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Determinism vs Non-determinism

  1. Determinism - The Universe is deterministic

  2. Non-determinism - The universe is not deterministic

  3. Don't know, Don't care - then why are you here?

    0 vote(s)
  4. Huh? - See #3 above, the one just before this one.

    0 vote(s)
  5. Duh? - See #4 above

    0 vote(s)
Multiple votes are allowed.
  1. Oct 12, 2005 #1

    de•ter•min•ism (d -tûr m -n z m) n.
    The philosophical doctrine that every state of affairs, including every human event, act, and decision is the inevitable consequence of antecedent states of affairs.


    Determinism holds that each state of affairs is necessitated (determined) by the states of affairs that preceded it, an extension of cause and effect. Indeterminism holds this proposition to be incorrect, and that there are events which are not entirely determined by previous states of affairs. The idea of determinism is sometimes illustrated by the story of Laplace's demon, who knows all the facts about the past and present and all the natural laws that govern our world, and uses this knowledge to foresee the future, down to every detail.

    As anyone who has read many of my threads or posts knows I believe in a non-deterministic universe for both logical scientific reasons and religious reasons. I do not understand why so many here seem to believe or profess to believe in determinism. Is it taught in college now-a-days as an accepted fact? Is is a requirement of the physicalist/atheist view point?

    Please indicate your choice and then give your personal reasons for that choice. I am really interested and curious in what all of you think and believe and why?
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 15, 2005 #2
    Firstly, thank you for offering very clear definitions!
    Unfortunately I do not agree with your chosen definition of determinism - it implicitly assumes a temporal dimension in which "past" events cause "future" events, however it may be the case that past, present and future all co-exist in some timeless, self-consistent reality (in such a case it is just as true to say that "the future causes the past" as it is to say "the past causes the future").
    With this clarification, I firmly place myself on the "I believe in determinism" bandwagon.
  4. Oct 15, 2005 #3
    Or just as untrue. Aruably, causality requires time to make sense.

    You surely don't think d-ism is an implication of atemporality?
  5. Oct 15, 2005 #4
    Hi again Tournesol
    With respect, the thread is not about what we can argue is or is not true, it is about “what do you believe?”. I would argue the truth or falsity of indeterminism vs determinism is beyond our epistemic horizon, therefore it does indeed come down simply to “belief”.
    And causality is arguably a macroscopic illusion.
    Which is why I do not think of determinism in terms of causality, but rather in terms of self-consistent (timeless) histories.
    I never said that.
    I said :
    In other words, I believe in determinism but not necessarily the determinism as defined by Royce above.
    Always good to exchange ideas with you,
  6. Oct 15, 2005 #5
    :rofl: - similarly I do not understand why some here seem to believe or profess to believe in indeterminism, when determinism seems to me to be eminently more logical and rational.
  7. Oct 15, 2005 #6


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    I'd prefer not to state "beliefs" as opposed to simply accepting that we can't be sure either way. So far, hidden variable theories seem to have been disproved, though I understand there's a class of hidden variable theories which may actually be possible.

    Question: Isn't reductionism and determinism the same thing? Is proving one to be false also proving the other to be false? What's the difference?
  8. Oct 15, 2005 #7
    That is correct.
    In fact the results of entanglement experiments show that no "local reality" theory can be correct - hidden variables or no hidden variables. So whatever reality is, it is non-local.
    There is no evidence showing that non-local hidden variables theories are necessarily incorrect, therefore if (as you say) you prefer not to state beliefs then by voting in this poll you have (with respect) just erred......(because the brutal truth is that neither determinism nor indeterminism can be shown to be false.....)



    Reductionism is the belief that everything about a system can be explained by reducing the system to its parts. Reductionism cannot account for emergent properties or emergent behaviour in complex systems. It has nothing directly to do with determinism per se.

  9. Oct 15, 2005 #8
    As I have said in a few threads and post, I believe that chance and chaos play a significant role in our universe, world and lives. The Uncertainty Principle, QED, sexual reproduction and the chaos of weather and climate patterns all support this position IMHO.

    I also am a firm believer of Free Will which is not possible or allowed for in a strongly determinant Universe.

    So far as I have been able to deduct the basis for most determinant beliefs is cause and effect.
  10. Oct 16, 2005 #9
    Please allow me to answer to each one of these.

