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Stephen Hawking, the arch-determinist.

Many Worlds, but only One Reality: Stephen Hawking and the Determinist Fallacy

One can hardly broach the subject of agency without acknowledging the long-standing and unresolved philosophical debate regarding the agency vs. determination dichotomy. To provide an illustration of the extent of disagreement over this dualism, determinists, such as Stephen Hawking have argued that agency and free will are nothing but an illusion: …the molecular basis of biology shows that biological processes are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry and therefore are as determined as the orbits of the planets. Recent experiments in neuroscience support the view that it is our physical brain, following the known laws of science, that determines our actions and not some agency that exists outside those laws…so it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion (Hawking and Mlodinow, 2010). Emphasis added. Indeed, Hawking’s deterministic perspective is so comprehensive that he believes if it were possible to build a computer that was sufficiently powerful to calculate each and every variable in the cosmos, then such a machine would be able to determine with absolute precision every aspect of every event that transpires in the universe from the big bang until the infinitely remote end of time. From Hawking’s perspective, nothing moves, interacts, appears or disappears in the universe without having been minutely pre-determined by a chain of causality that was set in motion at the origin of the universe. Now that is a hard core determinist. At the other end of the spectrum are those who believe in an indeterminate universe (Popper, 1988). Philosophies of indeterminacy take many forms, however, such perspectives tend to emphasize that endless varieties of random, inscrutable and uncertain phenomena render the universe ineluctably unpredictable. For example, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle asserts that it is impossible to determine both the velocity and position of any discrete particle: the process of determining one property has the effect of modifying the other property. Much to Einstein’s displeasure, Niels Bohr elaborated upon Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle by developing the theory of quantum mechanics. Bohr’s “Copenhagen interpretation” is predicated on the realization that, at the quantum level, classical expectations about the normal, predictable, apparently-determinate principles that operate in the macro universe do not apply at the infinitesimal scale of the quantum. In other words, the behavior of quantum-scale phenomena are downright bizarre: At the quantum level particles appear, disappear and reappear unpredictably and without having conventionally traversed the distances between the separate spaces they occupy. Entangled particles defy the laws of physics by exhibiting what Einstein referred to “spooky action at a distance.” Single particles behave as though they are interacting with other, non-existent particles when fired individually through a double-slit filter. Quantum phenomena exhibit “complementarity,” which means that phenomena will morph depending upon what type of techniques observers employ to examine the phenomena in question. Etc. Thus, those who believe in an indeterminate universe dismiss the idea that an infinitely complex, but, nonetheless, single chain of causality rigidly determines all subsequent events that transpire in the universe. For indeterminists, the universe is full of “actors” that often engage in unpredictable improvisation; their performances often change without notice and, occasionally, in open defiance of the “direction” that is essential to preserve a deterministic universe. This is true of the micro realm of quantum mechanics, and it is also true of the macro universe that ceaselessly confounds and astounds its unpredictable human observers (McGettigan, 2011). Advocates of the indeterminate perspective are generally of the opinion that, if it were somehow possible to replay the history of the universe, each new iteration of the universe would be identifiably unique. This is because random events would exert unique and unpredictable influences on the evolution of the cosmos–just as random events have generated widely divergent species on the planet earth: fostering the evolution of new species in some cases, and instigating widespread extinction in others. For his part, Hawking rejects the idea that quantum indeterminacy implies that the universe as a whole is non-deterministic. Although Hawking concedes that quantum events depart from the more deterministic patterns that operate with greater consistency in the macro universe, nevertheless, Hawking argues that Hugh Everett’s “Many Worlds” theory (Byrne, 2010) offers a theoretical framework through which to develop a deterministic model for quantum phenomena. Briefly, the Many Worlds theory proposes that “everything that is physically possible happens.” In other words, for any discrete event that takes place in the universe an infinite range of similar but slightly different events takes place in an infinite number of alternate universes. Hugh Everett developed the Many Worlds theory in order to solve the “measurement problem” associated with the collapse of the wave function in quantum mechanics. For the purposes of the present discussion, Hawking argues that, since the Many Worlds theory posits that everything which is physically possible occurs in an infinity of different universes, then everything that any individual could ever think or do–and much, much more!–actually does happen, and is therefore determined by the circumstances that unfold in each and everyone of the infinite multiverses in which the various chains of causality unfold. To put it more simply, imagine that in one universe a football player catches a pass to score a touchdown, while in another the very same player drops the ball, or trips over an opponent’s foot, or is blinded when a spectator hurls Gatorade at his eyes, or gets kidnapped by extraterrestrials, etc. Fascinating as the Many Worlds theory may be, there are problems with Hawking’s claim that the Many Worlds thesis offers proof that the universe remains deterministic in spite of pervasive quantum indeterminacy. First of all, valuable as the Many Worlds theory may be as a conceptual construct, there is no proof that the theory is true. For decades, scientists have speculated that alternate universes might exist, but no one has ever generated any proof that more than one universe does exist. Thus, Hawking’s belief that every possible outcome of events are determined by, and play out in an infinity of alternate universes is pure speculation. I could equally well claim that an omniscient genie foresees every possible outcome of every event that takes place in the universe, but forcibly ...

