A Proof of Fate

Like all good proofs, this proof must begin with a definition of terms: What is fate?

For me, fate is the belief that we are destined to a single future. It is the belief that the story of our lives, every one of us, is prescripted and unalterable, that all the scenes are already shot on some Almighty video camera. (As an aside, it is this conception of fate that always makes me want to smack people who believe in an omniscient God, but not in fate, repeatedly with a rubber crucifix.)

Many people like to focus fate into single events, or to consider the concept to be a romantic or religious weakness. These people like to believe that the idea that you were “fated” to meet your life partner, or “destined” to be in that car accident, is mystical nonsense.

I completely disagree. Fate is fact.

Not only do I believe that we, as human beings, are scientifically destined to a single future, I believe that your dog is too. And your fish. And your house. And the grass on your lawn, every blade. I believe in Fate for your gas-powered snow-blower. And for your nearest city bus. In fact, the whole system of paved roads has a destiny as unavoidable as rain in Vancouver.

Same goes for other structures: all the buildings downtown, all the bridges linking our cities together, and all the planes in the sky. Speaking of the sky, understand that every molecule of air is in exactly the right spot for this exact moment in time, for this frame on that celestial video tape, if you will. And it doesn’t stop with our sky. The moon is orbiting in a position and on a path that was mapped out when time began. Same goes for every other planet, sun, black hole, or bit of galactic space dust you can think of.

Had enough? The point is this: Nothing in the universe is random.

Randomness is a false and contrived concept. If a series of events do not follow a discernable pattern, we like to say that the series is random. However, it is more likely that we are simply unable to find the pattern, and determine the criteria that cause it. As modern technology becomes more and more precise, so does our ability to model complex systems, and we can find patterns where we previously believed none existed. However, just because we can’t find a pattern doesn’t mean we can conclude that a pattern doesn’t exist; it is more likely, from historical evidence, to conclude that we are unable to adequately determine and measure the factors that cause the pattern.

When a plane takes off from the runway and lifts ridiculously into the blue sky, it does so because the combination of forces acting upon it cause it to do so. Engineers have figured out that things like weight, velocity, and tweaky little wing designs can affect an object’s ability to defy gravity. But imagine if that plane were to lift off, then suddenly flip over midair and burst inexplicably into flames; engineers would search frantically for the “cause” of the accident: the factor that wasn’t considered, or malfunctioned, in the design of the plane. The idea is that the universe is fair and consistent, and you can do whatever you like as long as you play within by rules. In this case, the rules are the laws of physics as we know them.

I know, there’s nothing earth-shattering about this, so why am I wasting time on it? To hammer home the point that randomness is a fallacy. The understanding that all occurances in the universe happen as a direct result of some other occurance, and that cause-and-effect applies to all things, is central to the idea of fate. The path of a leaf as it falls from a tree is a function of its weight, shape, the amount of wind acting on it, and to a lesser degree, some other factors we have not yet discovered. You must also accept that the wind acting on that leaf is made up of a vast, flowing sea of molecules, all jostling with each other for maximum energy efficiency, being heated by the sun, cooled by the water, and spurred forward by the trillions upon trillions of molecules pushing from behind.

It’s easy to agree that the things we consider to be inanimate, rocks, molecules, and bridges, act according to the laws of physics. Actually, I use the term “laws” loosely, because even though we understand a great deal about the physical world, I think we have only scratched the surface of what it truly holds, and to call a popular theory a “law” is optimistic at best, arrogant and fatal at worst.

With that same arrogance, most people are happy to sentence a rock to a predictable fate, but believe themselves and their own destinies to be above the same laws that govern the rock. If you are one of those people, I’m going to try to change your mind.

It’s about time, you say. Yes, yes, settle down. For some people, these concepts contradict core beliefs, and can be hard to swallow, so I need to get you warmed up to the ideas a bit.

I want to talk about your brain. It’s not fun to think of your brain (and your body) as just a machine, but it really is. Don’t be disappointed, it’s the most complicated machine we’ve ever encountered. By “machine,” I mean that it has inputs and outputs like other modern machines, and behaves in a completely programmed way. If you open your eyes in the morning, you expect to see your surroundings. If you put your hand on a surface, you expect to feel its temperature and texture. If you misplace your keys, your brain will actively begin searching your memory to determine their location.

