Determinism, Indeterminism, Probability, and the nature of the laws of physics—a second take…

After I wrote the last post [^], several points struck me. Some of the points that were mostly implicit needed to be addressed systematically. So, I began writing a small document containing these after-thoughts, focusing more on the structural side of the argument.

However, I don’t find time to convert these points + statements into a proper write-up. At the same time, I want to get done with this topic, at least for now, so that I can better focus on some other tasks related to data science. So, let me share the write-up in whatever form it is in, currently. Sorry for its uneven tone and all (compared to even my other writing, that is!)

Causality as a concept is very poorly understood by present-day physicists. They typically understand only one sense of the term: evolution in time. But causality is a far broader concept. Here I agree with Ayn Rand / Leonard Peikoff (OPAR). See the Ayn Rand Lexicon entry, here [^]. (However, I wrote the points below without re-reading it, and instead, relying on whatever understanding I have already come to develop starting from my studies of the same material.)

Physical universe consists of objects. Objects have identity. Identity is the sum total of all characteristics, attributes, properties, etc., of an object. Objects act in accordance with their identity; they cannot act otherwise. Interactions are not primary; they do not come into being without there being objects that undergo the interactions. Objects do not change their respective identities when they take actions—not even during interactions with other objects. The law of causality is a higher-level view taken of this fact.

In the cause-effect relationship, the cause refers to the nature (identity) of an object, and the effect refers to an action that the object takes (or undergoes). Both refer to one and the same object. TBD: Trace the example of one moving billiard ball undergoing a perfectly elastic collision with another billiard ball. Bring out how the interaction—here, the pair of the contact forces—is a name for each ball undergoing an action in accordance with its nature. An interaction is a pair of actions.

A physical law as a mapping (e.g., a function, or even a functional) from inputs to outputs.

The quantitative laws of physics often use the real number system, i.e., quantification with infinite precision. An infinite precision is a mathematical concept, not physical. (Expect physicists to eternally keep on confusing between the two kinds of concepts.)

Application of a physical law traces the same conceptual linkages as are involved in the formulation of law, but in the reverse direction.

In both formulation of a physical law and in its application, there is always some regime of applicability which is at least implicitly understood for both inputs and outputs. A pertinent idea here is: range of variations. A further idea is the response of the output to small variations in the input.

Example: Prediction by software whether a cricket ball would have hit the stumps or not, in an LBW situation.

The input position being used by the software in a certain LBW decision could be off from reality by millimeters, or at least, by a fraction of a millimeter. Still, the law (the mapping) is such that it produces predictions that are within small limits, so that it can be relied on.

Two input values, each theoretically infinitely precise, but differing by a small magnitude from each other, may be taken to define an interval or zone of input variations. As to the zone of the corresponding output, it may be thought of as an oval produced in the plane of the stumps, using the deterministic method used in making predictions.

The nature of the law governing the motion of the ball (even after factoring in aspects like effects of interaction with air and turbulence, etc.) itself is such that the size of the O/P zone remains small enough. (It does not grow exponentially.) Hence, we can use the software confidently.

That is to say, the software can be confidently used for predicting—-i.e., determining—the zone of possible landing of the ball in the plane of the stumps.

Overall, here are three elements that must be noted: (i) Each of the input positions lying at the extreme ends of the input zone of variations itself does have an infinite precision. (ii) Further, the mapping (the law) has theoretically infinite precision. (iii) Each of the outputs lying at extreme ends of the output zone also itself has theoretically infinite precision.

Existence of such infinite precision is a given. But it is not at all the relevant issue.

What matters in applications is something more than these three. It is the fact that applications always involve zones of variations in the inputs and outputs.

Such zones are then used in error estimates. (Also for engineering control purposes, say as in automation or robotic applications.) But the fact that quantities being fed to the program as inputs themselves may be in error is not the crux of the issue. If you focus too much on errors, you will simply get into an infinite regress of error bounds for error bounds for error bounds…

Focus, instead, on the infinity of precision of the three kinds mentioned above, and focus on the fact that in addition to those infinitely precise quantities, application procedure does involve having zones of possible variations in the input, and it also involves the problem estimating how large the corresponding zone of variations in the output is—whether it is sufficiently small for the law and a particular application procedure or situation.

In physics, such details of application procedures are kept merely understood. They are hardly, if ever, mentioned and discussed explicitly. Physicists again show their poor epistemology. They discuss such things in terms not of the zones but of “error” bounds. This already inserts the wedge of dichotomy: infinitely precise laws vs. errors in applications. This dichotomy is entirely uncalled for. But, physicists simply aren’t that smart, that’s all.

“Indeterministic mapping,” for the above example (LBW decisions) would the one in which the ball can be mapped as going anywhere over, and perhaps even beyond, the stadium.

Such a law and the application method (including the software) would be useless as an aid in the LBW decisions.

However, phenomenologically, the very dynamics of the cricket ball’s motion itself is simple enough that it leads to a causal law whose nature is such that for a small variation in the input conditions (a small input variations zone), the predicted zone of the O/P also is small enough. It is for this reason that we say that predictions are possible in this situation. That is to say, this is not an indeterministic situation or law.