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The People's Attorney

Power to The People's Attorney

Last Thursday (June 7), I attended a debate that took place at Pueblo Community College between the two democratic candidates, Bill Thiebaut and Jeff Chostner, who are vying for the position of Pueblo’s District Attorney. Both candidates are veteran politicians who have devoted the bulk of their lives to public service. I had hoped the debate would help me learn more about the candidates as individuals, their views on crime and justice, and, most importantly, would also help me decide which candidate would be better suited to serve as Pueblo’s next District Attorney. I am pleased to report that the debate did not disappoint. Since both candidates are Democrats one might assume that Bill Thiebaut and Jeff Chostner are interchangeable. Not so. Apart from the fact that they are both members of the same political party, each candidate emphasized throughout the debate that their views about criminal justice, the state of public security in Pueblo, and the manner in which the DA’s office ought to be managed differ in practically every respect. Bill Thiebaut is seeking his third term as Pueblo’s District Attorney. During his two terms as DA, Thiebaut has implemented a “Smart Justice’ program. According to Thiebaut, the best way to fight crime is to prevent it. Though over the years, DA Thiebaut has certainly prosecuted an enormous number of criminals, Thiebaut’s Smart Justice program employs an innovative social intervention strategy that is intended to aggressively discourage criminality. Without doubt, this is a much smarter way to fight crime. Rather than passively standing by while criminals victimize the community, Thiebaut’s Smart Justice program enhances community security by nipping crime in the bud. The logic of Thiebaut’s Smart Justice program is simple. Fewer crimes = Fewer victims and a safer, happier community. Jeff Chostner is running for DA because he says that crime is rampant in Pueblo. Not only did Chostner assert on multiple occasions during the June 7 debate that, in recent years, violent and property crimes have escalated in Pueblo anywhere from 20-30%, but Chostner also claimed that Pueblo has become “the crime capital of Colorado.’ Indeed, at one point, Chostner even suggested that crime has become so rampant in Pueblo that, “when criminals in Colorado want to commit crimes, they come to Pueblo.’ In short, Chostner painted a picture of Pueblo as a city where crime is utterly out of control. According to Chostner, busy thoroughfares, such as Fourth Street, have literally become unsafe for law-abiding citizens to traverse. Chostner even described his own experience as a driver on Fourth Street who, when required to stop at a traffic signal, fears to turn his head either to the left or right because of the criminal elements that he is convinced are hemming him in. From Chostner’s perspective, criminals have taken control of Pueblo and they are breathing down the necks of law-abiding citizens. In contrast to Bill Thiebaut, Jeff Chostner was of the opinion that the only way to fight crime in Pueblo is for the District Attorney to prosecute a higher number of criminals. In many municipalities, district attorneys measure their success by one single criteria: criminal convictions. During the debate, Bill Thiebaut pointed out that the easiest way for DAs to pad their conviction rates–and, thus, create the appearance of being “tough on crime”–is to pursue convictions against those who are least able to defend themselves: the poor. To his credit, Thiebaut insisted that he never had, nor would he ever, artificially inflate his conviction rates by disproportionately prosecuting the poor. On Bill Thiebaut’s watch, the DA’s office will remain dedicated to applying the law equally to everyone regardless of how large their bank accounts happen to be. Time and again, Jeff Chostner dismissed DA Thiebaut’s Smart Justice program as ineffective. As Chostner addressed the standing room-only audience at Pueblo Community College, he repeatedly prefaced his comments by stating that “everyone in the audience” had had the same experiences as he and would, therefore, share his perspective that “Pueblo is the crime capital of Colorado.’ On that score, I am afraid that I must emphatically disagree with Jeff Chostner. First of all, it is one thing to say that crime has increased, and it is quite another to prove it. Whereas Bill Thiebaut cited specific, authoritative sources for all of the key points in his argument, Jeff Chostner relied upon hyperbole. According to Jeff Chostner, crime has increased in Pueblo because he says it has. No further evidence required. Even more, Jeff Chostner insisted that every member of the debate audience shared his jaundiced view of justice in Pueblo. However, in making that claim, Jeff Chostner said something that was patently untrue. Whether Jeff Choster intentionally spoke untruthfully or not is for him alone to say. My point is that my experience with crime and justice in Pueblo is very different than Jeff Chostner’s. I disagree strenuously with Jeff Chostner’s statement that “Pueblo is the crime capital of Colorado.’ Not only does that statement ring false with Colorado crime statistics, it also rings false with my experience as a proud citizen of Pueblo, Colorado. My wife and I chose to raise our daughters in Pueblo because we believe it is a safe and beautiful city. Further, I believe that Pueblo is safe and beautiful because I encounter abundant evidence of that fact every time that I walk, drive, or ride my bicycle across Pueblo. My city is not the crime capital of Colorado, and Commissioner Jeff Chostner should be ashamed of himself for saying that it is. Indeed, I would like to take this opportunity to demand an apology from Commissioner Jeff Chostner on behalf of the city of Pueblo. Frankly, I expect a two-term Pueblo County Commissioner to hold a more charitable view of Pueblo. Further, if as Commissioner Chostner suggests, Pueblo has gone to the dogs in recent years, then it has done so on his watch as a Pueblo County Commissioner. If, as Jeff Chostner implies, he has failed so miserably as a Pueblo County Commissioner, then why on earth should voters believe that he would be successful as Pueblo’s DA? It only stands to reason that anyone who, ...

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A Sociologist Looks at Violence

Does it seem like the world is going to hell in a hand basket? Hard to conclude otherwise when children are massacred as in recent fashion. If you want to understand why however, maybe it is time to put aside "stock" answers and look past clichés about God, madness, and guns. If you are interested in a deeper look at the world we live in, sociologists can help.

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To boldly go...

Living the Dream: Transcending the Boundary between Sci-Fi and Reality

Visualization and imagination create the world. Or, as Dr. Tim says, reality starts with fantasy. Or, as I like to say, as above in consciousness, so below in matter. No where is this more clear than in the area of science fiction where reality consistently lags behind fantasy only by a half century or so.

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