Monday, May 19, 2008

Page proof?

I was getting a copy of SHAM ready to sign and put in the mail. I placed it down on the table and it fell open to page 82. Page 82 is nowhere near the center of the book, which runs 273 pages, index included. I picked it up and put it down again. Once again: page 82.

I found this intriguing in light of the fact that just yesterday at breakfast, the wife and I had another one of our famously unproductive discussions about free will. She believes in it. Passionately. I don't. Just as passionately.

It strikes me that to argue for free will is, in effect, to argue that people do things for no reason at all; it is to argue for thoroughly random behavior. Like the aforementioned book: It's no accident that that particular copy of SHAM falls open to that page and no other, time after time. It's not just "one of those things." It's an inevitable byproduct of the interaction of certain forces that went into the manufacture of the book. That book was programmed, if you will, to fall open to page 82.

So it is with people. There is no random behavior in life. And frankly, this is one of the few areas where I don't understand "the opposing view." Look at it this way: A responsible, happily married man who lives in Manhattan and has a great job that he loves doesn't just wake up one Monday when he's expected at work for an early meeting, waste an hour walking four miles to a Bronx diner for a breakfast he's always hated, then car-jack a passing motorist and drive to Albuquerque, stopping en route to pick up a male hitchhiker with whom he commences an intense gay fling. (If he does, we say he's lost his mind.)

Absent the introduction of other variables, a responsible, happily married man will keep right on doing the things that responsible, happily married men do. Why? Because he's responsible and happily married. Those deep-seated factors take way his option of "choosing" to be reckless and unfaithful. Conversely, as we've said several times on this blog, you can't really blame the sociopath for doing the kinds of things that sociopaths do. Oh, we can get angry as hell about it...and most of us "have to," because it's human nature to react that way. But sociopaths are just following their own form of programming. The Green River Killer had no more choice in being the monster he was than Pope Benedict now has in being a basically good guy (once he got past his Nazi phase, that is).

Everything we do is predicated on everything we've done before, right down to the simplest, most commonplace things. Our tastes, habits and preferences limit our options in life. Except under duress or amid other overarching circumstances, you're not going to order food that you hate (and you don't "choose" to hate it; do you?). Thus when you go into a restaurant and pick an entree, you're not really choosing; you're following your predispositions. Say there are two menu items that you like equally well, meatloaf and turkey; you just had turkey the other night, so you pick the meatloaf. You're not really choosing the meatloaf; the fact that you had turkey the other night is guiding that "choice." (And why did you have the turkey? If we knew all the variables, we could continue regressing causation quite literally back to your birth. And then we'd have to look at the factors that conspired to produce your birth, and then the factors that conspired to produce that, all the way back to the beginning of time. So...newsflash: You were preordained to order that turkey dinner before the earth cooled.) Or, if you really, really liked the turkey the other night, and you seek that same rewarding experience again, then that memory is driving your "choice." These battles and subtle judgments, I'm convinced, are waged internally, well beneath the threshold of conscious awareness. It's a far more complex process, with infinitely more variables, than when you ask your cell phone's calculator function to tell you what tip you need to leave on your $217 dinner tab.* The result is just as fixed, though. Let me be clear: You may not get the same answer every time, because more life has been lived, and more variables have been introduced into the equation. But the process that produces the result is immutable, the result just as inevitable, as calculating 15% of $217.

This doesn't mean people can't change. What it does mean is that (1) they can't change until the interplay of all the variables has made them ready to change, and (2) their readiness to change has little or nothing to do with any conscious intentions on their part. Change will happen in its time, in the same way that the seasons change. Winter doesn't "plan" to yield to spring, then summer. It just happens inexorably. Like that book falling open to page 82.

* You brought other people with you to the diner. I don't know of any turkey or meatloaf dinner that costs $217 by itself.


Anonymous said...

Steve, Roger here, can't get into Blogger again.