Not all physical situations are exactly like the example of the predicting the motion of the cricket ball. There are physical situations which show a certain common—and confusing—characteristic.

They involve interactions that are deterministic when occurring between two (or few) bodies. Thus, the laws governing a simple interaction between one or two bodies are deterministic—in the above sense of the term (i.e., in terms of infinite precision for mapping, and an existence of the zones of variations in the inputs and outputs).

But these physical situations also involve: (i) a nonlinear mapping, (ii) a sufficiently large number of interacting bodies, and further, (iii) coupling of all the interactions.

It is these physical situations which produce such an overall system behaviour that it can produce an exponentially diverging output zone even for a small zone of input variations.

So, a small change in I/P is sufficient to produce a huge change in O/P.

However, note the confusing part. Even if the system behaviour for a large number of bodies does show an exponential increase in the output zone, the mapping itself is such that when it is applied to only one pair of bodies in isolation of all the others, then the output zone does remain non-exponential.

It is this characteristic which tricks people into forming two camps that go on arguing eternally. One side says that it is deterministic (making reference to a single-pair interaction), the other side says it is indeterministic (making reference to a large number of interactions, based on the same law).

The fallacy arises out of confusing a characteristic of the application method or model (variations in input and output zones) with the precision of the law or the mapping.

Example: N-body problem.

Example: NS equations as capturing a continuum description (a nonlinear one) of a very large number of bodies.

Example: Several other physical laws entering the coupled description, apart from the NS equations, in the bubbles collapse problem.

Example: Quantum mechanics

The Law vs. the System distinction: What is indeterministic is not a law governing a simple interaction taken abstractly (in which context the law was formed), but the behaviour of the system. A law (a governing equation) can be deterministic, but still, the system behavior can become indeterministic.

Even indeterministic models or system designs, when they are described using a different kind of maths (the one which is formulated at a higher level of abstractions, and, relying on the limiting values of relative frequencies i.e. probabilities), still do show causality.

Yes, probability is a notion which itself is based on causality—after all, it uses limiting values for the relative frequencies. The ability to use the limiting processes squarely rests on there being some definite features which, by being definite, do help reveal the existence of the identity. If such features (enduring, causal) were not to be part of the identity of the objects that are abstractly seen to act probabilistically, then no application of a limiting process would be possible, and so not even a definition probability or randomness would be possible.

The notion of probability is more fundamental than that of randomness. Randomness is an abstract notion that idealizes the notion of absence of every form of order. … You can use the axioms of probability even when sequences are known to be not random, can’t you? Also, hierarchically, order comes before does randomness. Randomness is defined as the absence of (all applicable forms of) orderliness; orderliness is not defined as absence of randomness—it is defined via the some but any principle, in reference to various more concrete instances that show some or the other definable form of order.

But expect not just physicists but also mathematicians, computer scientists, and philosophers, to eternally keep on confusing the issues involved here, too. They all are dumb.


Let me now mention a few important take-aways (though some new points not discussed above also crept in, sorry!):

  • Physical laws are always causal.
  • Physical laws often use the infinite precision of the real number system, and hence, they do show the mathematical character of infinite precision.
  • The solution paradigm used in physics requires specifying some input numbers and calculating the corresponding output numbers. If the physical law is based on real number system, than all the numbers used too are supposed to have infinite precision.
  • Applications always involve a consideration of the zone of variations in the input conditions and the corresponding zone of variations in the output predictions. The relation between the sizes of the two zones is determined by the nature of the physical law itself. If for a small variation in the input zone the law predicts a sufficiently small output zone, people call the law itself deterministic.
  • Complex systems are not always composed from parts that are in themselves complex. Complex systems can be built by arranging essentially very simpler parts that are put together in complex configurations.
  • Each of the simpler part may be governed by a deterministic law. However, when the input-output zones are considered for the complex system taken as a whole, the system behaviour may show exponential increase in the size of the output zone. In such a case, the system must be described as indeterministic.
  • Indeterministic systems still are based on causal laws. Hence, with appropriate methods and abstractions (including mathematical ones), they can be made to reveal the underlying causality. One useful theory is that of probability. The theory turns the supposed disadvantage (a large number of interacting bodies) on its head, and uses limiting values of relative frequencies, i.e., probability. The probability theory itself is based on causality, and so are indeterministic systems.
  • Systems may be deterministic or indeterministic, and in the latter case, they may be described using the maths of probability theory. Physical laws are always causal. However, if they have to be described using the terms of determinism or indeterminism, then we will have to say that they are always deterministic. After all, if the physical laws showed exponentially large output zone even when simpler systems were considered, they could not be formulated or regarded as laws.

In conclusion: Physical laws are always causal. They may also always be regarded as being deterministic. However, if systems are complex, then even if the laws governing their simpler parts were all deterministic, the system behavior itself may turn out to be indeterministic. Some indeterministic systems can be well described using the theory of probability. The theory of probability itself is based on the idea of causality albeit measures defined over large number of instances are taken, thereby exploiting the fact that there are far too many objects interacting in a complex manner.

A song I like:

(Hindi) “ho re ghungaroo kaa bole…”
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Music: R. D. Burman
Lyrics: Anand Bakshi