The game of billiards is like the universe. If we know the position, mass, and size of the three balls we are able to calculate the effect that a specific cue stick direction and momentum will have. Skilled players make the calculations in their heads in milliseconds and then stand back to watch their predictions come true. So it is with every particle in the universe. Of course there will never be a computer big enough to calculate the positions and velocities of all of the particles of the universe a moment from now, never mind a million years from now. But it is true in principle, it is said, that such a calculation could be made. Demons are often enlisted for these sorts of logically possible but actually impossible tasks. Since the movements and interactions of particles do not stop—unlike a billiard ball—the starting conditions dictate and determine every thing that happens or will happen. The future is as closed and unchangeable as the past.
In a limited way this picture of the universe as a billiard table is useful and true. If a molecule of oxygen impacts another in a region of space without other material or forces to account for, knowing the trajectories and momenta of the two will allow us to know the new trajectories and momenta after the collision. If it were not so all of our clever science would be useless.
So determinism that insists that mass and energy are conserved and that events follow strict, knowable patterns is a good thing. It is the fabric of the universe, that the present was caused by the past and that the now will cause the next now. Order, knowability, existence—these all depend on a consistency of cause and effect and a continuity of matter and energy.
But this says nothing about human free will, or a spider's web, for that matter.
No such isolated volumes of space with only two oxygen molecules are available. In our accessible universe, there are 6.02 times ten to the twenty-third power oxygen atoms in 11.2 liters of the gas at Standard Conditions. (Don't ask me how I know. Instead, look up Avogadro's Number.). Knowing or predicting the state of every one of those atoms individually is beyond our abilities. In even a single liter of gas! Even isolated from outside causes by the convention of Standard Conditions! But we may take the temperature and measure the pressure of the gas and that summary and average is good enough. Maybe all we can say is that the sum of the momenta of the molecules in the volume of gas remains equal from moment to moment, no matter which set of molecules is faster this time or slower in the next fractional time. The totals are the same and the temperature proves it.
Look again at the billiard table. It has been carefully designed to allow the human brain to predict the state of the table when the balls stop rolling. It is a set of standard conditions like chemistry's or our vacuum with two oxygen molecules. First, there are only three balls, two red balls and a white cue ball. Pocket billiards, with 16 balls and pockets to remove the balls from the table, is much more complex than billiards. When a unintended ball in pocket billiards ends up in the chain reaction it seems like luck. But of course it is not luck because the rules of rolling and collision are the same in both games: deterministic. It seems like luck because the location and timing of that unintended ball exceeds the calculation power of the player. We most admire that shot which seems to predict luck, showing off the abilities of the player. On a scale of complexity where 11.2 liters of gas is a 200,000,000,000,000,000,000,000; billiards is a 1. Actually, I dramatically understate it. The interaction of those molecules compared to balls is beyond calculation. Not only are there three dimensions instead of two, but the range of velocities is far, far beyond anything a billiard table could withstand. One of balls would have enough velocity to go into orbit—around the sun.
The billiard table has uniform bumpers. The table has felt, carefully groomed for a predictable roll. The table is a painstakingly polished and leveled slab of slate. The interactions possible have been restricted by design, again, to allow the human brain to predict the travel. These are the Standard Conditions for billiards. It is not about molecular determinism any more. The game is isolated from the determinism of particles and molecules in order to allow a subset of deterministic, cause and effect behaviors to manifest themselves. There are cause and effect rules in this green felt world but they are not identical with the rules that hold the table legs together and keep the temperature of the balls equal. The table is a medium, the game is a new frame of existence, isolated from the rest of reality at the same time it is carried and made possible by the rest of reality.
In this example turned on its head, the mediation by the table breaks the determinism between the two frames. No longer do molecules hit each other, now billiard balls made of molecules hit each other. The scale is different, many orders of magnitude different. Time is different, many orders of magnitude as well. The tiny and fast is still present but now bound into bulk properties. Look at the way the gas molecules keep moving but the balls stop. In both cases energy is transferred. But molecule gives up momentum to molecule and then trades it back again, or in solid material vibrates in a stable location. Heat is our name for such movements. Eventually the gas will equate its temperature with its container, a process we call entropy. Something similar happens on the billiard table. Rolling friction on a ball transfers momentum invested in the ball as a whole to heat on the felt and inside the ball as vibration. But look! Instead of a blur of jumpy molecules we have a massive phenolic ball hit, rolling, slowing down, and coming to a stop.
