Friday, July 31, 2009

Knowing About Determinism

Knowing (2009) tells the story of a scientist who finds a page full of numbers containing the dates, locations, and death tolls of a long series of major disasters. The kicker is that this page is found buried in a time capsule where it had been placed by a young girl fifty years ago. Unsurprsingly, the film plays around with the familiar issues of determinism, freedom, meaning, and so on.

Early in the film, our science professor (Nicholas Cage) is giving a lecture about "the subject of randomness versus determinism in the universe."
Student: Determinism says that occurrences in nature are causally decided by preceding events or natural laws, that everything leading up to this point has happened for a reason.

Professor: That’s right. That’s what determinism says. [He goes on to discuss with them the fact that the earth is located just the right distance from the sun for life to be possible.] That’s a nice thought, right? Everything has a purpose, an order to it, is determined. But then there’s the other side of the argument. The theory of randomness, which says it’s all simply coincidence. The very fact we exist is nothing but the result of a complex yet inevitable string of chemical accidents and biological mutations. There is no grand meaning. There’s no purpose.
The student's opening description of causal determinism is on the money -- until she includes the ambiguous bit about everything happening for a reason. This could be understood in a deflationary way, so that she's simply reiterating that events are causally determined by previous events. But the professor's response makes clear his assumption that to be a causal determinist is to believe that we live in a purpose driven universe.

This is a strange assumption. Why should the view that the universe is causally determined involve the idea that there's some secret purpose behind what happens? Take the tragic death of the professor's wife in a hotel fire. The causal determinist thinks that awful event was causally determined by prior events, and those events in turn were causally determined by still prior events, and so on. The indeterminist (the champion of "randomness") denies this, believing that if it were somehow possible to replay the events, things might not turn out the same way again. But neither of them need believe that there's any purpose in or for her death.

In short, the professor seems to confuse causal determinism with fatalism or with a robust teleological or theological view of the universe. It's not an uncommon confusion.

We might also wonder whether randomness gets a bad rap here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I saw the movie yesterday and thought the same thing. The professor's definition of randomness is also misleading. Randomness does not mean that everything happens by coincidence, but in this particular context would mean that events can somehow occur independently of any causal influence, which in the case of a natural disaster or other tragedy is impossible.