Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Causation is Stochastic

It would seem that freedom and causation are incompatible. If acts are wholly caused – as they must be, if they are to be intelligible, and so more or less intelligent, and so integrated fully in a coherent world – then how can they be free? If acts are even a little bit free, are they not to that extent chaotic, ergo unintelligible, and so an insuperable impediment to the integration of a coherent world?

There is in fact no such incompatibility.

All acts are aimed at the actual, concrete realization of aesthetic values in a formal composition of qualia they have harvested and inherited (via prehension, grasping, feeling) from the actual past. The number of compossible ways to respond to a given actual circumstance is immense; the world can be intelligibly coherent whether you jink to port or to starboard, and no matter how great the angle of your maneuver. The tiny subset of those compossible ways that closely approximate optimality – that come close to the perfection of qualitative experience of causal inputs – is still vast. So the general nisus toward the perfection in act of the Good as most, best apt to their actual predicaments that is felt by all becoming and not yet definite novel occasions impels them toward an optimal outcome that is hedged about with many thousands of near approximations thereto. The Good is as it were a single white stake standing in a dense thicket of stakes almost as white; almost as good.

There are lots and lots of pretty good targets out there for the archer. But “pretty good” is a nice way of saying “not as good as could be.” Only the latter could suffice to the avoidance of eventual disaster.

Excursus: ‘Stake’ derives from the Greek stokhos, “pillar for archers to shoot at.” Whence, ‘stochastic.’ The Greek for ‘sin’ is hamartia: to miss.

Now, the formal relations among all those stakes are quite definite ex ante. Before the archer takes his shot, the distances of each stake from every other are fixed. The arrow can hit only one of them. And once it is loosed, the path of the arrow toward the one it shall hit is fixed.

What is not fixed is the shot of the archer.

Anyone who has shot guns or bows or horseshoes or bowling balls or Frisbees or pool knows this next argument in his very muscles, and to his chagrin: you can aim as carefully and honestly and intelligently and skillfully as you like, and your likelihood of hamartia is still quite horribly high. To hit the white stake is an occasion of celebration for even the most accomplished and skillful shooters.

It takes a lot of misses to learn to hit.

Excursus: our First Parents did not at first even need to shoot. They lived at the target. But they decided to take each a shot, nonetheless. Alas, they had no experience, no training. They had *no idea they were even on a range.* They did not even know they were taking a shot.

Compare all tragedy. All of it begins in just such innocence on the part of an agonist. Doom then crashes down, as mere crushing logic, no more, no less.

Only in the Gospels is the justice of that inexorable logic of things annealed to the mercy it presupposes, and that is its generous forecondition, and of which it is indeed a species; the Magic from Before the mere justice of Time, that redounds for all victims of tragedy to their stellar resurrections – provided they accept it.

Dharma is not after all ultimate. Brahman is. Dharma presupposes Brahman. From Brahman, Dharma inherits his ultimacy. Matthew 19:17.

Every creaturely act is likewise constrained. Only omniscience is not thus constrained. Omniscience cannot fail to hit the target. Partiscience is doomed often to miss it.

Think of chess. To make the perfect move, you’d need to think through all the potential sequences of moves that might result from each of the moves now open to you, all the way out to checkmate or stalemate. Now suppose that instead of having a few minutes to work that out, you had to make a split second decision about your next move, and you had to repeat the procedure every few split seconds, in response to a constantly and unpredictably changing set of circumstances. In other words, chess at the speed of jai alai. That sort of computation is not practical for any finite calculator. In practice, calculators that must perforce perform at that rate – calculators such as we – do so by means of heuristics, which guide them to a sufficiently good approximation of optimality.

It is just such heuristics that guide the muscles of the archer as he aims and looses.

It is just such heuristics that guide all human action. We could not get on without them. They lead to approximations of the Good. They lead, that is to say, to fell approximations.

If it were not for the fact that creatures cannot by definition be omniscient, they would always be able to know and to do exactly the right thing. They would never miss the mark. But creatures cannot be omniscient. By definition, they are partiscient, inherently, and incorrigibly. So they miss the mark at least a bit, almost all the time. This, despite the fact that the solution space in which they operate is perfectly definite ex ante (however obscure its boundaries might seem to them), and their initial aim is to arrive at the optimal point on the surface of that volume.

Excursus: what is the difference then between the Blessed and the rest of us? The Blessed let God aim their shot at what they most truly want – which, in the final analysis, cannot be other than what God wants for them. So they get it.

