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KARL POPPER'S ATTEMPTED REFUTATION OF "SCIENTIFIC"

DETERMINISM

This essay is a critique of the book THE OPEN UNIVERSE: AN ARGUMENT FOR
INDETERMINISM, by Karl Popper. In this book Popper attempts to refute what
he calls "'Scientific' Determinism". Quantum Physics plays little role in his
argument. (His book QUANTUM THEORY AND THE SCHISM IN PHYSICS is the
best single critique of the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Physics I
have ever seen.) Moreover, he also claims to be focused on refuting
"scientific" determinism rather than metaphysical determinism. And he
claims to be defending indeterminism rather than free will.

Popper always puts the word "scientific" in quotes when using the phrase
"'scientific' determinism" to emphasize his belief that the argument for
determinism based on science is fallacious. Popper is specifically concerned
with discrediting the claim by LaPlace that a hypothetical "demon" with
enough knowledge of the state of the universe could use that knowledge to
predict the state of the universe at any future time. Thus Popper builds his
case against "scientific" determinism primarily around the issue of
prediction, rather than causality. In doing so, I think he confuses
epistemological issues with ontological ones. To be sure, any claim which is
not testable can be dismissed as "metaphysical" (ie, meaningless). But I think
he misses the point of the idea of determinism by the way he looks for
scientific evidence to support or refute it.

Popper cites a statement by F.A. von Hayek that to succeed in its


calculations, LaPlace's demon would have to exceed the complexity of the
universe, and therefore could not be part of the universe. But Popper also
bolster's his argument by the demand that predictions would have to be
capable of infinite precision. For example, he would demand that a prediction
of where a dart would land on a dartboard be exact to as many decimal
places as could be measured — and would doubtless take any limit on
measurement capability as a failure to predict exactly.

Popper further loads his argument by claiming that indeterminism only


"asserts that there exists at least one event that is not predetermined, or
predictable" [his emphasis], whereas "scientific" determinism makes the
"stronger assertion" that "all events are in principle predictable". Thus,
according to Popper, the burden of proof rests on "scientific" determinism,
because it makes a stronger assertion. Given the impossible standards of
proof Popper requires, indeterminism becomes true by default. But why
should determinism be a bolder ontology than its mutually-exclusive
opposite?

The essence of Popper's argument seems to be that "scientific" determinism


can not be proven unless all scientific truth has been discovered in its
entirety. This reminds me of the claim that spiritualism cannot be disproven
except by a Being with God-like capabilities. (After all, there only needs to be
one event which is spiritual.) Popper claims that metaphysical determinism
(ie, an argument for determinism not based on scientific evidence) cannot be
proven or disproven. He also says that metaphysical INdeterminism cannot
be proven or disproven. But then why does he not subtitle his book AN
ARGUMENT FOR SCIENTIFIC INDETERMINISM? He attempts to show that
science cannot prove determinism, and assumes that this proves
indeterminism — but is that a "scientific" proof? The reader can observe that
Popper rapidly construes his case against "scientific" determinism as a proof
of both indeterminism (scientific, by implication only) and "human freedom".

Popper likens a determinist world-view to a motion-picture film in which the


part of the film which has been shown is the past, and the part which is yet
to be shown is the future. Einstein's inclination to treat time as a "fourth
dimension" struck Popper as an indication of Einstein's subjectivist,
determinist dismissal of the "arrow of time". (Popper claims he disturbed
Einstein by this characterization of determinism as subjectivist, because
Einstein saw himself as an ardent realist — a believer in objective reality.)

Popper holds that only the future is indeterministic, and that the past is
trivially deterministic. I find this claim to be contradictory in many ways. How
could the past be "scientifically" proven to be deterministic by Popper's
standards if it is no more possible to measure events in the past with infinite
precision than the present or the future? More to the point, why would all
past events be caused, while future events are uncaused (until the future
becomes the past)?

Popper is correct in asserting that if we were able to predict our future


predictions, then the latter would be part of the present and not part of the
future. But does this really address the issue of causality? Despite the fact
that I do not know the causes of all events, I do not know of any events which
are uncaused. I do not need to be omnipotent or to believe that scientific
knowledge is complete in order to believe that all events are caused. The
belief that all events are caused has the heuristic value of leading to a
scientific investigation of causes, but there is neither evidence-for nor value-
in the belief that some events are uncaused.

