Monday, November 29, 2021

Simultaneous causation and determinism

Consider the Causal Simultaneity Thesis (CST) that all causation is simultaneous. Assume that simultaneity is absolute (rather than relative). Assume there is change. Here is a consequence I will argue for: determinism is false. In fact, more strongly, there are no diachronic deterministic causal series. What is surprising is that we get this consequence without any considerations of free will or quantum mechanics.

Since there is a very plausible argument from presentism to CST (a non-simultaneous fundamental causal relation could never obtain between two existent things given presentism), we get an argument from presentism to indeterminism.

Personally, I am inclined to think of this argument as a bit of evidence against CST and hence against presentism, because it seems to me that there could be a deterministic world, even though there isn’t. But tastes differ.

Now the argument for the central thesis. The idea is simple. On CST, as soon as the deterministic causes of an effect are in place, their effect is in place. Any delay in the effect would mean a violation of the determinism. There can be nothing in the deterministic causes to explain how much delay happens, because all the causes work simultaneously. And so if determinism is true—i.e., if everything has a deterministic cause—then all the effects happen all at once, and everything is already in the final state at the first moment of time. Thus there is no change if we have determinism and CST.

The point becomes clearer when we think about how it is an adherent of CST explains diachronic causal series. We have an item A that starts existing at time t1, persists through time t2 (kept in existence not by its own causal power, as that would require a diachronic causal relation, but either by a conserver or a principle of existential inertia), then causes an item B, which then persists through time t3 and then causes an item C, and so on. While any two successive items in the causal series A, B, C, ... must overlap temporally (i.e., there must be a time at which they both exist), we need not have temporal overlap between A and C, say. We can thus have things perishing and new things coming into being after them.

But if the causation is deterministic, then as soon as A exists, it will cause B, which will cause C, and so on, thereby forcing the whole series to exist at once, and destroying change.

In an earlier post, I thought this made for a serious objection to CST. I asked: “Why does A ‘wait’ until t2 to cause B?” But once we realize that the issue above has to do with determinism, we see that an answer is available. All we need to do is to suppose there is probabilistic causation.

For simplicity (and because this is what fits best with causal finitism) suppose time is discrete. Then we may suppose that at each moment of time at which A exists it has a certain low probability pAB of causing B if B does not already exist. Then the probability that A will cause B precisely after n units of time is (1 − pAB)npAB. It follows mathematically that “on average” it will cause B after pAB/(1 − pAB) fundamental units of time.

It follows that for any desired average time delay, a designer of the universe can design a cause that has that delay. Let’s say that we want B to come into existence on average u fundamental units of time after A has come into existence. Then the designer can give A a causal power of producing B at any given moment of time at which B does not already exist with probability pAB = 1/(1 + u).

The resulting setup will be indeterministic, and in particular we can expect significant random variation in how long it takes to get B from A. But if the designer wants more precise timing, that can be arranged as well. Let’s say that our designer wants B to happen very close to precisely one second after A. The designer can then ensure that, say, there are a million instants of time in a second, and that A has the power to produce an event A1 with a probability at any given instant such that the expected wait time will be 0.0001 seconds (i.e., 100 fundamental units of time), and A1 the power to produce A2 with the same probability, and so on, with A10000 = B. Then by the Central Limit Theorem, the average wait time between A and B can be expected to be fairly close to 10000 × 0.0001 = 1 seconds, and the designer can get arbitrarily high confidence of an arbitrarily high precision of delay by inserting more instants in each second, and more intermediate causes between A and B, with each intermediate cause having an average delay time of 100 fundamental units (say). (This uses the fact that the geometric distribution has a finite third moment and the Barry-Esseen version of the Central Limit Theorem.)

Thus, a designer of the universe can make an arbitrarily precise and reliable near-deterministic changing universe despite CST. And that really blunts the force of my anti-deterministic observation as a consideration against CST.

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