever encountered. It can leave one stunned or even in tears at gorgeous nature of it all. I actually quite pitty those who have blocked themeselves off from such amazement through religion, lack or curiosity or whatever else is keeping them from experiancing such wonder.

    Some have argued “what if what you have learned is wrong, like it has before?”, thinking it would make me believe the task is futile. But to me this is part of the reason I love it all, because what I know might be wrong. Because I have to force myself to think in a new way, understand new concepts. There will never be a limit to the knowledge I can seek out or attempt to unveil on my own.

    @feralboy12
    Unless you are refering to one I am unfamilar with, the exact quote is “We are a way for the universe to know itself”. It is one of my favorite quotes and one of the many reasons Carl Sagan has been a personal hero to me for so long.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    Dan L. wrote:

    “Free will” is not defined nearly rigorously enough to deduce its relationship to physical determinism. Daniel Dennett, when asked if there is really such a thing as “free will,” replied “There is, but it’s not what you think,” and I think that’s the right attitude to have. The apparent contradiction between free will and determinism is just that — apparent. I personally think that once we can get more precise about what we mean by “free will” the contradiction will turn out to be based entirely on an error in our conception of what “free will” means.

    This is similar to my view. The concept of free will, as most people understand it, is itself essentially incoherent or contradicts reality. There is no such thing as fully independent will. Will is an emergent property of a mind, and that mind is constrained by the laws of physics, the local environment, the society it exists in, and many other forces.

    What’s important is not that people have absolute power to make decisions. It’s that people have enough liberty to make certain critical decisions central to their goals and desires. That’s all the significance behind the concept of will.

    Just to show you a potential problem with common sense free will, consider walking up to a T intersection and having to decide whether to take a left or a right. If the decision is truly undetermined, then it should be completely unpredictable to me which you choose. But in reality, choices like this have consequences, and we make the decision by weighing what we think the consequences are. Whenever we make a choice or a decision, we have reasons for that choice or decision even if the reason is simply that we’re choosing to be perverse (when you make a decision contrary to what reason would suggest).

    Indeed. Intervening forces constrain the scope of possible (and plausible) choices. These sorts of forces constantly exist even when we fail to recognize them. After all, why wasn’t one of the options to sprout wings and take off into the sky?

    But if there’s a reason, then there’s no reason to suppose there’s no deterministic causal chain from the reasons for my decision to the decision itself. From this perspective, the tension between free will and determinism disappears — free will is a deterministic phenomenon in which one’s mind weighs different possible actions against likely outcomes and then tries to effect the most positive (or least negative) outcome.

    That definition is certainly consistent with a fully deterministic reality. However, at that point I think you are in conflict with what people typically expect of the “free” aspect of free will. It is because they like to think that they are somehow independent of reality and environment that the issue arises to begin with.

    However, none of this is evidence that reality is actually deterministic. As long as particles can arise at random from ‘empty’ space, nuclei decay at unpredictable times, and one can’t figure out both where an electron is and how fast it is moving, there’s evidence to think that reality is at least partly unpredictable from any vantage point.

    So why does it seem like a contradiction? I think it’s because people think a lot in terms of, “what could I have done differently?” But in reality, they couldn’t have done anything differently, the question they’re asking is really “What would I have done differently with the information I have now?” It seems like there was an alternative in retrospect, but if you could actually put yourself back in the original dilemma with only the same information you had the first time around you would not (could not) choose differently.

    To say could not is assuming determinism. Unless the decision can be definitively separated from random events, this is mistaken.

    Of course, it’s not much help to most people with the predominant pure free will stance to say that events were partly determined by random chaos. They may like that explanation even less.

    Saying that a given individual would have chosen the same path given the same information and same environment is less suspect. Yet, the precise reality of the situation is dependent on the exact input variables, exact reasoning, exact environment state, exact physical laws, and so forth. So long as none of those are known with certainty, and often most of them aren’t known even with strong probability, it becomes a highly malleable game of personal whim to say that a prediction of the result can be made one way or the other.

    There are critical questions lurking under all of these fundamental curiosities, and they are these: would knowing the answer actually make any difference to your behavior? Would your capacity to influence reality increase by knowing it? Unless one is willing to answer yes to both of these questions, I find the purpose in the endeavor collapses beneath one’s feet.

  • jane hay

    What Karen, Renee and Erik said. That’s the one reason I would want to live a thousand years, to see what they come up with next. It always amazes me that Xtians think the belief system of Bronze Age goatherders is the slightest bit attractive. Thank you for the post, Ebon !!