Once more here you lose me. Oddly enough, in explaining why, I think I have to make a parallel to what you wrote about religion. Whether or not God exists, you wrote, a fair number of people need to believe in a supreme being, heaven, and the rest of it. For similar reasons, I can't get my arms around the idea that I'm not supposed to have any special feelings of accomplishment about what I've logged so far in life, which is considerable. Your way of looking at life washes away all pride in achievement. If everything we do is automatic and unthinking, and was already scripted "at birth" as you put it, what's the point of congratulating ourselves on any of it? In fact it really takes away all sense of Self, which is something you claim to champion. I've spent a lifetime working hard to get where I am, planning and working hard at every step of the journey. I also made many sacrifices along the way, especially early in the going. And now as I enter the golden years of life I'm supposed to embrace a new way of thinking that robs me of any credit for it?

What a bland, ultimately fatalistic way of going into each day.

Steve Salerno said...

All I can say, Roger, is: It is what it is.

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, as we've learned in previous discussions on this topic, we disagree... passionately.

Thankfully, our different perspectives are recognized as such, and we can remain friends, albeit with each of us believing the other to be misguided. All I've got to say is that your wife (with whom I have neither met nor corresponded) is obviously a very wise - and apparently profoundly patient - being! :-)

The Crack Emcee said...

I think you're off, too, Steve. Not about the book but about people. It may be true for some (my ex comes to mind) but not others - I don't know - but, generally speaking, it just doesn't pass the smell test.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the book falls to page 82 due to the binding. What’s on page 82 of your book that is so important? The book is an inanimate object so what is so important about it falling to page 82? Sounds like that book has a binding issue.

I have heard you use this argument before and it does not make sense to me. There are too many variables at play, which takes away your argument. The happily married man could get mugged on his way to work and get amnesia. Your argument would be he was “destined” to be mugged and get amnesia. Don’t quite get that.

Your food comparison does not make sense either to me. As a foodie, I go out of my way to try new foods. Anthony Boudine has made a career out of it. He was destined to eat bugs?

Genetics has actually changed the way environment is treated. Environment is very important to whether or not certain diseases will manifest. A lot of factors have to come together environmentally for certain cancers.

I do agree that people can change once they understand themselves better. I would add objectivity is important to change too. I find most people judge their lives by their standards and the makes change hard.

Anonymous said...


I certainly have free will; and I feel it's too bad you feel you don't. I did a fair amount of thrill-seeking in my younger days, and not everything was legal. But I settled down - by choice; not by force - and became a boring, though completely satisfied CPA with a wife and kids. Maybe I'll take up skydiving again, or buy another motorcycle. Or maybe golf will remain my passion. Are you saying that I'm programmed to change again - like a pendulum changing direction?
My twin brother has always lead the secure, dull life of his choosing. He's happy in a risk-free life; and as I've gotten older, I've seen the benefits of stability, too.
I'm fairly certain that I have been responsible for the major direction of my life at all times.

Doug said...

If you listen to what STeve is trying to say, why do you people automatically associate "free will vs. fate" with "good vs. bad"? I've basically come to believe in predestiny too and I see the same thing happen in discussions I try to have with people. Everyone assumes that if you argue for fate, you're just trying to justify bad behavior. Predestiny explains *all* behavior, good and bad and everything in between. The whole point is that everything is caused by something else. And like STeve I don't understand how someone could accept the human body as a physical entity and *not* also subscribe to predestiny! Everything in the body happens for a reason, directly because of something that happened prior to that. If you have a heart attack, it's because you got a clot in a cardiac artery, which is because plaque began to build up in the artery, which is because your cholesterol was too high, which is because, etc. Nothing in the body "just happens". The mind is part of the body, so it's the same thing.

Why is that so hard to follow and accept?

Steve Salerno said...

I couldn't have said it better, Doug.

Anonymous said...

You are reminding me that I have sitting on my bookshelf a copy of Martin Seligman's "What You Can Change... and What You Can't*", which is subtitled "learning to accept who you are". I am very curious as to what Seligman says now that I've read this post.

I pretty much agree with you on "no free will," even though I hate the idea. I came around to it upon reading Wayne Liquorman's "Acceptance of What IS", which imo presents very good, and at times quite entertaining, arguments in support of a sort of predestination.

Hey, I wouldn't expect many people to agree with your post. Who wants to feel out of control? I sure don't!

RevRon's Rants said...

"Why is that so hard to follow and accept?"

