All the World in the Flip of A Coin

(Getting down to the bottom of things, all in a simple read! A revised version of an earlier post. The mystery of the different Levels of existing things is explored through the example of the simple tossing of a coin. Keeping it pretty lite and pretty curious while trying to popularize the ideas of philosopher Dan Dennett, from his 1983 John Locke Lectures delivered in Cambridge, England and published as Elbow Room, the varieties of Free Will worth wanting, 1984.)

HOW CAN A THING BE TWO THINGS? Well, they can, and we think that all the time as long as the many different ways we characterize a thing don’t trip all over each other. Some large degree of consistency is necessary. A dog is a mammal and a chordate and an animal, that works ok.

(Two Old Dogs)

But also a dog can be my pet, a mammal, a Beagle, Nika, and a congregation of atoms. I guess that means that I have pet atoms, and if I owned two dogs I would still have pet atoms just two different clumps of them. Funny how my pet clump loves to run about the yard in perfect attunement to the expansion of the universe and the constant decay of her sub-atomic particles. Those adorable little particles sure do get a charge (a different electrical charge?) when my wife comes home! My dog’s brain-waves love my mammalian mate. Its cute little tail (and brain waves, I presume) wiggle and waggle all over the place on those occasions.

Now that didn’t sound quite right to me, but I guess it’s true somehow. We just have to keep all our radically different ways of talking about something in their own compartments. We cannot mix them like a tossed salad. And speaking of tossing…

(A Fair Human Coin Toss)

When we think about coin-flipping, we have a somewhat similar issue. How should we talk about it?

On the one hand, there is “elbow room,” “wiggle room,” says philosopher Dan Dennett. We don’t know whether a fair human flip will come up heads or tails, but we do know that it will come up one of those. In fact, we have a whole set of “laws,” the laws of probability, that say in the long run heads and tails will come up with equal frequency. So if, oddly enough, you have just flipped a coin five times and they all came out heads, don’t say “Tails, it’s got to be” for the sixth flip, because it doesn’t. Yes, that is elbow room; that coin has some room to maneuver!

Dennett cites the famous 18th century English philosopher, David Hume: we want “a certain looseness” to exist in our world. It “prevents the possible from shrinking tightly around the actual,” says Dennett and is “presupposed in our use of the word “can.” The flip “can” come up heads or tails. Many things “can” do various things and have various states. Water “can” be a solid, liquid or gas. This kind of flexibility is presupposed in our idea of human freedom, and in much social science (“She can vote Republican or Democrat.”), biology (“The dog can bark.”) engineering (“The auto can accelerate.”), but also in statistics and probability (“Any gene of the father “can” be passed on to the offspring, but only 50% of the offspring’s genes will be paternal.). This “openness” is very important to us.

But on the other hand, we also believe that every flip of that coin is completely determined by all the physical laws and conditions that compose it; in other words, no elbow room.  If we could control, or know, all the conditions, no mystery to the outcome of any flip would remain.  “Mystery gives way to mechanism,” as Dan Dennett has stated in many circumstances.

(The accurate Coin Flipper. The spring must be finely adjusted for each location and time. Heads-up will bring you a Heads-outcome at a very high rate for some appreciable time thereafter.. The coin flips from pictured red cup, and then lands there.)

So, is it elbow room or no elbow room? Contemporary magician turned mathematician, Persi Diaconis has developed a highly accurate mechanical coin-flipper. And Pierre Laplace, the famous 18th century French physicist, postulated that with Newton’s laws, if we had a very powerful intelligence (often called “Laplace’s Demon”) capable of discerning the position of all the particles of the universe at any one instant, to that knower the past and the future would be one, all movements and destinations—including our flipping coin—would be known. As Hume feared, to the demon, the possible has collapsed into the actual. From that perspective there is no wiggle room; what actually happened was determined to happen long ago and even far way.

(In Roman times it was called navia aut caput, “ship or head.” The head is that of Emperor Pompey the Great.)

So what is the truth of this two-sided event? Is it designed to allow “a certain looseness” or is it totally determined to come to the one and only outcome that did in fact out-come?  How do we think both ways about this ‘simple’ event? Dennett has tried to make much of this combination and much may ride on it including human freedom.     