  • http://www.kurmujjin.com kurmujjin

    Curiosity is one of the most delicious feelings. I tend to feel more alive than ever when I am engrossed in my curiosity. And, yes, I think it to be valuable as a life purpose. I think, though, that while curiosity makes for an interesting life purpose, specific curiosity about a field or subject area is probably more in keeping with a best life purpose. And that may change with environment or stage of life and what subjects garner the most meaning in a person’s life.

    Meaning is central to man’s living. We are meaning machines. We also are the final arbiters of meaning in our lives. Some will probably argue with me on this one, but we either give meaning to God (or any other topic) or not. WE do it. If we don’t do it, then God (or that other topic) has no meaning in our lives. It doesn’t happen the other way around. And if you think it does, it’s because YOU gave more meaning to that explanation ;-).

    The process of assigning meaning involves feelings (heredity, biochemisty, environment and upbringing, thinking (projecting)). The strength of feelings may cause us to assign or withhold meaning in a certain way and at a certain speed. Trick is to see if you can be observer to the process and gain a moment of control over it if you don’t already have it.

    The flip side to giving meaning is to withold meaning. If we withold meaning from everything or most everything, we are morose or depressed. One of the hardest things to teach a depressed person is how they are witholding meaning and what do do about that.

  • Jesse

    I think the discussion of determinism has been somewhat missing the point. The core notion behind determinism is not the theoretical predictability of the world. That was one manifestation of the core notion, but not the only one. The core notion was the idea that the psyche does not reign supreme, that it does not determine your actions without itself being determined to behave as it does, that the physical constitution of the brain in its particular environment would determine your actions and that the environment and constitution of the brain would both behave according to the laws of nature.

    Whether the laws of nature are theoretically predictable is not particularly relevant, for the laws of nature would still determine your behavior. I think that people have gotten tunnel-vision, so wrapped up in discussing one particular kind of determinism that they have lost sight of the big picture and no longer allow the kindred philosophies to be called deterministic. It’s like a group of dog breeders who have gotten so wrapped up in dealing with poodles that they will allow only poodles to be called dogs.

    I consider myself a determinist. Perhaps a hidden variables theory of quantum mechanics will prevail, in which case the unfolding of the world would appear to be completely predictable, at least in principle, but perhaps indeterminancy will prevail, in which case the unfolding would appear not to be completely predictable, not even in principle, but the unfolding of the world will still be patterned, even if the pattern be tinged with chaos. I call myself a determinist because, whatever the case may be, I believe that the behavior of human beings, as with all conscious beings, has no more freedom to diverge from the pattern of the great unfolding than the boulders and the evergreens.

  • Gino

    I have found all the posts very intriguing and thoughtful. Thank you all. Truly.

    I joined in the praise for Curiosity as a Purpose for Life, but limited my comment to a simple praise. I agree with the author that the pursuit of truth and knowledge is exhilarating and noble. I also agree that many of religious give up their pursuit of “WHY” the universe in the belief that they know the answer. A tragedy. But I point out that many who are atheists fall in the same trap for they conclude that the they know the answer is not GOD. Although there are powerful arguments against the existence of God, we also know that proving the non-existence of something, particularly a something (or being or whatever) is difficult, if not impossible, and to my knowledge noone has proved non-existence of God. The strongest arguments I have seen advanced are based on the probability of the existence.

    This brings me back to my question about determinism vs. free will. Some have posted that scientists have shown that particles arise spontaneously. As thoughtful as the posts are, I believe they still leave the question unanswered at its root.

    One post cited Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which I think is misconstrued since this principle only refers to measuring of objects, and does not relate to determinism or free will. The reference of ‘if we knew enough we could predict’ is meant as a theoretical/rhetorical question to posit determinism, not a question in fact. Thus the Heisenberg uncertainty principal does not prove or disprove determinism. The most it can be used to substantiate, is that ultimately we will not be able to measure or know enough to predict perfectly.

    The fact that mathematics demonstrate that particles can arise spontaneously (Hawkins recently discussed this on national TV when promoting his most recent book), is evidence for a deterministic world, not against. Mathematics is a wonderfully deterministic system. Furthermore, the arguments that determinism and free will are compatible in some form, all reduce themselves as one post points out, to determinism.