    The Uncertainty Principle
    This principle places a limit on what we can KNOW about reality, it identifies an epistemic horizon, beyond which science is unable to proceed. This is the basis of the Copenhagen Interpretation of QM, which basically says that it is meaningless to ask "what really happens?" in (for example) the 2-slit experiment, because we can never know "what really happens". All we can ever know is what we measure, and what we measure is limited by the Uncertainty Principle (UP). However, NONE of this (and certainly not the UP) necessarily implies that reality is intrinsically indeterministic - it may be the case that it is deterministic (see Non-Local Hidden Variables theories) - we simply do not know.

    Can be viewed as a purely deterministic interpretation. I see no evidence for indeterminism here? Or perhaps you can elaborate.

    Sexual Reproduction

    With respect – I am not sure what you are trying to suggest here. Are you suggesting that sexual reproduction is an indeterministic process? On what basis? Do you have any evidence for this? As far as I am aware, sexual reproduction can be explained and understood scientifically on purely deterministic grounds.

    Chaos is a feature of a deterministic system – it has nothing to do with indeterminism per se. Chaos arises purely from the sensitive dependence of some deterministic systems on initial conditions. Or do you have any evidence that chaos arises necessarily from indeterminism? Perhaps you can share that with us?

    In conclusion, therefore, there is no evidence in any of the above for the presence of indeterminism.

    Can you explain exactly what you mean by Free Will (ie define the concept), and then explain how you think the introduction of indeterminism endows this kind of Free Will on an otherwise deterministic agent? (I have had may discussions on here about this subject, and I have never seen it done).

    Then you are incorrect in my case. My reason for belief in determinism is via Occam’s Razor – in other words I see no reason for invoking the hypothesis of any element of indeterminism in an otherwise deterministic world because I cannot see how indeterminism explains any feature of our universe.

    With respect, I suspect many people cling on to a belief in indeterminism because they think that the following argument is rational :

    “free will is incompatible with determinism – I believe that I have free will – therefore the world cannot be deterministic”.

    This presupposes (a) that the free will they think they have actually exists, and (b) that indeterminism can somehow endow this kind of free will. But can anyone follow this through rationally and logically?

    As always, With Respect

    Last edited: Oct 16, 2005
  11. Oct 16, 2005 #10


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    I'd agree with your definition of reductionism. To expand a bit, reductionism assumes causal relationships exist and the mechanisms involved in those relationships produce a deterministic outcome. Alternatively, one could say in the broad sense of the word, one could have an indeterminate outcome from some given mechanism, but reducing any phenomenon to it's most fundamental level, the level of atoms and electrons, should essentially give us a deterministic model. I suppose one could say that reductionism is untrue but determinism still holds though I have trouble seeing how because if something is deterministic it implies causal relationships exist which can be reduced to the interaction of the various parts of the system.
    If reductionism can't account for "emergent properties" (I'd disagree for the most part) then what is being done in science to determine what is producing these emergent properties? Generally, reductionism is widely accepted and thought to be sufficient to give us a TOE. Emergent properties are simply what we percieve from the complex interaction of fundamental particles of matter and energy. Can you suggest a physical phenomenon that can't be found to emerge from the interaction of matter and energy at some fundamental level?
  12. Oct 16, 2005 #11
    I would dispute that reductionism necessarily assumes determinism - such a state of affairs would imply that reductionism and indeterminism are incompatible. Why should this be the case? It is quite conceivable (imho) that someone could believe in both indeterminism and reductionism.
    Alternatively, one could have an indeterministic outcome at the most fundamental level (isn’t this what indeterminists believe?)
    With respect, this is the same problem of understanding that many reductionists have – they cannot see how it may not be possible to explain everything in reductionist terms. To a reductionist, “the whole” must always equate to “the sum of the parts”. But in reality there are cases where “the whole” is more than simply “the sum of the parts”.
    An analogy is in order here, to clarify my point. There exists a "University of Oxford" (UK), but try (in the best reductionist tradition) to identify exactly what is the essence of the University of Oxford by looking in finer and finer detail, try to identify exactly where in space the University of Oxford is situated, try to point out the precise spatial coordinates to anyone, and you will fail. It is possible (via reductionism) to identify some of the components of the university – the various colleges, the libraries, the faculty, the students, etc etc, but look as hard as we might and we cannot identify anything that is the essence of the university.
    Does this mean the University of Oxford does not exist? No.
    Does this mean the University of Oxford exists but is actually located in another dimension or another world? No.
    What it DOES mean is that the University of Oxford is not a single physical object, it is instead the emergent institution to which the various colleges, libraries and museums of Oxford University belong. We lose sight of the University of Oxford by trying to break it down into smaller and smaller parts.

