Saturday, October 13, 2012

Weather Forecasts Contradict Free Will?

I'm reading Nate Silver's The Signal and the Noise. So far, it's a worthwhile book, but...

Silver's expertise is in prediction. But sometimes he tries to reach a bit higher, and then he falls flat on his face. For instance:

"You might not think of the weather report as an exercise in metaphysics, but the very idea of predicting the weather evokes age-old debates about predestination and free will." We then get a lecture from one Dr. Richard Loft that somehow ties Augustine and Calvin to successful weather prediction, and Aquinas and the Scholastics to... I'm not sure. Bad weather forecasting?

But this is complete nonsense. No sensible believer in free will would be swayed by extremely good weather forecasts, just as no believer in strict determinism is going to fold because we can't get the weather right. The idea of free will does not depend upon nothing being predictable -- indeed, it doesn't even depend on human action being unpredictable. (We might predict that offered the choice of chocolate or brussels sprouts, 99 out of 100 five-year-old children will choose the chocolate, and we might be right. That does not mean they didn't freely choose the chocolate!) And the idea of determinism does not depend on our actually being able to predict anything in particular very well; it only depends on everything being in principle predictable.

But Silver won't stop; instead, he doubles down:

"The idea of scientific, technological, and economic progress -- began to emerge, along with the notion that mankind might to learn to control its own fate. Predestination was subsumed by a new idea, that of scientific determinism."

Well, it is true that these ideas were gaining ground at the same time. But Silver writes as though these ideas are tied together, when, in fact, they are mutually incompatible. If full-bore scientific determinism is true, mankind cannot control its own fate (whatever that might mean); instead, whatever that fate is, is already fully set in stone.

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