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.


Summary:

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

 

 

Advertisements

A prediction. Also, a couple of wishes…

The Prediction:

While the week of the Nobel prizes always has a way to generate a sense of suspense, of excitement, and even of wonderment, as far as I am concerned, the one prize that does that in the real sense to me is, of course, the Physics Nobel. … Nothing compares to it. Chemistry can come close, but not always. [And, Mr. Nobel was a good guy; he instituted no prize for maths! [LOL!]]. …

The Physics Nobel is the King of all awards in all fields, as far as I am concerned.

That’s why, this year, I have this feeling of missing something. … The reason is, this year’s Physics Nobel is already “known”; it will go to Kip Thorne and pals.

[I will not eat crow even if they don’t get it. [… Unless, of course, you know a delicious recipe or two for the same, and also demonstrate it to me, complete with you sampling it first.]]

But yes, Kip Thorne richly deserves it, and he will get it. That’s the prediction. I wanted to slip it in even if only few hours before the announcement arrives.

I will update this post later right today/tonight, after the Physics Nobel is actually announced.


Now let me come to the couple of wishes, as mentioned in the title. I will try to be brief. [Have been too busy these days… OK. Will let you know. We are going in for accreditation, and so, it’s been all heavy documentation-related work for the past few months. Despite all that hard-work, we still have managed to slip a bit on the progress, and so, currently, we are working on all week-ends and on most public holidays, too. [Yes, we came to work yesterday.] So, it’s only somehow that I manage to find some time to slip in this post—which is written absolutely on the fly, with no second thoughts or re-reading before posting. … So excuse me if there is a bit of lack of balance in the presentation, and of course, typos etc.]


Wish # 1:

The first wish is that a Physics Nobel should go, in a combined way, to what actually are two separate, but very intimately related, and two most significant advances in the physical understanding of man: (i) chaos theory (including fractals) and (ii)catastrophe theory.

If you don’t like the idea of two ideas being given a single Nobel, then, well, let me put it this way: the Nobel should be given for achieving the most significant advancements in the field of the differential nonlinearities, for a very substantial progress in the physical understanding of the behaviour of nonlinear physical systems, forging pathways for predictive capacity.

Let me emphasize, this has been one of the most significant advances in physics in the last century. No, saying so is emphatically not a hyperbole.

And, yes, it’s an advance in physics, primarily, and then, also in maths—but only secondarily.

… It’s unfortunate that an advancement which has been this remarkable never did register as such with most of the S&T “manpower”, esp., engineers and practical designers. It’s also unfortunate that the twin advancement arrived on the scene at the time of bad cultural (even epistemological) trends, and so, the advancements got embedded in a fabric of hyperbole, even nonsense.

But regardless of the cultural tones in which the popular presentations of these advancements (esp. of the chaos theory) got couched, taken as a science, the studies of nonlinearity in the physical systems has been a very, very, original, and a very, very creative, advancement. It needs to be recognized as such.

That way, I don’t much care for what it helped produce on the maths side of it. But yes, even a not very extraordinarily talented undergraduate in CS (one with a special interest in deterministic methods in cryptography) would be able to tell you how much light got shone on their discipline because of the catastrophe and chaos theories.

The catastrophe theory has been simply marvellous in one crucial aspect: it actually pushed the boundaries of what is understood by the term: mathematics. The theory has been daring enough to propose, literally for the first time in the entire history of mankind, a well-refined qualitative approach to an infinity of quantitative processes taken as a group.

The distinction between the qualitative and the quantitative had kept philosophers (and laymen) pre-occupied for millenia. But the nonlinear theory has been the first theoretical approach that tells you how to spot and isolate the objective bases for distinguishing what we consider as the qualitative changes.

Remove the understanding given by the nonlinear theory—by the catastrophe-theoretical approach—and, once in the domain of the linear theory, the differences in kind immediately begin to appear as more or less completely arbitrary. There is no place in theory for them—the qualitative distinctions are external to the theory because a linear system always behaves exactly the same with any quantitative changes made, at any scale, to any of the controlling parameters. Since in the linear theory the qualitative changes are not produced from within the theory itself, such distinctions must be imported into it out of some considerations that are in principle external to the theory.

People often confuse such imports with “applications.” No, when it comes to the linear theory, it’s not the considerations of applications which can be said to be driving any divisions of qualitative changes. The qualitative distinctions are basically arbitrary in a linear theory. It is important to realize that that usual question: “Now where do we draw the line?” is basically absolutely superfluous once you are within the domain of the linear systems. There are no objective grounds on the basis of which such distinctions can be made.

Studies of the nonlinear phenomena sure do precede the catastrophe and the chaos theories. Even in the times before these two theories came on the scene, applied physicists would think of certain ideas such as differences of regimes, esp. in the areas like fluid dynamics.