    The reason that the debate of free will vs. determinism or free will and determinism, leaving the door open for the arguments that these two are not incompatible, is so vital to purpose, is that if there is no real free will than the question of purpose cannot be found by rational thinking, mathematics, exploration, etc. It would render the question and any response tautological within the confines of our understanding, since determinism would say that all things, actions in our universe(s) are predictable.

    Along the same lines, just because our universe(s) behave predictably, mathematically, deterministically one can still posit the notion that there is an ‘existence’ that is not governed by the same principles (i.e., is truly outside not only of time and space, but anything we can predict with mathematics). This existence would be unknowable to us. I am reminded of Einstein’s wonderful thought experiment — Flatland. It is as impossible for us to imagine, much less study, this ‘existence’ as it is for a theoretical two-dimensional being thinking of three dimensions.

    Although I have written this post as assertions, I am really struggling with the a more fundamental question that the author of Curiosity as a purpose for life attempts to answer. Can we even know there is a purpose from the confines of our own universe?

    I am caught in a trap, and I do not know a way out, and so far I have not heard a way out. A mathematically predictable or modeled universe is a deterministic universe. And as I argued above, a deterministic universe does not allow for us to know its purpose, since our understanding is limited to the confines of a deterministic universe.

    I welcome any insights into how to get out of this trap.

  • Jim Baerg

    Gino “I am reminded of Einstein’s wonderful thought experiment — Flatland.”

    SFAIK Einstein didn’t do anything much with that idea. Are you thinking of the short novel Flatland by Edwn A. Abbott?

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    I welcome any insights into how to get out of this trap.

    Sure, I got one. Live your life as if there is no trap.

  • Dan L.

    Gino:

    One post cited Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which I think is misconstrued since this principle only refers to measuring of objects, and does not relate to determinism or free will. The reference of ‘if we knew enough we could predict’ is meant as a theoretical/rhetorical question to posit determinism, not a question in fact. Thus the Heisenberg uncertainty principal does not prove or disprove determinism. The most it can be used to substantiate, is that ultimately we will not be able to measure or know enough to predict perfectly.

    Gino, I disagree that uncertainty does not relate to determinism or free will. You pointed out the connection in your first post — for determinism to negate free will, we need perfect information. Uncertainty principle might prevent us from ever having perfect information, which would prevent the negation.

    @kagerato:

    To say could not is assuming determinism. Unless the decision can be definitively separated from random events, this is mistaken.

    Of course, it’s not much help to most people with the predominant pure free will stance to say that events were partly determined by random chaos. They may like that explanation even less.

    First of all, I put “could not” in parentheses, maybe I should have included a question mark. It was a “choose whichever makes more sense to you” sort of idea. Second of all, your claim depends on how you think of “randomness.” I think “randomness” is similar to “free will” in that the intuitive notion of “randomness” is actually, at the foundation, incoherent. From my perspective, “randomness” pretty much just means “lack of precise information” (a lot more thought has gone into this than I’m willing or able to put in a comment box right now). So I don’t think of random events as being different from determined events in any sense except how much information we have about the causal structure of the event. In practice, this is exactly the sense in which a shuffled deck of cards or rolling dice can be said to be “random.”

    I think there is some question as to whether there is some more fundamental undetermined sort of randomness, but I haven’t seen a good case made for such a thing.

    Saying that a given individual would have chosen the same path given the same information and same environment is less suspect.

    That’s a much better way of saying what I was trying to say.

    Yet, the precise reality of the situation is dependent on the exact input variables, exact reasoning, exact environment state, exact physical laws, and so forth. So long as none of those are known with certainty, and often most of them aren’t known even with strong probability, it becomes a highly malleable game of personal whim to say that a prediction of the result can be made one way or the other.

    Maybe. But if we concede that the second choice is made under the EXACT same conditions as the first choice (including the mental state of the chooser), then we really do need undetermined randomness in a very metaphysically strong sense to make things turn out differently. Otherwise, I would expect the combination of the person’s sensory inputs with the person’s current mental state to yield the exact same decision.

    Although I can see your point. If there is any wiggle room, than a slight difference — the person’s eye focusing on a different patch of the visual field, even, would snowball into a different outcome. I was thinking about this yesterday, and I think it does come down to whether or not you believe in undetermined randomness (as opposed to lack-of-information randomness).

  • Gino

    To all who have responded to my questions, Thank You!

