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

 

 

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Determinism, Indeterminism, and the nature of the laws of physics…

The laws of physics are causal, but this fact does not imply that they can be used to determine each and everything that you feel should be determinable using them, in each and every context in which they apply. What matters is the nature of the laws themselves. The laws of physics are not literally boundless; nothing in the universe is. They are logically bounded by the kind of abstractions they are.


Let’s take a concrete example.

Take a bottle, pour a little water and detergent in it, shake well, and have fun watching the Technicolor wonder which results. Bubbles form; they show resplendent colors. Then, some of them shrink, others grow, one or two of them eventually collapse, and the rest of the network of the similar bubbles adjusts itself. The process continues.

Looking at it in an idle way can be fun: those colorful tendrils of water sliding over those thin little surfaces, those fascinating hues and geometric patterns… That dynamics which unfolds at such a leisurely pace. … Just watching it all can make for a neat time-sink—at least for a while.

But merely having fun watching bubbles collapse is not physics. Physics proper begins with a lawful description of the many different aspects of the visually evident spectacle—be it the explanation as to how those unreal-looking colors come about, or be it an explanation of the mechanisms involved in their shrinkage or growth, and eventual collapse, … Or, a prediction of exactly which bubble is going to collapse next.


For now, consider the problem of determining, given a configuration of some bubbles at a certain time t_0, predicting exactly which bubble is going to collapse next, and why… To solve this problem, we have to study many different processes involved in the bubbles dynamics…


Theories do exist to predict various aspects of the bubble collapse process taken individually. Further it should also be possible to combine them together. The explanation involves such theories as: the Navier-Stokes equations, which govern the flow of soap water in the thin films, and of the motion of the air entrapped within each bubble; the phenomenon of film-breakage, which can involves either the particles-based approaches to modeling of fluids, or, if you insist on a continuum theory, then theories of crack initiatiation and growth in thin lamella/shells; the propagation of a film-breakage, and the propagation of the stress-strain waves associated with the process; and also, theories concerning how the collapse process gets preferentially localized to only one (or at most few) bubbles, which involves again, nonlinear theories from mechanics of materials, and material science.

All these are causal theories. It should also be possible to “throw them together” in a multi-physics simulation.

But even then, they still are not very useful in predicting which bubble in your particular setup is going to collapse next, and when, because not the combination of these theories, but even each theory involved is too complex.

The fact of the matter is, we cannot in practice predict precisely which bubble is going to collapse next.


The reason for our inability to predict, in this context, does not have to do just with the precision of the initial conditions. It’s also their vastness.

And, the known, causal, physical laws which tell us how a sensitive dependence on the smallest changes in the initial conditions deterministically leads to such huge changes in the outcomes, that using these laws to actually make a prediction squarely lies outside of our capacity to calculate.

Even simple (first- or second-order) variations to the initial conditions specified over a very small part of the network can have repercussions for the entire evolution, which is ultimately responsible for predicting which bubble is going to collapse next.


I mention this situation because it is amply illustrative of a special kind of problems which we encounter in physics today. The laws governing the system evolution are known. Yet, in practice, they cannot be applied for performing calculations in every given situation which falls under their purview. The reason for this circumstance is that the very paradigm of formulating physical laws falls short. Let me explain what I mean very briefly here.


All physical laws are essentially quantitative in nature, and can be thought of as “functions,” i.e., as mappings from a specific set of inputs to a specific set of outputs. Since the universe is lawful, given a certain set of values for the inputs, and the specific function (the law) which does the mapping, the output is  uniquely determined. Such a nature of the physical laws has come to be known as determinism. (At least that’s what the working physicist understands by the term “determinism.”) The initial conditions together with the governing equation completely determine the final outcome.

However, there are situations in which even if the laws themselves are deterministic, they still cannot practically be put to use in order to determine the outcomes. One such a situation is what we discussed above: the problem of predicting the next bubble which will collapse.

Where is the catch? It is in here:

When you say that a physical law performs a mapping from a set of input to the set of outputs, this description is actually vastly more general than what appears on the first sight.

Consider another example, the law of Newtonian gravity.

If you have only two bodies interacting gravitationally, i.e., if all other bodies in the universe can be ignored (because their influence on the two bodies is negligibly small in the problem as posed), then the set of the required input data is indeed very small. The system itself is simple because there is only one interaction going on—that between two bodies. The simplicity of the problem design lends a certain simplicity to the system behaviour: If you vary the set of input conditions slightly, then the output changes proportionately. In other words, the change in the output is proportionately small. The system configuration itself is simple enough to ensure that such a linear relation exists between the variations in the input, and the variations in the output. Therefore, in practice, even if you specify the input conditions somewhat loosely, your prediction does err, but not too much. Its error too remains bounded well enough that we can say that the description is deterministic. In other words, we can say that the system is deterministic, only because the input–output mapping is robust under minor changes to the input.

