Posted by: Jim | February 25, 2006

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A Test for Determinism

Today I will take a short break from my efforts to save the world from certain destruction, and instead present a way to find out if the universe is ruled by determinism or not.

Determinism, as all you Calvinists know, is the theory that the universe has a pre-programed fate–allegedly programmed by God–and that we are merely actors in God’s play. The opposing theory, known as “free will,” turns the play into something closer to “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” where we are actors who have the freedom to move about and say things as they wish. With Free Will, there is no script, and no one knows the outcome.

To settle this millenia-long battle once and for all, I have designed a scientific test that will–with some degree of statistical certainty–prove or disprove if Determinism is guiding the future of the universe. It doesn’t prove Free Will, per se, but could disprove Determinism.

(To the left is an artist’s conception of what the SLB might look like.)

First (and here’s the part that’s not yet possible), you have to devise a little machine I call the “Special Little Box,” or SLB. The SLB does not have to look special. In fact it looks boring. It’s a little box with a button, and a little red light. However, here’s how the box works: When you push the button, it sends a single atomic particle to a receptor, which lights the little red light. The only complicated part, is that the particle moves five seconds into the past before hitting the receptor. So essentially, the little red light will go on 5 seconds before you push the button. No other force in the universe can make the light go one other than the push of the button on the SLB, and that the light goes on exactly always 5 seconds before the button is pushed.

Simple enough? OK, let’s go.

You hire some volunteers who do not know how the SLB works. I recommend hiring poor college students who are smart enough to follow basic instructions, but poor enough to volunteer for this exercise for a small fee, or even just cookies and punch. Put them in a room with the SLB, and give them instructions. “Push the button exactly five seconds after the light goes on.” Then, you and your friends should go into the little observation room behind the one-way mirror, and jot down your observations.

This part of the test probably won’t prove anything yet, but it’s good for a few laughs. It will amuse you that these dumb college students are able to push the button *exactly* five seconds after the light goes on. Not 4.7 seconds, not 5.2 seconds, but exactly 5 seconds. Weird, huh? Now, if one of the volunteers is either extremely stupid or extremely clever, the volunteers should always push the button 5 seconds after the light goes on. If an extremely stupid person is too dull-witted to push the button, or if an extremely clever person decides to rebel against the test, then you have already disproven the theory of determinism, and proven that the universe is ruled by either extremely clever or extremely stupid people. (A more complicated theory might be that there are a myriad of “alternative universes” going on at all times, but I’ll discuss that some other time maybe.)

If this first part of the test does not achieve any surprising results, then it’s time to move onto the true test of determinism.

This time, place a scientist in the room who understands the nature of the test, and how the SLB works. He should be blindfolded. Or, better yet, to ensure 100% infallability of this test, he should volunteer to have his eyes gouged out to guarantee certainty that he cannot see the whether the little red light is on or not. Then tell him to push the button at random every once in awhile. If this part of the test achieves no surprising results, you can move on to the next portion with the joyful confidence that the universe is not guided by random fate.

Then, place a scientist who still has both his eyes, and who understands the nature of the test. Tell him to try and push the button THIRTY seconds after the light goes on. Make sure this scientist is clever enough to easily tell the difference between Five and Thirty seconds. This is the portion of the test that will truly determine whether the fate of the universe is pre-determined or not. If the scientist mistakes thirty seconds for five seconds every time, then the universe is pre-determined. If five seconds elapses and the scientist does not push the button, then Determinism is not true, or it is true but can be over-ruled by calculated rebellion.

You may now go about your business freely.

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