    Jim: thanks for the correction. I incorrectly remembered it by Einstein
    Tommykey: Of course I agree there is no trap like this in life. It is not about being trapped in my life, but about seeking the truth. I would observe for reading the posts in this and similar blogs is that those who participate are just as interested as I am in seeking it, and unlikely many, they are not afraid where the search will take them. I am caught in a trap of logic, which says to me I have to have gone wrong somewhere in my thinking and in my discovery, because the logic does not explain what I know to be true.

    To all have responded to my questions about randomness and determinism, and cause and effect, let me try to pose my discomfort/question slightly differently: mathematics is deterministic (even randomness as a mathematical concept). The universe as all scientists must believe, is orderly (if it were not the case, the very foundation of the scientific method that an experiment must be repeatable would collapse). Thus Carl Sagan, Weinberg and many of other great names would completely agree that the universe is wonderfully ordered. I did not use cause and effect to argue that there was necessarily a first cause. Moreover, just because we know that particles come out of ‘nothing’, does not mean it is not deterministic, since this phenomenon is actually predicted by the mathematics of Quantum physics. Just like black holes, we predicted their existence before we had observation of their existence. Similarly, just because a thing cannot be measured does not mean, it cannot be predicted mathematically. My argument for determinism is based on a universe that behaves in an extraordinarily predictable, mathematical precision. Just because I cannot predict it, does not mean that it is not predictable. And here is the crux of the logic, because the universe is wonderfully predictable, then it follows that it is deterministic, and if deterministic there is no real free will.

    With respect to the counter argument that the universe is predictable only at a macro level, that at some subatomic level it is not, I would like to learn more. Please let me know where I can find more information, because this would seem to be a way out of the logic trap, but I would also find it very intriguing how something that is truly random at its core, can give rise to such an orderly universe at a macro level.

    Thanks again. I really enjoy the discussion.

    PD: To Jane Hay, I want to respond to your post parenthetically. “It always amazes me that Xtians think the belief system of Bronze Age goatherders is the slightest bit attractive.” But before I respond, let me say I do so by way of sharing experience, and hopefully sharing our common search for truth, not sitting in judgment.

    Although I stated in my very first post that I have trouble holding on to my Christian beliefs, it is not because they are not attractive. What I found attractive about believing in Christ, is the fundamental message of grace and love embodied in Jesus’ teachings. Grace is the notion that God loves us so profoundly that no matter what we have done against him or one of His creatures, He saves us, not because we have done anything to deserve it, but simply out of his pure love for us. This is as unconditional love as possible. In other words, I do not have to earn the love of God, He loves me no matter what!! I know this type of love is possible, because this is how I love my children. Even when their behavior might disappoint me, I never stop loving them. The popular belief in the day of Jesus, was that God punished all who sinned, and in fact so many were marginalized for it. He bucked the system of his day, and said NO. GOD IS MERCIFUL AND GRACE, AND WE SHOULD BE THE SAME, and he died on the cross because of this belief. What is remarkable is that this profound insight came from this human being that lived in the Bronze Age among sheepherders had the profound insight and courage to buck the system and die for a truth that is eternal and at the heart of all truly beautiful interpersonal interactions. I only wish I could hold on to the purity of my belief in Christ as God, but my rigorous search for truth does not permit me at this point to accept his Resurrection, and without it the Christian faith is dead (as declared by the Scriptures themselves). However, I cannot for one second stop praising this human being for this wonderful teaching, and I only wish that more were like him. BTW I also believe that there is wonderful truth taught by many other religious teachers: Ghandi, Budda, Mohammed to name a few. They spoke great truths about the human condition, and even if we are not to embrace their religion (which I do not), I certainly embrace the truths that they have taught mankind.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    But I point out that many who are atheists fall in the same trap for they conclude that the they know the answer is not GOD. Although there are powerful arguments against the existence of God, we also know that proving the non-existence of something, particularly a something (or being or whatever) is difficult, if not impossible, and to my knowledge noone has proved non-existence of God.

    Although it may be impossible to disprove all possible notions of god, some notions of god can certainly be disproven as they are logically impossible. The Xian god falls under this category, for instance, as the ideas of omni-max-ness are contradictory, especially when taken in accordance with the stated goals of this god and the evidence we have from reality.

    All that said, the burden of proof lies squarely on the theist. There’s no good/compelling reason to believe that any god exists.

    This brings me back to my question about determinism vs. free will. Some have posted that scientists have shown that particles arise spontaneously. As thoughtful as the posts are, I believe they still leave the question unanswered at its root.