It isn't particularly difficult to follow, but perhaps it's hard for others to accept for the same reason free will is difficult for you (or Steve) to accept - because different people perceive and understand things differently. What I *do* find difficult to follow and accept is the insistence that others see things the same way. It just ain't gonna happen... it's predestined. :-)

Steven Sashen said...

Often, when people hear "no free will" (or that "free will" is merely the thought "I could," but that thought does not demonstrate free will), they make the leap to determinism or anarchy.

I would agree with SS about how the lack of free-will would not lead to anarchy, and a few simple considerations blow the determinism thing out of the water:

1) Think about chaos theory... a description of how MINUTE differences in initial conditions lead to dramatically different outcomes after some time has passed ("If a butterfly flaps its wings in China...")

2) Think about probability at the Quantum level. You can either ponder Heisenberg's realization that we can't know the state of EVERY aspect of a particle at the same time... or you can think about something like radioactive decay: We know THAT uranium will decay, but WHEN it will do that is unpredictable (and I would argue, in part because of Heisenberg, that no amount of extra knowledge would allow us to know).

Oh, right, I think I have a post about this on my blog ;-)

Anonymous said...

Steve -
I would ask that you go back and re-read your recap of the "accident" you and your wife had with a deer a few months ago.
You spent some time talking about everything you could have done - including very small things - that would have resulted in your car not hitting that deer.
This makes no sense to me given your "everything that's going to happen is going to happen and you can't do one thing to change it" philosophy. Perhaps you could explain?

Steve Salerno said...

Anon, your question bespeaks the most common misunderstanding of those of us who believe in deterministic fate (as opposed to, say, some spiritual version of fate).

When I wrote the post, I was simply commenting on the tiny changes in circumstances that would've resulted in our not hitting the deer. But those circumstances were not under our control. The forces that would place us on that road, at the same precise instant as that deer, had been in play--literally--since the beginning of time. My wife and I were going to hit that deer that night regardless. There was nothing we could've done differently.

If my wife had been traveling at 78 mph instead of 80, we probably wouldn't have hit the deer--but we were predestined to be traveling at 80. (Indeed, if we'd taken our other car on the trip, which my wife doesn't tend to drive quite as fast, we probably wouldn't have hit the deer, either. But we took the new car because I'd just waxed it and felt like driving it somewhere. And I'd just waxed it because I'd left it out in the rain the previous day. So if it hadn't rained...?) If the deer had paused over its evening meal for an extra second, we would not have intersected. But the deer was predestined to spend exactly as much time on its evening meal as it did, thus forcing our rendezvous on the highway. Etc.

The post you refer to was written as a comment on the million little factors that conspire to cause exactly what happened to happen. Not to explain how we could've avoided it. You can't avoid anything. (And let me emphasize, that is not to be interpreted as a negative! It means you can't avoid the good things that are destined for you, either!)

Consider this: As ridiculous as it will sound to some, the menu for every meal you are ever going to eat in your life is already set. There is no question about what you are going to have for dinner on August 19, 2019; you just don't know it yet. And get this: That meal may be prepared by a partner you haven't even met as you read this (which may necessitate your split from the partner you presently have, which may already be in the cards as well).

And now, I shall retire this line of reasoning, because clearly people don't want to have to think that way.

RevRon's Rants said...

"And now, I shall retire this line of reasoning, because clearly people don't want to have to think that way."

In my case (which is the only one I'm qualified to describe) it's not a matter of "not wanting" to think this way, Steve, but of finding the logic inconsistent with the way I view the world.

You stated that you believe in God, as illogical as that belief is to you. Given that belief, does it make sense to perceive that entity/force as a puppeteer or a voyeur, whose whole purpose for creation was his/her/its entertainment? In my perspective, at least, that would be the only real justification for creating something, only to have that creation dance in lockstep to a tune that the entity created.

A benevolent force, however, would desire for its creation to flourish and grow - a mindset we mirror - if poorly - in parenthood. Would it be your preference that your own children and grandchildren perfectly mirror your ideas, emotions, and behaviors? Would you create inescapable situations that caused them pain, or would you offer them the chance, by their own actions, to avoid that pain? And the $64 million question is, do you believe you are more benevolent than God? Because if you adhere to the notion that everything is predetermined, it would seem that you view a God as being less kindly disposed to its creation than you are to your own children. I think that, were a God even less benevolent than am I, humanity at least would have been eliminated long ago.

