Thursday, March 15, 2012

Why does the Earth Spin?

My best writing days are Wednesday and Thursday so after finishing my last post on a Tuesday I asked my family what I should write next. My four year old child suggested “Why does the Earth spin?”

She’s suggested this topic previously actually. Unfortunately I had no answer. Fortunately neither do many people which means it’s a commonly asked question on the internet.  Have a guess and then see if your answer is here.

Here’s a question that the video doesn’t answer. Does the earth spin in order to make the seasons happen? Or do the seasons happen because the earth spins? At first you may consider this a strange or even idiotic question but its actually great for uncovering one of our most basic assumptions; that of determinism.

Teleology is the belief that certain phenomena are best explained in terms of purpose rather than cause. Its opposite is determinism: events are caused by preceding events. Firstly let’s apply both to some broken eggs in a bowl. The eggs were broken by being cracked on the table by me. That “caused” them to get in the bowl (the determinist why). However the purpose of me cracking them is to make a cake. That too is why they are in the bowl; the teleological answer.

The obvious problem with the teleological answer to why the eggs are in the bowl is that if I discover I have no flour and so decide to make scrambled eggs instead, the eggs don’t un-crack themselves. The teleological answer is only ever possibly right. In theory at least, a determinist answer can be absolutely right.

I have however confused what we know with what is. My chose of a teleological answer may only be possibly right but perhaps there is still one true teleological answer after all. I just didn’t know it. Perhaps I was always going to make scrambled eggs.

I happen to be a reluctant determinist. The eggs are cracked because I cracked them and the earth spins for some reason that precedes its spinning, a determinant cause. Then the seasons happen. You may agree and we can both sigh with relief that we have arrived at truth by consensus. But do we have any arguments for thinking like this? Is there any way of saying teleology is wrong? Not absolutely.

In fact there are many critics of determinism including respected physicists like Paul Davies. I had Davies’ book on this topic but can’t find it for this post and quite frankly I had a hard enough time with the first chapter. I believe it was called the End of Determinism and it argued that we live in a purpose fulfilling universe. References to this book and its ilk are frequently made during arguments for theism but I really am confused by how its claims can be substantiated. 

I don’t see how I can tell from inside the world if either a total teleological or determinist model is true or not. If the world is amazingly and improbably fine tuned then why can’t we just be lucky? Why does it point to a purposeful design? Or to put it another way, why can’t this be one of the trillion times the world has happened; the one that happened this way. Flip a coin enough times and you’ll eventually get ten heads in a row. If ten heads in a row is what’s necessary to sustain life then eventually some alive thing will be saying “Wow, ten heads in a row, this is a very fine tuned universe.”

Sure, standing in an unlikely universe feels like a powerful destiny but that feeling doesn’t qualify as an argument. Consider my loving and loveable partner. She gets me and I like to think I get her too. If we keep up this mutual understanding then after a few decades we’ll be one of those couples who you can’t imagine with anyone else. However our connecting at all was hugely unlikely. The odds of us meeting in the same house in the same city on this huge planet are astronomically low. Go back only two generations and the odds of our even existing drop to low so our relationship becomes virtually impossible. However, even if you go back to the dawn of time, there’s nothing particularly fateful about our relationship because any other outcome would also be roughly as unlikely. Some unlikely outcome was, funnily enough, bound to happen.

There’s a relevant quote from Jacques Lacan, a psychoanalyst whose work has had a big impact on film theory; “A message always reaches its destination.” At first this seems to support the teleological argument but actually it undermines it. A message’s destination is just where it reaches. In a movie various story arcs reach various conclusions (or don’t). It is then the viewer who, working from the basis that this is how it could only have happened, constructs the story.

I may be un-persuaded by the feeling of teleology but others feel the same way about how the world feels deterministic. Some people maintain that “everything happens for a purpose”. In fact the theology of Calvinism maintains that because God is omnipotent there everything happens according to God’s plan – even when it seems we make choices. It may be frustrating to contemplate, but there’s no way of being certain this isn’t a teleological universe, once we accept that impressions of determinism might just be a part of the story too.

