I once imagined the universe as a giant tree, originating from a single point, unfolding forward through time, branches of causality sprouting from buds into thick strands of reality: lives born and lost, the evolution of life from random assortments of molecules in the primordial oceans, a city celebrating the rise of the of the full moon, a child discovering a finch poking at insects in the grass, a man stumbling home drunk at three thirty in the morning, coming home to a find his family sleeping, a taxi cab racing across fifth street, colliding into a rolling garbage can, the collapse of the Soviet Union, a tsunami wiping out the coast of an isolated island, a young man kneeling in a restaurant, proposing to his fiance, water flowing down a mountain stream, eroding the surface of a wet stone, shearing atoms off the contours of its submerged surface - everything: inevitable, in the words of Marcus Aurelius: woven into the pattern from the beginning.
Is the universe determined, or indeterminate?
Apparently, it depends on the interpretation of theory of quantum mechanics you subscribe to. There are both deterministic and indeterministic interpretations that are equivalent in the sense that there is no experiment possible, even in theory, that would allow scientists to validate which interpret is correct.
In the Many Worlds Interpretation (where there are multiple worlds, of which ours is only one), the universe is ultimately deterministic. In the Copenhagen interpretation (the more popular theory), the universe is ultimately indeterministic.
There is something appealing about each of these theories. If the Many Worlds theory is correct, then the V for Vendetta clip above is correct: in each individual world, the sequence of events is determined, dominoes falling forward and colliding into one another, the moments of your life unfolding from the big bang: a spring of inevitability pouring forth potentialities all the way until the heat death of the universe.
And of course, there's the appeal of the Copenhagen interpretation - which posits a single world, which, at bottom, has an inextricable element of randomness to it.
Determinism, which I subscribe to, holds that everything that happened in your life was always going to happen. In layman's terms, it means fate. The ancients were convinced of the truth of fate, and took peace in it, as do I.
The past and the future. then, are equivalent: fixed, immovable objects, mirrored between the plane of the present.
You, your life, and everything in it:
... dominoes, falling in a cascade from a single point of origin...
At its heart, Beta Male poses a question about meaning: in light of the findings of evolutionary psychology and physics - can we hope to retain meaning in our relationships and choices?
Answering in the negative is Alex Rosenberg, a professor of philosophy at Duke University. Rosenberg's thesis is the scientific reductionism basically collapses all the meaning that we ascribe to relationships and human choices. He wrote a book called The Atheist's Guide to Reality, which represents some of the nihilistic consequences that seem to fall out of our understanding of physics and the human brain.
It starts with this premise (drawn from a paper that basically summarizes his book):
What is the world really like? It’s fermions and bosons, and everything that can be made up of them, and nothing that can’t be made up of them. All the facts about fermions and bosons determine or “fix” all the other facts about reality and what exists in this universe or any other if, as physics may end up showing, there are other ones.
From this premise, he builds on the following: love collapses into an evolutionary module in the human brain that evolved to solve a "strategic interaction problem," thereby dissolving the metaphysical meaning (and value) we ascribe to love.
Further, even if you disagree with that point, Rosenberg says our entire mental lives can be described in the terms of physics (another point I disagree with him on), and as such, love, and actions motivated by love, simply break down into the movement of atoms in the brain.
In summary, then, science shows that meaning is illusory. But what is meaning? Is meaning just a way of capturing that something has value? Of course love has value, but that's not what we mean when we say it matters that someone was loved.
Pinning down what meaning is is inherently nebulous, and not easy. Is meaning a proposition? Or is something that's difficult to capture with language - is it an experience? I'm not sure I have the answer to any of these questions, but they're questions that I've wrestled with for years, so I had to write a novel about them.
Despite my difficulty in understanding what meaning actually is, I don't agree with Rosenberg's position. Here's Daniel Miesller recapitulating a similar argument - basically, the argument of reductionistic nihilism:
Meaning << Emotion << Chemistry << Physics
See, it's all so simple! Like simplifying an algebra equation!
But what if there's something irreducible about this particular arrangement of particles in space and time? What if there's something irreducible about being loved, something that doesn't dissolve when you describe the neurochemistry of the person that loves you?
What if the meaning is a veridical experience, and not a conclusion that falls out of a series of premises that logically build upon one another?
My favourite response to MIessler's argument, and by extension, Rosenberg's, is this comment on Miessler's post:
I started reading this, but then I realized: all the letters I'm reading are, ultimately, just photons. Photons you guys! And photons can't bear any spiritual or semantic meaning, they just are.
There's warranted cynicism, and then there's bad philosophy. I think this is the latter.
Of all the things in this world, hope is what you should give up last.
people I admire
Bret Easton Ellis