However, if you consider the N-body problem in all its generality, then the very size of the input set itself becomes big. Any two bodies from the N-bodies form a simple interacting pair. But the number of pairs is large, and worse, they all are coupled to each other through the positions of the bodies. Further, the nonlinearities involved in such a problem statement work to take away the robustness in the solution procedure. Not only is the size of the input set big, the end-solution too varies wildly with even a small variation in the input set. If you failed to specify even a single part of the input set to an adequate precision, then the predicted end-state can deterministically become very wildly different. The input–output mapping is deterministic—but it is not robust under minor changes to the input. A small change in the initial angle can lead to an object ending up either on this side of the Sun or that. Small changes produce big variations in predictions.

So, even if the mapping is known and is known to work (deterministically), you still cannot use this “knowledge” to actually perform the mapping from the input to the output, because the mapping is not robust to small variations in the input.

Ditto, for the soap bubbles collapse problem. If you change the initial configuration ever so slightly—e.g., if there was just a small air current in one setup and a more perfect stillness in another setup, it can lead to wildly different predictions as to which bubble will collapse next.

What holds for the N-body problem also holds for the bubble collapse process. The similarity is that these are complex systems. Their parts may be simple, and the physical laws governing such simple parts may be completely deterministic. Yet, there are a great many parts, and they all are coupled together such that a small change in one part—one interaction—gets multiplied and felt in all other parts, making the overall system fragile to small changes in the input specifications.

Let me add: What holds for the N-body problem or the bubble-collapse problems also holds for quantum-mechanical measurement processes. The latter too involves a large number of parts that are nonlinearly coupled to each other, and hence, forms a complex system. It is as futile to expect that you would be able to predict the exact time of the next atomic decay as it is to expect that you will be able to predict which bubble collapses next.

But all the above still does not mean that the laws themselves are indeterministic, or that, therefore, physical theories must be regarded as indeterministic. The complex systems may not be robust. But they still are composed from deterministically operating parts. It’s just that the configuration of these parts is far too complex.


It would be far too naive to think that it should be possible to make exact (non-probabilistic) predictions even in the context of systems that are nonlinear, and whose parts are coupled together in complex manner. It smacks of harboring irresponsible attitudes to take this naive expectation as the standard by which to judge physical theories, and since they don’t come up to your expectations, to jump to the conclusion that physical theories are indeterministic in nature. That’s what has happened to QM.

It should have been clear to the critic of the science that the truth-hood of an assertion (or a law, or a theory) is not subject to whether every complex manner in which it can be recombined with other theoretical elements leads to robust formulations or not. The truth-hood of an assertion is subject only to whether it by itself and in its own context corresponds to reality or not.

The error involved here is similar, in many ways, to expecting that if a substance is good for your health in a certain quantity, then it must be good in every quantity, or that if two medicines are without side-effects when taken individually, they must remain without any harmful effects even when taken in any combination—that there should be no interaction effects. It’s the same error, albeit couched in physicists’ and philosopher’s terms, that’s all.

… Too much emphasis on “math,” and too little an appreciation of the qualitative features, only helps in compounding the error.


A preliminary version of this post appeared as a comment on Roger Schlafly’s blog, here [^]. Schlafly has often wondered about the determinism vs. indeterminism issue on his blog, and often, seems to have taken positions similar to what I expressed here in this post.

The posting of this entry was motivated out of noticing certain remarks in Lee Smolin’s response to The Edge Question, 2013 edition [^], which I recently mentioned at my own blog, here [^].


A song I like:
(Marathi) “kaa re duraavaa, kaa re abolaa…”
Singer: Asha Bhosale
Music: Sudhir Phadke
Lyrics: Ga. Di. Madgulkar


[In the interests of providing better clarity, this post shall undergo further unannounced changes/updates over the due course of time.

Revision history:
2019.04.24 23:05: First published
2019.04.25 14:41: Posted a fully revised and enlarged version.
]

The rule of omitting the self-field in calculations—and whether potentials have an objective existence or not

There was an issue concerning the strictly classical, non-relativistic electricity which I was (once again) confronted with, during my continuing preoccupation with quantum mechanics.

Actually, a small part of this issue had occurred to me earlier too, and I had worked through it back then.

However, the overall issue had never occurred to me with as much of scope, generality and force as it did last evening. And I could not immediately resolve it. So, for a while, especially last night, I unexpectedly found myself to have become very confused, even discouraged.

Then, this morning, after a good night’s rest, everything became clear right while sipping my morning cup of tea. Things came together literally within a span of just a few minutes. I want to share the issue and its resolution with you.

The question in question (!) is the following.


Consider 2 (or N) number of point-charges, say electrons. Each electron sets up an electrostatic (Coulombic) potential everywhere in space, for the other electrons to “feel”.