What am I missing here?

Steve Salerno said...

I can understand where people might be confused by some of my positions, which seem to be in flux from post to post and are sometimes incongruous with each other. But I don't think it's that hard to resolve, really, because I admit upfront that there are cases where my emotional side is at war with my rational side (or where my rational side can't quite make up its mind). The god/God issue is one such case.

My belief in God, Ron, is an instinctual, knee-jerk thing, and out of conformity with my general, rationalist's view of the world--which is what I like to champion on the blog (i.e. rationalism). I'm certainly not trying to disenfranchise anyone who does want to take a strong stand on the existence of god/God (and I would not succeed in that presumptuous endeavor anyway). I'm just saying that for me personally, in a "thinking sense," while I can't help believing in "something more," I basically agree with Eliz (nd others who've made the same point): that if we're going to try to mount a logical justification for the existence of god/God, then we can't complain too much when the New Wage types try to peddle their quasi-religious wares.

Also, as I noted in the very comment you've called into question here, I am NOT arguing for fate in a religious, God-as-puppet-master sense. The form of fate of which I speak has nothing to do with religion or god/God or spirituality; it's a purely mechanical byproduct of the interaction of the millions of sundry elements of life that we know to exist. (It's like starting your car in the morning: You turn the key and a certain sequence of events is set in motion.) And again, my conception of fate is not meant to sound, well, fatalistic. The fate to which I subscribe is equally responsible for the wonderful things that happen in life.

Indeed, it is responsible for everything that happens in life. As I see it.

Steve Salerno said...

(When I say we "can't complain too much" about the New Wage types, I mean that we can't quibble with their reasoning. We can certainly quibble with their attempt to sell their reasoning.)

RevRon's Rants said...

"My belief in God, Ron, is an instinctual, knee-jerk thing, and out of conformity with my general, rationalist's view of the world--which is what I like to champion on the blog (i.e. rationalism)."

So how do you reconcile the incongruity? Accept it as an unresolvable paradox? And is the act of *describing* the opposing elements of that paradox one way, yet "knowing" a diametrically opposed other way a part of the procedure?

Please trust that this is not a prelude to a judgment of hypocrisy, but an attempt to understand how the elements mesh with each other for you.

The Crack Emcee said...

I'm keeping my eyes open today, that's for sure:

You've given me lots to think about.

Steve Salerno said...

So how do you reconcile the incongruity? Accept it as an unresolvable paradox?

Yes. And I fall back on that Emersonian line about consistency and small minds.

And is the act of *describing* the opposing elements of that paradox one way, yet "knowing" a diametrically opposed other way a part of the procedure?

Yes. But it's also a recognition of the fact that there are forces at work in me that aren't rational--and that are, in fact, ardently anti-rational. I consider such incongruities part of being human.

Elizabeth said...

"But it's also a recognition of the fact that there are forces at work in me that aren't rational--and that are, in fact, ardently anti-rational. I consider such incongruities part of being human."

Indeed. And this is the cognitive dissonance I brought up (or "named") the last time you described it, Steve (but somehow the term was received negatively). That dissonance, or conflict between the rational and emotional/instinctual -- or even irrational, as it may be, or our head and heart, if you will, is, I would say, quite common and one of the uniquely human characteristics -- one that defines us as human beings. That conflict is also frequently at the root of our greatest achievements -- in philosophy and art, as well as in our personal lives.

Cognitive dissonance is not a bad thing. In fact, not having one at all is often not good.

P.S. Post that private comment, if you want to, Steve -- no amends. As you observed, it is what it is. :)

Steven Sashen said...


I would contend that "the menu for every meal you are ever going to eat in your life is already set" is based on a Newtonian view of cause-and-effect, that we can know precisely the exact state of all things and the manner in which they interact.

But, there are other possibilities where cause-and-effect is not linear, not Newtonian and for which it might not be possible to measure initial states let alone predict the effects of all interactions.

And with those non-Newtonian cause-and-effect events we cannot predict the future, even if we have no free will with which to change the future.

