Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Harwood's Variable Constant of Randomness

From a physics perspective, if you were to roll the universe back to the very beginning and get every little particle exactly where it had been and then kick off the whole thing exactly the same way as it had been originally kicked off, then you would still be reading these words right now. Nothing (absolutely nothing) would happen differently. All the dominoes would fall just as they'd fallen before.

At a basic physical level, the universe is deterministic; everything that happens is simply a result of whatever preceded it. This atom runs into that one which runs into two others and so on. Set off the big bang again and every single atom would do exactly the same thing, gazillions of atoms over billions of years.

Predetermined Chaos
Now, being deterministic doesn't make the universe predictable. Predicting is something that we humans do (or try to do). Even though everything that has happened, is happening, and will happen is predetermined, gathering all the required input and running the calculations to accurately predict what's next is simply too complex for us mortals.

As a result, although the universe is completely pre-determined, we can still talk about topics such as Chaos Theory (you know, a butterfly batting his wings in Argentina causes a hurricane in New Jersey). Chaos Theory doesn't mean that the things are not deterministic, it's simply a reminder that there are so many variables to be considered that we can't possibly predict the future with 100% accuracy. There are certainly situations in which we can become fairly reliable predictors, but they're limited (relatively speaking) and we're never 100% all the time.

Teflon's Paradox
So, here's the funny thing. The universe being deterministic and all, from a physics perspective, there's no such thing as free will. Everything is playing out in a complex sequence of interconnected events that rolls back to the big bang. Every decision that we make is simply the result of an incomprehensibly complex set of cause/effect relationships. Run the program again, and we'd still make exactly the same decisions.

I totally buy this from a scientific perspective. And yet... I totally operate as though I have free will. Scientifically, no such thing. Philosophically, free will is everything.

Proving God
Now, I'm quite comfortable with this apparent paradox. I'm fine with there not being free will, and yet, with my acting as though I have free will. Nonetheless, when I used to believe in Christianity, I would often employ this paradox as an existence proof for God when talking to my atheistic friends with a scientific bent.

In a nut shell, they would agree that the universe is deterministic. I would point out that this implied there was no such thing as free will which would make them feel quite uncomfortable. While they were willing to accept the deterministic nature of the universe, they were totally unwilling to accept that they did not actually have free will, that free will was just an apparition.

So, I would say, "Free will can't exist within the deterministic physical universe; therefore, free will must originate outside the physical universe. Hence, the existence of God."

Of course, this didn't actually prove that God exists (let alone who he or she would be); it just called into question the nature of free will. If you believe in free will as something that's real and you buy into physics, then free will must be something that occurs outside of the natural universe. It's super-natural.

Variable Free Will
Over the years, I've had lots of discussions regarding free will. One of the things that I've noticed is that oftentimes the people who most vehemently espouse free will are the ones who seem not to exercise it that much. On the one hand, they would be offended if you were to suggest that they were simply pre-programmed robots playing out the unfolding of the universe. On the other, they would be even more offended if you were to suggest that they could choose how they felt about any situation independent of the situation itself.

They strongly espouse free will, and yet conveniently lose it when victim-hood better serves them, a variable free will of sorts. To me, it seems that either you would have free will or you wouldn't.

Harwood's Variable Constant of Randomness
As my friend Jonathan and I have played with all these concepts, he came up with something that he hopes will trump relativity in the annals of science, a scientific basis for free will, an answer to Teflon's Paradox. He calls it the Harwood's Variable Constant of Randomness, named after its inventor.

At this point, it's just a theory, and he doesn't actually have a formula, but it goes something like this:
  1. Each time we approach a decision, even if absolutely every variable down to the smallest subatomic particle is in exactly the same place, going exactly the same direction, at exactly the same speed as the last time we approached the decision, we can actually make a different decision than last time.
  2. Given the universe is deterministic, making a different decision than last time when nothing has changed is impossible...
  3. Except, when you introduce Harwood's Variable Constant of Randomness (or Harwood's VCR) which variably and constantly interacts with other elements of the physical universe to yield apparently random results, i.e., free will.
Now I'm sure how all this will play out, but I definitely like the utility of the VCR. It's really cool to keep in mind that no matter how many times you've approached a situation and made exactly the same boneheaded decisions, that the next time could be different simply because you decided to make it so.

So, are you a free will espouser or a free will practitioner? What will you decide today?

Happy First Tuesday!


  1. You forgot to add my thought-experiment proof, which might even take into account relativity (forgeting about the chicken and the egg paradox)...if you could actually step out of the frame at a point in time and predict your future destiny based on all these subatomic interactions, you (we as intelligent human beings) have choice or the free will to change one or more of these interactions and affect our destiny. Maybe that's why I liked "back to the future" so much :)

  2. So let's go with that. Forgetting about how it happens, exercising free will simply means stepping outside your current situation and making a decision based on that vantage point.

