Free Will, Divine Action, and Elon Musk

Taking a fresh look at some age-old problems.

Re-Assembling Reality #26b, by Mike Brownnutt and David A. Palmer

Believers in Elon Musk say that the man is so influential, he is able to tank the market cap of Tesla by $250 billion with a single Tweet. While that would seem improbable at the best of times, it is all the more improbable given the existence of a model which is much better able to account for the price action: blue lines.

A chart of the Tesla’s stock price, with arrows indicating the occurrence of (1) a pandemic, (2) government intervention, (3) record-breaking sales, (4) nothing much, (5) an outrageous Tweet by Elon Musk, and (6) over-the-air recalls. Also shown: the blue lines that apparently control everything.

We discussed the power of blue lines at length in Essay #26a. Now we shall look at what this means for divine action and free will.

A physicist, a neuroscientist, and a trader walk into a bar

Physicists have a model which allows them to get a handle on the movements of particles. It involves matter interacting with forces.

It unifies the behaviour of things that would otherwise seem utterly disconnected. Planets do not need separate rules to cannon balls; they can be described in exactly the same way.

Neuroscientists have a model which allows them to get a handle on the actions of animals. It involves neurons interacting with electro-chemical signals.

It unifies the behaviour of things that would otherwise seem utterly disconnected. Humans do not need separate rules to goldfish; they can be described in exactly the same way.

Traders have a model which allows them to get a handle on the movements of stock prices. It involves candlestick patterns interacting with blue lines.

It unifies the behaviour of things that would otherwise seem utterly disconnected. Currencies do not need separate rules to stocks; they can be described in exactly the same way.

Physicists make models with billiard balls, without appeal to God. Neuroscientists make models with neurons, without appeal free will. Traders make models with blue lines, without appeal to companies that sell things.

And, let’s be honest, in each case, these models are amazingly powerful. Shored up by solid mathematics, each model works across vastly different scales from the very small to the very large; they allow the explanation of historical observations, and permit quantitative predictions of future events.

Over time they have worked up from an initially rudimentary understanding in which a lot was unexplained. (Understanding weather took a while, as did understanding emotions, and understanding market crashes.) But now each model provides a more-or-less comprehensive explanatory framework.

The physicist’s model neither needs nor permits interventions from outside entities, be they God, or the soul, or appeals to some hard-to-pin-down “higher purpose.”

The neuroscientist’s model neither needs nor permits interventions from additional entities, be they Hommunculi, free will, or appeals to some hard-to-pin-down “self.”

The trader’s model neither needs nor permits interventions from outside entities, be they The Federal Reserve, Elon Musk, or appeals to some hard-to-pin-down “macro-economic factors.” [1]

Unreasonable positions

Let us imagine a trader who holds that, because the actions of markets can be so wonderfully described by the power of blue lines, and because her account of the markets does not and cannot have space for interventions by Elon Musk, then Elon Musk probably does not exist. That position seems strange. It would certainly not be one logically forced upon her by the evidence.

Consider a physicist who holds that, because the actions of particles can be so wonderfully described by the laws of physics, and because her account of the world does not and cannot have space for interventions by God, then God probably does not exist.

Let us imagine a trader who is aware of how well technical trading patterns account for the behaviour of share prices. This trader then thinks that Elon Musk, if he does exist, must constrain his actions (either voluntarily or by cosmic necessity) so that he does nothing which would disrupt the appearance of everything running according to technical trading patterns, lest he give himself away. That trader’s position seems strange. It would certainly not be one logically forced upon him by the evidence.

Consider a physicist who is aware of how well physical laws account for the behavior of the material world. This physicist then thinks that God, if He does exist, must constrain His actions (either voluntarily or by cosmic necessity) so that He does nothing which would disrupt the appearance of everything running according to physical laws, lest He give himself away.

Let us imagine a trader who believes, given blue lines can account for everything that happens on the stock market, that Elon Musk, if he can be said to ‘exist’ at all, is simply an epiphenomenon that emerges out of the activity of blue lines. Such a position moves beyond strange, into the utterly bizarre.

Consider a neuroscientist who believes, given neuro-chemistry can account for everything that happens in the brain, that the ‘self’, if the self can be said to ‘exist’ at all, is simply an epiphenomenon that emerges out of the activity of brain chemistry.

Consider a group of traders who, in their struggle to reconcile the view that Elon Musk is real with the demonstrable significance of blue lines, split into warring camps. There are the monists idealists, who believe in Elon Musk but not blue lines; the monists physicalists, who believe in blue lines but not Elon Musk; the dual-aspect monists, who hold that Elon Musk and blue lines are two different ways of talking about the same underlying reality; and dualists, who think that Elon Musk and blue lines are completely different things.

The dualists then break into sub-camps, like the property dualists (who accept that Elon Musk is actually a line, just a different kind of line) and the substance dualists (who think Elon Musk is not any kind of line at all).

Everyone asks the substance dualists to explain how Elon Musk is supposed to have any influence in a world of lines and candlesticks if he himself is neither a line, nor governed by the same laws as lines. The substance dualists look embarrassed and mutter something about causally open systems, which convinces no-one. Ultimately, it is Occam’s razor that finally ends the case for substance dualism: why should we believe in two ontologically distinct entities (Elon Musk and blue lines) when the actions of the market can be explained perfectly by one?