Popper links "scientific" determinism with reductionism, ie, the belief that
psychology can be reduced to biology, which can be reduced to chemistry,
which can be reduced to physics. As an argument against this he mentions
that physics itself is incomplete because the four forces have not been
reduced to a unified field theory. He postulates the idea of "emergent
properties" of chemistry, biology, etc. without explaining where they emerge
from or why they emerge.

The closest Popper comes to offering a positive theory is his ontology of


"World 1", "World 2" and "World 3". "World 1" is the physical world of rocks,
trees, bugs, gravity, light, etc. "World 2" is the psychological world of
thoughts, feelings and subjective experiences of humans and animals.
"World 3" is the world of abstraction — including problems, theories, social
institutions and ethical values. The distinction between "World 2" and
"World 3" is that "World 2" refers to thought processes, whereas "World 3"
refers to the contents of the thoughts.

Thus, Popper substitutes Descartes' matter/spirit dichotomy with a


trichotomy of three "worlds" which he refuses to identify with either matter or
spirit. This explains nothing and raises more questions than it answers — for
anyone who would take Popper seriously (not me!). Popper sounds very
Cartesian when he says "My own position is that the brain-mind parallelism is
almost bound to exist up to a point. Certain reflexes, such as blinking when
seeing a suddenly approaching object, are to all appearances of a more or
less parallel character ..." [his emphasis]

If "World 1" is not the material world, then what (or where) is it? Where in the
universe is "World 2", if not in the brain? If determinism is an unproveable
(and therefore disproven, according to Popper) assertion, where is the
scientific evidence that "World 2" is not a part of World 1"?

Popper says that "the decisive argument for indeterminism is the existence of
rational knowledge itself." This, of course, would be "scientific"
indeterminism, proven by the "scientific evidence" of the existence of
knowledge. He quotes J.B.S. Haldane, who wrote, "I am not myself a
materialist because if materialism is true, it seems to me that we cannot
know that it is true. If my opinions are the result of the chemical processes
going on in my brain, they are determined by the laws of chemistry, not
those of logic." Popper identifies materialism with determinism, but both he
and Haldane seem to accept this argument as a self-evident truth, which I
would paraphrase "I know I have knowledge, therefore I know I am not
determined." Descartes would be proud.

But why cannot a material brain have knowledge? If knowledge is an


accumulation of synaptic strengths in the brain — as scientific evidence
points to — why would the existence of knowledge point to indeterminism,
nonmaterial substance or uncaused events (all of which are presumed to be
linked to "free choice")? Effort to form knowledge by choices between
explanations seems well within the capabilities of a fully material brain.

FREE WILL IN LEONARD PEIKOFF'S OBJECTIVISM

In the Objectivist metaphysics of Ayn Rand, atheism and materialism are


affirmed. Rand apparently accepted the principal of causality as universal,
but she staunchly defended free will. Since Ayn Rand is dead, we might turn
to Leonard Peikoff (her "intellectual heir") for an explanation.

In OBJECTIVISM: THE PHILOSOPHY OF AYN RAND, Peikoff never explicitly


defines determinism or free will, but instead weaves a tortuous web of
implied distinctions. In arguing for "free will" he states: "if man's actions do
have causes, then they are not free; they are necessitated by antecedent
factors". This statement occurs just after Peikoff uses the word
"indeterminism" to describe the "anticausal viewpoint". Peikoff rejects both
determinism and indeterminism by equating the former with unfreedom and
the latter with anticausality, although he does not express himself clearly
enough to make his contradiction obvious. He purports to be defending
causality while opposing determinism when he says: "'to be caused' does not
mean 'to be necessitated'" (a phrase that I regard as self-contradictory
nonsense).

Peikoff defends causality only in the sense that he justifies the causal
sequences leading from choice, but rejects causality with his implication that
choice is not entirely the product of antecedent causes. Peikoff makes
choice a "First Cause" rather than a product of material antecedent causes. A
"First Cause" is an "uncaused cause". Often used as a definition of God, "First
Cause" is an entirely mystical notion — it is certainly not a materialist one.

Peikoff equates deterministic choice with "effortlessness and automaticity".


But the existence of effort and the subservience of reflexes to higher brain
centers is entirely compatible with determinism. Peikoff characterizes
determinism with the words "I have to do it, even if I realize at the time how
badly I am acting". Altered action due to realization is not incompatible with
determinism, and the existence of antecedent causes of will does not imply
ONGOING COMPULSION to will.

