A little while ago I was participating in a conversation about the nature of causality and whether the information we have supports the idea of a deterministic universe, and I found myself getting perhaps uncharacteristically defensive. If you aren’t familiar with the idea of determinism, it suggests that every situation can have only one outcome, and this outcome has been causally determined, since the beginning of time, by the initial starting position of the universe. This concept simply extends the idea of cause and effect outwards to the beginnings and end of time: Every cause has effects and every effect has causes and, though we personally experience the effects after the cause, that may just be the experience of a mind that lives moving forwards in time.

This is accurate to the reality simulated by classical mechanics, since everything has to sum up properly at the end, but it’s a bit of an open question whether this idea can still hold true with quantum mechanics. I believe that we will eventually find that it does, but that’s an article of faith on my behalf more than anything else – and I find that interesting, because there’s not a lot I take on faith, so… why should this be an exception?

After I had a chance to cool down and think a while, I started to wonder about why I was feeling defensive and irritable. I could now, perhaps, talk about how what I feel to be the internal consistency and obviousness of my logic has made me arrogant and unwilling to entertain new ideas – or how, as we get older, we build up conceptual structures of ideas, and begin to become increasingly uncomfortable with any rearrangement of the ideas near the bottom of the structure lest they upset the entire mental order of our universe – or about how, as a broke-as-fuck artist, I get so little external reassurance that I often feel compelled to display extreme and unearned confidence to hold what shaky financial and emotional ground I can still stand on.

Well: Those are all topics that occurred to me, and perhaps they’ll come up later, in future essays. However, what I also realized is that I became defensive at that time because the idea of determinism has actually quietly, over the course of my life, become incredibly important to me, in a way that is fundamental to my understanding of the world and, perhaps, even spiritual.

When determinism is presented in the context of religion and spirituality it’s almost always, in my experience, as something which undermines the core tenets upon which those are built: That is to say, it raises questions of how we can have free will if our choices are already determined, and what possible role can the divine have in a universe that is essentially mechanical? I don’t find these questions compelling, personally, but these are usually the ones that come up within the context of how people feel, spiritually, about the idea of determinism. However, I’ve always seen the idea differently – not as cold and pragmatic and disparate from the spiritual reality of human existence, but as a profoundly hopeful and meaningful idea about what forms of immortality we can realistically hope for.

There’s a split I’ve noticed, perhaps a generational divide, a difference of perspective between the ‘millennial’ generation and older generations. It’s commonly accepted and understood, now, that information persists on the internet; anything that you say or do only persists indefinitely, and can always be assumed to be archived somewhere, somehow, perhaps not forever but for close enough to forever. I don’t think, though, that for those of us who grew up with the internet that this understanding ends there: I think there’s just a generalized feeling that everything that happens is recorded in one way or another, leaves some permanent trace behind that could be unearthed at any moment. And, sure, maybe to some degree everyone knew that every every action left traces behind before, but now we have a split between those who assume that records of every event stay behind, and those who assume that they don’t unless they are specifically and intentionally created. I don’t want to overgeneralize, of course, but it often feels that boomers are as uncomfortable with the idea of a world where everything is recorded as millennials are with a world where most things are forgotten and lost forever.

I perceive this assumption in myself, that everything sticks around in some way, and I see the way I take comfort in it; that the things we did and the people we are won’t be lost to time, but just archived in some way. To me determinism cradles that concept intimately: Our lives aren’t just something that happens and then goes away, our lives are part of the great chain of causality. Our butterfly effects will continue on long after we disappear, no matter how inconsequential we may have seemed in the moment, and even if we don’t cause a hurricane, or even if we do but our hurricane is just a dust storm on a dead planet, we’re still part of it. The timeline will always exist and we will always be in it. However, if the universe is not deterministic, there’s no timeline – there’s a time spray, and nothing that happens leaves a reliable echo. There’s no way an omniscient observer can play back the film and see the lives that were lived – and, even if I have no belief in or even an interest in believing in an omniscient observer, the idea that if there was one there would be something there for them to observe gives me comfort.

I can’t just believe things because I like the way they feel, though. Maybe some effects happen without cause: I don’t think so, but I can’t know otherwise. Maybe the past is lost irrevocably, and the recordings and memories we take are really all that’s left of what once was. I don’t know. But, in the absence of knowledge, I will keep on believing, as I have, that every effect comes from causes and every cause from effects.

Even if it’s just a leap of faith, it’s carried me this far.

  1. Jason said:

    You’re conflating two distinct concepts. Determinism doesn’t imply no information loss, because a deterministic system doesn’t have to have a one-to-one correlation between input states and output states (having more output states than input states requires non-determinism, but having fewer doesn’t). If you write something on a piece of paper and then burn it, you can’t recover the writing afterwards. Anything could have been written on it and it still would have produced the same pile of ink and ashes. Moreover, the laws of thermodynamics indicate that the universe as a whole is winding down towards a single steady state of maximum entropy, at which point nothing that anybody has ever done will continue to have any effect on the state of the system. I mean, this line of reasoning is exactly why people are drawn to Christian-style religions: they promise that there’s some guy up there writing everything down in the Book of Life, so that it’ll all be there for you forever once you get to Heaven. And if this were true, it would be true irrespective of determinism.

    Personally, I’m inclined towards the opposite interpretation. Some things matter and some things don’t, but nobody has any way of knowing which is which (at least not conclusively), since it’s just a coincidental effect of a particular bunch of physical constants and equations, and it isn’t up to anyone’s judgment or desires. That’s why the only thing you can justifiably focus on is doing whatever the right thing is for you to do right now and not worry about what the historians are going to have to say about it. I suppose it’s a moot point, though. You have to have some source of faith that what you’re doing is in fact worth doing, or you’re obviously not going to do anything. There’s no way Shakespeare could have known he’d still be one of the world’s major literary influences hundreds of years later; he was just doing his job and getting paid. So I guess you just have to pick something to have faith in, and the historical evidence doesn’t really indicate that it matters all that much what exactly it is that you pick.

    • I’m not sure the paper and fire analogy quite holds, since I suspect with sufficient information about the contents of the pile of ashes and knowledge of the exact air currents in the room you could possibly make a decent reconstruction, but I see your point overall, particularly as pertaining to the heat death of the universe. I don’t care much about there being a book or a heaven, but I do like the idea that things persist in some way — but, really, I’m not sure why I should care. I think it’s just a loss-aversion thing, but really we just have to get used to the idea of everything being impermanent. It’s a hard mindset to get away from, though, wanting to do something that lasts.

      I don’t think anything intrinsically ‘matters’, it’s just a matter of finding the things that mean something to you. It’s difficult sometimes,, though, to feel invested in long-term happiness strategies when if you just extend that long-term out a bit farther everything becomes irrelevant. Perhaps a strategy of sustainable hedonism.

      • In the TV series, “Kung Fu”, one of the exercises the initiate had to master was to walk from one end of a roll of rice paper to the other end without leaving a tear or a mark. Ironically, that left a mark on me. It was sort of like what mom used to say about leaving nature undisturbed when hiking. We can choose to feel good about being remembered. We can choose to feel good about being forgotten. The key is that how we feel is often up to us.

  2. Nothing is fully determined until all of the causes have come into play and brought it about. If one of those causes is your mental process of choosing, then it cannot happen until you bring it about.

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