Everyone who has attained mastery at shooting for even a single shot has experienced this. It consists in getting oneself out of the way of the shot. For, God provides the bow, the arrow, the stake, the field, the air, and indeed the archer. The archer cannot add to this equipment. All he can do by trying is mess it up somehow. He succeeds by letting go, and letting God loose all; by wu wei. Such moments of athletic life are glorious in their purity and beauty.

Ex ante, the archer’s shot is motivated ab initio by the urge he has inherited first from God, to hit the target of the Good (and by the circumstances of the stakes, the field, the equipment, and so forth); so is it caused. But the outcome of the shot – the shot itself – is derived from a computation by the archer that is necessarily inadequate to the certain attainment of perfection; so that it can end in the selection of quite a real and open option that cannot hit the target. Any of a huge array of stakes might be hit by the archer. Such is his freedom. He can shoot with the utmost good will, and the most perfect intention, and the most devout intelligence, and nevertheless fail, and fall.

For, the archer simply cannot, by definition of his creaturity, know certainly before he looses just how he ought to loose. His shot is ever in the dark; he sees his target as it were in a cloudy glass.

So he shoots, as he must. Ex post – and only ex post – we can see that he shot as he did, and why. We can then discern the causal inputs of the shot. But this we can do only ex post. Ex ante, the shot simply does not yet concretely exist as actual, and thus can have no character whatever; so that it cannot have causes. Nevertheless is it true that, ex post, and as concretely actual, the shot is in retrospect perfectly and thus intelligibly caused.

So freedom and causation are not incompatible.

11 thoughts on “Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Causation is Stochastic

  1. “It would seem that freedom and causation are incompatible”

    There is a very simple answer to that. Freedom and determinism are empty categories; they cannot be employed to distinguish any sequence of events from any other

    • Because they are fully definite, sequences of actual events are all equally determinate. Once a thing has finished becoming, it is determinate. Of any sequence of actual events, that series is not free to be something other than it is. All such sequences are completely determined.

      Freedom comes into play during the process of becoming of an event, in which it is not yet definite. The question respecting such events is whether they can become in more than one way. If so, they are free.

      An event that comprehended its options perfectly could become in only one way: the perfect way. But in virtue of their finity, creaturely occasions are partiscient, and thus are not capable of comprehending anything perfectly.

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  3. This freedom is however not the libertarian freedom ; it isn’t the freedom of ‘in that situation, I could have done differently’. Since, whether dependant on me or external factors, my failure to act well, even if I couldn’t predict it, is not ‘up to me’ at that moment. Indeed, we affiliate our notion of freedom with the feeling that we do not know how things will go, and the feeling that it is dependant on our moral character. But we also affiliate it with an *ultimate* ‘up-to-us’ness (although it doesn’t need to extend to all things, just to those actions we call free). This, you haven’t shown compatible with causation here.

    • I’m not sure I have expressed myself well so I’ll rephrase ; what I mean is that indeed, in your example and following your argument, it is dependant on characteristics of mine and things external to me whether I succeed or not in doing what I want, so that ‘aiming at something’ doesn’t ensure succeeding in doing it, and so that there is indeed an apparent ‘randomness’ or action that makes them unpredictable. But I fail to see how that doesn’t just move the problem one step earlier. If characteristics of mine and things external to me cause my action to succeed or not, then how is it different with my *will to attempt X and not Y*? Either my will is ‘up-to-me’, fully, unfailingly or it is caused that aren’t me, in which case it simply isn’t the will which allows one to say that willing something, at least, is ‘up-to-me’. The series of possible choices may be limited by causation other than the will, but the will itself to be free must, when it picks up one choice and not an other, do so unconstrained by external causation. Or it’s not our everyday – libertarian, I think – notion of ‘freely choosing’ X or Y.
      So basically, libertarian freedom is not compatibilist freedom, and vice-versa, even accepting your example covers shows compatibilism of the Principle of Causality with some non-libertarian aspects of our notions of freedom.

      • Thanks for a searching comment.

        I should perhaps expand a bit and provide some details on the metaphysics of becoming I am invoking in asserting the compatibility of causation and freedom (although *not* the compatibility of freedom and determinism). That metaphysics takes the process of becoming of an actual entity or actual event to consist in several phases, that can be distinguished and abstracted from each other in our thought about them, but that in reality are integral and indisparable, in the sense that you can’t obtain any one of the phases except insofar as it is integrated with all the others.

        The first phase is that of prehension, in which the novel occasion grasps or feels or registers or measures or takes account of all its causal inputs present in its past, in its actual world. These inputs include among its concrete predecessors, not just the history of its cosmos, but also the entire Platonic Realm eminently present in its palmary concrete predecessor, the Logos.

