As I was sitting at that table, opposing my strange Tinder date, his suit too wide from the shoulders and socks too short to cover legs while seated, he exclaimed: “There will be a day when all that happens in the world could be explained and predicted with physics!” referring to being able to measure the movements of every single proton on Earth. I disagreed – not in pessimism of its possibility – but in belief of its irrelevance.
To understand what makes something relevant and something irrelevant, let’s, first, explore how is life different from non-life.
What makes life different from non-life is not just cells and reproduction, but its ability to adapt to the environment. There are three general ways to adapt. The first is by changing the self, e.g. bacteria form resistance towards substances that kill their peers, we shake and get goose bumps in harsh cold, but fresh concrete expands and cracks. The second ways is by changing the environment itself. For example, we put clothes on or build a house to turn cold environment livable or warmer, and wear a space suit to survive fixing the ISS from the outside, but the Azure Window couldn’t calm the harsh sea. The third way of adaptation is leaving the environment: birds fly south in the autumn, people flee desertifying areas to find more nurturing environments for survival, but ice cannot flee the warming water.
That means it’s all not about the survival of the fittest but about the survival of the smartest – those who predict the changes of the environment with the highest possible precision the fastest have the highest chance to survive and pass on their genes to the next generation. Hence, a piece of information becomes relevant if a more or less accurate prediction could be based on it – a prediction that can help one make decisions that would define survival or demise.
Information to base predictions on cannot be too specific. Because some protons moved one way cannot explain why your parents decided to have you. Knowing that one electrical impulse leads to another is too specific to explain why you hesitated to cross the street with red light. Ten thousand protons moving in a specific pattern is not comprehensive enough to make a prediction about your future. To make a prediction relevant for survival, the scale of information should be near the scale of the prediction. If we see that some protons are moving in a certain pattern we can predict the changes in the atomic and perhaps even molecular level pretty accurately, but to say that your mother yelled at you because air and ions were moving in a certain pattern is far fetched. To try to predict that you or your partner is going to come based on the patterns of atoms’ movements is going to take so long that while you’re making the calculations to base your predictions on, you’re both finished already. If you didn’t use protection, you would make your predictions of what the next step should be not based on some calculations about protons, but larger scale: your knowledge about fertilization, hormones, and what just happened.
The magnitudes should be close to understand the impact of one thing to another. The further the levels the less precise the prediction will be. Try basing predictions about macro level changes on nano level changes or vice versa. It’s like saying that you attending university will have an impact on the decisions your heads of state will make, or that growing deforestation of the rainforests to grow palm oil will have an impact on my dance moves. According to the butterfly effect theory both pairs in both examples will be somewhat affected by one another. The impact can be hypothesized, but it can never be precise enough to base a decision on it. Possible scenarios to predict: millions.
If, however, we see that a man is tense and looks angry and disgusted, with his fist clenched and his sight glued on someone, we can predict he is going to attack them. Different possible scenarios to predict: below ten. Maybe he would leave instead, but the probability that he at least tries to attack is higher than chance. The magnitudes of the notions and the predicted event are comparable, hence, the information is relevant to make a relevant prediction.
Even if it will become possible to explain and predict everything through the movement of protons and even tinier particles, I wouldn’t rush into believing that this will solve big problems and help us make vital snap judgments. The distance from real life that this concept holds is the part that diminishes its value to humankind. If, on the other hand, it will give way to new innovations, go for it! Just stop thinking that physics could explain every single thing on Earth – even if it can, the shallow implications it would make about human behavior would be irrelevant for all of us.
This is the first post of the “in Mind” series where I try to explore the world of physics through the lens of psychology.