    Any attempt to equate the University of Oxford with a discrete physical object is an example of what the philosopher Gilbert Ryle calls a category error – thinking of the University in terms of the same kind of thing as the physical colleges that comprise the University. But the University is not that kind of thing at all, there is no single physical place or thing that you can point to and say “that is the University”. The University cannot be identified by reductionism alone, it is instead the emergent institution to which all of these physical components belong.
    And for every leading scientist you can cite who believes that reductionism can provide a ToE, I can cite one who thinks differently.
    Imho there is an epistemic horizon defined by quantum uncertainty – it is in principle impossible for us to probe beyond this horizon. This means it will be in principle impossible to experimentally falsify any hypothesis (including a ToE) which purports to explain physics beyond this horizon.
    But that is my whole point – emergent phenomena (by definition) DO emerge from interactions at a fundamantal level, but that does not mean they can be understood in their entirety by simple reductionist approaches.
    Try, by breaking down the brain into smaller and smaller components, to explain how consciousness emerges from the interaction of matter and energy.

  13. Oct 16, 2005 #12


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    Yes, I fully agree with that. I tried to point out that an alternative view could include indeterminism with reductionism, though I've noticed that arguing QM is indeterminate in the Physics forums will result in a rash of those who will point out fields and tensors and such things I've not delved into in order to point out how such terms as indeterminate can't necessarily be used. It seems even the terms determinate and indeterminate need refining for very picky philosophers. <smile>

    Regarding the University of Oxford and similar ideas. Suggesting such things are emergent as philosophers often do I think misses the point entirely. The university consists of buildings and people, land and space in general. All of the matter and energy that makes up that volume of space called "Oxford" and all of the volume around it is under the sway of natural laws (whatever that means). The "idea" that the university has "emerged" out of anything is false, IMHO. Nothing has physically emerged, the idea of something being there which is more than the sum of the parts is only an idea. And an idea (to a computationalist/reductionist) is nothing but a configuration of neurons in a person's brain. So the emergent "Oxford University" can only "emerge" when neurons in a brain configure themselves to allow an idea to come about. That idea can only be defined in terms of other ideas, so the entire concept of "Oxford University" is only an idea that can be defined or undefined (ill-defined) by ideas. So how do ideas come about? From the configuration of neurons. But then again, the neurons can also be 'reduced'. I don't have to find or locate the volume of space called "Oxford University" because the entire concept is only contained in a pattern of atoms and molecules which make up the neurons that interact inside my brain.

    MF, I agree with you that emergent phenomena can occur that are more than the sum of the individual parts, and there ARE physicists who would agree with that (most notably Laughlin) despite what I said earlier. But I don't think the line of reasoning typically used by philosophers can logically prove it. I think one has to come up with a logical test to show that a phenomenon occurs which can not be reduced to the interaction of it's constituent parts. The University of Oxford does not define a pheonomenon in the true sense of the word, it's an idea. A phenomenon would be a physical occurance which can come about that has to rely on something other than the fundamental interaction of it's constituent parts.
  14. Oct 16, 2005 #13
    We have been over all this before; but, why not again and why not here?

    The Copenhagen Interpretation of QM is but one interpretation of the Uncertainty Principle and not the only one nor the most modern.

    From thread 05-16-2005 post #9 "A Case for an Indeterministic Universe"

    Can be viewed as a purely deterministic interpretation. I see no evidence for indeterminism here? Or perhaps you can elaborate.[/QUOTE]

    The motion or bath of an electron moving from point A to point B will take any and all possible paths. It is impossible to know which one it may take. We can only calculate the Sum of Histories which approximate a probability curve. (This is not a direct quote but my paraphrasing of what I had in mind.