    In essence, we can exercise free will whenever we put down all the emotional stuff that is "happening" to us, take on the perspective of the disinterested third party (by disinterested, I mean not clinging to the outcome), and make our decision from that perspective.

    Perhaps that's why we often seem to come back to the same decision point over and over and over. It's some kind of supernatural universal plot designed to wake us up.

  3. Hmmm. There's a big IF in this formula (point 1: ...even if absolutely every variable is the same...). One could argue that given the millions of variables in any given scenario, a particular set of variables NEVER occurs again - recall Bears' statement that one can never set foot in the same river twice. Both the water and the foot are different. Which implies that it is actually not possible to make the 'same' decision again. If a decision seems to be similar to past decisions, it could still be considered a new decision, since it's being made in response to a different set of variables. So repeating a particular behavior would then be similar to throwing a dice and getting the same number repeatedly.

    Hmmm, looking back over what I've written, I suspect a error of logic somewhere. Anyways, thanks for a very stimulating thread, Teflon.

  4. The foot and river analogy is totally consistent with determinism and an example of Chaos Theory.

    The reason you can't put the same foot into the same river is because even though everything may appear to be the same, not all the variables are the same. The foot and water analogy works because it's happening in sequence within a single unfolding universe. The billions of variables never line up the same way twice.

    However, if you rolled back that universe to the beginning and started it off again, you would get to experience the same foot in the same river again exactly once, and the outcome would be exactly the same, exactly once.

    Within a given universe, the fact that you can't put the same foot in the same river provides further support for the absence of free will. It suggests that change is a result in (sometimes subtle) differences in variables and stimuli, not free will.

    Scientifically speaking, proof of free will would require a different decision based on exactly the same input (all gazillion variables). Otherwise, one could argue, it wasn't free will that changed the decision, it was a change to the experimental environment. The experiment was rigged.

  5. "Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way" - Victor Frankl

    It's so great: I can act as if I have a free will even if the big universe is created in a way which means that I don't - whatever I do will be what I was supposed to do - and I can still make up that I made the choise myself!

  6. absolutely Joy. How is it the big universe is created in a way which means to you that you don't have free will, insofar as our awesome gift of volitional consciousness?

  7. Hi BV:
    if everything can be derivide in a logical sense back to big bang, then I would question if I have a free will or if everything INCLUDING my choises are just natural consequences.
    In reality I chose to live AS IF I had a free will, but I find the thougt about big bang and "everything being deterministic" very amusing, and I guess that this would also mean that me believing in a free will is part of the natural consequences, so in the end I'm not really deciding if I want to believe in a free will....

  8. Joy, that's it exactly. Isn't it fun!

  9. I confess I'm not sure I understand. Perhaps I have a different concept of what either of us is talking about when we use the term 'free will?' For me I'm referring to my free will as to the quality of how we experience anything we perceive presently, in this dimension, to be on our path. In otherwords I have free will at every step, as there is a fork in the path at every step. bw

  10. BW, I think the challenge doesn't lie in your concept of freewill. It's just that your concept of freewill doesn't jibe with physics.
    It's not that it should jibe with physics. It's just that you can't simultaneously accept both physics and freewill from an intellectual integrity perspective.

  11. Teflon: does that mean that you're considering the human brain/mind to be subject to the laws of physics also? If so, I would love to hear how you came to that position.

  12. Sree, I absolutely consider the human brain to be subject to the laws of physics; there's nothing in science to indicate otherwise. The mind, on the other hand, is an abstract, philosophical concept.

    From a purely scientific perspective, you could metaphorically consider us to be programs that have been programmed to think that we're other than programs. I hesitate to use 'program', because it implies a 'programmer'.

    Again, all this is based on the physical or natural universe being all there is. To imply that there's something else is great. It just mandates something beyond the physical, a la spirit or soul or mind (depending on your definition).

    The question is one of: are concepts such as mind, soul, spirit just an artifact of the programming or do they exist outside the physical realm and interact with it.

  13. Sounds like the popular Matrix Films....thought provokingstuff.

    I agree Tef, that possibly "you can't simultaneously accept both physics and freewill from an intellectual integrity perspective" if that is what one obsesses and limits their experience to.

  14. BW, not sure what you mean by obsession and limiting?

  15. Simply that it is a choice, whether to split hairs or not ;) whether to see dissimilarities, or similarities as in how the two parallel or complemnent each other. I don't see the science of physics as having anything to do with how we as spirits, having a human experience, exercise our gift of free will/consciousness. Both I accept as valid. bw

  16. Hey BW, splitting hairs is in the eye of the beholder; it's also a great way to dismiss as unimportant what someone else might find interesting or important without even considering what they're saying.

    Nonetheless, I think that in the end we're on the same page, i.e., I'm perfectly comfortable with two completely incompatible systems knowing that the thing that reconciles them probably exists outside the two.


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