The most amazing thing about the human brain (and almost any other living thing with a brain), is its ability to learn. The brain is constantly using new experiences to make itself more efficient and better adapted to survive. This isn’t magic; your brain has been designed to reorganize itself according to the information it processes. Modern artificial intelligence (AI) computer systems are built with similar, albeit primitive, self-modifying abilities, so we already understand some basic strategies for brain-like behaviour. I know that the comparison between AI and the brain is trite, but my point is that both of their functions are defined by their design, and the brain has a design that is simply beyond our current comprehension. Not only is its current design beyond our comprehension, but unlike that of the AI computer, its self-modifying qualities are also largely unknown. Instead of digital, the brain’s circuits are biochemical. Instead of a binary system, it uses a system of synaptic tolerance thresholds.

So let’s strain those synapses. Think of a random number (for those of you paying attention, you already know this is impossible, but just play along for now). Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Okay, got it? OK.

Is it seven?

“Wow,” some of you are thinking, “how did he do that?”

As for the rest of you, you were thinking of the wrong number. Speaking of which, let’s talk about numbers a bit.

The universe doesn’t understand numbers. We invented numbers to help us make sense of what exists around us. But even with your fancy mathematics education, can you tell me what zero is? It’s nothing– of something. Right? It’s a measurement that denotes a complete lack of whatever you are measuring. So let’s measure something.

In tribute to my hometown of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, where there are more donut shops per capita than anywhere else in the world, let’s measure donuts. So, what is zero donuts?

First we have to define what a donut is. It has some flour, some sugar, a bunch of other ingredients (I’m not a donut chef), and they’re all cooked up and served to you, occasionally with coffee. But not all donuts are the same. For instance, no two donuts use EXACTLY the same amount of flour, or sugar.

But what if we could make sure that they DID use EXACTLY the same amount of flour? What if we used the most precise measuring instruments available? Well, first let’s think about that word: precision.

Precision tells you how accurate a measurement is, but the problem is that there is no such thing as “completely” accurate. Don’t believe me? Ask the Olympic sprinter who seemingly tied for third in her 100m race with a time of 10.453 seconds, only to find that after closer examination, her time was 10.4538, while the woman she tied with finished in 10.4535. The point is that just when you think you’re exactly accurate, you can always add another decimal place and try to measure it. So really, when we talk about a “donut,” we are talking about something that meets some vague criteria of what we understand a donut to be.

The same holds for all other “units”. It is totally predictable that all snowflakes are different; it would be more incredible if we ever found two snowflakes that WERE exactly alike. And if we ever did, I would argue that we are just not comparing them precisely enough.

So it’s important to recognize that numbers, like watches, are a confidence trick invented by the Swiss (my apologies to Fred Ward and “Remo Williams: The Adventures Begins…”). Numbers make the universe manageable, and more importantly, through the stubborn application of mathematics and Nielsen ratings, they make things like airplanes and sitcoms fly more often than not.

And that random number you were thinking of? Here’s how it was produced: Your eyes looked at the words on the screen, and a part of your brain translated the shapes into letters, then into words. Next, a similar section devoted to language gave those words meaning and triggered another area of the brain to respond. This other area used some loose criteria to choose a number (no bounds were given, but commonly a response from one to ten is expected; I bet your number was in this range), and finally your brain made you consciously aware of it.

All of this resulted from a lightning-quick chain reaction of chemical transmissions in your brain. Not only were you made aware of this particular number, but the experience of thinking of this number may have altered the way you create future “random” numbers, depending on the design of your particular brain.

If this is confusing, it’s because of the design of your brain.

Just kidding. Well, actually I’m not kidding; it is because of the design of your brain. Or perhaps mine, in its inability to make this concept easier for you to understand.

As an aside, it is interesting to think about how design is related to evolution and natural selection. The fact that you are here today is a testament to the design of the brains (your mother’s and father’s) that were able to reproduce their bodily DNA as… (drumroll please) you! With the exception of the beta video format and the Macintosh computer, better designs win out. For humans, it has recently meant that a brain that is able to comprehend and analyze information is better suited for survival than one that isn’t. It will be interesting to see how this plays out as more and more so-called “smart” people are rationalizing a life of non-reproduction!