    Many plants especially trees release their pollen to be carried by the wind to land and hopefully fertilize the female seeds of a differ plant or tree of the same species. Many lower marine animals such as oysters and coral release both their sperm and eggs to float in the water and be fertilized randomly.
    Mammals release millions of sperm cells every time they mate and only one of those sperm will fertilize whichever egg it is the first to reach. These are all random events.

    Chaos is the antithesis of determinism. Chaotic eddies will form randomly at random times throughout any system of moving fluid.

    [QUO(TE]In conclusion, therefore, there is no evidence in any of the above for the presence of indeterminism.[/QUOTE]

    There is no evidence only because you refuse to admit the possibility of anything to be random chance and therefore must be deterministic even in the face of numerous facts, truths and scientific findings, principles and understanding.

    Once again:

    I do not think that indeterminism endows anything onto anything. I said that it allows the possibility of free will. I do not agree that any agent is completely deterministic.

    You have already decided the the world is deterministic by the highlighted statement in the quote above. "My reason for belief in determinism...I see no reason...in an otherwise deterministic world." This is circular reasoning and not logical. Your mind is made up and you can and will rationalize it any and every way possible including illogical thinking dispute any and all evidence refuting your firm belief.

    You are accusing me and others of doing exactly what you are doing, as I showed above. I gave here and other threads and posts my logical reasons for believing in indeterminism, that chance and randomness play a significant role in the physical universe. I have given sources and quotes but none of that makes any difference because you mind is made up. So be it. Mine is too about some things. You have yet, in at least 3 different threads, to explain why or how you think that the universe is deterministic.
  15. Oct 17, 2005 #14
    Thank you. Since we seem to agree that reductionism is compatible both with a belief in determinism and with a belief in indeterminism then I think we can move on – to steer this thread into a deeper discussion of reductionism per se would, with respect, take us off-topic.