    Your original comment direclty tied cause/effect to determinism. If there is no such thing as universal causality, then we can’t very well claim that determinism necessarily exists, as per your own argument. And, if you think that virtual particles/quantum effects are deterministic and caused, then you’ve not been paying attention. Radio-isotope decays are random and only follow a probabilistic curve in a macro sense, but each individual decay happens at random at a time that is unpredictable.

    Of course, I’m left wondering why you seem to be arguing for a determinism that is so opposed to your stated Xian beliefs?

    Can we even know there is a purpose from the confines of our own universe?

    Purpose is what we give ourselves. From a cosmic standpoint, it’s pretty well settled that there is no external purpose imposed upon us.

    What I found attractive about believing in Christ, is the fundamental message of grace and love embodied in Jesus’ teachings.

    What? That god loves us so much that he’ll burn us in hell for being exactly how he created us to be unless we believe the right things (which has nothing to do with morality) and swear obedience to him (also nothing to do with morality) in which case he’ll whisk us off to some magical land where everyone is some sort of unthinking, happy robot?

    I know this type of love is possible, because this is how I love my children.

    I’m sure the love you have for your children far exceeds the supposed “love” that is described in the Xian faiths.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    With respect to the counter argument that the universe is predictable only at a macro level, that at some subatomic level it is not, I would like to learn more. Please let me know where I can find more information, because this would seem to be a way out of the logic trap, but I would also find it very intriguing how something that is truly random at its core, can give rise to such an orderly universe at a macro level.

    Good explanations of Quantum Mechanics are notoriously difficult to find. The entire subject is extremely confusing and counter-intuitive at first, and mainly I’ve found that understanding the fundamentals is more a matter of perseverance and careful reading than anything else.

    However, I may be able to clarify one part. The “ordered” outer appearance of high-level (macro) events is merely an emergent property. The micro events, including the location of elections, the time of decay of nuclei, the emergence of particles from ‘empty’ space, and others are all — as far as we can tell — truly mathematically random in the strongest possible sense. No one has come up with even a plausible theoretical scheme by which those individual events could be predicted. The primary objection has been, since the origin of QM, that of “hidden variables”. Essentially, it’s an argument from ignorance: the random events are not truly random; it’s simply that there’s some underlying cause or state that we don’t currently see. Naturally, this objection is not convincing and will never be accepted without evidence.

    The truly mind-blowing part of Quantum Mechanics for me is not that there are random events fundamentally built into the structure of the universe. That, itself, seems very intuitive considering the level of chaos in the natural world. Instead, the epiphany was that there are systems in which the measurement or observation of the system determines its state. Probably the most commonly used example would be Schrodinger’s cat.

    Essentially, there’s a cat in a fully sealed box, and the box is rigged with some kind of trap that would kill the cat if activated. The trap, however, is connected to an activation mechanism that relies on radioactive decay of one or more particles to occur.

    Before you open the box, all you know is that there is a certain “alive” probability, depending on the quantity and half-life of the isotope in question, amount of time that passed, and amount of radiation required to trigger the trap. This is sometimes described as the wave function or probability wave and it follows a clear mathematical distribution.

    At the very moment you open the box, this wave function “collapses” into a single, actual state. After all, we know in reality that the cat will either be alive or dead (assuming the trap works as designed).

    The enlightenment lies in the fact and realization that the nature of randomness being what it is, there is no way to tell whether the cat is alive or dead until the box has actually been opened. This is counter-intuitive to the way in which we can typically observe most macroscopic systems without making any noticeable impact on their state.

    There are other very interesting yet unexpected results from QM. One is that light, electrons, protons, and so forth are all neither a particle nor a wave, but entities that carry properties from both. The usual example to demonstrate this one is the double-slit experiment (Young’s experiment).

    The setup of the experiment is simple: a single point light source illuminates a plate that covers a receptor screen. The plate has two thin slits in it, hence the name.

    When shining the light source onto the plate with both slits open, the pattern on the screen is that of wave-like interference. There are dark bands where one would expect illumination (if photons were purely particles).

    OK, so photons are waves, right? Here’s where it gets strange. If one adds a detector with the capability to absorb particles to one of the slits, the pattern displayed reverts to a simple diffraction pattern (the same as what would happen with one slit fully closed). If photons can be absorbed just like a particle, they must not be a pure wave.