As a clincher, Peikoff suggests that arguments about this topic are


unnecessary because of his claim that uncaused volition is axiomatic:
"volition, accordingly is not an independent philosophic principle, but a
corollary of the axiom of consciousness". He "proves" that it is axiomatic by
claiming that it is impossible to prove anything without uncaused choice (the
only root of true knowledge). He asserts that knowledge is not possible
without accepting his view of volition, and therefore asserts that proof is
neither possible nor necessary. He is wrong. Whether choices are entirely the
product of material causes is an empirical question which neurophysiological
studies should eventually verify.

Objectivists commonly assert that knowledge and ethics are not possible in a
deterministic universe. This is invariably stated as a "self-evident truth", with
no attempt at explanation or justification. If anything, it is stated as an
argument from desire, along the lines of "If my house is on fire all my
possessions may be destroyed, therefore my apartment cannot be on fire."

But what is knowledge? Knowledge is facts and beliefs that correspond to


some extent with reality. The human brain is a material biochemical-
bioelectrical machine that accumulates facts and beliefs corresponding with
reality — and the evolution of this machine has been driven by survival value.
Is the causal nature of the accumulation of knowledge grounds for describing
that knowledge as meaningless? No, meaningfulness relates to the
relevance of the knowledge to the values of the organism. Knowledge which
is of service to the acquisition of things valued is meaningful.

An attempt to distinguish between political and metaphysical freedom implies


that the former relates to coercion by human agents and that the later
relates to coercion by causality. Is knowledge impossible if prior causes
constrain choice between alternate beliefs? On what basis does one choose
between possible beliefs? Is the choice arbitrary or is it on the basis of a
greater weight of evidence favoring one of the options? If choices are not
the product of prior causes then they are spiritual (magical) and unrelated to
reality.

The essence of freedom is the ability of the self to express its desires,
motives, tendencies and preferences without external coercion, compulsion
or restraint. Factors that have caused or determined the self cannot be said
to have coerced it. Causality forms the self, but freedom relates to the
ability of the self to manifest its will long after it has been formed. The
distinction between causal influences that form the self and causal
influences that impinge upon the formed self is at the root of the issue of
freedom. I believe that the concept of freedom is only meaningful to describe
external influences coercing the self — not the internal composition of the
self or the formation of the self. If this distinction is ignored, then no
distinction between self and reality is possible, and therefore no concept of
freedom is possible. KARL POPPER'S ATTEMPTED REFUTATION OF
"SCIENTIFIC" DETERMINISM

This essay is a critique of the book THE OPEN UNIVERSE: AN ARGUMENT FOR
INDETERMINISM, by Karl Popper. In this book Popper attempts to refute what
he calls "'Scientific' Determinism". Quantum Physics plays little role in his
argument. (His book QUANTUM THEORY AND THE SCHISM IN PHYSICS is the
best single critique of the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Physics I
have ever seen.) Moreover, he also claims to be focused on refuting
"scientific" determinism rather than metaphysical determinism. And he
claims to be defending indeterminism rather than free will.

Popper always puts the word "scientific" in quotes when using the phrase
"'scientific' determinism" to emphasize his belief that the argument for
determinism based on science is fallacious. Popper is specifically concerned
with discrediting the claim by LaPlace that a hypothetical "demon" with
enough knowledge of the state of the universe could use that knowledge to
predict the state of the universe at any future time. Thus Popper builds his
case against "scientific" determinism primarily around the issue of
prediction, rather than causality. In doing so, I think he confuses
epistemological issues with ontological ones. To be sure, any claim which is
not testable can be dismissed as "metaphysical" (ie, meaningless). But I think
he misses the point of the idea of determinism by the way he looks for
scientific evidence to support or refute it.
Popper cites a statement by F.A. von Hayek that to succeed in its
calculations, LaPlace's demon would have to exceed the complexity of the
universe, and therefore could not be part of the universe. But Popper also
bolster's his argument by the demand that predictions would have to be
capable of infinite precision. For example, he would demand that a prediction
of where a dart would land on a dartboard be exact to as many decimal
places as could be measured — and would doubtless take any limit on
measurement capability as a failure to predict exactly.

Popper further loads his argument by claiming that indeterminism only


"asserts that there exists at least one event that is not predetermined, or
predictable" [his emphasis], whereas "scientific" determinism makes the
"stronger assertion" that "all events are in principle predictable". Thus,
according to Popper, the burden of proof rests on "scientific" determinism,
because it makes a stronger assertion. Given the impossible standards of
proof Popper requires, indeterminism becomes true by default. But why
should determinism be a bolder ontology than its mutually-exclusive
opposite?

