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.


  1. Hi, Myron Chania here,

    so, if the LHC is shut down for some reason---then the statement
    "the universe does not want us to create the Higgs particle and forced closure" is true?
    This strikes me as strangely equivalent to "God disapproves" but in different terms; begs Ockham to come and put the notion out of its misery.
    I mean the scientific approach would be just to say "our efforts did not produce the data we needed to infer the Higgs, and we broke the collider"--or some such.
    One can always say, yes, the nature of the universe is such that
    our attempt to produce the Higgs was bound to fail--as that nature
    was such prior to our attempt.
    Again, I call upon Saint Ockham
    to purify our thought in this such that we are satisfied with
    "what we hoped for did not come to pass."
    But how do we know its for -ordained---maybe the universe makes up the rules as it goes along and adjusts our memory subsequently to be consonant with the variance, so we see nothing amiss.
    On the other hand, if the universe can be said to have one nature---then ipso facto it will have that nature all the way along
    and so of course the failure to find Higgs and the breaking of the collider is a surety from the beginning, fore-ordained by the nature of things from the get go.
    And of course you can ascribe eany event whatsoever to that nature.
    But that gets odd quickly: why did event x happen? because its the nature of the universe, why is it the nature of the universe? because that is the universe's nature---why that? nature, ad infinitum.
    It really doesn't seem to be saying much more than no Higgs and a broken machine.
    I mean, if later you fix the collider and with a little different technique produce the Higgs---what then?, the universe has changed its mind? Why? ---it was its nature!

    So, if everything is foreordained --just means stuff will happen as it is supposed to---which may be reduced to simply "stuff happens".
    If someone predicts that in each of five subsequent weeks I will receive a small animal as a present--they are telling me that in five weeks I will agree with that prediction. But I can always wiggle out of agreeing---I could insist that one of the animals was not given as a present but as an obligation to feed and house the thing--since I did not like the animal given.--therefore prediction unfullfilled.
    Or--"I know you predicted I would break my leg skiing, but in fact I was not skiing but was just standing in my skis and simply slipped awkwardly such that my fibula cracked---prediction therefore false.".
    There is always enough rhetorical wiggle room to deny and deny.

  2. Hi Anderson,

    Hmm, interesting idea's on fate. Do you reckon that plays a big part in the meaning of life?

    In Bob Versus The Meaning of Life I got 5 other unsual opinions. Do you agree with any of their answers?

  3. Fate is the prediction of possible future events. There is no set predetermined "fates" other than the inevitable end. I like to think of it like this: We're making decisions all the time. We decide what we want to eat, when we want to eat it and how, but we also decide what to do all the time (subconsciously). When you look at the clock, you made a decision to look at it and check the time. You took a metaphorical left or right turn at a fork in the road.

    About the universe not wanting us to find the elusive particle I think that's bull. Finding that particle is incredibly hard if not impossible and the LHC is a very delicate piece of equipment. Couple those 2 things and you can expect plenty of failures/mishaps.

    What if we find the particle? Then what? We can't explain it, we can't replicate it, it'll shake the foundation of science and life itself (And probably cause a huge catastrophe and people will go into shock and start jumping off of high places,then CNN will cover it and MORE hysteria will ensue and then everyone dies and the world ends even though we tried to prevent it.)

    -Krispy Kreme

  4. Methinks some posters here using arrows manufacturer in Zeno's workshop to make half of a half of half of...

    The example could do with some tightening: use "...go back in time to kill one's great-grandfather" to preclude the possibility of an elderly grandfather and an angry young man.

    A simple solution might be to allow that we can think and speak in 'types' rather than 'individuals'. And so a statement can express a type relationship which for logical reasons fail instantiation.

    Another solution to the fly in the fly bottle is...

  5. Going back in time and killing one's own grandfather could be one of two things:
    1. World's most unnecessarily complex suicide.


    2. The fact that your Grandfather and you are occupying the same plane of existence tears a hole in the fabric of space/time (which seems to be made of cheap chiffon) and you kill everyone including time itself.
    Re-defining "Killing time", but no one will be around to appreciate your witty genius.

    -Krispy Kreme

  6. Unless anybody is the omniscient God, in terms of any metaphysical foundation all we're right in beginning with is anything is technically possible, for we can not be everything at once proving something impossible at every point in time from every perspective. From the concept of anything as a possibility we can add to it that the universe, and its creativity/creation is a mystery. And here is how I want to tie this to your entry; that we seemingly choose to think as we do is at least a creation in the processing of our own consciousnesses. That being said, our consciousness are part of nature, part of motion, space, and time, and therefore, our future, I believe, has much to do with how we consciously, intentionally make it, based both on our own will power, hard work towards things we want, and the extent to which we are competing against the wills of others.
    I've recently developed my own philosophy, and published my first book at 23, having taught myself most of what I know, and would really appreciate you glancing at my website and considering some of my ideas, not to make you believe my opinions, but because I believe my writings and thoughts to be essential contributions to the philosophical community. Thank you very much.

  7. Pedro J. Ortiz MorrisMarch 14, 2010 at 12:15 AM

    Hello Prof. Brown,

    What does it mean if a woman gets pregnant while on the pill? (Say that pill is 1:10^8 chance to fail). Does it mean that the existence of that child is necessary for the existence of the universe?

    I think it means that there was still that 1:10^8. It does make a pretty incredible story, but does it prove anything? Anyone in this case would probably just think that it had little to do with the universe and a lot to do with bad calculations (or a lie).

    In a mostly unrelated conclusion, if it has something to do with the higgs boson rippling back and stopping the collider before if could ever make one, then i wish it would ripple further back and stop the $9 billion investment.

  8. What sort of event is it of which we can say it is true that "an event either is or is not"?

    Clearly, there are no either/or events in the world. And if our event is the "surety" of an outcome of some sort, and as that surety is based on empirical laws and how we frame or construct our objects, then the notion of a logical truth underpinning statements such as "an event either is or is not" is eroded.

    But then perhaps it is just the statement "an event either is or is not" that is true. But then is a statement a sufficiently clear concept that can deliver a truth value? A statement is a set of empty marks delivering a meaning. There is no unifying hybrid truth-tracking entity that we care to call a "statement".

    Correct me if I'm wrong. For Wittgenstein there are no logical constants: "negation", "or" (as in something is or it isn't) etc., are operations that take us from one proposition to another. That is, "or" as in "something is or isn't" can't be seconded as a player in the logical apparatus of truth. There are no logical propositions of the form "A or B". We can't appeal to the quasi-object "statement" to rescue statements that have logical connectives from their arbitrary empirical roots.

    So, no, it is not logically true that something will or will not be.

  9. Hello anderson,
    Very interesting points are made within that article and I believe that people really should open up more to what is going on around them. This kid of thing is going on and people dont heistate to speculate the danger of what could possibly happen. I am aware that recently the LHC has had problems and the experiment has been postponed but who knows, soon enough our fate may come to meet us sooner than we expected.
    Many thanks for this article.