    But that’s not the truly fascinating part. What happens if we were to fire one photon at a time, with both slits open, at a medium such as film which can record the net effect slowly over time? What would be the overall pattern formed?

    It’s the same as the normal light source; the same interference pattern appears. This leads us to understand that the wave-nature of light is not an emergent property of many particles interacting. It’s fundamental to the photons themselves; even one photon acting alone still retains the essential wave properties.

    This is just scratching the tip of the iceberg. If you research the topic, you’ll find days and days worth of reading material. I recommend staying away from anything that adds too much interpretation, philosophy, or woo to the subject. One can learn much more of the science by staying away from that. Most of the popular explanations of QM are actually nothing less than belief in magic, so do be careful.

  • Gino

    OMGF: My initial post stated that I had been a Christian for 30 years, but I have always examined my beliefs because my search, like those on this blog, is really a desire to seek knowledge and truth. As the dialog has progressed, I have shifted somewhat from the premise of cause/effect to the argument that this universe is extremely orderly. The thesis that I am examining (and please understand that I am not espousing, I am genuinely trying to learn) is that this is universe behaves with mathematical precision. Probability is a very precise branch of mathematics. The fact that there is such macro order speaks to a micro order. The argument that ‘we must be missing a variable’ is highly plausible — we know we are missing something but we do not know what.

    WRT God’s hate in sending people to hell that he created that way, is a view held by fundamentalists. Like all religions, Xtian’s have extremists too. As i examined the Scriptures for 30 years, I came to understand that hell was the separation from God which was a choice (I believed in free will). Just like my children are free to reject me, but if they do, they will suffer greatly, not at my hand, but it is the natural order of things: as human beings we are ‘programmed’ to bond with our caregivers, and a break of this bond takes a huge toll on the individual. But please let me be clear, I am not trying to defend the Christian faith. I am explaining because there is a lot of misconception as to its teaching: how could there not be when at last count there were over 30,000 variants!

    Kagerato: Thank you very much for your explanations. These are very helpful. I would like to probe a bit more on the statement:” ‘The micro events, including the location of elections, the time of decay of nuclei, the emergence of particles from ‘empty’ space, and others are all — as far as we can tell — truly mathematically random in the strongest possible sense.” The thesis that I am putting forth is that if it is mathematically random means that it has order. Chaos Theory tells us as much. How do we explain this order? What makes it so. The default answer is God, but I agree with Hawkins on this, we cannot just simply attribute to God what we cannot explain: that is just mental laziness. So, what is the answer? I started with cause/effect but it really is the natural order of our universe that most intrigues me. QM makes the question in my mind that much more compelling since it is entirely based on mathematical constructs. What beauty when we can predict with mathematics what must be, even before we observe it or measure it!! What gives rise to this wonderful order.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    As the dialog has progressed, I have shifted somewhat from the premise of cause/effect to the argument that this universe is extremely orderly.

    It’s not, at least not on the quantum level.

    The thesis that I am examining (and please understand that I am not espousing, I am genuinely trying to learn) is that this is universe behaves with mathematical precision. Probability is a very precise branch of mathematics. The fact that there is such macro order speaks to a micro order.

    Again, not at the quantum/micro level. We can speak of the probabilities of a particle moving inside of a quantum energy level and the probability that it will be found in some state, but we can’t know where it is or where it will go with any precision.

    …we know we are missing something but we do not know what.

    We know no such thing.

    WRT God’s hate in sending people to hell that he created that way, is a view held by fundamentalists.

    Actually, it’s rather mainstream and supported by the Bible.

    I came to understand that hell was the separation from God which was a choice (I believed in free will).

    A) Dressing it up as “separation from god” is simply putting lipstick on a pig. The idea is that being separated from god is a bad state to be in because all good comes from god, so separation means that one can no longer experience anything good.
    B) Do you no longer believe in free will? Isn’t your faith dependent upon that? Are you now in crisis because your stated belief in determinism destroys that?

    I am explaining because there is a lot of misconception as to its teaching: how could there not be when at last count there were over 30,000 variants!

    How do you know that your version is right and all those 29,999 are wrong?

  • Gino

    the fact that we cannot measure something does mean that it is not deterministic. The fact that there is mathematical predictability (i.e., through a deterministic system called probability and statistics) means that there is inherent order. True randomness means that there is no order. You keep arguing about macro and micro levels. What is the basis for your thinking on this? It is in an interesting thought process which I would like to understand, but I do not get how you arrive at it.