As you know, the potential set up by the i-th electron is:
V_i(\vec{r}_i, \vec{r}) = \dfrac{1}{4 \pi \epsilon_0} \dfrac{Q_i}{|\vec{r} - \vec{r}_i|}
where \vec{r}_i is the position vector of the i-th electron, \vec{r} is any arbitrary point in space, and Q_i is the charge of the i-th electron.

The potential energy associated with some other (j-th) electron being at the position \vec{r}_j (i.e. the energy that the system acquires in bringing the two electrons from \infty to their respective positions some finite distance apart), is then given as:
U_{ij}(\vec{r}_i, \vec{r}_j) = \dfrac{1}{4 \pi \epsilon_0} \dfrac{Q_i\,Q_j}{|\vec{r}_j - \vec{r}_i|}

The notation followed here is the following: In U_{ij}, the potential field is produced by the i-th electron, and the work is done by the j-th electron against the i-th electron.

Symmetrically, the potential energy for this configuration can also be expressed as:
U_{ji}(\vec{r}_j, \vec{r}_i) = \dfrac{1}{4 \pi \epsilon_0} \dfrac{Q_j\,Q_i}{|\vec{r}_i - \vec{r}_j|}

If a system has only two charges, then its total potential energy U can be expressed either as U_{ji} or as U_{ij}. Thus,
U = U_{ji} = U_{ij}

Similarly, for any pair of charges in an N-particle system, too. Therefore, the total energy of an N-particle system is given as:
U = \sum\limits_{i}^{N} \sum\limits_{j = i+1}^{N} U_{ij}

The issue now is this: Can we say that the total potential energy U has an objective existence in the physical world? Or is it just a device of calculations that we have invented, just a concept from maths that has no meaningful physical counterpart?

(A side remark: Energy may perhaps exist as an attribute or property of something else, and not necessarily as a separate physical object by itself. However, existence as an attribute still is an objective existence.)

The reason to raise this doubt is the following.


When calculating the motion of the i-th charge, we consider only the potentials V_j produced by the other charges, not the potential produced by the given charge V_i itself.

Now, if the potential produced by the given charge (V_i) also exists at every point in space, then why does it not enter the calculations? How does its physical efficacy get evaporated away? And, symmetrically: The motion of the j-th charge occurs as if V_j had physically evaporated away.

The issue generalizes in a straight-forward manner. If there are N number of charges, then for calculating the motion of a given i-th charge, the potential fields of all other charges are considered operative. But not its own field.

How can motion become sensitive to only a part of the total potential energy existing at a point even if the other part also exists at the same point? That is the question.


This circumstance seems to indicate as if there is subjectivity built deep into the very fabric of classical mechanics. It is as if the universe just knows what a subject is going to calculate, and accordingly, it just makes the corresponding field mystically go away. The universe—the physical universe—acts as if it were changing in response to what we choose to do in our mind. Mind you, the universe seems to change in response to not just our observations (as in QM), but even as we merely proceed to do calculations. How does that come to happen?… May be the whole physical universe exists only in our imagination?

Got the point?


No, my confusion was not as pathetic as that in the previous paragraph. But I still found myself being confused about how to account for the fact that an electron’s own field does not enter the calculations.

But it was not all. A non-clarity on this issue also meant that there was another confusing issue which also raised its head. This secondary issue arises out of the fact that the Coulombic potential set up by any point-charge is singular in nature (or at least approximately so).

If the electron is a point-particle and if its own potential “is” \infty at its position, then why does it at all get influenced by the finite potential of any other charge? That is the question.

Notice, the second issue is most acute when the potentials in question are singular in nature. But even if you arbitrarily remove the singularity by declaring (say by fiat) a finite size for the electron, thereby making its own field only finitely large (and not infinite), the above-mentioned issue still remains. So long as its own field is finite but much, much larger than the potential of any other charge, the effects due to the other charges should become comparatively less significant, perhaps even negligibly small. Why does this not happen? Why does the rule instead go exactly the other way around, and makes those much smaller effects due to other charges count, but not the self-field of the very electron in question?


While thinking about QM, there was a certain point where this entire gamut of issues became important—whether the potential has an objective existence or not, the rule of omitting the self-field while calculating motions of particles, the singular potential, etc.

The specific issue I was trying to think through was: two interacting particles (e.g. the two electrons in the helium atom). It was while thinking on this problem that this problem occurred to me. And then, it also led me to wonder: what if some intellectual goon in the guise of a physicist comes along, and says that my proposal isn’t valid because there is this element of subjectivity to it? This thought occurred to me with all its force only last night. (Or so I think.) And I could not recall seeing a ready-made answer in a text-book or so. Nor could I figure it out immediately, at night, after a whole day’s work. And as I failed to resolve the anticipated objection, I progressively got more and more confused last night, even discouraged.

However, this morning, it all got resolved in a jiffy.


