Feb 262015

ontology-epistemology-conflationA common occurrence that happens in the free will debate is the conflation between what “is” or what “exists” with what we can or cannot “know”. In philosophical terms such is the conflation between an ontic understanding and an epistemic understanding. In case the philosophical terms arise in a discussion, all you really need to know is that ontology is the study of what exists, is real, or the nature and properties of “being”, while epistemology is the study of what we can know and how we can know things. In philosophy these words are very broad fields of study. For example, ones epistemological standard (standard of knowledge) might play into their ontological understandings (what they think exists or doesn’t exist).

If you are unfamiliar with the philosophical jargon, don’t be too concerned. For the free will debate, just know that one addresses existence claims and the other addresses knowledge claims. And the distinction between these two things are of great importance.

And it’s not only lay-people who conflate ontology with epistemology, but scientists and philosophers too. I’m here to caution against mixing these two things up, as doing so creates many confusions for many different topics, the free will topic being but one of these.

In physics, much of this started when quantum physics replaced our classical notions of physics, and words such as “probability wave” came into the mix. At the small quantum scale, particles behave like a wave until they are measured (interacted with). This can be seen with the famous double-slit experiment in which particles are shot one at a time through two slits and make a pattern on a screen after the slits. What we see on the screen goes against our intuitions. If the particle was passing through one slit at a time, we would see a buildup of two bars on the screen.


That, however, is not what we see. Rather, we see a number of bars:


This means the particles are acting like a wave, creating an interference pattern. If all of this is too confusing, don’t worry too much about it. The more important thing to get out of this is that we can only assess a probability of where the particle will end up on the screen (see those different bands in the second image, some have a higher probability of a particle ending up in the location due to the wave interference), and this has caused some to use terms like “probability wave”, causing people to confuse two different things.

In other words, the “wave behavior” is a real thing. It exists, as we can assess from the pattern. It’s ontologically a real wave. The fact that we can only assess a probability of where each individual particle will end up is, however, epistemological. It’s entirely about what we can or cannot know. When the two are mixed, people often think that such implies that both the wave function and the probabilistic nature of the wave function are “ontological” facts. This, however, is not the case.

The very idea of placing probabilism in the realm of ontological probability is logically absurd, and in quantum physics such was never meant to be suggested. Why it’s absurd gets us into the nature of causality versus the nature of an uncaused event (or acausal event). If an event is caused, but we can only assess a probability for where it will end up, such is always due to our lack of knowledge of the variables that force such to end up where it does. If an event is acausal, the only thing we can assess is that the event may or may not happen at any location. We could never assess a gradient of say 75% here or 25% there for an event that can happen anywhere at anytime or never happen at all.

As soon as we assess a probability we are asserting that something is constraining the event to the confines of that probability assessment, and that constraint must be, of course, causal.

Some might then argue that causality itself, in this case, is a different “kind”. That the cause has the probabilistic nature inherent in it. But this idea of causality is logically incoherent. It creates a cause that is self-contradictory. Either that, or it smuggles in yet another acausal event into the mix, which carries with it the same problems of being able to occur anywhere at any time (no spatial or temporal constraints). There is no way around this, even with the idea of superposition which can be another confusing part of quantum mechanics where the particle is claimed  to be in all “possible” states and collapses to one. Perhaps in another article I’ll go into the different quantum interpretations and what they mean for this, but it’s a mistake to think that any interpretation escapes the causal/acausal dichotomy.

This places probabilism strictly in the realm of what we can and cannot know (epistemology) rather than what exists (ontology). If you aren’t sure what is meant by it being epistemic, here’s a quick thought experiment. Imagine, if you will, three doors (doors A, B, and C). You know for 100% fact that a gold bar is behind one of the doors and donkeys are behind the other two, you just have no idea which door the gold or donkeys are behind. You have a 1/3 chance of opening the gold bar door if you could only pick one. Sarah, another person, however, knows that door C has a donkey, but she doesn’t know if the gold is behind A or B. Unlike you, she has a 50% chance of picking the gold bar door. Another person, Billy, however, knows that  door A and door C have the donkey, so he knows 100% that B has the gold bar (as he knows a gold bar is behind one of the doors that doesn’t have a donkey).

The probabilities differ based not on the probabilities being “actual” but rather the knowledge the person possesses.  The assessment of a 1/3rd probability or 50% probability are simply in the heads of the individuals (you and Sarah) who do not have the full knowledge that Billy has.

