Monday, March 15, 2010

What determines the future (or caused some outcome)?

Only the most mindless simpleton believes that the future is predetermined and that everything that happens does so because it was "destined" or predetermined to happen. Most of us can agree that predestination is not an adequate account of reality. But that leaves open the general question of what determines the future or even any outcome in the present? If hard, full determinism does not preordain all outcomes, what model for the progression of reality should we be using? Just for the record, I will state my simplified model of what determines the future.

Every event or outcome or change of state in reality (the universe) is determined by some combination of factors, even if we may not be able to clearly determine what those factors may specifically be in any given instance. The categories of these factors are:

  1. Natural progression. Law-like behavior such as gravity, an object rolling down a hill, hot air rising, momentum, orbiting bodies, or the life cycle of living things. Or something as simple as evaluating a mathematical equation across its domain. Outcome is very predictable and causality is well-defined.
  2. Specific causal factors. Forces, objects, actors, drives, etc. which are reasonably "clear", including the proverbial "smoking gun." Outcome may be moderately predictable and causality relatively easily determined.
  3. Non-specific causal factors. Something influenced or caused a change even if we have difficulty or are even unable to determine what the causal events actually were. Outcome has low or no predictability and any apparent causality will tend to be mostly speculative in nature.
  4. Random variability. Ranging from quantum indeterminism and radioactive decay to statistical, stochastic, and chaotic processes. Even if we recreate the exact prior situation (say, in a parallel universe), the outcome could vary. Even omniscience and omnipotence would not determine the outcome. No predictability other than possibly a statistical distribution. Causality may sometimes be established by the nature of the event (e.g., radioactive decay), but may be completely indeterminate (e.g., judging free will decision vs. known bias.)
  5. Free will. Choice by a sentient entity (e.g., person or computer) unconstrained by any factors. Various factors may inform or influence or guide or even bias choice, but ultimately there is an act of free will making the decision. May or may not be predictable. Causality may be very difficult if not impossible to establish, although a sentient entity might communicate its decision-making process or a brain scan might suggest whether free will was a significant factor or not.
  6. Intervention by a deity. Not everyone believes in a God, but those who do might find the intentions of a God a more credible explanation for events and outcomes than other, more worldly factors.

Now, I have attempted to summarize a model for what determines the future (or caused some past outcome) in the real world for real people. That said, is this same model valid for any or all virtual worlds? I think so, but not necessarily. Some categories of factors may not be relevant in some specific virtual worlds, but are there other categories that are operative in all or some specific virtual worlds but not operative in our real world? Conceivably one could define such a virtual world, although I have not personally heard of one. Nonetheless, it would be interesting to speculate what additional categories of factors might conceivably apply to the Semantic Web and future Knowledge Webs, especially as artificial sentient entities (software agents, robots, etc.) begin to proliferate.

As a final note, all of this ties in with provenance as well, a topic of emerging interest in the Semantic Web, although currently the Semantic Web is more interested in the who of a change in data rather than some deeper why.

-- Jack Krupansky