Would you like to give it a try? Why is it that while calculating the motion of the i-th charge, you consider the potentials set up by all the rest of the charges, but not its own potential field? Why this rule? Get this part right, and all the philosophical humbug mentioned earlier just evaporates away too.

I would wait for a couple of days or so before coming back and providing you with the answer I found. May be I will write another post about it.


Update on 2019.03.16 20:14 IST: Corrected the statement concerning the total energy of a two-electron system. Also simplified the further discussion by couching it preferably in terms of potentials rather than energies (as in the first published version), because a Coulombic potential always remains anchored in the given charge—it doesn’t additionally depend on the other charges the way energy does. Modified the notation to reflect the emphasis on the potentials rather than energy.


A song I like:

[What else? [… see the songs section in the last post.]]
(Hindi) “woh dil kahaan se laaoon…”
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Music: Ravi
Lyrics: Rajinder Kishen


A bit of a conjecture as to why Ravi’s songs tend to be so hummable, of a certain simplicity, especially, almost always based on a very simple rhythm. My conjecture is that because Ravi grew up in an atmosphere of “bhajan”-singing.

Observe that it is in the very nature of music that it puts your mind into an abstract frame of mind. Observe any singer, especially the non-professional ones (or the ones who are not very highly experienced in controlling their body-language while singing, as happens to singers who participate in college events or talent shows).

When they sing, their eyes seem to roll in a very peculiar manner. It seems random but it isn’t. It’s as if the eyes involuntarily get set in the motions of searching for something definite to be found somewhere, as if the thing to be found would be in the concrete physical space outside, but within a split-second, the eyes again move as if the person has realized that nothing corresponding is to be found in the world out there. That’s why the eyes “roll away.” The same thing goes on repeating, as the singer passes over various words, points of pauses, nuances, or musical phrases.

The involuntary motions of the eyes of the singer provide a window into his experience of music. It’s as if his consciousness was again and again going on registering a sequence of two very fleeting experiences: (i) a search for something in the outside world corresponding to an inner experience felt in the present, and immediately later, (ii) a realization (and therefore the turning away of the eyes from an initially picked up tentative direction) that nothing in the outside world would match what was being searched for.

The experience of music necessarily makes you realize the abstractness of itself. It tends to make you realize that the root-referents of your musical experience lie not in a specific object or phenomenon in the physical world, but in the inner realm, that of your own emotions, judgments, self-reflections, etc.

This nature of music makes it ideally suited to let you turn your attention away from the outside world, and has the capacity or potential to induce a kind of a quiet self-reflection in you.

But the switch from the experience of frustrated searches into the outside world to a quiet self-reflection within oneself is not the only option available here. Music can also induce in you a transitioning from those unfulfilled searches to a frantic kind of an activity: screams, frantic shouting, random gyrations, and what not. In evidence, observe any piece of modern American / Western pop-music.

However, when done right, music can also induce a state of self-reflection, and by evoking certain kind of emotions, it can even lead to a sense of orderliness, peace, serenity. To make this part effective, such a music has to be simple enough, and orderly enough. That’s why devotional music in the refined cultural traditions is, as a rule, of a certain kind of simplicity.

The experience of music isn’t the highest possible spiritual experience. But if done right, it can make your transition from the ordinary experience to a deep, profound spiritual experience easy. And doing it right involves certain orderliness, simplicity in all respects: tune, tone, singing style, rhythm, instrumental sections, transitions between phrases, etc.

If you grow up listening to this kind of a music, your own music in your adult years tends to reflect the same qualities. The simplicity of rhythm. The alluringly simple tunes. The “hummability quotient.” (You don’t want to focus on intricate patterns of melody in devotional music; you want it to be so simple that minimal mental exertion is involved in rendering it, so that your mental energy can quietly transition towards your spiritual quest and experiences.) Etc.

I am not saying that the reason Ravi’s music is so great is because he listened his father sing “bhajan”s. If this were true, there would be tens of thousands of music composers having talents comparable to Ravi’s. But the fact is that Ravi was a genius—a self-taught genius, in fact. (He never received any formal training in music ever.) But what I am saying is that if you do have the musical ability, having this kind of a family environment would leave its mark. Definitely.

Of course, this all was just a conjecture. Check it out and see if it holds or not.

… May be I should convert this “note” in a separate post by itself. Would be easier to keep track of it. … Some other time. … I have to work on QM; after all, exactly only half the month remains now. … Bye for now. …


An intermediate update regarding my intermediate development regarding my new approach regarding QM

Update on 2019.10.02, 17:00 IST

I have completed writing (more like somehow filling in the contents for) the alpha version of the outline document. However, it is not at all readable. So, I am not in a position to be able to distribute it even as a private communication. (Talking besides the black-board is so much easier to do!)

