Thursday, March 10, 2011
In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote that humanity is "endowed by its creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." But even after the countless wars, debates, and an enduring sense of self-pride, are we really free? I am not speaking to any specific freedom quantifiable in most political science discussions. Instead, I wonder of whether the very laws of physics, and therefore our consciousness, are really at liberty to make decisions unhindered by past events if we so choose. This is called Free Will. But if we are not free, if the present is simply the summation of all previous events with no gaps that could be attributed to Free Will, then our Constitution ultimately means nothing, as we do not have the choice to be free or not. This is called Determinism.
Does it really matter?
Yes. It does, because if Determinism is correct, then morality is simply an illusion as well, and all meaning to life ceases, leaving us to be little rubber balls in a cosmic Rube-Goldberg machine. It removes all responsibility from sentient beings for their actions. For example, a convicted gangbanger should not have to pay any price for his actions as a street murderer because he did not choose to pull the trigger, it was the push of the sum of all past events that determined that he would pull the trigger. If one had a complete understanding of physics and all things in the universe, then one could predict the future with 100% accuracy with absolutely no error. Ever.
What are the arguments for Determinism?
According to classical physics and general relativity, anyone who understands the equations can predict perfectly how the moon will orbit the earth, how the earth will orbit the sun, how the sun will orbit the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, which revolves around the center of the Local Group, which orbits (imperceptibly) around the known universe. This seems to suggest that with the right equations and know-how, anyone could predict all events in the universe within the confines of general relativity.
But what about events outside of the scope of Einstein's equations?
While Einstein did publish a paper in 1905 detailing the photoelectric effect, the basis of quantum mechanics, he did not contribute much personally afterwards to the development of the quantum model of all things atom-sized and smaller, leaving other people to develop theories of their own.
The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is one of the basic elements of quantum theory. It states that any action to determine the velocity (speed and direction) of a subatomic particle would alter the particle's position, and that any action to determine the position of an object alters its velocity. Furthermore, this means that one can only make probabilities as to where the particle will be at any given moment. Essentially, it is unpredictable, implying a state of randomness at the quantum level, which is supported by evidence of randomness in Chaos theory especially during non-linear series analysis with statistics. However, it should be noted that even if this randomness is somehow verified, it does not explain how this randomness results in Free Will, as being slaves to random particle movements is not any better than being a slave to the structured mechanics of the universe.
What does this all mean?
If there is no randomness, then Determinism is totally correct, leaving slaves to the ebbs and flows of the cosmos. But if there is any degree of randomness, even if it does not automatically result in Free Will, it would still theoretically allow one to overcome Determinism. When one begins to think about Determinism and Free Will and philosophically argue with him or her self, he or she is recognizing how the past can affect future outcomes with each tiny, insignificant event. Once one has identified this, quantum randomness might allow him or her to break free of this cycle and ride a split second ahead of the force of determinism and attain Free Will. (I must attribute the idea of the ability to have Free Will through meditation and self-awareness despite an essentially deterministic universe to Grant Patterson, it is not mine)
Will we ever know for sure?
Probably not. As we discover more and more about quantum mechanics and the nature of consciousness, who knows what we may find. We might find hard evidence to support one theory or the other, but more likely we will simply uncover more questions and less answers, forcing us to be even more unsure as to the very nature of the universe. Catch you on the flip side.
Tuesday, March 1, 2011
This is a paper I wrote tonight for Film I about an obsession that we have or would want to have and why:
I would choose science fiction in general as the apple of my eye, with Stargate, Battlestar Galactica (2003), and Star Trek being the principle triad. While dramas, documentaries, and other mediums more often than not blurt out the dreams, criticisms, and the mildly hallucinogenic aspects of humanity, leaving little room for interpretation and giving a strong urge to punch Gregory House in the gut for his own good, science fiction allows our minds to enter a realm where the truth is more subtle, our imagination runs limitless, and our general hope for human kind is iconified in Zephram Cochrane’s first jump into Warp to the sound of “Magic Carpet Ride”.
Now, I must admit, I do own a Star Trek communicator badge, every season of Stargate SG-1 and its related movies and spinoffs, and have a strong mental agreement ensuing over free will and divine providence due to Battlestar Galactica, but I have never been to any sort of scifi convention (though I would like to personally get Christopher Judge’s, Edward James Olmos’, and Brent Spiner’s autographs and personal views on their respective characters). My preferred path to geeking out is through Einsteinian thought experiments concerning the shows, reading about the technology and philosophy behind them, and watching re-runs of the shows on TV or DVD (To date I have watched each of all of the roughly 200 episodes of Stargate SG-1, 100 episodes of Stargate Atlantis, and the three current full-length movies at least three times, coming out to a 243 hour investment in my life (10 straight days), not including time spent thinking about Stargate or watching Stargate Universe, which I do not yet own on DVD.
Anyone with a rational mind and an a penchant for putting down TV addicts would hardly need to ask the question, “Why would you devote so much of your life to silly TV shows instead of reading the paper or actually working?” and any intelligent fan would hardly need to give an answer, but perhaps a quote from Isaac Asimov would work nicely, “Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of the day, but the core of science fiction, its essence, has become crucial to our salvation, if we are to be saved at all.” This genre, apart from any other, allows the writers, directors, and actors to explore the human condition in ways that would spark controversy in other mediums. Take, for example, abortion. As the fifty-thousand survivors of the holocaust of the Twelve Colonies dwindle and die in BSG, the issue of whether abortion should be outlawed to protect population growth arrives concerning the possibility of asylum for an underage girl from Gemenon (akin to Christian Evangelicals, particularly the strict interpretation of scripture) who is pregnant and wants an abortion. President Roslin eventually makes the decision to outlaw abortion, which sparked debate within the show and would without doubt have prompted hate-rants if a similar incident happened in modern society. But since it is science fiction, we can take the event and learn from it without becoming blinded by philosophical or religious beliefs because, well, it’s just TV, not real life. While many other examples from these shows and others have profound moral implications, allowing the thoughtful viewer to take morality more objectively due to the fictional premise and setting, the simple alarm clock of inspiration stemming from science fiction has also inspired astronauts, engineers, politicians to become what they are today with the promise of a brighter future for humanity, which to many has always seemed to constantly want to swallow a hydrogen bomb and throw away the deactivation codes. Live long, and prosper.