Schrödinger’s Cup: A Closed Future of Possibilities

Adequate determinism (or determinism for short) is the idea that on the level of human decisionmaking, history flows into the future in a deterministic way — there aren’t really multiple futures, but we talk and imagine as if there are.

Because we talk and imagine as if there are really multiple futures, confronting an assertion of determinism often yields Kochab’s Errors, where folks think that determinism fundamentally “changes” things and destroys all sorts of stuff we value.

With determinism, the fear is typically that we lose morality, choice, volition, agency, efficacy, and free will. This fear is called “incompatibilism” — where one believes that our treasured “volitional dictionary” is not compatible with determinism.

Incompatibilism usually prompts people to reject determinism, but there are deterministic incompatibilists as well, like atheist Sam Harris. Indeed, for some this isn’t a fear, but something to accept with open arms.

Compatibilism, by contrast, is a semantic response to determinism that avoids Kochab’s Errors, remembering that the world remains just as it was, but commits to a refined edition of the “volitional dictionary” when speaking philosophy and theology with precision.

Compatibilism is exciting because — though it’s a bit mind-bending at first — it yields more robust, coherent, and resilient philosophy (especially with regard to meta-ethics), but also a theology under Christianity that finally proclaims both human choicemaking and God’s exhaustive sovereignty. We assert that the Bible is compatibilistic by means of “heterophroneo.”

The Open Future

No matter which position we hold, we all nevertheless use open language to talk about the future.

Consider the diagram below.

Before me is a choice between two mutually-exclusive options. One option will yield “Future A,” and the other “Future !A.”

cup1

This seems pretty intuitive. The past is on the left, and the future possibilities on the right.

Only one problem, though. Those futures are colored the full black of “reality,” as real as “Me Right Now.”

But we know this cannot be. They have not yet been “real-ized.” In other words, they’re not “act-ual” because nothing has “acted” them yet.

The simple answer is that these prospects aren’t floating around in the future, but floating around in my mind.

cup2

We who have well-developed neocortices can very vividly project, using our imaginations, possible futures. This is very useful to us, because we can “see future worlds” as concepts and pictures rather than being burdened to forecast detail after detail. This generally helps us make better decisions more quickly (to a point).

But still, we’re seeing these prospects as full black. Even though we’ve done the correct thing by encasing these prospects where they truly live — our minds — we haven’t accounted for the fact that these things are mutually exclusive. If one happens, the other cannot, and so even in our brains, they should not simultaneously be full black.

Rather, they should be faded according to their plausibility.

If they’re each about 50% plausible, like a coin-flip, then we could imagine them as 50% ghostly:

cup3

It’s very important, however, to note that we don’t intuitively take this step.

Equally plausible options — especially arbitrary decisions, such as whether to get seconds at a potluck — tend to stay fully black in our minds. This quirk is so stubborn that we commonly employ language about these being “real possibilities” even though we know they’re doubly non-real: (1) They’re mutually exclusive, and so cannot be simultaneously real, and (2) they’re in our minds (not yet “real-ized”).

Seeking precision with quietude would have us admit that we use “real” as a nickname to describe prospects that are simply “plausible,” “appreciable,” “real-istic,” etc.

Now consider when one prospect is extremely implausible:

cup4

Here, we say things like, “Future !A isn’t a real option,” because we see it as so difficult or otherwise unlikely.

This includes unlikely prospects about behavior that I’d never see myself doing. If someone asked me, “Could you strike your partner?” I’d quickly shout, “No, never!” This isn’t because I lack arms or motor functions therein, but because that prospect is so un-real-istic.

The Open Past

Just as we use open language to talk about the future, we use open language to talk about the past (and the present, which for our purposes is a part of the past, that is, it is the immediate past).

It’s true!

Even though we know the past is closed, we still use open language to talk about the past. Isn’t that strange?

So, when do we do this?

We do this when we’re uncertain about the past.

Put a coin in a cup, shake it around, and slam the cup onto the table.

cup6

You can see just enough that you know the coin has fallen. But the cup is just opaque enough that you can’t tell whether it’s fallen heads or tails.