By now, the outline document alone runs into 18 pages (some of the contents being repetitive). The background document has become another 12 pages. Editing 30 pages should take at least about a week or so, if not a little more.

So, no promises, but chances are good that both these documents could get finalized and distributed within the next 7 to 10 days.

In the meanwhile, feel free to look for the other things on this blog, and bye for now.

Update over; original post, below the fold.



0. As mentioned here earlier, I have been in the process of writing a point-by-point outline document on my new approach to quantum mechanics.


1. A certain preliminary version of the outline document was completed on the afternoon of 4th February 2019. It is about 10 pages long, and roughly at a pre-alpha stage. Separately, there also has been an additional document covering some of the background material for understanding QM. (An earlier version of this background document was posted here at this blog few days ago—too bad if you never noticed it—bad, for you, that is.) It too has been under expansion and revision; currently it stands at a total of further 10 pages (i.e in addition to the outline document).


2. As things usually go at such a stage (i.e., in the stages before the alpha), certain mistakes (including some basic conceptual errors too) were noticed even in the main document, but only after it was “carefully” completed. Currently, these are being addressed.


3. In case you are wondering about the nature of the inadvertent errors or lacunae:

Contrary to what many people might be expecting from me:

3.1: First, errors or lacunae were mainly found not regarding my new ideas concerning the measurement postulate, but rather with the more philosophical ideas concerning the quantum-physical ontology!

3.2: Second, perhaps then not very surprisingly, lacunae were also found on the more applied side of the QM postulates, especially regarding the many- particles systems and quantum entanglement.

The nature of the lacunae / errors somehow gives me a confidence that the basic ideas of my new approach themselves should be right!


4. Pre-release versions starting from the (upcoming) alpha version could perhaps be made available to select physicists, as a private communication. …

… Of course, it is a different matter altogether that I think that none would be interested in the same. (Indian and American physicists and others think that way, anyway!)

… But still, if interested, drop me a line, and I will consider having you on the distribution list (which is expected not to carry more than 8–10 people at the most, so as to keep my own email communications and the attendant diversions and confusions down to the minimum so that I myself the jobless could at all handle it).


5. The Release Candidate should get posted at iMechanica, but only for the purposes of securing an external “time-stamp”—not so much for the purposes of discussions. (The focus of iMechanica is obviously different; it’s much more on the classical engineering side—which fact I love.)


6. I will try to finish the alpha by this week-end.

The next milestones until the final release (or even the release candidates) will be decided once the alpha is actually at the hand.


7. I will announce the availability of the alpha at this blog via a separate post.


A song I like:

(Hindi) “teraa meraa pyaar amar, phir bhee mujh ko lagataa hai Dar…”
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Music: Shankar-Jaikishan
Lyrics: Shailendra

[No specific order is being implied by the order of the credits. … In other words, I can’t decide on it. Not for this song.]


History:

First written on my private machine: Wednesday 06 February 2019 08:35:32 AM IST
First finalized here: Wednesday 06 February 2019 11:31:05 PM IST

 

 

A bit on Panpsychism—part 2: Why the idea is basically problematic, and what could be a different (and hopefully better) alternative

I continue from my last post. While the last post was fairly straight-forward, the subject-matter of this post itself is such that the writing becomes  meandering.


The basic trouble with panpsychism:

The primary referent for the concept of consciousness refers to one’s own consciousness. The existence of the same faculty in other beings is only an inference drawn from observations. If so, and in view of the two facts discussed in the last post, why can’t a similar inference be extended to everything material, too?

Well, consciousness is observed to exist only in those beings that are in fact alive. Consciousness is fundamental, sure. In Ayn Rand’s system, it even is a philosophical axiom. But qua a metaphysical existent, consciousness also happens to be only an attribute, and that too, of only one class of existents: the living beings.

Here, we will not get into the debate concerning which species can be taken as to be truly conscious, i.e., which species can be said to have an individualized, conscious grasp of reality. Personally, I believe that all living beings are conscious to some extent, even if it be only marginal in the more primitive species such as amoebae or plants.

However, regardless of whether plants can be taken to be conscious or not, we can always say that material entities that are not alive never show any evidence of being conscious. Your credit cards, spectacles, or T-shirts never show any evidence of being engaged in a process of grasping reality, or of having a definite, internal and individualized representation of any aspect of reality—no matter in how diluted, primitive or elementary form it may be posited to exist, or how fleetingly momentary such a grasp may be asserted to be. Consciousness is an attribute of only those beings that actually have life. You can’t tell your credit card to go have a life—it simply cannot. For the same reason, it can’t have the faculty to know anything, speaking literally.

Now, coming to the phenomenon of life, it is delimited on two different counts: (i) Life is an attribute possessed by only some beings in the universe, not all. (ii) Even those beings which are alive at some point of time must eventually die after the elapse of some finite period of time. When they do, their physical constituents are no different from the beings that never were alive in the first place. (This “forward-pass” kind of a logical flow is enough for us here; we need not look into the “backward-pass”, viz., the issue of whether life can arise out of the purely inanimate matter or not. It is a complicated question, and so, we will visit it some time later on.)