  16. Oct 17, 2005 #15
    Hi Royce
    I would dispute that CI is a true interpretation (in the full sense of the word interpretation). CI places limits on our epistemic horizon. Any other hypothesis which tries to suggest “what is really going on” beyond that epistemic horizon is (according to scientific principles, and according to CI) pure speculation, metaphysical and unscientific.
    With respect, this is a matter of opinion, not fact. In my book, quantum uncertainty is merely epistemic, not ontic, and I would challenge anyone to prove this view wrong.
    Has anyone “seen” a classical wave function? The wave function is a mathematical construct generated to allow us to try and get a handle on what is “really” going on, but at the quantum level the macro-level analogies of “waves” and “particles” are just that – analogies. Nobody “knows” what is going on, and anyone who does claim to “know” is (with respect) a charlatan.
    With respect, this is "back to front". To say that an ontology (ie the way things really are) depends on an epistemology (ie the way we see them) is just downright ridiculous.
    It would be correct to say that the observer can never know the ontic properties, to an observer everything is epistemic (which is what CI says).
    Epistemic uncertainty “comes out of” the dualism necessarily imposed by “observer” and “observed”. There is no getting away from this dualism. Classical physics assumes a passive observer, and in the quantum limit this assumption is invalid, and this is the source of epistemic uncertainty. But epistemic uncertainty does not necessarily imply ontic indeterminism. Ontic indeterminsim has never been, and never can be, unequivocally demonstrated.
    We have a non-sequitur here. You say the electron “will” take any and all possible paths, and yet you also say it is impossible to know “which one” it may take.
    With respect, if it takes “all possible paths” then it is meaningless to ask “which one does it take?”.
    Apart from this, “impossible to know” literally implies at the most only epistemic uncertainty, it does not necessarily imply ontic indeterminism.
    This is the way that we calculate (ie the maths), it says nothing about what is “really going on”.
    Implicit in your claim is the assumption that the everyday English term “random” means the same to you as the word “indeterministic” means to a physicist or a logician. If I throw a pair of dice, I might say the outcome of that throwing is “random”, but that does not mean that I think it is indeterministic. I can pick a “random” card from a deck, but that does not mean that I think it is an indeterministic choice. When I play roulette, I might say the ball selects numbers at “random”, but that does not mean it is indeterministic. What most people actually mean when they use the term “random” in everyday language is related to an epistemic property of the process – we actually mean “I cannot predict what will happen, therefore to all intents and purposes the process is random”. But that does not necessarily mean that the process is ontically random (ie truly indeterministic).
    If you are still unconvinced – a classic example is the “random number generator” in a computer. To all intents and purposes, it produces random numbers (generally we are unable to predict what numbers will be produced) – but in actual fact the computer RNG is behaving completely deterministically – if you reset the RNG it will then generate the same sequence of random numbers all over again.
    With respect, is this just your opinon or have you learned this from somewhere?
    Read any good up-to-date scientific text on chaos theory and I think you will find that not one has any need to introduce the hypothesis of indeterminism to explain what is going on in chaotic systems. Or can you refer me to one that does?
    Again I suspect you are using the colloquial (everyday) meaning of “random” here, which is an epistemic term. Yes, I agree that chaotic systems are (epistemically) unpredictable. But this is due to extreme sensitivity on initial conditions, and has nothing to do with indeterminism.
    I “refuse to admit” nothing, but I will not accept illogical or unsubstantiated claims. I will accept genuine evidence of ontic indeterminism if you can show me any. But (as I have explained above) nothing you have shown “requires” indeterminism in order to be explained. Belief in indeterminsim is therefore imho a matter of faith, not one of science.
    By “endow” I do mean “allows the possibility of”, in the sense that “without indeterminism there would be no free will, with indeterminism there is free will”.
    Would you agree with this?
    The problem is, I have never seen anyone successfully demonstrate and successfully defend how this relationshp works (ie exactly how it is that free will arises from indeterminism)
    With respect, my position is quite logical.
    One must start with the premise EITHER that the world is completely deterministic, OR that it is not. (which is equivalent to saying EITHER the world contains no indeterminism, or it does).
    Which one you choose is a matter of faith.
    If you start with the belief that everything in the world is deterministic, one can then ask “does determinism explain everything that I see in the world, from an epistemic point of view?” My answer is yes.
    Then we could ask “would adding an indeterministic element help me to explain things any better?”. My answer is no.
    If you start with the alternative belief that there is indeterminsim in the world then you can arrive at the same conclusion (ie it fits the facts).
    So what do we have? EITHER one can believe that the world is 100% deterministic, with no indeterminism, OR one can believe that the world is apparently largely deterministic, but with some indeterminism. Both philosophies fit the facts. Occam’s razor would say that the former (being the simpler) is the preferred philosophy.
    I could say the same about you. In my case, my mind is in fact “not made up”, but I can defend my beliefs using rational logic. Can you?
    And I have refuted all of your claims.
    I disagree that “my mind is made up”. I am willing to continue a rational debate on the subject. I am open to continued rational argument. Are you?
    I have explained above. I would be interested to see how you respond.
    With respect,
    Last edited: Oct 17, 2005
  17. Oct 17, 2005 #16
    If determinism is to hold, the world, the universe, must be wholly deterministic.

    If it can be shown to occur within the world any random non-deterministic event then the world is not wholly deterministic and determinism does not hold and cannot then be the case.

    case 1.
    The fair roll of a fair die (one of a pair of dice) will result in one of six numbered faces of the die ending face up. It can be calculated that the probability of any one of the six numbers coming up is 1 in 6. Given any number of rolls it will be shown that this is true and that all of the numbers have an equal probability of coming up. It is impossible to predict or determine which number will come up in any one roll of the die. This is by definition (see Merriam Webster On line) a random i. e. non-deterministic occurrence.

    case 2.
    In radio-active decay of an unstable isotope it cannot be predicted nor determined when any given nucleus will decay. The best that can be calculated is the half-life of an isotope in which over the given amount of time one half of the nuclei will decay; however, it cannot be determined when or if any individual nucleus will decay over any given time period. This is also a random event.

    Since it has been show that random, non-determinate events do occur in the world, universe, I conclude that the world is not wholly deterministic and that therefore determinism does not hold and is not the case.
  18. Oct 17, 2005 #17


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    Royce, to be fair, what MF said about the dice being determinate is true. How a die rolls and jumps across a table and how it interacts with the aerodynamic drag as it flies through the air, is defined by classical mechanics. One can show how forces on a die make it do what it does, right down to determining what number it should land on. Given a sufficiently powerful computer, accurate input and perfect modeling, a computer should in principal be able to calculate exactly which number a given throw of a die ends up on right down to where it lands on the table. The "random" element referred to in the dictionary does not mean it is indeterminate, but chaotic. It's behavior is actually not easily calculable because it is "chaotic" and small deviations from any given interaction between the die and the table can result in large differences in what number the die lands on. That's what chaotic means.