    I am not a determinist. My problem is exactly that. I have not yet found an argument that is cohesive against a deterministic universe. I believe in free-will! But I do not know how to defend the position. That is precisely what i am looking for.

    Wrt Christianity or any other belief that I have held, hold today or will hold tomorrow, I do not believe I am right and everyone else is wrong. I am constantly examining my belief system because I am eager to learn and discover. If you are interested, I can tell you more about why separation from god is different than condemnation, but I am not trying to defend a position. Language like ‘putting lipstick on a pig’ reads to me like I ticking you off, and I do not want to do that. I am here to learn and to examine ideas with others, not judge or condemn.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    the fact that we cannot measure something does mean that it is not deterministic.

    True enough, but the reason we can’t measure it is because it is truly random.

    You keep arguing about macro and micro levels. What is the basis for your thinking on this? It is in an interesting thought process which I would like to understand, but I do not get how you arrive at it.

    It’s quantum mechanics, which unfortunately is a very hard topic both to grasp and to explain. I think kagerato was doing a much better job at explaining than I could, however, so I’m probably not much help. Of course, if you don’t understand it, it puts you in fine company. I believe it was Feinmann who famously quipped [paraphrased] that anyone who tells you they understand QM is either lying or mistaken.

    I am not a determinist. My problem is exactly that. I have not yet found an argument that is cohesive against a deterministic universe. I believe in free-will! But I do not know how to defend the position. That is precisely what i am looking for.

    Then, you’re in luck because what we’ve been trying to tell you is that determinism is pretty well on death row according to the best science we have.

    But, I think you have bigger problems if you are clinging to free will and the idea of an omni-max god as Xianity describes, because those two ideas are mutually exclusive. You can have one or the other, but not both.

    Wrt Christianity or any other belief that I have held, hold today or will hold tomorrow, I do not believe I am right and everyone else is wrong.

    Then, how can you talk about “misconceptions” in regards to the beliefs of other Xians?

    If you are interested, I can tell you more about why separation from god is different than condemnation, but I am not trying to defend a position. Language like ‘putting lipstick on a pig’ reads to me like I ticking you off, and I do not want to do that.

    No anger here, just being blunt. The idea of “separation from god” instead of “hell” is really just the same thing with a different PR spin. Some Xians have correctly identified the moral problem of positing a hell that god casts people into, but they are caught because the Bible is pretty supportive of the notion. So, they came up with this idea that there’s no “hell” it’s just “separation from god.” Yet, under scrutiny it ends up being the same thing – hence the lipstick on a pig comment.

  • http://politicalgames.posterous.com themann1086

    Gino,

    If you want more on QM, I recommend The Feynman Lectures on Physics (the 3rd volume specifically); it’s old and some of the information might be out of date, but it’s considered one of the most accessible works on quantum mechanics.

    Determinism is pretty much a dead-letter; the Wikipedia article on Laplace’s demon sums it up well: “Laplace’s demon met its end with early 19th century developments of the concepts of irreversibility, entropy, and the second law of thermodynamics. In other words, Laplace’s demon was based on the premise of reversibility and classical mechanics; however, under current theory, thermodynamics (i.e. real processes) are thought to be irreversible in practical terms (compared to the age of the universe, for instance).” That’s without even getting into Heisenberg and quantum effects, which most certainly kills it.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    The thesis that I am putting forth is that if it is mathematically random means that it has order. Chaos Theory tells us as much. How do we explain this order? What makes it so.

    To say that random events are ordered is, in essence, defying semantics. The definitions contradict it, much as saying fire is cold or water is dry.

    Chaos theory also doesn’t say that order arises from randomness. The primary revelation of modeling chaotic systems is that dramatically unpredictable and surprising events can arise from tiny changes to the initial state.

    The concept of apparent order arising out of random events is difficult to grasp at first. However, one needs to understand that the “order” here is only apparent; that is, it has nothing to do with causes and everything to do with effects. The order is emergent, not intrinsic. This “ordering” we speak of in mathematical models of random events is also incomplete. It’s impossible from the model to make predictions about the causes. Rather, we are only able to predict results — and not with certainty, only with likelihood.

    True randomness means that there is no order. You keep arguing about macro and micro levels. What is the basis for your thinking on this?

    Randomness has unique qualities that make it identifiably what it is. In one sense, that is itself a kind of structure or order. However, the essential quality is that the random information, events, objects, or whatnot are distributed among the possibilities without any known cause or influence.