(Called by some philosophers, “The God’s Eye Point of View”: From above it all, God seeing All the Universe At Once and in a Single Instant. Tapestry by Cima de Conegliaro, 1504. )

First Dennett contends, we have limited knowledge.  We are not Laplace’s Demon; we are too much in the middle of all things: too much limited in time and in space. The position and velocity of all particles at one instant is well beyond our capabilities (beyond anyone’s). We have this Ideal of Perfect Scientific Knowledge as ‘a guiding light,’ but our limitations are well known to us and deeply embedded in our way of thinking. We know we have limits and here we have run right into them.

Second, in a very important sense, The Outcome of a Coin Toss has No Cause.  How could this be? A coin toss has many causes, Dennett just said that. Some of us might think that a human being can do un-caused, “free,” things, but not a dead and dumb disc of metal. But, there are ambiguities in our idea of “cause” explored by philosophers going as far back as Aristotle. A sufficient cause and a necessary cause is the distinction Dennett will use here, but at another point a different idea of causation will also be prominent. The coin toss has no “necessary” cause, he contends.

A coin-toss has sufficient causes, argues Dennett.  Its outcome was caused by many things, including the positions and qualities of the particles of the universe one minute after the Big Bang. Whatever the situation of those particles, they were at least sufficient to allow the outcome of this coin flip these billions of years later.

More immediately, we are sure the outcome was caused by the many, many, specifics of the situation at the time of the coin’s flight (humidity, wind, the specific gravity of its location…), and the various exact features of the flip itself (speed, rotation, height of toss, size of coin…).  All these factor into the exact outcome of any and all particular flips. In this sense, that event—and all events, you picking a shirt from your closet this morning, for example– have causes sufficient for their occurrence: they are sufficiently caused. 

But who cares?  Dennett says this kind of cause is “diffuse, complex and uninteresting.” We can really do nothing with it. What we really want are Necessary Causes, not sufficient causes, he says, and this is just what a coin toss lacks.  No one or two or three factors exist (or are evident to us and evident to us in time) to determine the outcome in a fair human coin flip. The outcome is “up in the air” so to speak. It has no Necessary cause, in that wayIt is a very ordinary event (no “spirits,” no “mind,” no extraordinary “powers”) and it has no (necessary) cause! 

The same may be said for the “choice” of your shirt this morning: it had no particular and necessary cause!  An openness existed to it, from our perspective. Like the coin toss it had sufficient causes but no one or two obvious and determinate (necessary) causes). “I’ll wear the blue shirt, today,” I decide, for no obvious reason. It seems to be a “choice” by me and not a causal event forced on me.

WE SHOULD PAUSE AND APPRECIATE THIS RECOGNITION. Nothing in particular (no physical force, no environmental condition) caused the coin’s outcome, or even the choice of my shirt.  A coin toss is both caused and determined in its outcome (by sufficient causes) and NOT caused and determined (by a necessary cause) at the same time. Let us explore these circumstances.

Maybe this idea of Sufficient Causation is not helpful to us?  As Dennett has already said, this kind of explanation is all over the place (“diffuse”), extremely protracted (“complex”), and “uninteresting” because it does not exclude much of anything. “Sufficient Cause” seems to appeal to our inclination to think of everything as being involved with everything else, at least in some sense.

(“All is One” : Ouroborus, the Egyptian and Greek symbol of a snake eating its own tail in an eternal act of self-destruction and recreation. Pronounced various ways including: ‘Ore-o-bore-us, all o’s are long.)

In this obtuse way, the idea of sufficient causation is helpful, I suppose, and Dennett acknowledges this and then suggests: we seem to be lucky that the world we are in has the character that it has, because a lot has come out of it.  All the many different things interact and it comes to some notable occurrences.  

Some interesting sh!# does happen! For example, we know much about the chemical and structural character of the simplest living things, yet we cannot recreate them, cannot produce Life from Non-Life in a lab. We know much about its pieces and parts, but just can’t put them together to work There seems to be “many more ways to not be alive than to be alive,” a prominent biologist, Richard Dawkins, has concluded.  We are lucky to have the degree of complexity that we do have, for even in our own universe (let alone other “possible universes”) there seem to be many places where “things” just don’t come to much.