    On the other hand, your example of radioactive decay is, by present day physics, defined as indeterminate as far as I know. The scientific community I would say has generally accepted that this is a truly indeterminate process. MF can easily point to the possibility though that a non-local hidden variable theory could exist and thus make that a deterministic process and that hasn't been totally ruled out. But from the perspective of existing scientific theory, I believe the general consensus is that radioactive decay, among other quantum phenomena, is a truly indeterminate process.
  19. Oct 17, 2005 #18
    It is physically impossible to recreate a fair roll of any fair dice or die to be able to predict significantly beyond a 1:6 probability even if a precise machine were made to throw the die. It just can't be done. There are too many variables even in principle. If I would accept the possibility in principle then it would not be defined as a fair rolls.

    But it is not a chaotic test it is a probability, chance, test. The odds of any number coming up can be and are accurately calculated and Las Vegas makes millions doing it honestly and fairly.

    Thank you for that much anyway. One case is all I need of show that the world is not wholly determinate.

    And I can just as easily point out that God or the Devil or Little Green Men made made it happen. If he can show me a non-local hidden variable which most Quantum theorist deny then I will retract that case and think of another case which he won't accept either invoking some kind of magic or other illogical reason that it is determinate.:devil: :wink:

    Again, thanks
  20. Oct 18, 2005 #19
    Hi Royce
    I agree (assuming that your definition of "random" is such that random is synonymous with "indeterministic")
    This is true in the case of a perfect die, yes.
    With respect, this confuses the definition of "indeterministic" with that of "indeterminable".
    "impossible to predict or determine" is an epistemic property - it says there is a limit to our ability to predict, there is a limit to our knowledge. It does NOT say that the underlying process (the ontology) is indeterministic. Indeterminable (an epistemic property) is not the same as indeterministic (an ontic property).
    It follows that to show any process is indeterminable does not allow us to conclude that the same process is necessarily indeterministic.
    Again, this is an example of an indeterminable event (radioactive decay). The same argument applies as above, this does not necessarily imply an indeterministic process.
    I have highlighted the terms in the above where the confusion occurs. One cannot assume that our observation of non-determinate events (limits to our epistemic ability) necessarily implies an indeterministic world (an ontic property). I would humbly claim that there is no proof that the world is in any way ontically indeterministic (another way of saying this - ontic determinism has not so far been falsified)
    If you remain unconvinced, let me give you another couple of examples to illustrate the difference between epistemically indeterminable and ontically indeterministic :

    Random Cards
    I take a card "at random" from a deck of cards. I have no idea in advance what the value of the card will be - therefore from my perspective the value on the card is "indeterminable" (until I have picked it and looked at it). Would you say that this implies the value on the card is also "indeterministic" (until I have picked it and looked at it)?

    Computer RNG
    Most modern computers contain a random number generator (RNG). The RNG operates completely deterministically, but if I do not know the precise algorithm of the RNG then I am unable to predict what numbers it will produce. The output of the RNG is therefore, from my perspective, "indeterminable". Would you say that this implies the RNG is also "indeterministic"?
    As always, with respect
  21. Oct 18, 2005 #20
    Dang! you took the words right out of my mouth :smile:
    I suspect Niels Bohr, the founding father of the Copenhagen Interpretation, might have answered this way :
    "All we can say about quantum processes is what we can measure - what we can measure is limited by our epistemic horizon - therefore it makes no sense to ask "what is really going on" - because what is really going on is beyond our epistemic horizon and the question cannot be answered.
    Whether the world is (at its core) deterministic or indeterministic is then (strictly speaking) a question that cannot be answered (just like asking "which way did the electron go" in the 2-slit experiment in the absence of observation), therefore meaningless."

    (with apologies to Niels)

    Therefore I humbly suggest that the correct scientific answer to the question "is the world fundamentally deterministic or indeterministic" is "we cannot answer the question". Any scientist who says he believes in either determinism or indeterminism is then (with respect) taking a leap of faith, not one of science.

    May your God go with you

    Last edited: Oct 18, 2005
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