Some say that Elon Musk transcends lines. Nonetheless, stock prices in our model are only influenced by lines. We therefore conclude that, if Elon Musk is able to influence the stock market, this is because, while being transcendent, he must still have some line-like aspects to his nature. [2]

Consider a group of neuroscientists who, in their struggle to reconcile the view that the mind is real with the demonstrable significance of the brain, split into warring camps… You get the idea. [3]

Consider a trader who had heard accounts of people who said that Elon Musk had spoken to them; even alleged eye-witness accounts where thousands of people saw Musk at one time. The trader felt that if Musk wanted to prove his existence, he should do something to show himself to traders (because, after all, given the significance of traders to the stock market, convincing them should be of first importance; much more important that “appearing” to random people or, worse still, to committed Teslaholics). And to convince traders, Musk would have to act in the stock market in a way that made a difference. A real difference; not something that you point to after-the fact and say “This was because of Elon’s Tweets!” despite the fact that it is clearly explained by trading patterns. No, he should do something genuinely beyond what technical analysis can account for. Something properly exceptional [4].

Consider a physicist who had heard accounts of people who said that God had spoken to them; even alleged eye-witness accounts where thousands of people saw God at one time. The physicist felt that if God wanted to prove His existence, He should do something to show Himself to physicists (because, after all, given the significance of physicists in the world, convincing them should be of first importance; much more important that “appearing” to random people or, worse still, to devout Christians). And to convince physicists, God would have to act in the world in a way that made a difference. A real difference; not something that you point to after-the fact and say “This was because of God’s providence!” despite the fact that it is clearly explained by physical laws. No, He should do something genuinely beyond what science can account for. Something properly exceptional.

In Essay #26a, we showed that one cannot use the exceptional usefulness of a model to justify claims about the underlying nature of the system being modelled. We also said that exercising restraint on this point is very difficult, because models often look so good, so powerful, that it is hard to override our intuition that they must be telling us something deep.

In drawing parallels between divine action, free will, and Elon Musk, I do not intend to prove that God exists, or demonstrate that the monist solution to the mind-body problem is incorrect. Rather, I want to highlight the way in which seemingly reasonable arguments have their roots in an exceptionally strong, though ultimately unreasonable, belief that models really do tell us something about the system being modelled.

Reasonable positions

Having understood what models can — and cannot — say, we have seen that some respectable and apparently reasonable positions are not as firmly rooted in reason as one might imagine. Let us now turn to a position that — at first glance — may seem unreasonable, and see if it is really as crazy as it at first appears.

Imagine a scientific model of the world which is utterly water-tight. It has no gaps; no spaces for the supernatural, divine intervention, or the soul. It has no conception of meaning, or purpose, or agency. It is rigorous, mathematical, quantitative, and deterministic. It perfectly predicts, without exception, observed events in the physical, biological, and social realms. It provides a single unified account of the Big Bang, the origins of life, the rise and fall of civilizations, the courses of individual actions today, and the end of the universe centuries hence. It is simple. It is intuitive. It just makes sense.

Imagine another account of the world which invokes the action of an almighty, utterly free God. In this account, God is constantly intervening in the universe, holding it together and pushing it forward; towards His ultimate purpose, and for His own pleasure and His own glory. In this account, humans have freedom to will and to choose. The account is messy, inconsistent, and broadly unhelpful for working out what the future holds. The best it can do at explaining the events we observe is via some cherry-picked version of hind sight.

A scientist believes, fervently, that the latter account is a true account of what the world is like. It is God who orders all things according to His divine, perfect, and free will. And humans have genuine agency and genuine responsibility for their actions.

The same scientists also embraces the former model as a tremendously helpful model when applied in appropriate contexts. She uses it on a daily basis to get a handle on her experiments, to make predictions, build equipment, write papers, create spin-off companies, and make money. She teaches it to her students, and expects them to embrace it too, when applied in appropriate contexts.

Is this scientist being unreasonable? Inconsistent? Schizophrenic? Duplicitous? Disingenuous? Not at all. She can engage with these two positions, while being utterly sensible, and utterly consistent. There is no clash between (on the one hand) using a model which invokes a particular set of entities, but which does not — and cannot — make any claims about the nature of the universe, and (on the other hand) believing that the nature of the universe is radically different to the one invoked by the model. The model does not disagree with her view of the nature of the universe, because the model does not — and cannot — say anything about the nature of the universe.

If a scientist believes in God and uses a model which denies God, this should seem no stranger than a trader who spends his day staring at blue lines to detect upcoming movements in share prices, gets rich off the proceeds, and teaches his trainees to do likewise… and who then spends his evening as a total Tesla fan-boy, watching the new Giga-Press being installed during a Giga-Fest at one of Tesla’s Giga-Factories. He knows he is rich because of Elon Musk, even if there is nothing in his trading charts that could ever tell you that.

Footnotes

[1] For what it is worth, the trader’s model does not leave space for God; the physicist’s model does not leave space for free will, and the neuroscientist’s model does not leave space for macro-economic factors. While there are an infinite number of things to which each model does not appeal, there are only selected things from that list that people see the need to explicitly deny. How and why these specific items are selected for denial is an interesting field of study in itself.

[2] There is some serious potential for research into this. We can call it the Elon Action Project. We could get millions of dollars of research funding, write a couple of books, publish countless papers, keep philosophers busy for years… This would be so much more lucrative than insisting that models don’t tell us much. Who’s with me?

[3] I do not wish to labour the point, so I leave the reader to fill in the parallels between the warring traders and the mind-body debate. For further amusement, the reader is invited to look over Wikipedia’s list of objections to mind-body dualism, and replace the words “mind” and “body” with “Elon Musk” and “blue lines”.

[4] I sometimes wonder if Elon Musk (in whom I confess I believe) is carrying out his own social-scientific experiment: Is it possible to convince traders that you matter? How utterly insanely influential and unpredictable do you need to be before you show up on a technical trading pattern? Smoking weed live on air, sending a car into orbit, Tweeting that Tesla stock price is too high, and challenging Vladimir Putin to a duel were not sufficient for him to move markets in a way that technical traders could not attribute to blue lines. I wonder what he has planned next. And I wonder if it will work.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store