The essence of Popper's argument seems to be that "scientific" determinism


can not be proven unless all scientific truth has been discovered in its
entirety. This reminds me of the claim that spiritualism cannot be disproven
except by a Being with God-like capabilities. (After all, there only needs to be
one event which is spiritual.) Popper claims that metaphysical determinism
(ie, an argument for determinism not based on scientific evidence) cannot be
proven or disproven. He also says that metaphysical INdeterminism cannot
be proven or disproven. But then why does he not subtitle his book AN
ARGUMENT FOR SCIENTIFIC INDETERMINISM? He attempts to show that
science cannot prove determinism, and assumes that this proves
indeterminism — but is that a "scientific" proof? The reader can observe that
Popper rapidly construes his case against "scientific" determinism as a proof
of both indeterminism (scientific, by implication only) and "human freedom".

Popper likens a determinist world-view to a motion-picture film in which the


part of the film which has been shown is the past, and the part which is yet
to be shown is the future. Einstein's inclination to treat time as a "fourth
dimension" struck Popper as an indication of Einstein's subjectivist,
determinist dismissal of the "arrow of time". (Popper claims he disturbed
Einstein by this characterization of determinism as subjectivist, because
Einstein saw himself as an ardent realist — a believer in objective reality.)

Popper holds that only the future is indeterministic, and that the past is
trivially deterministic. I find this claim to be contradictory in many ways. How
could the past be "scientifically" proven to be deterministic by Popper's
standards if it is no more possible to measure events in the past with infinite
precision than the present or the future? More to the point, why would all
past events be caused, while future events are uncaused (until the future
becomes the past)?
Popper is correct in asserting that if we were able to predict our future
predictions, then the latter would be part of the present and not part of the
future. But does this really address the issue of causality? Despite the fact
that I do not know the causes of all events, I do not know of any events which
are uncaused. I do not need to be omnipotent or to believe that scientific
knowledge is complete in order to believe that all events are caused. The
belief that all events are caused has the heuristic value of leading to a
scientific investigation of causes, but there is neither evidence-for nor value-
in the belief that some events are uncaused.

Popper links "scientific" determinism with reductionism, ie, the belief that
psychology can be reduced to biology, which can be reduced to chemistry,
which can be reduced to physics. As an argument against this he mentions
that physics itself is incomplete because the four forces have not been
reduced to a unified field theory. He postulates the idea of "emergent
properties" of chemistry, biology, etc. without explaining where they emerge
from or why they emerge.

The closest Popper comes to offering a positive theory is his ontology of


"World 1", "World 2" and "World 3". "World 1" is the physical world of rocks,
trees, bugs, gravity, light, etc. "World 2" is the psychological world of
thoughts, feelings and subjective experiences of humans and animals.
"World 3" is the world of abstraction — including problems, theories, social
institutions and ethical values. The distinction between "World 2" and
"World 3" is that "World 2" refers to thought processes, whereas "World 3"
refers to the contents of the thoughts.

Thus, Popper substitutes Descartes' matter/spirit dichotomy with a


trichotomy of three "worlds" which he refuses to identify with either matter or
spirit. This explains nothing and raises more questions than it answers — for
anyone who would take Popper seriously (not me!). Popper sounds very
Cartesian when he says "My own position is that the brain-mind parallelism is
almost bound to exist up to a point. Certain reflexes, such as blinking when
seeing a suddenly approaching object, are to all appearances of a more or
less parallel character ..." [his emphasis]

If "World 1" is not the material world, then what (or where) is it? Where in the
universe is "World 2", if not in the brain? If determinism is an unproveable
(and therefore disproven, according to Popper) assertion, where is the
scientific evidence that "World 2" is not a part of World 1"?

Popper says that "the decisive argument for indeterminism is the existence of
rational knowledge itself." This, of course, would be "scientific"
indeterminism, proven by the "scientific evidence" of the existence of
knowledge. He quotes J.B.S. Haldane, who wrote, "I am not myself a
materialist because if materialism is true, it seems to me that we cannot
know that it is true. If my opinions are the result of the chemical processes
going on in my brain, they are determined by the laws of chemistry, not
those of logic." Popper identifies materialism with determinism, but both he
and Haldane seem to accept this argument as a self-evident truth, which I
would paraphrase "I know I have knowledge, therefore I know I am not
determined." Descartes would be proud.

