Deterministic, Random and the Other Choice

In a recent conversation on free will and determinism some confusion (disagreement) arose over the contention that the descriptions of systems and their behaviors being “deterministic” and “random” were a complete cover of the possibilities. This is not the case. Emergent behavior is described as one way to conceptualized the set missing possibilities.

Emergent behavior lately has been described in two ways, “strong” and “weak” emergence. The distinction is claimed in that weak emergence behavioral patterns are derivable (or at least highly suggestible) from local interactions. Two examples of that might be Brownian motion and the ideal gas law. Brownian motion describes the motion of large objects in a bath of small particles. These large particles “dance” and move about. Their speed and travel is determined by the temperature and the relative dimensions and densities of the particles in question. Considered as an aggregate the distance traveled in a set time and the distribution of those distances is quite regular (hence determined). However, exact details of the actual position and travel of a given particle is indeterminate. This hierarchy of regimes is a feature of all systems described to have emergent behavior. Similarly the ideal gas law which we all recall from High School, PV = nRT, where P is pressure, V is volume, n is a number of atoms, and T is a temperature (in absolute scale). This can be derived by using equilibrium statistical physics methods. It is deterministic, but the motion of the atoms in the bath which is being described cannot be described deterministically. Here in one hierarchy you have randomness and at another layer, determinism.

Strong emergent behavior:

Laughlin belongs to a). In his book, he explains that for many particle systems, nothing can be calculated exactly from the microscopic equations, and that macroscopic systems are characterised by broken symmetry: the symmetry present in the microscopic equations is not present in the macroscopic system, due to phase transitions. As a result, these macroscopic systems are described in their own terminology, and have properties that do not depend on many microscopic details. This does not mean that the microscopic interactions are irrelevant, but simply that you do not see them anymore – you only see a renormalized effect of them. Laughlin is a pragmatic theoretical physicist: if you cannot, possibly ever, calculate the broken symmetry macroscopic properties from the microscopic equations, then what is the point of talking about reducibility?

Two examples of this might be, from biology, the behavior of termites (drawn from Gazinaga’s book on the brain and free will) in which local rules driving the action of termites when the population and health of a colony passes a certain threshold, the underground colonies suddenly alter their behavior to the large cemented/clay towers seen in southern Africa. Another example might be schooling behavior of fish and flocking by birds. Local simple rules governing speed and direction when a size threshold is reached suddenly change the behavior from individually driven to schools or flocks. And while (like with Brownian motion) some general characteristics of the school/flock might be imagined to be derivable, the direction and course of that flock is not (which akin to not being able to predict the direction and distance that a individual large particle travels in a set time period).

So in general we see a hierarchy of regimes in which a lower random bath can give rise to very regular behavior at a large level. When that emergent behavior is a computational network or like the brain large collections of such networks… then things can get interesting and at that point you are well in this unknown not-derministic/not-random world. 

15 responses to “Deterministic, Random and the Other Choice

  1. Basically what I think you’re saying is a Magic-8 ball cannot be determined. In other words, even if we build a machine that gives it a very precise shake in a room that’s been shielded against random vibrations, with a temp. and pressure controlled down to many decimal points, even with all that we ask the Magic-8 ball a question and all the supercomputers in the world can’t predict whether it will say ‘yes, no, maybe or ask again later’.

    But despite this we also think the thing is deterministic. We don’t think the ball is providing answers from its ‘free will’ but instead think that all the tiny particles in the fluid of the ball are moving per the laws of physics and impacting the ‘answer die’ imparting various forces on it that will result in one side or the other showing up in the ‘magic window’.

    Here, though, there is no dispute. No one who is skeptical of free will feels the many more atoms and forces in any given brain could be modelled down to such a scale that we can predict fine decisions made by it. Instead like the 8-ball while we can’t ever determine what it will say we can be pretty confident no matter how much we ‘zoom in’ what is going on in the vast system is pretty deterministic.

  2. Boonton,

    Here, though, there is no dispute. No one who is skeptical of free will feels the many more atoms and forces in any given brain could be modelled down to such a scale that we can predict fine decisions made by it. Instead like the 8-ball while we can’t ever determine what it will say we can be pretty confident no matter how much we ‘zoom in’ what is going on in the vast system is pretty deterministic.

    So? You’re missing the hierarchies. Look, take a balloon. It contains lots of random atoms which you cannot predict or describe. But if you heat the room 10 degrees you can predict precisely by how much it will warm. If you insert a trace element in the side of the balloon you can predict very closely how long it will take to the traces of that to diffuse evenly throughout the balloon. It’s random but you can say a lot of things about it without resorting to the precise descriptions of the underlying atomic interactions.

    There are systems in which “higher level” or emergent behavior can be traced and described precisely how it comes from the microscopic layer. There are those which you cannot predict from that (example, at what point to birds flock or termites build upwards).

    Look at high speed (past sound speed) aerodynamics. There is no theory that moves from the microscopic dynamics of single or double air molecule interaction to descriptions of the engineering equations that are used to describe how different shapes are affected by shock waves. Yet those equations are understood well enough that engineers can make safe planes that work reliably. The problem for you isn’t the 8-ball being unpredictable. It’s the plane being predictable and the birds not are both emergent behaviors.

