Determinism in the Natural World

A fundamental axiom of Science is that activity in the natural world is by automatic processes inherent in nature that can be understood and represented by Laws. After the Newtonian revolution, science viewed the universe as a deterministic mechanism which, given sufficient starting information, could be predicted in detail into the future, at least in principle. More recent developments suggest that such deterministic cause and effect may not hold all the way from fundamental laws through the entire macro expression of the universe.

The first crack came from the exploration of the structure of the atom with the puzzling and probabilistic behavior of sub-atomic particles. At this lowest level of the material world, cause and effect is apparently not knowable in detail. Fortunately for us, this lack of predictability is lost at our level. At the human scale, the quantity of particles averages out the uncertainties and bizarre possibilities which effectively become impossibilities. So our world is manageable with macro physical laws that allow us to live and create technologies using our basic cause and effect logic. These macro laws are generally simple and continuous, but recent discoveries have shown that some situations are so sensitive to tiny differences of starting conditions that accurate prediction is practically unreliable (Chaos Theory) .

The next crack in the chain of cause and effect is the existence of life and machines including computers. The actions of these are controlled by their design, DNA, and programming, not the physical laws of their materials. The material world limits what can be done, but does not determine the result. Hence machines, life, and computers have their own laws which cannot be derived from physical, material laws. We cannot expect these laws to be simple or uniform because designs, DNA, and programs can be arbitrarily different. This does not mean that there are no general principles that apply, just that such general knowledge is insufficient for prediction of detail. Since these systems are usually complex, so there are often emergent properties that defy prediction.

This leads to the interesting problem of just what parts of the world, as we find it, are the result of material laws and which are the result of design. A special case is which objects have been deliberately created by an intelligence. This more special problem occurs in anthropology, evolution, forensics, and the like. When is a rock just a rock, and when is it a man-made tool? On a wider view, a honeycomb or spider web is obviously the result of living things not material forces.

This leaves us with four types of objects: the physical, material objects; living objects; objects made by living things; and objects made by intelligence or machines. Obviously a computer or mechanical machine is designed by an intelligence, and some believe that the cell and life were designed by an intelligence. I distinguish between inanimate, machine, life, and intelligence to show a spectrum from random, physical causes to intelligence. Large mechanical causes such as factories produce artificial objects but of limited variability and adaptability. Similarly life produces objects of limited variability but often has a greater adaptability. Intelligence can manufacture directly "by hand" or indirectly through design of machines. More recently, intelligence has been able to manipulate life to be a manufacturing process.

It is evident when we look at a mountain that it resulted from natural forces, erosion, tectonic uplift, or whatever. But one look at Mount Rushmore and we are certain that it was created by an intelligence. So the question is what rules can we use to reliably determine whether an object is material, created by programming, or created by intelligence. Some mathematicians and scientists are working on this problem.

A set of distinguishing criteria might look as follows. This is neither an absolute proof such as in mathematics, nor an inductive proof as in the hard sciences, but more along the lines of deduction.

  1. The object must serve a purpose due to structure or mechanism. It must not merely exist but have an evident function.
  2. The parts must be ordered or arranged in a form which serves the purpose.
  3. There must be no necessary, material process which explains the object in exact detail, either by itself or in combination with likely, material processes.

This criteria and similar attempts are currently a matter of research and are not settled science, even in older fields such as anthropology. So much work and dispute will continue into the future.