(‘Get it together, for God’s sake!’ What if all the interacting forces and particle in this part of the universe almost totally cancelled each other out?  It would be like a galactic Sargasso Sea, a lot stuff but just not doing much of anything more.) 
(A diver swims below the debris of the Sargasso Sea.
But most of our world seems to be highly diverse, interactive and consequential: Simpler things accumulate, bond, congeal, constitute, formulate more complicated “things.” What then is ‘more real,’ the little pieces or the big thing they compose?  Are there any limits to how big this process of accumulation can grow, and on what terms do these processes of congregation occur?)

And when ‘all’ the world comes together to make a very specific things or event, sometimes a necessary cause will jump out at us from all these sufficient causes. A traffic accident was “caused” (necessary cause) by the car that ran the light, in addition to the state of particles shortly after the Big Bang and Henry Ford’s invention of the auto assembly line in 1913 that made mass auto transit feasible— all parts of the sufficient cause that do play their role in this car crash. Stock market fluctuations, World War One, are other examples; things that may lack a necessary cause.

Laplace’s Demon is very much at home in this world of massively interacting sufficient causes.  The Demon would have the capacity to know them all and precisely trace each exact contribution far into the future (and back into the past).  But we humans do not; we have limited horizons.  We do not even know with certainty the outcome of the day we are in.  “Subjectively our future is open,” says Dennett.  Objectively, from the demon’s point of view, all movements are already determined. Like a coin toss.

So, we choose by taking hold of (taking advantage of) a more limited pattern that we do see (a necessary cause, hopefully); we act, and then wait to see what happens.  Choice and responsibility, free will and planning (avoiding the bad, seeking the good), and rationality, all are ideas based in our limited knowledge and abilities, contends our philosopher.

It’s a good thing to be a creature with limitations, we might conclude. It seems like we are free, in a universe that is already determined!  In this way, our freedom and our responsibility are conditions of “our epistemic limitations” and not our most wide-ranging ontological condition. Subjectively there is looseness in our lives; different events “can” happen!

(In a universe of interconnected causes, Subjectively we seem to jump in, jump into the middle. This mediate perspective is crucial to our situation, argues Dennett.)

We are free because often we know no necessary causes to explain much of what happens to us.  We are like our flipping coin, no cause seems to stand out.  This morning when I chose my shirt, gravity did not necessarily cause that, nor did entropy, nor the food I ate yesterday and every day before that (they were all sufficient causes, real and active but in a subtle way), nor was my mother abusive in my childhood by always screaming at me and demanding: “Wear blue on Wednesdays!” Like the coin rotating in the air (head or tail?), we are subjectively free to make “a choice:” red shirt or blue?

But “choice” is not always the best word to use. We do not say that the coin chooses head or tail, but we do recognize a new set of standards apply to the outcome of the flip from our perspective. A different way of talking about the coin toss becomes applicable. The Coin Toss exists and behaves at two different ontological levels: the micro-physical level of Laplace’s Demon and the hard sciences; and the macro-physical level of everyday interactions.

At the macro level this morning, an openness seemed to exist and I used it to (very briefly) consider the color for my shirt. ‘What color pants am I going to wear?’ ‘What color shirt did I wear yesterday?’ ‘It’s winter, wear subdued colors,’ I thought. Of course, gravity and entropy and millions of chemical reactions were also playing their part as sufficient causes in the background for “my decision.” But, I now had the “Elbow Room” to utilize my fashion standards and some other even more important standards, to make my decision according to The Standards for “a free and responsible person!” Or so we say.

(My friends and I are Not too concerned about fashion!)

Spoiler Alert: If you think I have put our “freedom” in somewhat of a precarious position, you are right! We are stuck between the Eternal and Fixed Background of Physical Laws and our own limits and needs to Think and Act Reasonably. “Stuck in the Middle with You!” It’s the basis of a Nature and Religion Connection! Stay tuned for the resolution!

STUCK IN THE MIDDLE WITH YOU.” —–“Stealer’s Wheel” one and only hit, but a good one!

3 thoughts on “All the World in the Flip of A Coin

    1. Thanks for your feedback, really glad you found it interesting! I did not notice that COIN-incident CO-INcidence. I’ working on the “Resolution” to the coin toss post now, and some other amazing stuff from from that Dennett book, “Elbow Room.” I have read that book many times since the early 2000s and I’m only now really starting to get it.

      Liked by 1 person

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