        The causal factors of an occasion determine, not exactly what it shall be, but rather an array of compossible options for what it might be. These were the stakes in my metaphor of the archer.

        In the second phase, the novel occasion – let’s just call him the archer, for the sake of convenience – evaluates the stakes that lie before him as potential targets, and chooses one that he likes best. At that stake he then aims, and shoots. In order to arrive at an accurate identification of the perfect target, this process of evaluation would necessitate enormous computational work. Indeed, the work involved would be infinite; for, understanding the meaning of each choice would involve computing its causal sequelae all the way out to the eschaton. No creaturely mind can be competent to that computation. So the archer must use heuristics to arrive at a best guess at the optimal stake. As approximations, the outputs of these heuristics are bound to be somewhat inaccurate. So the archer is almost certainly not going to be aiming at the correct stake – at the very best stake, the one he should have liked to identify. He is overwhelmingly likely to choose to err a bit, despite his best intentions and efforts.

        Thus while his choice is *guided* by his divinely provided and inspired desire for optimality – for his own best peculiar instantiation of the Good, given his worldly circumstances – which is the first forecondition and basis of his own reality and power to choose, it is not *determined* by the eternal divine knowledge of that one stake that is best for him right now, mutatis mutandis. He *wants* the Good, but is almost certain to err in discerning it, even though it is right there before him, standing in the midst of a thicket of millions of proximally good stakes.

        The decision of the archer marks the end of the second phase and the beginning of the third. In the third phase, the arrow proceeds to its target. It might in its flight be deflected from the stake at which it was aimed, by any number of aspects of his circumstances mistaken or overlooked by the heuristics the archer employed. Some such deflection is almost certain to occur. The arrow then lands where it does, and at that the character of the archer’s decision is fully determined, definite, and immutable. The moment of becoming is complete, and henceforth actual, concrete, and therefore and forever available for the apprehension of other novel occasions of becoming.

        All choice is constrained, or else it is not choice to begin with; for, a choice is among options, and the range of available options constrains the range of possible choices. But nor is any choice absolutely constrained, for in that case nor would it be a choice; for, in that case, there would be only one option. Choice then by definition entails *partial* constraint.

        The will of the archer might be absolutely unconstrained by any factors external to himself only in the event that it had nothing to do with – and thus, no causal connection to – any prior actuality, any actual world. Only one archer can meet that criterion.

        Hope that helps.

  4. In the moment when the archer makes his choice, if you had perfect knowledge à la Laplace, knowing all information about every particle, the laws of physics would perfectly and causally explain the series of events on its own.

    But, if the laws of physics perfectly explain this causal flow on their own, what space is there for free will? How did free will influence the physical world without breaking its laws, which are perfectly univocal if the world is to make any sense?

    My point is that the phenomenal world we perceive must be 100% causal or it would be unintelligible for us who live in successive moments of spacetime. The Omnipresent, on the other hand, has no such limitation, and I can see it being the source of a kind of order that informs our acts (the search for the Good that you mention), but from our point of view this will not be distinguishable from a perfectly causal chain, as the first commenter points out.

    Is there any way for processes or information to live outside our sensual world but still have an impact on it? (maybe in the apparent randomness and indetermination of quantum mechanics)

    Is that order built-in in the laws of physics, in the sense that the laws themselves inevitably make us point to the Good?

    • In the moment when the archer makes his choice, if you had perfect knowledge à la Laplace, knowing all information about every particle, the laws of physics would perfectly and causally explain the series of events on its own.

      On QM, there is no such thing as LaPlacean omniscience, because the Natural Law does *not* show how one state must proceed to another specific state. It shows rather how a given state must proceed into an immense space of potential states.

      Even if QM were to be disproven, determinism of any sort would still be incoherent, for it is logically autophagous: on determinism, we don’t really do anything; and one of the things we don’t do is believe that determinism is true.

      My point is that the phenomenal world we perceive must be 100% causal or it would be unintelligible for us who live in successive moments of spacetime.

      Yes. But the phenomenal world is precisely the world of things that have already finished becoming, and are definite, and so therefore have definite properties that we can apprehend. What has not finished becoming is not yet definite and so cannot yet be available for apprehension by other entities. As not yet fully actual, it is not yet an element of any actual world.

      Is there any way for processes or information to live outside our sensual world but still have an impact on it?

      Yes. All information about things that might happen in our world is outside our world until it is concretely instantiated by and in some entity thereof. Ditto for information about things that might happen in other worlds.

      Is that order built-in in the laws of physics, in the sense that the laws themselves inevitably make us point to the Good?

      All things are intended toward the Good. Some fail.

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