“For the love of pete, how does all this relate to fate?!?” you ask. Way to stay focused. If we assume that your brain, like all other living systems, react in non-random ways to their environments, and we already know that non-living systems change over time in non-random ways, then we can conclude that the universe is made up of a collection of non-random systems interacting with each other in non-random ways. That is, predictable systems doing predictable things. If we take two of these non-random systems, say a person and a rock, and isolate them as an experiment, we could conceivably predict exactly how they would change over time if we completely understood their designs.

Now if we introduce a third system, like a mouse, the whole experiment becomes more complex only because the number of total systems has increased. But as long as we understood the design of the mouse, we could still predict exactly how the experiment would progress. The universe is simply this experiment with an unfathomable number of systems, none of whose designs we fully understand.

So let’s put this into a personal context. You, your thoughts, how you feel now, how you will feel tomorrow and a year from now, are all prescribed by the way you are designed, as a system, to interact with all the other systems in the universe. And I mean ALL of them. Seeing a shooting star may cause your brain to ask something very different of your date than you had originally intended. But the path of that shooting star was as inevitable as your reaction to it.

Everything you do, from your choice of music to your choice of mate, is predestined. Your “choice” will be the only one that your brain is capable of making at that time, based on its design. When you look back and think, “I could have skipped that third plate of Thanksgiving dinner,” or “I could have quit smoking that last time, if I’d really tried,” you really believe this, but you are completely wrong. You are a slave to your brain, and the design of your brain was incapable of making that decision, at that time.

When I discuss this with my friends, they accuse me of trying to explain away the soul, and take all of the magic out of being alive. I guess this is a matter of perspective. I know I have a soul, but my definition of a soul is certainly not a religious one. My soul is just the essence of my consciousness, which is the product of the incredible revving of my brain engine. My soul is me, and whether I believe I am a bunch of chemical reactions inside some grey water sack, or a spiritual mist that inhabits a fleshy body, either way the result– the sensation of being alive– is pretty magical.

A friend of mine sighed frustratedly when we first discussed this topic, and asked, “so, what does this mean?” She doesn’t see the point of a debate unless it leads to some concrete course of action. I think this proof of fate as fact is important because it may change and– dare I say it?– improve the the perspective from which we look at the world, and thereby form a better base for further critical thought. After all, philosophical insights and scientific paradigms seem to occur instantaneously, but they are actually the accumulated steam from a mind long heated by thousands of other ideas, all whispering, “warmer… warmer… warmer….”

Ed’s Note: After several comments suggesting that the author is an uneducated putz in the area of modern physics, the following addendum is proposed.

Arguing against the idea of fate as fact is Quantum Mechanics (QM) and Werner Heisenberg’s “Uncertainty Principle.” Simply stated, this principle says that the closer you try to measure a particle’s position, the less accurately you can measure it’s velocity. This is because any attempt to measure something inherently interferes with the thing itself. For example, if you put a thermometer into a bowl of hot soup, the thermometer will be cooling the soup down while it measures its temperature! The implications of this are that

  1. even if we understood perfectly how every system in the universe functioned, we would never be able to take a “snapshot” from which to predict future events, and
  2. the behaviour of matter and energy is simply a matter of probabilities.

For example, if you drop a hammer, it will usually fall down. If it lands on your foot, you will usually howl in pain (unless you are my friend Dave, who can’t feel his feet. Then you will grin mischievously and freak people out). The geeky details break down to say that any given particle moving through space is only “likely” to be in a certain position; in fact, there is a wave-shaped formula defining the likelihood that the particle would be found in a given location.

It’s my understanding that these theories are still under debate by physicists, and Einstein himself believed that all it proved was th
at QM was incomplete. In practice, applying QM formulas give the kinds of results that make our modern electronics possible. And there are documented experiments that record particles in very “unlikely” places, so the proven mathematical success of uncertainty could be used to argue against the idea of a predetermined future. Particles (and ultimately, people) would act in some entirely unpredictable way; your brain would still be beholden to the laws of physics, but those laws would now dictate that you had, for example, a 15% chance of taking up smoking instead of no chance at all. In the end, this is simply another kind of randomness.

So this is either true randomness, or the physicists simply haven’t figured it out. To me, it makes more sense to think that eventually, we will have yet another paradigm shift to understand the causes of this perceived randomness, and come to understand the deterministic properties of QM. Some people like to cling to QM as God’s way of building “free will” into the system; the romantic in me appreciates this idea, but if I were a betting man, I’d stick with Einstein’s belief that “God does not play dice.”

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