Culture Magazine

Known and Unknown

By Cris

Jerry Coyne has been on a tear lately; even if I don’t agree with everything he says I admire his willingness to tackle the big issues and talk straight. He recently posted on free will and made a case for strict determinism, along with these assertions:

Therefore, even if determinism reigns (and, if it does, there’s no free will under my definition), that doesn’t mean that we can predict our future behaviors from what we know now. Certainly the predictability of decisions made under experimental conditions undermines our traditional notions of free will.

The hard problem here is the gaping chasm between accepting physical determinism in theory and predicting behavior in practice. Freeman Dyson recently addressed this in his review of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow:

The scope of Kahneman’s psychology is necessarily limited by his method. His method is to study mental processes that can be observed and measured under rigorously controlled experimental conditions. Following this method, he revolutionized psychology. He discovered mental processes that can be described precisely and demonstrated reliably.

Since strong emotions and obsessions cannot be experimentally controlled, Kahneman’s method did not allow him to study them. The part of the human personality that Kahneman’s method can handle is the nonviolent part, concerned with everyday decisions, artificial parlor games, and gambling for small stakes. The violent and passionate manifestations of human nature, concerned with matters of life and death and love and hate and pain and sex, cannot be experimentally controlled and are beyond Kahneman’s reach.

Known and UnknownWe are a long way from knowing everything and our current models fall short. This doesn’t mean they will always fall short or we should resort to metaphysics where knowledge fails us, but it does mean that we should beware hubris because we know that science is never complete.

There is a sense in which science is always just at the beginning. The state of scientific knowledge will be dramatically different two hundred years from now and today’s understandings will look quaint or even primitive.

I was recently reminded of these beginnings, and future unfoldings, while reading this Nature report on quantum entanglement (or what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance”) and this reasonable take on Daryl Bem’s psi research. The world is weird and wonderful.

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