The physical constituents of a living organism continue to remain more or less the same after the event of its death. Even if we suppose that there is a permanent loss of some kind of a *physical* constituent or attribute at the time death, for our overall argument (concerning panpsychism) to progress, it is enough to observe and accept that at least **some** of the physical aspects continue to remain the same even after death. The continued existence of at least a part of physical constituents is sufficient to establish the following important conclusion:

Not all physical parts of the universe are at all times associated with living beings.

Given the above conclusion, it is easy to see that to speak of all parts of the reality as possessing consciousness is an elementary error: Not all parts of reality are alive at any point of time, and consciousness is an attribute of only those beings that are alive.


An aside related to reincarnation:

Even if reincarnation exists (and I do believe that it does), what persists in between two life-times is not consciousness, but only the soul.

In my view (derived from the ancient Indian traditions, of course, but also departing from it at places), the term “soul” is to be taken in sense of an individual (Sanskrit) “aatmaa.” An “aatmaa,” in my view is, loosely speaking, the “thing” which is neither created at birth nor destroyed at death. However, it is individual in nature, and remains in common across all the life-times of a given individual. Thus, I do not take the term “soul” in the sense in which Aristotle and Ayn Rand do. (For both Aristotle and Ayn Rand, the soul comes into being at birth, and ceases to exist at death.) Further, in my view, the soul has no consciousness—i.e., no feelings, not even just the desires even. For more details on my view of soul, see my earlier posts, especially these: [^][^][^].

The important point for our present discussion is this: Even if the soul were to be an attribute of all parts of the entire universe (including every inanimate objects contained in it), we still couldn’t ascribe consciousness to the inanimate parts of the universe. That is my main point here.


Another idea worth entertaining—but it is basically different from panpsychism:

Following the above-mentioned analysis, panpsychism can make sense only if what it calls “elements of consciousness” is something that is not in itself conscious, in any sense of the term.

The only idea consistent with its intended outcome can be something like a pre-consciousness, i.e., some feature or attribute or condition which, when combined with life, can give rise to a consciousness.

But note that such a pre-condition cannot mean having an actual capacity for being aware; it cannot represent the ability to have that individualized and internal grasp of reality which goes when actual living beings are actually conscious of something. That is the point to understand. The elements that panpsychism would like to have validated cannot be taken to be conscious the way it asserts they are. The elementary attributes cannot be conscious in the same sense in which we directly grasp our own consciousness, and also use it in our usual perceptions and mental functioning.

Even if you accept the more consistent idea (viz., a pre-conscious condition or a soul which may be associated with the non-living beings too), panpsychism would still have on its hands another problem to solve: if consciousness (or even just the pre-consciousness) is distributed throughout the universe, then for what reason does it get “concentrated” to such glaringly high degrees only in the living beings? For what metaphysical function? To allow for which teleological ends? And, following what kind of a process in particular? And then, what is the teleological or metaphysical function of the elements of consciousness?… From what I gather, they don’t seem to have very good ideas regarding questions and issues like these. In fact, I very much doubt if they at all have _any_ ideas in these respects.


Dr. Sabine Hossenfelder [^] notably does touch upon the animate vs. the inanimate distinction. Congratulations to her!

However, she doesn’t pursue it as much as she could have. Her main position—viz., that electrons don’t think—is reasonable, but as I will show below, this position is inevitable only when you stay within the scope of that abstraction which is the physical reality. Her argument does not become invalid, but it does become superfluous, when it comes to the entirety of existence as such (i.e., the whole universe, including all the living as well, apart from the non-living beings). To better put her position in context (as also those of others), let us perform a simple thought experiment.


The thought experiment to show why the panpsychism is basically a false idea:

Consider a cat kept in a closed wooden box. (Don’t worry; the sides of the box all carry holes, and so, the cat has no problem breathing in a normal way.) Administer some general anathesia to the cat, thereby letting her enter into a state of a kind of a deep sleep, being physically unresponsive—in particular, being unresponsive to the external physical stimuli like a simple motion of the box. Then place the cat in the wooden box, and tie its body to a fixed position using some comfortable harnesses.

If you now apply a gentle external force to the box from the outside, the cat-plus-box system can be easily described (or simulated) using physics; some simple dynamical evolution equations apply in this case. The reason is, even though the cat is a living being, the anaesthesia leads it to temporarily lose consciousness, so that nothing other than its purely physical attributes now enter the system description.