It's a cognitive bias and extrapolation of our innate attempt to understand cause-and-effect that leads us to believe that everything is understandable and measurable and that we merely don't have the tools/ability to understand reality at a fine enough level.

It might be turtles all the way down (ask if you need me to 'splain the reference).

RevRon's Rants said...

Okay, Steve. I can wrap my mind around that. But...
*If* there is a God, and
*If* that God created everything,
Wouldn't it be logical to assume that the physical laws and the "metaphysical" or spiritual laws wouldn't be in direct conflict with each other? I perceive source as being as much an engineer as a being to be worshiped or emulated, and tend to look more closely at apparent paradoxes to find the symmetry that I believe must exist.

That same logic is what leads me to laugh at the "science" of things like the Secret and the Law of Attraction, just as I find the notion of a vengeful God absurd.

Steve Salerno said...

Steven, I've heard the argument for nonlinearity many times before. I didn't buy it then and I don't buy it now. Much like Chaos Theory, nonlinearity--despite its name--seems to presuppose the sudden spontaneous existence of variables that weren't there before, which then become the actors that cause other elements (and our lives) to behave in "unexpected" fashion (I use the quoted word in the cosmic sense; everything is "unexpected" to us, since we can't know all the variables). But if one buys the Big Bang theory (which I think has its problems, though that's a topic for another day), all of the matter in the universe was scattered to and fro at that epochal moment. The universe is thus a closed system. Where does the new material come from, that causes nonlinearity? How did it get into the system to wreak its "havoc"? Just because a coin has always come up heads--and suddenly now comes up tails for the first time--doesn't indicate nonlinearity. It just indicates the effect of a variable that we didn't know about (or take into account) before. It was always there, lurking.

Our inability to measure something or assess its baseline has nothing to do with whether or not it exists. I still see the problem as epistemological in nature: one of information deficit. We simply don't have the means to gather all the necessary data. If we could, I believe that we could predict everything, including all those future meals.

Steven Sashen said...

Oh, I wrote this so much better before my computer crashed... well, here's the recap of my pre-crash thinking:

Let's ignore for a second that believing we can find initial causes for things is a cognitive bias (our minds seem wired to look for causes), and that the idea of pre-determinism might merely be an extrapolation of our moderate success so far into the possibility of finding all ultimate causes and knowing all ultimate rules of interactions of fundamental units of matter.

In order for us to be able to establish determinism, we would need to, at the very least:

1) Have a physics that defies we can measure ALL initial states of ALL fundamental units -- which may not be particles -- versus the mathematical and laboratory findings that in order to measure one characteristic of a fundamental unit, we lose the ability to measure another (e.g. we can't know BOTH the location and momentum of an electron).

2) A measuring system that captures ALL of the locally relative universe (far enough out that the events at the edge don't affect us) without altering the units

3) A computing system with the ability to calculate the interactions in a meaningful time frame (what good is knowing what will happen in the next microsecond if it takes 1,000 years to find out?)

My hunch is that accuracy errors asymptotically approach zero (like walking 1/2 way to the wall, and then 1/2 way, etc.), meaning that all initial states do not have finite measurements but are measured with limits, bounds and are, therefore, irrational numbers... which brings us to Chaos math which merely addresses the phenomenon that small changes in initial conditions lead to big differences in effects over time.

Oh, and non-linearity doesn't require things to "appear out of nowhere", but it does allow for events to occur without a definable cause (e.g. whe know radioactive isotopes decay, but we don't know exactly when the loss of energy will occur.) And, "out of nowhere" in a closed system implies that you know what's happening everywhere in the closed system. Something could seem to be arising out of nowhere, but an "opposite" event may be occurring somewhere else, or some-time else which would maintain the integrity of the closed system.

But, I could be wrong ;-)

Steve Salerno said...

No, no, Steven, I agree with you totally, if the subject at hand is the question of whether we can ever ascertain steady-state "absolute truth" and therefore predict some future event. I almost drove myself insane one night playing around with a Mandelbrot-like reduction of the sort you introduce with your half-of-a-half scenario. (Note to self/Self: another reason why you have no friends.) But that's not really the question on the table, which was whether such a cycle of causation exists, totally apart from our ability to know it or measure it in any meaningful way (hence my comments about it being a problem in epistemology). Hell, we can't get an absolute value for Pi, or even "one-third" (which is why eventually nonlinearity creeps into all computer models at the limits of computation). But we know that number exists in the abstract, and that it has a bearing on life as we live it.

