Fate and Choice

For someone who knows very little about billiards, watching a match between two professionals could be mind-boggling. It appears (to the bewildered observer) as though the white ball, after striking the target ball into a hole and bouncing off rubber cushions a couple of times, magically stops behind the ball that is supposed to be struck next. The entire game would look like an incredible series of coincidences where the white ball is finessed into a perfect position for the next target eight times in a row. But to an experienced audience, the shock would come when the target ball is missed even once.

To professional players, billiards is not a game of chance. Like in professional basketball, they can tell whether the ball will go in or not before it reaches the target - they can sense the accuracy of their shot right from the launching point.

The laws of motion in physics have been empirically correct for several centuries now, even before Newton. We can calculate, if we wanted to, when and where any object will be, after measuring the net force acting upon it. This evidence of calculation accuracy can be seen in space - astrophysicists have already successfully placed thousands of satellites in orbit, landed space shuttles on the moon (and more recently on Mars), and they were able to figure out the exact timing and velocity required for the space probes Voyager-I and Voyager-II to be close enough to take pictures of Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, and transmit them back to earth. They can accurately calculate the moon cycles and the arrival time of Halley's Comet in our visible sky. When the correct calculations are in, to speak of coincidence would be an insult to their work, and the same goes for our billiards professional players.

The reason why we can't see the future of everything in our life is simply because the variables that need to be calculated are too many! On a billiards table, however, the variables are relatively few: the forces of friction, gravity, air resistance, obstacles (rubber cushions and other balls), and of course the straight, properly chalked cue stick and the angle chosen to strike.

Suppose, however, that the forces of air resistance and surface friction were suddenly equal to zero. Now when a player strikes the white ball, her opponent will never get a turn, since the balls would not stop until every single one of them has inevitably fallen into a hole. That is how celestial bodies operate: they continue to move at fixed speeds that had been set from the most recent strike, whichever it was, until they are compelled to change direction or speed through collision with another large-enough celestial body in the frictionless and airless space. And if we have the tools to calculate where a particular celestial body is going to be at a certain time, we can surely do the same to a frictionless billiards table, and so much easier for one with friction.

If the world was a billiards table, then we and everything else on the earth's surface would be the billiard balls. The only difference is the level of sophistication: about 10 billion times more sophisticated. Most of the time we are not moved by cue sticks but by biochemical interactions. Hunger, for instance, causes us to act: get up and walk over to the kitchen or pick up a phone and call for delivery. Sickness could make us stay in bed and take the day off. A person might interject here and say "but I can choose not to eat; not to stay in bed." That is true, but we can also trace such choices to biochemical reactions in the body and brain as well. When we make choices, the basis for those choices are past experiences. Want to know how one would act without any past experiences? Observe a newly-born child.

On the journey to adulthood, our brains receive millions and millions of gegabytes of data through our senses; through learning and training. These data are then imprinted into our individual memories to become "past experiences," which then function as a guide to our future decision-making processes.

Although we know this to be a logical fact, we can't prove it in a physics lab because there are way too many variables to compute. For example, let's try to figure out why Alice ended up having Chinese noodles for dinner delivered to her house last night: First of all, she was hungry (variable #1), and there was no reason not to eat; such as religious beliefs, allergies, disease, mental handicap, waiting on someone to eat with, mourning the death of a loved one, and so on (variable #2). Now, she could have chosen to eat any of the 800 different kinds of food combinations that she has eaten before and finds delicious enough to eat again. So how did she narrow it down to just one, namely, Chinese noodles?

First of all, the dishes that she could have made for dinner from the items that were already at her house were very limited (variable #3), plus she had no car (variable #4), and she was too tired to walk because she had spent the morning mountain-hiking and her feet were sore (variable #5). So it was either going to be home delivery or cook something herself at home. She could have called friends to come over and bring food, but she was a very shy girl (variable #6) and she had learned from her cultural background that it was impolite to ask someone to bring over food (variable #7). She would have liked to eat shish kebabs from her favorite Iranian restaurant, but they don't deliver (variable #8). There was a Turkish restaurant that made not-as-good shish kebabs and they deliver, but they charge $5 for delivery, which, in Alice's mind, is just not worth it (variable #9). She could have ordered a pizza, but that's a lot for one person (variable #10), not to mention that she was trying to lose weight for the upcoming summer (variable #11). She had two restaurants left to choose from that provided delivery services in her area (variable #12), that were reasonably priced (variable #13), and that were suitable to her particular taste buds map: Thai and Chinese. The only thing though, she already had Thai food the night before (variable #14), and so the Chinese choice made perfect sense.

