I hope you are all doing very well and that you like the new design for these letters. For those of you reading online, this look-and-feel of the letter for those reading in their inbox has changed radically.
An aside on the new look emails
My website is built on the wonderful content-management software Ghost and I have written up a custom theme for it to get the look-and-feel just the way I like it.
I write up the letters on my laptop in Markdown, and use a script to convert them to the strict HTML which mimics the appearance of the website. They are then sent off using the service Mailgun.
Recently Ghost 3.0 was released which introduced the feature of sending email newsletters when you publish content to the website. This makes it easier, as it means I publish the content and send it out in one click.
The reason I was originally hesitant to switch despite this, is because I would lose the ability to control the appearance of the letters. I did not design this email, but rather this is Ghost's default layout.
In the future, I believe Ghost will release the option to customise these further, and I will be able to make them look more like the site and even better than both the previous look and this one.
One new feature I would like to point out is the "View Online" button at the top, I would recommend you use this as I've optimised my content for online and if I make any updates to these letters they will show there.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy these!
"We live in an in-between universe where things change all right...but according to patterns, rules, or as we call them, laws of nature."
In his incredible science documentary Cosmos, the late Carl Sagan describes the world we live in as an "in-between universe".
It is neither a static, unchanging universe nor is it a completely unpredictable, random one with neither rhyme nor rhythm.
The word we use to describe our universe — cosmos — comes from the Greek word for order. It is the opposite of the similarly greek chaos.
Knowing the rules behind the cosmos - the order that everything is — can we know everything about it?
Determinism and Randomness
Have you heard of Laplace's demon?
Imagine an entity that knew every piece of information about the universe at this moment.
Let's say we free time in this instant and knew every property of every single particle — its position, spin, charge, velocity and everything else there is to know about it.
If we knew everything about the universe in this instant, would we be able to predict everything that will happen in the future?
Will be able to retrodict everything that has happened in the past?
If we can, then all that will happen is already set, as if it has been written into the book of time.
When you open a novel and are reading the hundredth page, you may not know what to expect but the final page is already written.
This is what it means to live in a deterministic universe.
The universe operates under certain laws; sunflowers seeds produce sunflowers, apple seed produce apple trees, mulberry seeds produce mulberry bushes.
With some information, we can make some predictions.
With all the information, can we predict everything?
I don't know.
It strikes me as conceivable that we are living in such a universe.
We could be living in this universe, but it does not have to be the case.
Imagine a boulder suspended on a hill. It doesn't look very stable, it is clear it is going to fall — but which direction will it roll?
If you knew every single piece of information, the weight and shape of the boulder, its precise position on the hill, the angle of the slope, the air pressure and weather condition all down to atomic precision — will we know for certain precisely where it will land?
If this is the case we live in a deterministic universe.
But it strikes me as conceivable that even knowing everything, we may still have a range of possibilities as to where the boulder will end up. That there is an element of genuine randomness or spontaneity at the heart of all things.
With knowledge, we can make certain predictions.
Knowing more, we are able to make better ones.
Does it follow that perfect knowledge — knowing everything about the present — means that we can predict everything to a certainty?
What if as we gain knowledge our facility of foresight increases, but never quite reaches perfection. Like how the curve of a hyperbola approaches but never touches its axis.
But there may be another flaw, knowing everything.
Knowing every piece of information in the universe — every property of every particle...
But is knowledge even finite in the first place?
Are there only so many things to know?
Can we catch all of them like pokemon?
Does the universe have limited complexity?
These are real questions to me.
It is conceivable to me that:
Knowing everything about the universe in one moment, allows us to predict everything that will ever happen
Even knowing everything, we still could only predict the future to limited certainty, that there is genuine randomness at play
The very notion of knowing everything there is to know is flawed
Another possibility that is fun to entertain. It is all chaos. There is no order. That the patterns we see are completely illusory.
I know what you are thinking — how could this be?
We see patterns all around us, don't we?
Mango seeds give rise to mango trees, neem seeds give neem trees — the evidence of cause-and-effective is clear!
How could we live in complete chaos — what would that even look like?
Allow me to paint a picture with this quote from the great Bertrand Russell:
"There is no logical impossibility in the hypothesis that the world sprang into being five minutes ago, exactly as it then was, with a population that 'remembered' a wholly unreal past."