Steven Sashen said...

PHEW! I thought we were going to have to duke this one out... and the result, of course, is already known ;-)

Steve Salerno said...

Steven...well, not entirely. We all recognize that the LOA trumps all other physical truths, known or unknown.

Which reminds me of one of the first jokes my Dad ever told me. Two boxers climb into the ring. One of them, the challenger, makes the sign of the cross as he walks towards the center of the ring for the ceremonial handshake. Seeing this, his opponent, the champion, sort of smiles and then also makes the sign of the cross. As they meet to touch gloves, the latter boxer says, "OK, now we're even. So I guess it comes down to which one of us can fight..."

moonrambler said...

If everything is predetermined, it should follow that if we know absolutely everything one person has ever done, that we will be able to predict the next thing that person will do. I'm not so certain that is the case, although I guess it's not possible to prove it. I don't know how that addresses when a person does something he or she has never done before, seemingly at random. How can you predict something that has never happened before? I've wondered about myself, if my behavior can be predicted, because I tend to act more 'randomly' than most people I know. It's more predictable to me, however, than it would be to somebody else.

One thing we can look at linearly is the historical movement of a stock day-by-day, for years in the past. I worked on technical analysis of stocks for awhile until I nearly drove myself mad. I had the best software, with every technical analysis component imaginable, and what I discovered, after about 10,000 hours of research, is what the experts already know -- even if you back up the timeline to the initial public offering, and work out an analysis that accurately predicts every single move that stock makes day by day, you cannot accurately predict what it will do tomorrow. Since the stock price reflects what people are doing, and you can actually can make an historical analysis that can predict backward every move it has made, you should be able to predict what the price will close at tomorrow. It can't be done.

Steve Salerno said...

Moonrambler, thanks for chipping in here...but what about all of the environmental aspects of behavior? Knowing everything a person has ever done tells you only what that person has done; it does not tell you what he's likely to do the next minute (as we learned, for example, with the guy who killed those Amish schoolgirls). And this doesn't just apply in the case of violence/crime, of course. I believe that there are things in the programming of each of us that, when exposed to certain external stimuli, will react in a way that could not possibly have been predicted.

It's kind of like what my dad once showed me about white phosphorus. Just sitting there in its glass vacuum tube, it looked harmless. And of course, the air always looks harmless (except in L.A.). But when you take the phosphorus out of the tube and expose it to the air... KABOOM!

WC said...

A few lyrics and quotes come to mind with this post:

Rush's song Free Will. " I will choose a path that's clear. I will choose free will."
I listened to it as an adolescent, but is free will perhaps an adolescent concept? I thought I was thinkin' better than an adult listening to those heady lyrics.

Then this lyric from Frank Zappa's Teenage Wind form the album You Are What You Is.

'Free is when you don't have to pay for nothing or do nothing I want to be free. Free as the wind".

Hmm. So maybe this freedom thing is about more than 'ease' or 'clarity', which brings me to the final quote that popped in my head - used in the current time to remember the sacrifice of those Americans in our military:

"Freedom isn't free"

Free will isn't 'free' either. I think we can work to put ourselves into a position to be freer, research on our capacity to manipulate our own brain plasticity speaks to this. Nevertheless, we are always constrained at some level - and our 'free will' is never purely so.

Voltaire said...

Sorry to hear that Steve had an argument with his wife about a very old question that I don't think has been answered yet. The way I see the free will issue is it's not possible to answer it either way until we know exactly how we make decisions. Until then we'll be arguing about something we don't know.

I've started reading The Mind and the Brain and after reading a few chapters it's quite obvious the author is trying to counter the prevailing notion we have no free will. I haven't gotten too far into the book yet, but it's interesting to see the author raise one issue after another that isn't answered by neuroscientists who don't think we have free will.

I hope it's OK if I posted a link to the Barnes and Noble website where the book is for sale; I'm not in any way connected to B&N or the author of this book