But why cannot a material brain have knowledge? If knowledge is an


accumulation of synaptic strengths in the brain — as scientific evidence
points to — why would the existence of knowledge point to indeterminism,
nonmaterial substance or uncaused events (all of which are presumed to be
linked to "free choice")? Effort to form knowledge by choices between
explanations seems well within the capabilities of a fully material brain.

FREE WILL IN LEONARD PEIKOFF'S OBJECTIVISM

In the Objectivist metaphysics of Ayn Rand, atheism and materialism are


affirmed. Rand apparently accepted the principal of causality as universal,
but she staunchly defended free will. Since Ayn Rand is dead, we might turn
to Leonard Peikoff (her "intellectual heir") for an explanation.

In OBJECTIVISM: THE PHILOSOPHY OF AYN RAND, Peikoff never explicitly


defines determinism or free will, but instead weaves a tortuous web of
implied distinctions. In arguing for "free will" he states: "if man's actions do
have causes, then they are not free; they are necessitated by antecedent
factors". This statement occurs just after Peikoff uses the word
"indeterminism" to describe the "anticausal viewpoint". Peikoff rejects both
determinism and indeterminism by equating the former with unfreedom and
the latter with anticausality, although he does not express himself clearly
enough to make his contradiction obvious. He purports to be defending
causality while opposing determinism when he says: "'to be caused' does not
mean 'to be necessitated'" (a phrase that I regard as self-contradictory
nonsense).

Peikoff defends causality only in the sense that he justifies the causal
sequences leading from choice, but rejects causality with his implication that
choice is not entirely the product of antecedent causes. Peikoff makes
choice a "First Cause" rather than a product of material antecedent causes. A
"First Cause" is an "uncaused cause". Often used as a definition of God, "First
Cause" is an entirely mystical notion — it is certainly not a materialist one.

Peikoff equates deterministic choice with "effortlessness and automaticity".


But the existence of effort and the subservience of reflexes to higher brain
centers is entirely compatible with determinism. Peikoff characterizes
determinism with the words "I have to do it, even if I realize at the time how
badly I am acting". Altered action due to realization is not incompatible with
determinism, and the existence of antecedent causes of will does not imply
ONGOING COMPULSION to will.
As a clincher, Peikoff suggests that arguments about this topic are
unnecessary because of his claim that uncaused volition is axiomatic:
"volition, accordingly is not an independent philosophic principle, but a
corollary of the axiom of consciousness". He "proves" that it is axiomatic by
claiming that it is impossible to prove anything without uncaused choice (the
only root of true knowledge). He asserts that knowledge is not possible
without accepting his view of volition, and therefore asserts that proof is
neither possible nor necessary. He is wrong. Whether choices are entirely the
product of material causes is an empirical question which neurophysiological
studies should eventually verify.

Objectivists commonly assert that knowledge and ethics are not possible in a
deterministic universe. This is invariably stated as a "self-evident truth", with
no attempt at explanation or justification. If anything, it is stated as an
argument from desire, along the lines of "If my house is on fire all my
possessions may be destroyed, therefore my apartment cannot be on fire."

But what is knowledge? Knowledge is facts and beliefs that correspond to


some extent with reality. The human brain is a material biochemical-
bioelectrical machine that accumulates facts and beliefs corresponding with
reality — and the evolution of this machine has been driven by survival value.
Is the causal nature of the accumulation of knowledge grounds for describing
that knowledge as meaningless? No, meaningfulness relates to the
relevance of the knowledge to the values of the organism. Knowledge, which
is of service to the acquisition of things valued is meaningful.

An attempt to distinguish between political and metaphysical freedom implies


that the former relates to coercion by human agents and that the later
relates to coercion by causality. Is knowledge impossible if prior causes
constrain choice between alternate beliefs? On what basis does one choose
between possible beliefs? Is the choice arbitrary or is it on the basis of a
greater weight of evidence favoring one of the options? If choices are not
the product of prior causes then they are spiritual (magical) and unrelated to
reality.

The essence of freedom is the ability of the self to express its desires,
motives, tendencies and preferences without external coercion, compulsion
or restraint. Factors that have caused or determined the self cannot be said
to have coerced it. Causality forms the self, but freedom relates to the
ability of the self to manifest its will long after it has been formed. The
distinction between causal influences that form the self and causal
influences that impinge upon the formed self is at the root of the issue of
freedom. I believe that the concept of freedom is only meaningful to describe
external influences coercing the self — not the internal composition of the
self or the formation of the self. If this distinction is ignored, then no
distinction between self and reality is possible, and therefore no concept of
freedom is possible.