While a completely spontaneously arising universe may not be practical to take seriously when leading our lives — it is conceivable!
When being completely honest with what we really know, we cannot rule it out!
What if what is being experienced was all there is, everything you remember is simply a thought in it and everything you anticipate is another. Even the moment where you read the beginning of this sentence may never have actually happened!
I am not sure this inquiry leads anywhere, but it is very fun to think about!
On Free Will
We have three broad possibilities:
We are living in an entirely deterministic universe.
We are living in a universe where events are determined by prior causes and conditions, yet not completely. There is some element at randomness.
We are living in an entirely random universe that is spontaneously arisen
Where do our notions of agency, free will and individual choices fit into these possibilities?
If all events in the universe are determined, our conventional sense of agency is illusory. The decisions we believe we are making in real-time are not real decisions and life takes the character as a film rather than a video game. This makes sense to me.
Free will is that which justifies the assertion "I could have done otherwise" in the deepest sense.
If even the act of choosing is constrained entirely by factors in the past, the knowledge that I have at the time and whatever feelings and mental content happen to arise in the moment of action — is it truly a choice?
I believe this is a common view.
The mistake people make, is they believe that as a deterministic universe isn't compatible with our notions of free will — a level of randomness or spontaneity is.
That not everything is fully determined and the randomness in those gaps gives space for genuine agency.
As Sam Harris puts it in his brief yet enlightening 2012 best-seller Free Will:
"If my decision to have a second cup of coffee this morning was due to a random release of neurotransmitters, how could the indeterminacy of the initiating event count as the free exercise of my will?"
"Imagine what your life would be like if all your actions, intentions, beliefs, and desires were randomly 'self-generated' in this way. You would scarcely seem to have a mind at all. You would live as one blown about by an internal wind."
If random fluctuations in nature gave rise to our thoughts and actions, it would not create a space for the idea of free will — it would simply mean we are dictated by random rather than predictable events.
A deterministic universe does not reveal a space for true agency.
Neither does a random universe.
Nor does a universe that was part-deterministic, part-random however you turn the dials of how much of each.
I view free will as an incoherent concept no matter how you roll the dice.
The notions of determinism, randomness or a combination of the two do not seem to matter here.
I may or may not write about free will in the future, but if you are curious please read Sam's book — my views align with his.
If you are curious to know where accepting this as an illusion leads read my 2018 piece: On Radical Compassion
A Quantum View
Now for something fun.
What does the view of quantum theory have to say about our universe? Is it all determined or is the future truly open?
Last year I read the 1998 book The Fabric of Reality by the brilliant David Deutsch.
I have even written about his view of a multiverse in a previous letter.
There was a chapter dedicated to explaining how all of this fits into the many-worlds view in the book.
There is no "line of time", that connects this moment to all future moments.
There are many universes at this moment. There are many universes in many different future states. Our universe could "become" any of them.
Our universe is not deterministic. No single universe is deterministic — but the multiverse as a whole is.
David used the example of a coin flip, if I flip a coin it will either land head or tails. When flipping the coin, it really is possible that it can land either way.
Our universe could "lead to" a future universe where it has landed heads or one where it has landed tails — it is not determined in this moment.
What is determined is that across the multiverse as a whole, among all the universes where I flip this coin in exactly half-of-them, it lands on heads and in the other half, it lands on tails.
Imagining infinite alternate universes makes thinking about the probability of different events a lot of fun.
I want to give some disclaimers now. The last section was simply my memory of how I understood that chapter of David's book. There is a chance I am butchering the explanation.
On everything else, I am not a physicist nor a trained scientist but a person who has read many books and watched many talks. These were simply my thoughts which are an expression of the knowledge I have. There could be information out there that makes any of the conceived universes I described untenable.
Do you have any thoughts on what kind of universe we are living in and why? Is it all determined, random or a mix of both? Is dividing the possibilities into these three wrong in the first place?
I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter, please let me know.
This is not a no-reply address, there is a real person on the other side of these. I am always happy when a reader replies to my letters (it means someone is reading these).
Thank you for reading until the end of yet another one of my letters.
I really hope you have enjoyed it.