Scientific Evidence for Indeterminism

The advantage of being a materialist is that so much of our experience seems to point to a material basis for reality. Idealists usually have to appeal to some inner knowing as the justification of their faith that mind, not matter, is the foundation of reality. Unfortunately the appeal to inner knowing is exactly what a materialist has trouble with in the first place.

Charles Sanders Peirce was a logician and a scientist first and a philosopher second. He thought like a scientists and as he developed his evolutionary philosophy his reasons for believing in it were very logical and scientific. One of the early insights that lead him to his understanding of an evolving universe was his realization that the state of our world or its future was not necessarily predetermined.

One conclusion that materialism tends to lead to is a belief that ‘nothing comes from nothing.’ Everything comes from some form of matter or interaction between material things. Nothing just immerges spontaneously. Everything is part of an ongoing chain of cause and effect. The question, how did the chain of cause and effect start, is one that is generally felt best to be left to the realm of metaphysics and unsuitable for scientific investigation.

And so the image of a materially based universe tends to lead to a deterministic account of reality. You start with something and then that something unravels according to immutable laws. As an image to picture imagine this, a large bucket filled with pink and green tennis balls. Then imagine that there are two smaller buckets that are empty. This arrangement represents the starting point of the universe. The natural laws of this universe dictate that individual tennis balls will be removed from the large bucket and placed in one of the two smaller ones. If the ball that is removed is pink it goes in the left hand bucket and if it is green it goes in the right hand bucket. In this simple model the end state of the universe is going to be that the large bucket will be empty, the left hand bucket will be filled with pink tennis balls and the right hand bucket will be filled with green tennis balls. The outcome of the process is predetermined by the initial conditions and the laws governing the subsequent activity.

A belief in this kind of determinism seems to be constantly reinforced for us through our ongoing experience with the material universe.  Go ahead pick up a rock hold it up and then let it go. It will fall. Every single time it will fall. It is predetermined that a rock that is held up in the air and then dropped will fall. Punch a wall. It will hurt – every single time.  Over and over again our experience of everyday reality seems to reinforce the fact that we live in a universe which is exactly governed by immutable laws.

Peirce’s scientific area of expertise was in measurement and he knew from his experience that the universe was actually giving us an entirely different message.  We find that when we try to measure anything exactly that it is impossible. And the more exact we want our measurements to be the more it seems impossible. The more precise we try to measure anything the more we find that no two measurements are ever exactly the same. We assume that this is due to errors in measurement. We assume that reality itself is exact but that we are just not capable of measuring it exactly.

Peirce pointed out that this is just an assumption and that it is equally likely that what we are actually encountering is the inexactitude of reality. Maybe the universe is not exact. Maybe the reason we can’t make exact measurements is because reality has a little bit of chance built into it. You measure something once and it is one size, but when you measure it again it is actually a slightly different size.

What Peirce was imagining was an indeterminate universe. A universe that has spontaneity, novelty and possibility built right into its fabric. Today we see it as a brilliant anticipation of accepted theories like Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. When he was developing the idea, in the decades after the American Civil War, it was much more radical. This insight was foundational in the formation of his evolutionary philosophy and his idealistic interpretation of reality and it opened the door to his belief that the universe was not rooted in the solidity of matter, but in the fluidity of mind.