But to understand the illuminating power of the nonlinear theory, just catch hold of an industrial CFD guy (or a good professor of fluid dynamics from a good university [not, you know, from SPPU or similar universities]), and ask him whether there can be any deeper theoretical significance to the procedure of the Buckingham Pi Theorem, to the necessity, in his art (or science) of having to use so many dimensionless numbers. (Every mechanical/allied engineering undergraduate has at least once in life cursed the sheer number of them.) The competent CFD guy (or the good professor) would easily be at a loss. Then, toss a good book on the Catastrophe Theory to him, leave him alone for a couple of weeks or may be a month, return, and raise the same question again. He now may or may not have a very good, “flowy” sort of a verbal answer ready for you. But one look at his face would tell you that it has now begun to reflect a qualitatively different depth of physical understanding even as he tries to tackle that question in his own way. That difference arises only because of the Catastrophe Theory.

As to the Chaos Theory (and I club the fractal theory right in it), more number of people are likely to know about it, and so, I don’t have to wax a lot (whether eloquently or incompetently). But let me tell you one thing.

Feigenbaum’s discovery of the universal constant remains, to my mind, one of the most ingenious advancements in the entire history of physics, even of science. Especially, given the experimental equipment with which he made that discovery—a handheld HP Calculator (not a computer) in the seventies (or may be in the sixties)! … And yes, getting to that universal constant was, if you ask me, an act of discovery, and not of invention. (Invention was very intimately involved in the process; but the overall act and the end-product was one of discovery.)

So, here is a wish that these fundamental studies of the nonlinear systems get their due—the recognition they so well deserve—in the form of a Physics Nobel.

…And, as always, the sooner the better!


Wish # 2:

The second wish I want to put up here is this: I wish there was some commercial/applied artist, well-conversant with the “art” of supplying illustrations for a physics book, who also was available for a long-term project I have in mind.

To share a bit: Years ago (actually, almost two decades ago, in 1998 to be precise), I had made a suggestion that novels by Ayn Rand be put in the form of comics. As far as I was concerned, the idea was novel (i.e. new). I didn’t know at that time that a comics-book version of The Fountainhead had already been conceived of by none other than Ayn Rand herself, and it, in fact, had also been executed. In short, there was a comics-book version of The Fountainhead. … These days, I gather, they are doing something similar for Atlas Shrugged.

If you think about it, my idea was not at all a leap of imagination. Newspapers (even those in India) have been carrying comic strips for decades (right since before my own childhood), and Amar Chitrakatha was coming of age just when I was. (It was founded in 1967 by Mr. Pai.)

Similarly, conceiving of a comics-like book for physics is not at all a very creative act of imagination. In fact, it is not even original. Everyone knows those books by that Japanese linguistics group, the books on topics like the Fourier theory.

So, no claim of originality here.

It’s just that for my new theory of QM, I find that the format of a comics-book would be most suitable. (And what the hell if physicists don’t take me seriously because I put it in this form first. Who cares what they think anyway!)

Indeed, I would even like to write/produce some comics books on maths topics, too. Topics like grads, divs, curls, tensors, etc., eventually. … Guess I will save that part for keeping me preoccupied during my retirement. BTW, my retirement is not all that far away; it’s going to be here pretty soon, right within just five years from now. (Do one thing: Check out what I was writing, say in 2012 on this blog.)

But the one thing I would like write/produce right in the more immediate future is: the comics book on QM, putting forth my new approach.

So, in the closing, here is a request. If you know some artist (or an engineer/physicist with fairly good sketching/computer-drawing skills), and has time at hand, and has the capacity to stay put in a sizeable project, and won’t ask money for it (a fair share in the royalty is a given—provided we manage to find a publisher first, that is), then please do bring this post to his notice.

 


A Song I Like:

And, finally, here is the Marathi song I had promised you the last time round. It’s a fusion of what to my mind is one of the best tunes Shrinivas Khale ever produced, and the best justice to the words and the tunes by the singer. Imagine any one else in her place, and you will immediately come to know what I mean. … Pushpa Pagdhare easily takes this song to the levels of the very best by the best, including Lata Mangeshkar. [Oh yes, BTW, congrats are due to the selection committe of this year’s Lata Mangeshkar award, for selecting Pushpa Pagdhare.]

(Marathi) “yeuni swapnaat maajhyaa…”
Singer: Pushpa Pagdhare
Music: Shrinivas Khale
Lyrics: Devakinandan Saraswat

[PS: Note: I am going to come back and add an update once this year’s Physics Nobel is announced. At that time (or tonight) I will also try to streamline this post.

Then, I will be gone off the blogging for yet another couple of weeks or so—unless it’s a small little “kutty” post of the “Blog-Filler” kind or two.]