10 Jan 2007
" ... closer to religion than science."
[Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day, p. 58, lines 13-14].
<>p>I never believed in randomness. That was my problem from the get-go, I suppose. Think of a any number between 1 and 10. Got it? Let me guess ... Was it 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, or 10? Or, did you try to trick me by adding a decimal point or two? You little devil! No problem, though, I can list them out as well, and have your number pinned down in a matter of minutes.

But, imagine a consciousness with the depth of an omniscient, omnipotent being -- like a God, for example, if you believe in that sort of thing (or perhaps something like Douglas Adams' Deep Thought, if you prefer). Ask it the same question. Wouldn't it be remarkable if it came up with a whole, natural number -- or even, for that matter, anything even within the possible comprehension of a human being? Numbers, after all, can in theory be of infinite precision. For a God or a hypothetical supercomputer, a number with several septillion digits both before and after the decimal point might be rather commonplace (though such symmetry would be statistically unlikely, I suppose).

Aha, but both you and this "God" or whatever had to actually PICK a number. So, there's a question about how the "choice" was made, right?

Well, for computers, they use a "random number generator" -- which is basically an algorithm (of varying complexity) that offers as its output apparent randomness. Don't be fooled; these digits are based on calculations, measurements, and input from real-world variables (things most people could never reverse-engineer, if it's "high quality" randomness, that is). [ Link to the Wiki.] Computers can't, as many people believe, just pull a number out of thin air. They're deterministic machines (just like us?).

For people, it's a bit more complicated -- and falls into the realm of theory, I believe. I'll get back to this in a few minutes. For now, let me take an extended tangential break from this line of thinking to talk about determinism.

Here's a quote from NewScientist :

"Early last month, a Nobel laureate physicist finished polishing up his theory that a deeper, deterministic reality underlies the apparent uncertainty of quantum mechanics. A week after he announced it, two eminent mathematicians showed that the theory has profound implications beyond physics: abandoning the uncertainty of quantum physics means we must give up the cherished notion that we have free will."

You know what must be one of the better side-perks of being a Nobel laureate / MacArthur Fellow / etc.? It's simply the way people take you seriously. I'm not doubting anyone's genius, of course. (Nor am I asserting my own.) If you've won a Nobel, a MacArthur, a Pulitzer, you almost certainly deserve it. But, fuck, isn't it really frustrating for the rest of us? I mean, now it's national news to suggest that a "deeper, deterministic reality underlies the apparent uncertainty of quantum mechanics"? Like, nobody ever thought that?

Whenever I've publicly expressed this notion (even as a possibility -- a thought experiment), some physics know-it-all would invariably chime in and cite quantum mechanics principles irrefutable by the laity. Hell, I wandered the earth, dazed and confused for years, uncertain as to whether my captivation by, for example, LaPlace's "Daemon" reflected stubbornness or simply my "destiny" to pepetuate an unenlightened, mechanistic worldview. His famous postulation:

We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes. [ from the Wiki]

Sure, LaPlace's scenario could never be realized -- nor, in my opinion, could we mere humans ever even imagine the realization of such a machine or daemon or whatever. You'd have to know the position and momentum details for every particle in the entire universe -- not to mention all of the complex calculations regarding every particle's gravitational pull on every other particle (and other such mind-boggling details, many of which we cannot even begin to enumerate!). But, to me, the impossibility of LaPlace's postulation was irrelevant.

And, sure, there was Heisenberg basically proving (if you interpreted it that way) that LaPlace's idea was unattainable:

Within the widely but not universally accepted Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics ... the uncertainty principle is taken to mean that on an elementary level, the physical universe does not exist in a deterministic form -- but rather as a collection of probabilities, or potentials. For example, the pattern (probability distribution) produced by millions of photons passing through a diffraction slit can be calculated using quantum mechanics, but the exact path of each photon cannot be predicted by any known method. The Copenhagen interpretation holds that it cannot be predicted by any method, not even with theoretically infinitely precise measurements.
[ from the Wiki, my emphasis]

Okay, okay, I get it, I thought. So we can't predict the path of a photon. Yeah, but does that necessarily mean that each photon does not have a specific path though? See, this whole thing reflected, to me, the notion of human limitation -- not some deeper truth that the universe is necessarily fraught with chaos. Just because we can't measure something doesn't mean it's not there, right? Why wouldn't a photon have a direction and a spin and all of the other properties that anything else must have?

What about Gleick? Didn't his book expose a certain order within the chaos. A snippet from a chaos theory article on Wikipedia:

As a result of this sensitivity [on initial conditions], the behavior of systems that exhibit chaos appears to be random, exhibiting an exponential error dispersion, even though the system is deterministic in the sense that it is well defined and contains no random parameters. (my emphasis)

There's a reality down there, somewhere, I thought. It's orders of magnitude more complex than we ridiculously stupid human beings could ever hope to comprehend. But, there was order, I thought.

No, no, I was told, randomness prevails in the world -- and you just need to deal. So I sank away, crestfallen but not completely unconvinced that I was wrong. But now a Nobel laureate (mentioned above) says there might in fact be some order in the world -- and suddenly it's a question again.

Free will, IMHO, is a beautiful illusion. When I asked you to think of a number between 1 and 10, I imagine a wonderful complexity going on within your head. Certain types of people would think of certain of the 10 most likely possibilities (the whole numbers). A few would have an initial thought, then change their selection, also based on some character trait they'd developed over the course of their lifetimes to date (like, you're a sneaky bastard who likes to fool with people, so you purposely calculated which digit would be the toughest for me to guess). A few others (even more deviant) would, as I said, add in a decimal point or two. A smaller minority might throw in some theoretical number -- say, " 2.777 repeating." Hell, describing this initial moment alone, could be the topic of an entire dissertation, really. (I'll stop now, as you no doubt see what I mean, right?)

That friggin' journey, though ... I got into shit that was way over my head, of course -- things like friggin' Einstein and John Bell. And it all ends, my friends, in advanced calculus (the kind that only George Bush and a select few Fields medal recipients can manage), which is no fun for most armchair philosophers. So, after years of toying with these inclinations, I just said fuck it. In the end, I doubt anyone could or will ever get to the bottom of it all, anyway. As the "old lady" supposedly said, " it's turtles all the way down."

Original Comments

Below, are the original comments on this post. Additional comments may be made via Facebook, below.

On January 10, 2007, Sons of Eastie wrote:

As we read this, we thought you were really onto something and that perhaps you could help us with picking winning lottery numbers.

On January 13, 2007, Jim Dee wrote:

"How does that help you BESIDES winning some laurels from some people who are also preoccupied by really small things."

For me, it was an Obsession linked to the free will vs. determinism debate -- which had additional philosophical implications such as our responsbibility for our actions, etc. I had the notion that some major philosophers were wrong, and if I could just get my head around some of that quantum mechanics theory, I could produce an improved theory that no one else has seemed to put forth to date. It was that John Bell stuff, btw, that blew my mind & caused me to seek another outlet for my free time. Although, I must say, I did get a decent screenplay out of it all.

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