  3. Yes we don’t have a theory of air dynamics that is built from the micro-scale up to the macro-scale. But we have no reason to think that anything that whatever happens on the macro-scale is not simply the sum total of micro interactions and those micro interactions follow deterministic laws.

    The free will arguments usually reduce to something in the human NOT reducing to micro-particle interactions that are deterministic. Of course, human behavior must reduce to particle interactions because we know that nerves, muscles and so on behave the way they do because of microscoptic biochemical reactions. If you decide you’ve had enough of me and will hit me in the head with a baseball bat, those actions reduce to biochemistry and a doctor could make your decision moot by snipping just the right nerves in your spin (or blocking them with well designed chemicals) to make you totally unable to carry out your decision.

    So the question isn’t can we find a macrotheory of the brain that can reduce down to a microtheory of atoms in the brain. Let’s say we can’t. So what? As you say we can’t do that with air flow and lots of other things. The question is does human behavior reduce down to just micro-particle interactions or does something happen at that micro level that is NOT the usual deterministic rules of physics?

  4. Boonton,

    Of course, human behavior must reduce to particle interactions because we know that nerves, muscles and so on behave the way they do because of microscoptic biochemical reactions. If you decide you’ve had enough of me and will hit me in the head with a baseball bat, those actions reduce to biochemistry and a doctor could make your decision moot by snipping just the right nerves in your spin (or blocking them with well designed chemicals) to make you totally unable to carry out your decision.

    Which is the problem posed by strong emergence. That you will not be able to figure out the right “nerve” to block because you cannot reduce the decision to the micro layer, that the high layer behavior is not reducible to micro. Get it?

  5. Not reducible != does not reduce to. Using the magic-8 ball example, the behavior of the ball inside the larger ball reduces to the interactions of the tiny particles of fluid impacting the larger decision cube. Because we may never be able to actually predict the decisoin cube’s behavior doesn’t mean that it is not deterministic.

  6. Boonton,
    Well, that’s one problem with trying to separate things by “deterministic” vs “random”, in that the former includes examples of the latter. Quantum mechanics, for example, is completely deterministic in that there well defined equations of motion. It is also random in that only probabilities are predicted. However the notion that systems are all either deterministic or random is a claim I am not defending. JA made the claim that systems this was a complete cover, i.e., systems were “deterministic”, “random” or “magic” (and he discards the third possibility for whatever reason). My contention is that deterministic/random are not exclusive nor a cover of all possibilities as described by modern science. Random systems have well determined behavior (PV=nRT). Randomness can be deterministic (Schrodinger’s equation).

    Not reducible != does not reduce to.

    Nor reducible means you need a different (possibly non-microscopic) method to describe the system.

  7. I’m not sure in our discussion we are taking random off the table as being deterministic. What goes on in the brain to cause macrobehavior in deterministic systems of particles? The free will hypothesis seems to assert that brain behavior at some level is caused by particles NOT behaving according to the standard laws of physics (random nor not). Otherwise you have determinism but not predictability.

  8. Boonton,
    Why does free will not work within the laws of physics (given that physics is just the description of how the world works). If physics is correct and our brains are in the world, are you saying a physical description to be correct cannot include brains with free will. The problem is in your requirements not worlds with brains with free will.

    The statement “random or deterministic” was made. That makes no sense.

    Part of the problems, was people saying “random vs deterministic” is a cover of possibilities as if they are somehow related. Those are not distinct categories, like random vs not-random or deterministic vs not deterministic.

  9. Boonton,
    What I’m saying is that seems a problem with your definition of physics … not one for the universe, brains or free will.

  10. well we don’t really know do we? Why do you swing or not swing that bat at someone you don’t like? Let’s say you swing…we trace the cause through your muscles, up your nerves, through the spinal cord and into your brain. In there does the signal to swing originate solely from particles behaving as physics says they behave whether or not they are in a brain? or do they behave differently?

    Descarte formulated the concept of duelism….when the ‘soul’ interacts with the brain, it changes the behavior of the particles from what they otherwise would have been had simple physics been left to take its course. But if duelism is false, then there is no ‘soul’ to interact with such particles, the particles themselves are essentially the soul.

    Random isn’t quite the right word here since particles will behave in certain ways whose properites are given as probability functions. But duelism wouldn’t quite look like that. Duelism would appear as probability being ‘loaded’ one way or the other.

  11. Boonton,
    For the record, I’ve never swung a bat at anyone.

    I’m pretty sure dualism with the notion that the soul interacts with brain chemistry/neurons would either be “magic” or under the purview of physics, i.e., to describe the given interactions.

    Dualism would (likely) in be in the case (in the context of Conway’s “free will and the electron” paper) that while QM tells us the choice being made by that election depends on nothing in the prior or current state of the universe it might you suggest depend the state of things “outside” the measurable universe. This puts in the situation of those modern atheists who believe either in aliens extra-solar intelligence nor God(s) because non-belief is falsifiable, but belief is not. That of course presumes that the atheist (or indidivual’s belief includes falsifiablity as a primary criteria)

    What I’m trying to put across is that dualism is not necessary for free will to exist within the context of known science and that the distinction determinism vs random is very bad, given that there are random deterministic systems and deterministic random ones. These two sets mix too much to serve as useful categories in this context.

