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Determinism vs. Freedom

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In many minds, science is still associated with the deterministic picture of the world, as it was in the nineteenth century. The modern science, however, draws a picture which is quite different.

The world of the nineteenth century was, broadly, as follows. Very small particles of matter move about in virtually empty three-dimensional space. These particles act on one another with forces which are uniquely determined by their positioning and velocities.The forces of interaction, in their turn, uniquely determine, in accordance with Newton's laws, the subsequent movement of particles. Thus each subsequent state of the world is determined, in a unique way, by its preceding state.Determinism was an intrinsic feature of the scientific worldview of that time. In such a world there was no room for freedom: it was illusory. Humans, themselves merely aggregates of particles, had as much freedom as wound-up watch mechanisms.

In the twentieth century the scientific worldview has undergone a radical change. It has turned out that subatomic physics cannot be understood within the framework of the Naive Realism of the nineteenth century scientists. The theory of Relativity and, especially, Quantum Mechanics require that our worldview be based on Criti cal Philosophy, according to which all our theories and mental pictures of the world are only devices to organize and foresee our experience, and not the images of the world as it "really" is. Thus along with the twentieth-century's specific discove ries in the physics of the microworld, we must regard the inevi tability of critical philosophy as a scientific discovery -- one of the greatest of the twentieth century.

We now know that the notion that the world is "really" space in which small particles move along definite trajectories, is illusory: it is contradicted by experimental facts. We also know that determinism, i.e. the notion that in the last analysis all the events in the world must have specific causes, is illusory too. On the contrary, freedom, which was banned from the science of the nineteenth century as an illusion, became a part, if not the essence, of reality. The mechanistic worldview saw the laws of nature as something that uniquely prescribes how events should develop, with indeterminacy resulting only from our lack of knowledge; contemporary science regards the laws of nature as only restrictions imposed on a basically non-deterministic world. It is not an accident that the most general laws of nature are conservation laws, which do not prescribe how things must br, but only put certain restrictions on them.

There is genuine freedom in the world. When we observe it from the outside, it takes the form of quantum-mechanical unpredictability; when we observe it from within, we call it our free will. We know that the reason why our behaviour is unpredictable from the outside is that we have ultimate freedom of choice. This freedom is the very essence of our personalities, the treasure of our lives. It is given us as the first element of the world we come into.

Logically, the concept of free will is primary, impossible to derive or to explain from anything else. The concept of necessity, including the concept of a natural law, is a derivative: we call necessary, or predetermined, those things which cannot be changed at will.

Copyright© 1991 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

V. Turchin,

Sep 1991


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