Let’s call heads “Fact A” and tails “Fact !A”:

cup5

Because I cannot ascertain the result, the most I can do is imagine the two possibilities. It may be heads, but it may be tails. It certainly can’t be both.

But look! I just talked about possibilities. I talked about what “may be the case”; I’m not talking not talking about a future reveal — perhaps I never plan to peek — but talking about what was and is currently the case, using the word may.

That’s open language!

We don’t just do this with the coin/cup game — (everyone’s favorite pastime) — but with any past-or-present thing of which we’re uncertain:

  • “Is Harriet already at the restaurant?”
    “It’s possible. But maybe she got held up.”
  • “I don’t know what the bug in the code is. It’s possible that it’s a null pointer exception.”
  • “Did you remember to feed the dog today?”
    “For the life of me, I can’t remember. It’s possible I forgot.”
  • “I didn’t speak to George before he left for vacation. Did he get those e-mails sent?”
    “Possibly. I saw him hurrying to get something done.”
  • “Did God use some degree of evolution to yield the diversity of life we see on Earth today?”
    “Possibly.”
  • “It’s possible that some supposed Apostolic martyrdoms are legends that didn’t actually occur. We don’t know for sure.”
  • “Is Janice a double agent?”
    “Possibly! We’ll need to keep an eye out to find out.”

See?

Open language is a function of uncertainty — it is not at all evidence for the simultaneous reality of mutually-exclusive prospects.

Open Language as Strategy

I.

Little Davi’s birthday is coming up, and you’ve told him that you plan to give him a present.

“What is it?” Davi asks. Davi is ignorant, that is, he does not know what the gift shall be.

“It’s something from your birthday list,” you say, “but it needs to be a surprise. I’ll tell you this: It could be a skateboard, a video game, or a jacket.”

You’ve already bought Davi’s gift. It’s definitely a skateboard. But it suits your goals to use open language with Davi nonetheless.

II.

Later that year, you’ve planned a vacation at a famous theme park. Airfare, hotel, tickets, etc. have all been booked.

The night before the flight, Davi’s behavior is out of control. You make the following threat, “If you don’t behave immediately, Davi, we will not be flying anywhere tomorrow. I will not be rewarding this behavior.”

You know for sure that this will be compelling. You know for sure that you’ll be flying tomorrow. These are closed facts for you.

But the hypothetical remains true; if he didn’t behave, there would be no flight. You weren’t lying about that.

This is because true hypotheticals can have false — even knowingly false — antecedents.

In other words:

  • You can be a truth-teller,
  • and convey a contingency using open language,
  • while simultaneously knowing the falsity of the antecedent and what tomorrow’s outcome shall be.

And why would you do this? To get Davi to clean up his act; to meet your goals (including sanity) and his (like a long-game interest in self-control).

III.

For a couple more examples, you could tell Davi, “If you don’t finish your chores today, then we won’t go to the movies tonight,” even if you know for certain that he’ll finish his chores; it may even be that obedience is contingent upon hearing that threat, which you know.

Or, you could tell him, “If you don’t finish your chores today, then we won’t go to the movies tonight,” even if you know for certain that he won’t. You could do this as a sort of investment to further prove that your “threats have teeth”; that is, you consistently follow-through with the punishments you threaten.

Conclusion

Open language does not at all suggest that multiple mutually-exclusive things can all be “real.” It is not a “gotcha” vs. determinism. We use open language with past facts which are commonly regarded as closed.

Furthermore, a person can honestly and productively use open language with regard to certain events even if that person knows the facts of those events in a closed way. That person can nevertheless employ “maybes” and other hypothetical statements, and this communication strategy can be very useful for interaction and relationship.

As such, whether or not determinism is true, we can say confidently that determinism is compatible with the common and purposeful use of open language about the future.

Further Reading

One can be a Christian deterministic compatibilist without becoming a Calvinist; Calvinism entails several further assertions, and I am not a Calvinist.

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About stanrock

Husband, father. Professional game developer, software engineer, & social product analyst. Armchair theology debugger. Fun theology exercises and games at http://StanRock.net

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