  12. I’m pretty sure dualism with the notion that the soul interacts with brain chemistry/neurons would either be “magic” or under the purview of physics, i.e., to describe the given interactions.

    Well imagine you showed a radio to a 19th century scientist, one who was familiar with the telephone and telegraphs but not with wireless radio waves. He wouldn’t be shocked at a machine that played music. Such a machine would be an extension of what a telephone receiver does. AS he takes it apart, though, he will realize there’s no wire going into it. Where does the sound come from? At some point he is going to zero in on the antenna, but he is going to wonder how is sound stored on what appears to be a simple tube made out of a single metalic metal? At some point he will stumble upon dualism. The radio picks up the invisible waves and converts them into sound. If those waves are not in the air, the antenna is just a stick of metal and will not appear to do anything special.

    So imagine if you will a ‘soul’ that exists apart from the matter of the brain an the brain as an antenna of sorts. In that sense your decision not to use the bat will appear to be ‘magic’ but only in the sense an antenna appears magical if you don’t have an understanding of radio waves to help you out. If we find that at some levels particles in the brain do not behave the way they do outside the brain, we have an antenna theory which would leave our behavior determined by something outside of matter as we currently understand it with the brain as a type of antenna that translates that world into the physical world. This can be tested. If the brain is an antenna to the soul, then if you build a brain atom by atom, you would not get a mind as there would be no ‘soul’ for it to ‘tune into to’.

    The other model might be music stored on an ipod. There is no antenna involved. The music is coming from the nature of the ipod itself. At that level we have a more materialistic explanation from behavior as emerging from the complexity of the materialistic brain. If I build an atom by atom copy of your ipod, I’ll get your play list. Likewise an atom by atom copy of your brian would produce a duplicate pseudopoly author. (Of course quantum mechanics would tell us that we couldn’t copy your brain directly like that, of course).

    Dualism would (likely) in be in the case (in the context of Conway’s “free will and the electron” paper) that while QM tells us the choice being made by that election depends on nothing in the prior or current state of the universe it might you suggest depend the state of things “outside” the measurable universe.

    But this isn’t quite quantum mechanics. There’s a problem with saying an election has a choice….it doesn’t. It’s behavior is described strictly in terms of probability. If I say QM says there’s a 45% chance it will break right and a 55% chance it will break left, that’s no less deterministic than saying it always will break left.

  13. Boonton,
    Your 19th century scientist is going to do lots of experiments and find out if he puts that radio in a metal box it doesn’t play anymore. Pretty soon he (like H. Hertz) is going to find out about radio waves because he can interfere and start detecting them himself. So if the soul is transmitting somehow to human brains, this is physics. It’s interactions we can locate and measure.

    If I build an atom by atom copy of your ipod, I’ll get your play list.

    Well, if you did it by that prescription you’d fail. You could (a) copy an iPod by buying similar components, but the actual data isn’t stored in the location of atoms (or the components). It’s done by moving and holding charge in arrays of transistors. Don’t need to copy all the atoms, you need to copy compnents and mirror charge patterns (not atoms) … that is to essentially copy the data and programming. Likewise you probably don’t need to copy my brain atom by atom to copy me, just copy the relevant interconnections and the active data elements and you’d have a duplicate. Alas we are both individuals, so you’d likely very quickly find that Mark-A and Mark-B don’t always make the same choices. That’s your free will problem, we have it so we don’t behave identically.

    Yes, the electron has a probability. It will break up/down with a certain frequency if you do it many many time. However, each time nothing internally (no hidden variables … see Bell’s Inequality) or externally determined conditions (prior state of the universe) determine which way it will choose next time. It is free, see. That’s what free means. Unconstrained.

  14. Likewise you probably don’t need to copy my brain atom by atom to copy me, just copy the relevant interconnections and the active data elements and you’d have a duplicate. Alas we are both individuals, so you’d likely very quickly find that Mark-A and Mark-B don’t always make the same choices. That’s your free will problem, we have it so we don’t behave identically.

    In that case both Mark’s would lack free will. Mark-B will be different from Mark-A for the simple reason that as soon as Mark-B steps out of the copy machine his particles and ‘internconnections’ will start experiencing different inputs than the original Mark-A. The two would be different for the same reason that two different laptops are different a year after they’ve been sold to users yet they left the factory almost perfect copies of each other. The laptops didn’t have ‘free will’, they had different things done to them.

    But would you get a Mark-B? If the way it works is that the brain is able to pick up on the ‘Mark-soul’ then Mark-B would be like that radio in the metal box. With no soul to ‘tune into’, Mark-B would simply not work and that would be puzzling to a neurologist who wouldn’t be able to find anything wrong with his brain or body.

  15. Boonton,
    My contention is that the divergence you note isn’t required. With exactly the same input we will likely give different answers.

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