Known and Unknown

Jerry Coyne has been on a tear lately; even if I don’t agree with everything he says I admire his willingness to tackle the big issues and talk straight. He recently posted on free will and made a case for strict determinism, along with these assertions:

Therefore, even if determinism reigns (and, if it does, there’s no free will under my definition), that doesn’t mean that we can predict our future behaviors from what we know now. Certainly the predictability of decisions made under experimental conditions undermines our traditional notions of free will.

The hard problem here is the gaping chasm between accepting physical determinism in theory and predicting behavior in practice. Freeman Dyson recently addressed this in his review of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow:

The scope of Kahneman’s psychology is necessarily limited by his method. His method is to study mental processes that can be observed and measured under rigorously controlled experimental conditions. Following this method, he revolutionized psychology. He discovered mental processes that can be described precisely and demonstrated reliably.

Since strong emotions and obsessions cannot be experimentally controlled, Kahneman’s method did not allow him to study them. The part of the human personality that Kahneman’s method can handle is the nonviolent part, concerned with everyday decisions, artificial parlor games, and gambling for small stakes. The violent and passionate manifestations of human nature, concerned with matters of life and death and love and hate and pain and sex, cannot be experimentally controlled and are beyond Kahneman’s reach.

We are a long way from knowing everything and our current models fall short. This doesn’t mean they will always fall short or we should resort to metaphysics where knowledge fails us, but it does mean that we should beware hubris because we know that science is never complete.

There is a sense in which science is always just at the beginning. The state of scientific knowledge will be dramatically different two hundred years from now and today’s understandings will look quaint or even primitive.

I was recently reminded of these beginnings, and future unfoldings, while reading this Nature report on quantum entanglement (or what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance”) and this reasonable take on Daryl Bem’s psi research. The world is weird and wonderful.

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5 thoughts on “Known and Unknown

  1. J. A. Le Fevre

    Every step you take, every vow you make, your will is watching you.

    If you want a determined life, be a plant. Determined is simply not an option for animals. Blame evolution.

    Dali as my witness.

    From one linked blog: Michael W. Kraus – ‘Like physicists, maybe psychologists should come to terms with the fact that we won’t always know why something happens.’

    True words for any vocation.

  2. Cris Post author

    I find mystery more fascinating than explanation, but don’t attempt to explain mystery with mysticism. Make sense?

  3. J. A. Le Fevre

    Yes, but one point I oft allude towards is that technology, sufficiently advanced, may masquerade as mysticism. It is far too common for Men-of-Science to dismiss mysticism without noticing the technology within.

  4. Sabio Lantz

    I find efforts to take insights of Physics/Math (entanglement, Quantum theory, Chaos Theory …) and run to explain psychic or religious ‘mysteries’ are highly suspicious at best. Very tempting of course — just as good slimey TV advertising is. They both go for the cheap sides of the human mind.

  5. Cris Post author

    This is what god-in-gaps types of people do: whenever a supernaturally based position becomes untenable as a result of advancing knowledge, they retreat to the next mystery, claim it is evidence of the supernatural, and do it again as the process repeats. When viewed over long stretches of time, it looks rather pathetic. But this doesn’t stop them from doing it in the short term. Today’s supernatural mystery will be tomorrow’s scientific fact.

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