Notice a few things. No cause and effect chain can be followed from any set of particular molecules to a particular trajectory of any billiard ball. The ball does not roll because the molecules all at once moved in the same direction with a complex rotation about a center of mass. The ball rolls because another ball or the cue stick hit it. THEN the molecules all at once moved in the same direction with a complex rotation about a center of mass. At the same time, without the net of cause and effect events and the tiny and fast molecules in the balls, cue, table, and air no billiard game would be possible.
The player depends on determinism in both the micro and macro sense when aiming the stick. Micro determinism means the balls will remain one piece, that the felt will not evaporate, that the stick will remain rigid because the covalent bonds between the carbon atoms that compose it hold the wood together. But that has all been factored out by the careful design of the table and the game so that the player need give it no thought. All of his concentration can be on the macro determinism of ball positions and trajectories.
It is not that the molecules in the slate, plastic, felt, and wood work together somehow to cause the balls to roll and hit but that all of the physical bits made the rolling possible. They are the medium, not the cause, of the game of billiards. A common property of such media is that the parts and bits that compose the medium form a net or table which can support a different frame, which is a different set of related cause and effect rules. No amount of examination or measurement of the particles and molecules that make up the pool hall at 19:00 will ever predict if the six ball will go into the corner pocket at 19:00:01. But any player can tell you what will happen. Better yet, a skilled player can cause it to happen. The alternative is a reverse time Final Cause where the rolling colliding balls cause the stick to move causing the player's arm to move causing molecules in his brain to react causing him to pull money out of his pocket to pay for a rack of balls.
Similar mediation boundaries separate the larger frames of reality: sub particle physics, particle physics, atomic physics, chemistry, life, and language. These larger frames of reality also mark where cause and effect become local to a frame and the supporting cause and effect nets have become media.
So then, what happens to determinism? It remains a basic characteristic of every frame of the universe and always will. Electrons do what electrons do. Period. There is nothing random or magical about exchanging photons with an atom. It might seem random because it is so fast and so crowded that no human mind can sort it out. But random it is not. Chaotic it may be, but random it is not. Determined it is, each frame contained in itself. But an electron doing what electrons do, every time, does nothing for human free will. Instead our freedom depends on the predictability of electron and atomic behavior in bulk, from which web of material our nervous systems can select the next protein, the next neuron, the next phoneme, the next word, the next sentence, the next plan, the next brick, the next building, the next act of charity or evil. See? There is still a form of determinism. Born of our free will, our choices have consequences. Not at all like electrons, nor like billiard balls, but still bound into a cause and effect system in our very own frames.
Life proceeds by selection and filtering. By that I mean life creates extremely complex and specific proteins by selecting the correct next amino acid to add to the growing molecule. At the same time another filter in a life system is creating an amino acid by adding the next correct atom or radical. Those smallest bits that life uses for raw material are already there because of entropic processes in the hearts of stars and the formation and evolution of planets. This world of protein and cells is life's felt and bumpers and slate. This is how life isolates itself from the determinism of molecules and atoms: filtering and selecting. Choice. In a bacterium the choices are between this protein and that one and no language is involved. In a human being the filters and choices of language dominate but that frame depends on the nearly chemical and bacteria like choices in the human brain being themselves a stable platform from which more abstract choices can be made.
Without the predictability of molecular behavior, without the sort of determinism found in the frame of ordinary matter, our free will would be impossible. It is our medium, rather life is our medium, and the medium of life is chemistry, which is our word for the rules followed by the virtual atoms of matter. And even in the frame we live in, a certain determinism is necessary or our freely made decisions are useless. But now determinism is less strict and looser, which is a sloppy way of saying more degrees of freedom. It is still with us, still a factor in the operation of the universe, but now turned away from universal entropy toward creation, growth, and reason. And good and evil.
Except it be the universe itself understood as a computer.
Not exploding like the first plastic ball material!
In an extended metaphor, I call these the Thread, Weave, Pattern, Characters, and Story of the Universal Tapestry. Please refer to this table of essays for more about frames and mediation. I now call this whole set of ideas
Virtual Atomics and list up to eleven levels of stability.
Nothing that I say here contradicts quantum mechanical probabilities and uncertainties. Insofar as we are able to measure them, probability becomes predictability and therefore happens, in those ratios,