Now repeat the same experiment but when the cat is awake. As the box begins to move, the cat is sure to move its limbs and tail in response, or arch its body, etc. The *physical* attributes of her body enter the system description as before. However these physical attributes themselves are now under the influence of (or are a function of) an additional force—one which is introduced into the system description because of the actions of the consciousness of the cat. For instance, the physical attribute of any changes to the shape of its body are now governed not just by the externally applied forces, but also out of the forces generated by the cat itself, following the actions of her consciousness. (The idea of such an additional physical force is not originally mine; I got it from Dr. Harry Binswanger.) Thus, there are certain continuing physical conditions which depend on consciousness—its actions.

Can we rely on the principles or equations of physical evolution in the second case, too? Are our physical laws valid for describing the second case, too?

The answer is, yes. We can rely on the physics principles so long as we are able to bring the physical actions produced by the consciousness of the cat into our system description. We do so via that extra set of the continuing conditions. Let’s give this extra force the name: “life-physical force.”

Next, suppose the entire motion of this box+cat system occurs on a wooden table. The table (just as the wooden box) is not alive. Therefore, no special life-physical force comes into the picture while calculating the table’s actions. The table acts exactly the same way whether there is only a box, or a box with a non-responsive cat, or a box with a much meowing cat. It simply supplies reaction forces; it does not generate any active action forces.

Clearly, we can explain the actions of the table in purely physical terms. In fact doing so is relatively simpler, because we don’t have to abstract away its physical attributes the way we have to, when the object is a living and conscious being. Clearly, without any loss of generality, we can do away with panpsychism (in any of its versions) when it comes to describing the actions of the table.

Since panpsychism is a redundancy in describing the action of the table, obviously, it cannot apply to the universe as a whole. So, its basic idea is false.

Overall, my position is that panpsychism cannot be taken too seriously “as is”, because it does not discuss the intermediate aspect of life (or the distinction of living vs. non-living beings). It takes what is an attribute of only a part of the existence (the consciousnesses of all living beings), and then directly proceeds to smear it on to the entirety of existence as such. In terms of our thought experiment, it takes the consciousness of the cat and smears it onto not just the wooden box, but also onto the wooden table. But as can be seen with the thought-experiment, this is a big leap of mis-attribution. Yet a panpsychist must perform it, because an entire category of considerations is lacking in it—viz., that related to life.

What possibly would a panpsychist have to do to save his thesis? Let’s see.

Since consciousness metaphysically is only an attribute of a bigger class of entities (viz., that of living beings), the only way to rescue panpsychism would be to assert that the entire universe is always alive. This is the only way to have every part of the universe conscious.

But there are big troubles with such a “solution” too.

This formulation does away with the fact of death. If all beings are always alive, such a universe ceases to contain the fact of death. Thus, the new formulation would smear out the distinction between life and death, because it would have clubbed together both (i) the actions of life or of consciousness, and (ii) the actions of the inanimate matter, into a single, incoherent package—one that has no definition, no identity. That is the basic theoretical flaw of attempting the only way in which panpsychism could logically be saved.

Now, of course, since we have given a lifeline (pun intended) to the panpsychist, he could grab it and run with it with some further verbal gymnastics. He could possibly re-define the very life (i.e. living-ness) as a term that is not to be taken in the usual sense, but only in some basic, “elementary,” or “flavour”-some way. Possible… What would be wrong with that?

… The wrong thing is this: There are too many flavors now blurring out too many fundamental distinctions, but too few cogent definitions for all these new “concepts” of what it means to be a mere “flavour.”… Realize that the panpsychist would not be able to directly point out to a single instance of, say the table (or your T-shirt) as having some element of same kind of live which actually is present with the actual living beings.

If an alleged consciousness (or its elementary flavor or residue) cannot perform even a single action of distinguishing something consciously, but only follows the laws of physics in its actions, then what it possesses is not consciousness. Further, if an allegedly elementary form of life can have unconditional existence and never faces death, and leads to no actions other than those which follow from the laws of physics alone, then what it possesses is not life—not even in the elementary sense of the term.

In short, panpsychism is an untenable thesis.

Finally, let me reiterate that when I said that a pre-condition (or pre-consciousness, or “soul”) can remain associated with the inanimate matter too, that idea belongs to an entirely different class. It is not what panpsychists put forth.


Comments on what other bloggers have said, and a couple of relevant asides:

For the reasons discussed above, Motl[^]’s “proof” regarding panpsychism cannot be accepted as being valid—unless he, Koch, Chalmers, or others clarify what exactly they mean by terms such as “elementary” consciousness. Also, the elementary bits of “life”: can there be a \Phi of life too, and if yes, how does \Phi = 0 differ from ordinary loss of life (i.e. death) and the attendent loss of the \Phi of consciousness too.

As to Hossenfelder‘s post, if a given electron does not belong to the body of a conscious (living) being, then there exist no further complications in its physical evolution; the initial and boundary conditions specified in the purely physical terms are enough to describe its actions, its dynamical evolution, to the extent that such an evolution can at all be described using physics.