The probabilities aren’t something that actually “exist” in reality, other than existing as a thought in a brain.The gold bar doesn’t really have a 1/3rd chance of being behind any door, in reality it is 100% behind door B, as Billy happens to know.

This is the case for all assessments of probability, whether in the classical realm or the quantum realm. It’s just that at the quantum realm it appears we can’t have a Billy who knows all of the variables, due to various problems at such a small-scale. And if we are to assume a truly acausal event as some interpretations of quantum mechanics postulate, those events can have no forcing factor that we can assess a spatial (space) or temporal (time) probability for.

I can go on and on about why this is the case and make this article more bloated than it is already becoming, but I haven’t even started talking about how this relates to the free will debate. I’ll probably write more on this topic at a later date, as there is more to be said.

For the free will topic, what must be understood is that free will is an ontological assessment. The criticism is against the claim that people actually possess this “free will” ability –  an ability “exists”.  And how we assess that it doesn’t actually exist is through assessing other ontological claims, namely that of events and how they can come to be (which is either causally, or without a cause  – as these are in opposition). As it turns out, when we look deeply at these ways that events can (logically) happen, both are incompatible with that free will ability existing (which this article isn’t going into). And the assessment of why this is the case has absolutely nothing to do with if we can or cannot know something about the future.

We simply don’t need to have future predictive capabilities to conclude free will doesn’t exist.

Part of the problem for those who are unfamiliar or misinformed on the topic is that they conflate different ideas about the word “determinism” which is common for the debate. For example, they may think determinism means “predictable” (us being able to “determine” an outcome)…rather than simply the fact that causes determine the outcome. Some also incorrectly think that if determinism is shown false, that this opens the door for free will. This is an even larger mistake.

To clear up some of these confusions I wrote this article here:

“Determinism” and “Indeterminism” for the Free Will Debate

For this particular article, you just need to understand the usage of these words for the free will debate and the reasons why they are incompatible with free will have nothing to do with us being able to “determine” (or “know”) a future outcome. A lack of such knowing of all of the variables, or an impossibility of knowing such variables, do not in any way help support the ontological claim that free will exists against the reason why it doesn’t. It’s very important that we not conflate an inability to know or predict an outcome, with the reasons why free will doesn’t exist. The reasons have everything to do with the way events (that exist) must come about, and nothing to do with whether or not we can know how an event will happen in any absolute way.

BTFWI - paperbackAnd, as usual, if you don’t know why free will is incompatible with the only ways that events can come about, or why such are “the only ways”, I thoroughly go over this in the book Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind.

Catch ya later!

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'Trick Slattery

'Trick Slattery is the author of Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind. He's an author, philosopher, artist, content creator, and entrepreneur. He has loved and immersed himself in philosophy since he was teenager. It is his first and strongest passion. Throughout the years he has built a philosophy based on analytic logic and critical thinking. Some of the topics he is most interested in are of a controversial variety, but his passion for the topics and their importance drives him to want to express these ideas to others. His other passions include pen and ink line art and digital artwork.

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  3 Responses to “Existence Conflated with Knowledge and the Free Will Debate”

Comments (3)
  1. As I mentioned at greater length on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/groups/2218407727/permalink/10153175005457728/), I think the physics in this post is worrying, even if it isn’t a problem for your free will skepticism. Whether or not the indeterminism in quantum mechanics is far from a physically settled fact, and there are a number of respectable interpretations of the formalism in which indeterminism isn’t a result of any hidden variables. The GRW collapse theory is probably the most well-known and respectable of the collapse interpretations that feature ontological indeterminism; it’s important to be careful about this stuff.

    • Hi Jon, thanks for stopping by. :)

      There is nothing in this article that suggests I’m saying only a nonlocal hidden variable interpretation applies. Only that “ontological probability” is incoherent (which I didn’t really elaborate on too much in this particular article but will certainly do so in another). Also note that “ontological indeterminism” is not the same as “ontological probabilism”. If acausal events happen, ontological indeterminism happens. For this article my concern is over the conflation between ontology and epistemology, and I think people do this mistakenly for QM. I also responded on facebook, so you can respond there. :-)

  2. This post helped me understand the difference between what exists and our knowledge. The gold bar was always behind door B whether or not someone knows it.

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