Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Achievement in a quantum world

Suppose Alice gives Bob a gift of five lottery tickets, and Bob buys himelf a sixth one. Bob then wins the lottery. Intuitively, if one of the tickets that Alice bought for Bob wins, then Bob’s win is Alice’s achievement, but if the winning ticket is not one of the ones that Alice bought for Bob, then Bob’s win is not Alice’s achievement.

But now suppose that there is no fact of the matter as to which ticket won, but only that Bob won. For instance, maybe the way the game works is that there is a giant roulette wheel. You hand in your tickets, and then an equal number of depressions on the wheel gets your name. If the ball ends in a depression with your name, you win. But they don’t write your name down on the depressions ticket-by-ticket. Instead, they count up how many tickets you hand them, and then write your name down on the same number of depressions.

In this case, it seems that Bob’s win isn’t Alice’s achievement, because there is no fact of the matter that it was one of Alice’s tickets that got Bob his win. Nor does this depend on the probabilities. Even if Alice gave Bob a thousand tickets, and Bob contributed only one it seems that Bob’s win isn’t Alice’s achievement.

Yet in a world run on quantum mechanics, it seems that our agential connection to the external world is like Alice’s to Bob’s win. All we can do is tweak the probabilities, perhaps overwhelmingly so, but there is no fact of the matter about the outcome being truly ours. So it seems that nothing is ever our achievement.

That is an unacceptable consequence, I think.

I think there are two possible ways out. One is to shift our interpretation of “achievement” and say that Bob’s win is Alice’s achievement in the original case even when it was the ticket that Bob bought for himself that won. Achievement is just sufficient increase of probability followed by the occurrence of the thus probabilified event.

The second is heavy duty metaphysics. Perhaps our causal activity marks the world in such a way that there is always a trace of what happened due to what. Events come marked with their actual causal history. Sometimes, but not always, that causal history specifies what was actually the cause. Perhaps I turn a quantum probability dial from 0.01 to 0.40, and you turn it from 0.40 to 0.79, and then the event happens, and the event comes metaphysically marked with its cause. Or perhaps when I turn the quantum probability dial and you turn it, I embue it with some of my teleology and when you turn it, you embue it with some of yours, and there is a fact of the matter as to whether a further on down effect comes from your teleology or mine.

I find the metaphysical answer hard to believe, but I find the probabilistic one conceptually problematic.

1 comment:

Fr M. Kirby said...

I'm not sure that I understand what the problem is here. Why does any "achievement" have to be 100% due to a single agent to be ascribed to them in a meaningful way? In the roulette wheel case, Alice is clearly mostly responsible for the outcome. Nothing humans achieve is due to our actions being sufficient conditions for the outcome. All our successful achievements of intended outcomes rely on multiple other factors, and in hardly any case is the connection between our personal action and the outward result certain.

After all, we make the inference of shared responsibility for outcomes easily enough when it comes to moral analysis, including by using the idea of degrees of fault based on circumstances and external pressure. Also, when it comes to certitude, we distinguish between "absolute certainty" and "moral certainty", the latter accepting the degree of assurance that is sufficient to ground sensible choices, short of perfect knowledge.