However, if an electron belongs to a conscious (living) being, then the entire of consideration of whether the electron by itself is conscious or not, whether it by itself thinks or not, becomes completely superfluous. The evolution of its motion now occurs under necessarily different conditions; you now have to bring the physical forces arising due to the action of life, of consciousness, via those additional continuing conditions. Given these additional forces, the system evolution once again follows the laws of physics. The reason for that, in turn, is this: whether an elementary particle like the electron itself is conscious or not, a big entity (like a man) surely is conscious, and the extra physical effects generated by this consciousness do have to be taken into account.

An aside: Philosophy of mind is not a handmaiden to physics or its philosophy:

While on this topic, realize that you don’t have to ascribe consciousness to the electrons of a conscious (living) being. For all you know, there could perhaps be an entirely new kind of a field (or a particle) which completely explains the phenomenon of consciousness, and so, electrons (or other particles of the standard model) can continue to remain completely inanimate at all times. We don’t know if such a field exists or not.

However, my main point here is that we don’t have to exhaust this question without observation; we don’t have to pre-empt this possibility by arbitrarily choosing to hinge the entire debate only on the particles of the standard model of physics, and slapping consciousness onto them.

Realize that the abstraction of consciousness (and all matters pertaining to it or preceding it, like the soul), is fundamentally “orthogonal” to the abstractions of physics, of physical reality. (Here, see my last post.) You don’t commit the error of taking a model (even the most comprehensive model) of physics, and implicitly ask philosophy of mind to restrict its scope to this model (which itself may get revised later on!) Physics might not be a handmaiden to philosophy, but neither is philosophy a handmaiden to physics.

Finally coming to Schlafly‘s post, he too touches upon Hossenfelder’s post, but he covers it from the advance viewpoints of free-will, mind-body connection, Galen’s argument etc.[^]. I won’t discuss his post or positions in detail here because these considerations indeed are much more complicated and advanced.

Another aside: How Galen’s argument involves a superfluous consideration:

However, one point that can be noted here is that Galen fails to make the distinction of whether the atom he considers exists as a part of a conscious (living) being’s body, or whether it is a part of some inanimate object. In the former case, whether the electron itself is conscious or not (and whether there is an extra particle or field of consciousness or not, and whether there is yet another field or particle to explain the phenomenon of life or not), a description of the physical evolution of the system would still have to include the aforementioned life-physical force. Thus, the issue of whether the electron is conscious or not is a superfluous consideration. In other words, Galen’s argument involves a non-essential consideration, and therefore, it is not potent enough to settle the related issues.


Homework for you:

  • If panpsychism were to be true, your credit card, spectacles, or T-shirt would be conscious in some “elementary” sense, and so, they would have to be able to hold some “elementary” items of cognition. The question is, where and through what means do you suppose it might be keeping it? That is to say, what are the physical (or physico-electro-chemical-etc.) correlates for their content of consciousness? For instance, can a tape-recorder be taken to be conscious? Can the recording on the tape be taken as the storage of its “knowledge”? If you answer “yes,” then extend the question to the tape of the tape-recorder. Can it be said to be conscious?
  • Can there be a form of consciousness which does not carry a sense of self even in the implicit terms? As it so actually happens, i.e., in reality, a conscious being doesn’t have to be able to isolate and consciously hold that it has self; but it only has to act with a sense of its own life, its own consciousness. The question asks whether, hypothetically, we can do away with that implicit sense of its own life and consciousness itself, or not.
  • Can there be a form of consciousness which comes without any mind-body integrating mechanisms such as some kinesthetic senses of feedback, including some emotions (perhaps even just so simple emotions such as the pleasure-pain mechanism)? Should there be medical specializations for addressing the mental health issues of tables? of electric switches? of computers?
  • Could, by any stretch of imagination, the elementary consciousness (as proposed by panpsychists) be volitional in nature?
  • Should there be a law to protect the rights of your credit card? of your spectacles? of your T-shirt? of a tape-recorder? of your laptop? of an artificial neural network running on your laptop?
  • To those who are knowledgeable about ancient Indian wisdom regarding the spiritual matters, and wish to trace panpsychism to it: If a “yogi” could do “tapascharyaa” even while existing only as an “aatmaa” i.e. even when he is not actually alive, then why should he at all have to take a birth? Why do they say that even “deva”s also have to take a human birth in order to break the bonds of “karma” and thereby attain spiritual purity?

More than three thousand words (!!) but sometimes it is necessary. In any case, I just wanted to finish off this topic so that I could return full-time to Data Science. (I will, however, try to avoid this big a post the next time; cf. my NYRs—2019 edition [^].)


A song I like:
(Marathi) “santha vaahate krushNaa maai”
Lyrics: Ga. Di. Madgulkar
Music: Datta Davajekar
Singer: Sudhir Phadke