If we had the time and energy, we could take each of those 14 variables and trace them back as well, each unfolding more variables, which can be traced as well. We can do this till we go back to the day Alice first came into this world. But the point is very clear: Alice's choice was not random nor coincidental. There was a reason behind every choice she took and every choice she did not take. And those reasons were based on other reasons, which were in turn based on other reasons, and so on, till the beginning of time.

So when someone does not know Alice very well, and does not know that she went hiking earlier, that her feet were sore, that she didn't have a car, that she was a shy person, that she was sort of frugal, that she had Thai food the night before, and that she liked Chinese food, seeing her choosing Chinese noodles that night would have appeared to be a complete random occurance based on free choice, a choice that Alice made at the spur of the moment, as random and unpredictable as getting two sixes on a dice throw.

But the truth is: when an event appears to be random and unpredictable, it's due to lack of knowledge of that event's underlying causes, not because the causes don't exist. Just like an earthquake may appear to be a random occurance to someone who is unfamiliar with geology.

And as a matter of fact, not even a dice throw is random, because when dice are launched into the air and tumble down on a surface and roll until they stop, they are still functioning under the physical laws of motion like every other object in our visible world. We can't predict the dice throw results because we did not (or could not) acquire the necessary tools to calculate those results, in the same way that, say, a billiards player can with visual, spatial, and kinetic intelligences.

Free choice is an illusion. People appear to be making free choices most of the time because we (and even they) are unaware of the underlying causes for any particular choice.

In the Quantum World

In the sub-atomic world; the quantum world, the physical laws of motion do not hold. Here we enter a world where physicists continue to debate whether sub-atomic particles (quanta) do or do not follow any logic that humans can fathom, especially when it comes to mathematical determinism.

Determinism means the belief that the world operates under a system of cause and effect, and that if we can correctly evaluate and quantify the cause, we should be able to correctly predict the effect: i.e. the effect is determined by the cause. But in the quantum world, lab observations have shown us time and again, since 1925, that even the simple idea of cause and effect do not always apply, if ever. One experiment showed that a proton can exist in two different places at the same time. Another experiment showed that two electrons can communicate at a speed faster than light when moving at a speed faster than light is impossible (see the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen Paradox). Another experiment showed that electrons change their behavior and content (from particle to non-particle waves and vice-versa) just by simply being observed (see the double slit experiment).

This is related to our topic because we, after all, are made of these very paradoxical sub-atomic particles or waves; and so the way they behave should, naturally, affect the way we behave. What many quantum scientists are saying is that in the quantum world, it's not that we don't have the correct device to predict the cause-effect or action-reaction of, say, electrons, but that the entire concept of causality falls apart.

So when it comes to our behavior, it is possible, in light of the aforementioned, that our choices are not based on cause and effect, but on something illogical, and all we can do is guess through probability statistics. If the underlying matter that makes us who we are do not operate on Newton's third law "for every action there is a reaction equal in force and opposite in direction," it could also mean that we, too, may escape a deterministic world in favor of a probabilistic one.

One interpretation of what happens in the quantum world is that we, as human beings, are not equipped with the right set of senses nor the right frame of logic to understand or to make sense of how the quantum world actually works. And since the world we know is entirely made of sub-atomic matter/energy, most likely everything we know about the world through the senses is an illusion.

"The world isn't made of things. It's not made of objects… The notion that big things are made of little things, quantum theory doesn't describe the world that way. Big things aren't made of little things. They are made of entities whose attributes aren't there when you don't look, but become there when you do look. The world exists when we don't look at it in some strange state that is indescribable, and then when we look at it, it becomes absolutely ordinary, as though someone were trying to pull something over our eyes. The world is an illusion.

Nick Herbert, Ph.D.

Yet another interpretation is that we are still at the beginner level of understanding quantum mechanics; that it may take decades, even centuries, before we figure it out. Some are claiming that it will take a major mutation in our DNA; a new phase of evolution, to enable us to make any sense of it (meaning that right now quantum reality appears to us as awkward as a microchip appears to a cat).

But if it turns out to be true that the law of causality does not apply in the quantum world, it may be an illusion in our perceived world; that it only appears to exist because our minds are somehow wired to see the world in terms of cause and effect, in which case fate is fiction, and the truth is much closer to free choice.

Without the law of causality, however, the discipline of logic itself becomes meaningless, and every time one asks "why" or answers "because," he would be unconsciously delusional, and we would all be mad.

Nevertheless, the human species, as it exists today, is certainly wired to see the world through the prism of causality. And in the world of causality (the world that we interact with consciously), free choice and probability are illusions caused by lack of information, while the truth remains that all events are inevitable.


Oday Baddar