Even though I don’t have to reconcile an omnipotent deity with my world view, my determinism is still reluctant. I was taken with a book by Steve Grand, Creation: Life and how to make it (2001) which discusses artificial life as distinct from artificial intelligence. A part of that discussion is that life does “stuff” we can’t predict from its programming. That may be stupid “stuff” or amazing “stuff” but it involves solving problems in a range of unforeseen ways. In fact it even involves re-imagining what the problem is. A linear program designed to prevent drowning for example would avoid deep water. Life might get swimming lessons.

What’s interesting is that if you take a teleological approach over a determinist one you can foresee more of this crazy life “stuff”. If I ascribe to various “actors” (not necessarily people but simple bacteria even) certain goals that they will try to fulfill then some of these out-of-the blue events can be modeled and predicted. This is covered by the science of game theory. Further from all the small narratives of each actor in a situation I can create a big story. I can at least ask if the purpose of life is to attain equilibrium or to simplify or to add complexity or to maximize overall pleasure.

Can we apply this to the earth spinning? Is this part of the solar systems’ story perhaps? Prior to Newton and his physics it was accepted that inanimate objects had “wills” just like living things. There are two reasons to be open to this idea. One is that matter is very complicated. There are atoms and subatomic particles and then… who knows. Further there seems to be consistent intentions of these particles. Electrons seem to want to do what they do. There doesn’t seem to be any forces operating on the electron but themselves. Secondly there isn’t any discernible sentience to things like bacteria or viruses. Compare the complexity of an atom and the simplicity of a single cell organism and the distinction between life which has a will and not-life which doesn’t, becomes harder to sustain.*

I’m not proposing a totalizing teleological world view like Calvinism. If this world is just fulfilling a divine author’s plot then life’s dynamism is as fake as it would be in a completely determinist universe. Both perspectives rule out spontaneity as anything other than an illusion. It’s precisely that spontaneity that I want to pay heed to.

I guess I’m talking about a localized teleology inside a broadly determinist environment. Each of us has a purpose we are trying to fulfill but there isn’t one winning (as in divine) purpose to the whole thing. How the whole thing plays out is then determined by the interactions of all our separate teleological purposes.

A localized teleology also avoids the general implausibility I feel a totalizing teleology has. There are just too many children dying of HIV (to use one example) for me to comprehend what kind of meaningful story is unfolding there. To put a rhyme or reason to it all seems insane. But as the unwitting consequences of a blood borne virus with its own goal of survival, it makes sense.

As for pure determinism it only ever gets me to this point but from here? If I reflect on determinism at the point of making a choice I come to some sort of time-traveler’s paradox. My reasons for my next actions need to be my purposes not just the result of preceding events. If I don’t have a will I can’t find a way. A localized teleology gets me out of this fix and while practicality may not be a perfect test of truth it does mean I pick up my child from kinder on time.

Calling my purposes something real and effective is something I like to do with restraint. We can all have moments when we’d like the spinning of the earth to be about our own purposes too. I feel that it’s arrogant to presume this. However (and this is where philosophy gets a bit silly perhaps) how do I know the earth isn’t spinning for me? I can’t really argue against such a proposition. I can only say I enjoy the company of people who value their own purposes and mine. And I don’t actually want the burden of the universe being about me anyway.

I thought that my child might be a little fond of such a teleological approach. I thought she might enjoy looking at the world as an unfolding story about her. In fact she much prefers determinist explanations. For example she would rather be told that it rains because there is moisture in the sky than because the trees need a drink (so that she can climb them). I believe the reason is that she wants to make things happen. Determinism helps with that much more than a teleological explanation could.

It’s a great exercise to explain this blog post and others to my child. Four year olds are not bad arbiters of what matters. I hope she figures out how all sorts of stuff is caused so that she can make things happen. I hope she makes things happen in order to fulfill wonderful purposes too.

I hope the earth never stops spinning for her.


*This is science as understood by someone who glazes over at the words “atomic weight” so you may want to take it with several grains of salt.

1 comment:

  1. Bernadette CamilleriMarch 16, 2012 at 11:58 PM

    I enjoyed reading this but once again felt it was just a little too long for my concentration span. I believe what we do brings about change or actions cause reactions but I still do things with a purpose in mind and believe things happen for a reason. The reason may be one we never get to see or fully understand but I still believe there is a reason and purpose behind everything. I don't think these ideas are mutually exclusive.