Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Everything was going fine until we came along ... ;-)

What an interesting idea ...

"... the whole world ... [perhaps] is the result of the mutual interaction, according to definite laws, of the forces possessed by the molecules of which the primitive nebulosity of the universe was composed. If this be true, it is no less certain that the existing world lay potentially in the cosmic vapour, and that a sufficient intelligence could, from a knowledge of the properties of the molecules of that vapour, have predicted, say the state of the fauna of [today], with as much certainty as one can say what will happen to the vapour of the breath on a cold winter's day."

A very similar thought had occurred to me. It also raises the interesting suggestion that until organisms capable of choice appeared, everything that brought the universe to that point happened because it had to happen according to those same "definite laws" which the writer invokes. Thus before we arrived, things pretty much had to be the way they were. Now they don't.

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  1. I enjoy dropping by your blog occasionally. I had a similar thought from reading Michael Phillips' Make Me Like Jesus. Everything moved along according to plan until God gifted man with free will. That pretty much threw a wrench in the works - of course, not that God didn't see it coming.

    Kevin Round
    Jax, Florida

  2. Your post reminds me very much of 'The Galaxy Song'

    Chris Bishop

  3. The statement takes no account of quantum mechanics and the idea that the "stuff" of the universe obeys laws that are based on probability.

    For example, a radioactive atom doesn't - we would suppose - choose when to undergo radioactive decay, but the fact that the moment at which it happens is something unknowable to us means that it might as well, for all intents and purposes, have a mind of its own.

  4. You've come upon the key question re the creation and the subsequent course of the universe.

    When Darwin proposed his evolutionistic theory, we thought we lived in a Newtonian world, where all actions could be absolutely predicted by applying the known laws of nature (assuming we knew everything exactly and were capable of computing the outcome). That's in part the source for historical determinism, a core belief of Marxism (and one that you still hear those on the left treat as an assumption, even if they don't verbalise it).

    But, as James67 points out, we have quantum mechanics, with the accompanying probabilities. The consequence of this is that the universe as we know it is not the only possible result of the conditions we had at the beginning, or for that matter from any point in time forward.

  5. I was going to make a similar comment about quantum mechanics and determinism, but James67 and Don got there before me.

    Mechanistic determinism is so late 1800s...

    Of course, that doesn't rule out theistic determinism - that God knows and decides whether the atom is going to decay or not. But you can't reliably predict the future state of the universe only from a knowledge of the present state.

    All kinds of potential questions raised about the existence of free will (does it exist? how does it work physically?), predestination and God's foreknowledge, and heading dangerously towards Open Theism...

    John Allister, Cheshire

  6. James, Don and John, I should perhaps apologize for not making more clear the bit in this quote I found really interesting, especially as you've focussed on the other bit!

    What fascinated me was the issue of potentiality rather than predictability: "the existing world lay potentially in the cosmic vapour".

    Mind you, the writer does only claim that "a sufficient intelligence" could predict the details of the world - and the question is begged by the word 'sufficient'. Of course if it were 'sufficient' it could predict - but can any intelligence (at least, one that is part of the same cosmos) be 'sufficient' to that task?

    The point, though, is that the emergence of creatures that breathed vapour and planets that had cold winters days was inherent in the fundamental properties of the universe.

    Exactly where this happened and when was, perhaps, inherently unpredictable, but that it could happen was 'determined'.

    To make a comparison, my throwing a six with a die is 'unpredictable', but that it will fall on a number from one to six is 'determined' by its being a die. On the other hand, I cannot throw a seven. In this sense, a six is a 'potentiality' of the die and, although it is a useless facility in games placed with dice, we can predict precisely the numeric range within which a die will fall because that is what dice do.

    This is very different, however, from the die - or a quantum particle - having a 'mind', since there is no choice involved (or certainly, no need to invoke choice).

    Choice would entail not just causes (as in the case of whatever causes a particle to behave in a certain way) but purposes.

    With the appearance of minds like our own, however, something 'new' appears in the universe - not just consequences of past states, but intentions of future states.

    So there is a chain of causality in the universe, operating within a range of possibilities inherent in the fundamental properties of the universe itself, up to the point where choice emerges. After that, intention becomes part of the universe in a way that it was not before.

    Those 'inherent possibilities', however, include every detail of the material world, including life itself, even though at the very beginning this might seem hard to 'predict'.