    To say that something has mathematical structure or order is not very insightful. Mathematics is both abstract and unbounded; you could model any set of relations or properties with it, even items which cannot exist in reality. The only requirement is that you not break (whether directly or indirectly) the axioms established.

    In summary, knowing that the aggregate effects of random causes can be modeled to produce a state of imperfect knowledge does not suggest any type of clear or inherent ordering to the causes themselves.

    If this is still too confusing, please define order and chaos in a concrete and mutually consistent manner. Then it would be possible to address any misconception directly, rather than working from separate concepts.

  • Gino

    Thanks for the observations. Obviously I need to read up more thoroughly on QM, since the consensus is that it is what disproves determinism.

    OMGF Wrt Omni-max God and free-will, I agree. The strict Christian concept of God does not allow for it, and Christians have been debating the subject for centuries. The debate of predestination and free-will is a major source of divide among Protestant denominations, which cuts down to the very core of the belief of ‘salvation by faith alone’, the reason for the Reformation.

    KAGERATO: I understand and take your point about my poor use of terms. I am having difficulty expressing a notion that there is something inherently ‘orderly’, ‘elegant’, ‘predictable’, ‘understandable’ in things that we can model mathematically. I am a mathematician by training, although not professionally (I am a business man). I love the fact that one can come derive a wonderful set of rules from a few axioms, which are abstract. This consistency is in itself an ‘order’ if you will. What is even more phenomenal to me is that branches of mathematics (Probability and Statistics, Chaos Theory) establish an ‘order’ that makes events predictable within margins of error. This in itself is an incredible thing! Why do natural events, even seemingly so chaotic and random, ultimately fall within certain bounds. That itself is an ‘order.’ It is this inherent ‘order’ that allows science to progress through the scientific method and through exploration of mathematics, as is the case with QM. I am marveled by this. And I am puzzled! Why is there this inherent ‘order?’ If nature were truly ‘chaotic’ would it not just ‘fall apart?’ Or does QM throw this most fundamental assumption of scientists into question as well.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    Why do natural events, even seemingly so chaotic and random, ultimately fall within certain bounds.

    That’s actually pretty easy to answer. Nature has to have certain bounds in order for creatures such as us to exist in order to observe it having bounds in the first place. This is known as the anthropic principle.

    Wandering off into philosophical speculation for a moment, there may be an infinite number of universes before and after this one, most of which have no life whatsoever and no one to comment on how amazingly well ordered everything seems to be. Or, perhaps what we observe as the “universe” is just some small sub-component of a much larger system. It’s even conceivable that reality is in some sense no more real than a dream or simulation.

    These are all grasping at straws, because the root answer — if there is one — is not known. It’s truly astounding how much time we spend on trying to resolve questions for which we have no justifiable confidence that an answer even exists. That is, we don’t even know that the question was well-formed, but we blindly seek results from it anyway.

    Why is there this inherent ‘order?’ If nature were truly ‘chaotic’ would it not just ‘fall apart?’

    I don’t see a clear reason to think a chaotic system would necessarily destroy itself. It depends quite a lot on the exact environment and rule set one talks about.

    Take the weather, for example. The Earth has been around for roughly 4.5 billion years; that’s a lot of weather to talk about. During that time the weather (and eon by eon, the climate) has changed drastically. Weather itself is about as close to a macroscopic chaotic system as you’re going to get. And yet, the weather has not destroyed the Earth or somehow eliminated its own changing nature. Nor do we have any reason to think that it would ever do so.

  • Melinda

    Hey, I’m not an atheist but would still like to comment. I guess I disagree with the statement that a person like me already has it all figured out (as far as the universe) I would be a fool to think that I already have all of the answers just because I believe that there is a God. I also don’t know exactly what my purpose is in this life, I know that (for me personally) it’s to serve the Lord but I know that there could be a lot of great wonders to unfold.
    I wish that there would be less atheist bashing, less God bashing and we could somehow find a way to work together, accepting that we all have different perceptions in life. I feel that is one of my many goals I guess, to question, to learn at the same time staying true to my faith. I think that our universe is so ridiculously amazing that there is no telling what it all contains!!
    I wish all you guys, no matter what you believe or disbelieve a great life full of wonder and that you can have much happiness.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    I feel that is one of my many goals I guess, to question, to learn at the same time staying true to my faith.

    How does one question and learn while simultaneously declaring that one may not question or learn in regards one’s faith?


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