Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Large Hadron Collider and the Problem of Fate

A couple of nights ago I came across some New York Times reporting on the Large Hadron Collider that discussed some questions that were distinctly metaphysical ones. No, I don't mean the theories that the collider may create a black hole or some sort of "antipathet-o-matter" that could destroy the world. Who the hell cares about that? No, the question I have in mind is, could it be that the Higgs boson is so antithetical to the actual universe that the universe will sabotage the accelerator from the future?

To see the problem (in metaphysics it is commonly called "the problem of fate"), say we take a proposition about the future: "You will eat pizza next Thursday." Specify this proposition in all the appropriate ways to you and next Thursday etc. It looks like this proposition has a truth value. That is, it's true or false. It doesn't look like one has the option of saying "neither," because after all you will or you won't. So it seems that there exist today facts about the future: the truth values of the propositions. (Aristotle thinks about this in De Interpretatione.)

In classical times this problem of fate was motivated mostly with the concept of God (or the Gods): if God has foreknowledge of everything (she is omniscient), then she knows whether you're going to eat pizza next Thursday and if she does so know, necessarily you're going to eat it. That's what the Oracle at Delphi could see, which is why how one phrased the question was so important (mistake for Xerxes to ask, "Will a great kingdom fall?" for example). Or maybe they were just really, really stoned.

Notice that this is not the same metaphysical problem as the problem about free will vs. determinism. That is a problem motivated by the concept of God's omnipotence or, laterly, by Newtonian models of "mechanical" physics: your actions are the result of chains of necessary causation such that you cannot substantiate your claim to be freely choosing them.

The problem of fate, on the other hand, is motivated by pointing out present facts that seem to entail future facts: God knows you're eating the pizza, there's a proposition with a truth value etc. Just thinking in purely metaphysical language (for the simple reason that I'm incompetent to discuss the physics!), it's got to go something like this: The Hibbs boson is antipathetic (for here unspecified physical reasons) to "this" universe so fundamentally that one can predict that Hibbs boson-detection is impossible. It is perhaps not necessary to interpret this effect as literally a cause from the future. Perhaps aversion to Hibbs bosons is a permanent disposition.

Apropos of nothing at all it does seem useful to look at the modal language in terms of sets of possible worlds: "possible" means true in some PWs, "contingent" means false in some PWs etc. It's not clear to me (nor perhaps to them, who are taken with other directions of argument) whether the authors mean: is the Hibbs boson antithetical (I'm deliberately using a different adverb each time) to "the universe" contingently (because of some of this particular world's properties), or necessarily (in all possible worlds)? After all, we don't know any other way, in logic anyway, to model modal operators at all, other than to formalize computations over sets. Leibniz made Spinoza's God a moral agent by explaining how God had actually made a choice: He chose the best of all possible worlds.

Or if we are asking about time, similar intimations of fate emerge. If time is a dimension, then wouldn't I be distributed across the dimension of time the way I take up discrete parts of space (that filled by my left hand and that filled by my right)? On this view I become a "spacetime worm," elongated through time when looked at from a meta-temporal perspective. Such a model (assuming that time is a dimension) eliminates change and even becoming and passing away: we experience different "time-slices" of a thing, but they are all co-present looked at meta-temporally. In which case the future, once again, turns out to already be what it is: the word "present," like the word "actual," is a mere indexical, a word that takes its meaning in context ("now," "then," "you, "me"). One thing I like about this reasoning is that it is what one gets, so far as I can see, from taking seriously the suggestion that time is a dimension, which is an idea that a great many people would endorse. And yet the spacetime worms seem so bizarre.

Anyway, my conclusion here if I were lucky enough to have one would be that when the NYT article compares the Large Hadron Collider to "someone who goes back in time to murder his grandfather," it looks to me that the claim is basically that, granting you're certain that the Higgs boson, although somehow at least conceivable (sounds like maybe a use-mention equivocation there), is nonetheless an impossibility in this world then you can be equally certain that a device designed to bring them into this world will fail. But that's not really an example of future causation. That's just saying that it can't be done.