To choose or not to choose, that is the choice.

A few nights ago, one of my best friends and I took a trip to Austin around midnight so we could wake up early and get some good rock climbing in. For some reason we waited until the final 5 minutes of the drive to talk about the most meaningful and confusing part of our conversation. It began as a talk about super powers and what the most desirable traits in a superhero would be (thank you Coast to Coast AM). The conversation was roughly as follows:

Dramatic reenactment

Me: I think I would like to be able to teleport. But none of this weaksauce stuff- I want to be able to go anywhere in the world at any time, instantly. Breakfast on a coffee plantation in Costa Rica, lunch and a pint in an Irish pub, dinner along the streets of Paris, dessert and coffee at a jazz club in NYC. Sounds pretty perfect to me.

Brian: What about time travel? Being able to visit any point in time and see any historical occurrence firsthand- that would be cool.

Me: True, that would be incredible. But what about the rules of causality and order? The cosmos wouldn’t function the same if you began a ripple affect in time from your decisions. Tiny differences manifest into moderate differences which create big changes over time.

Brian: Well, suppose you could only go back 24 hours and relive the exact same day twice. Anything you would affect would obviously be different, but things and people you didn’t come into contact with would remain the same and therefore play out the exact same way. You could still make great use of it in the world of betting and gambling to make oodles of money.

Me: Hmm. So things that you don’t come into contact with will play out in the exact same manner. Say for instance I have the choice in the morning to eat Frosted Flakes or Lucky Charms; If the first day I chose Lucky Charms, does that mean I will choose Lucky Charms again?

Brian: Precisely. If I don’t affect it, then it will play out in the exact same way. Same thing with probability based things like the lottery and dice rolling in a craps game. They will be the exact same.

Me: That’s interesting. It sounds like you have a very deterministic view of the universe and the way it operates. That is to say, you think the universe will play out in one specific way determined on the way in which it began. It is just a rock on top of a hill that’s been pushed over the edge and if we knew all the variables and tangibles, we could calculate the exact route the rock will take and exactly what it will be doing at say, 3/4 the way down the hill, even if it hasn’t reached that point yet.

Brian: Yes. Although I don’t think there’s any possible way to gather every single variable about the universe in such a way as to predict its future, in theory that is true.

Me: Luckily you’re outside of the “cosmic calculus” needed to predict the future. You’ve seen it play out for 24 hours remember? You’ve seen me make the choice of Lucky Charms, and according to your deterministic view, I will always choose Lucky Charms. In fact, it would be impossible for me to choose otherwise.

Brian: I don’t know how I feel about you using the word “impossible”. Nothing I have done has affected your choice. You freely chose Lucky Charms based on your own free will. I did nothing to deter you from Frosted Flakes or guide you to Lucky Charms. Simply because I know the outcome of your choice doesn’t mean I affected your decision in any way.

Me: I agree completely. This is what philosophers would call compatibilism. Your choice is already known, but you were free in making it, therefore you still have free will in your decisions. My problem then is this: if I were to make the choice of which cereal to eat at 9:00am and you went back to 8:00am, you would have the object of knowledge regarding which cereal I were to choose before I made the decision. You would be outside of this causal timeline and able to make objective statements of the “unknown” or “un-happened” regarding my decisions. My choices would therefore be known to you because it wasn’t decisions I was making- I’d already made them. Not only do you know what I would choose, it would be impossible for me to choose otherwise if I am bound by determinism. How is am I free if you know my path an I cannot stray from it?

Brian: Well this is a mere illustration. It’s futile to try and make objective rules on something that’s impossible.

Me: Yeah, you can’t go back 24 hours and relive a day or be outside of time. You can’t see decisions before they happen or view my choices without affecting them.




Both of us: What about God?

Make sure your trays are in their upright and locked positions. Kevin and Brian have stumbled upon the fabric that holds the entirety of our existence together. A venture into the workings of space and time are a simple given while on this voyage. Prepare yourself. For you are about to enter into- The Philosophy Zone. BUM BUM BUM, dodododododo…..

Like this but less formal. Also, in color.

So here’s the general setup: even if we make our own decisions without being forced one way or another by God, if God knows the future aren’t we bound by his knowledge? Are we creatures with just the illusion of free will, or does God not know the future?

I think most people will approach it the way Brian did. Nothing affects our decision making process and therefore our decisions are free. This makes sense if you look at the process of decisions linearly. That is, start from the beginning and work your way through the choice made. But if you start at the end of a decision or rather, right after a decision is made and work backwards it doesn’t play out so clean and easy.

I made the choice of lucky charms. Well, let’s go back further. I enjoyed the succulent deliciousness of lucky charms in a cold bowl of whole milk and a little bit of chocolate syrup drizzled on top. Before that I picked Lucky charms above frosted flakes because, let’s be honest, what sane person wouldn’t? Before that, I was presented with the option of choosing one of two cereals- and here inlies the problem; if God knew the my choice before I made it, then I wasn’t choosing anything. I was simply following along his plan set out for me. It would have been, for lack of a better term, impossible for me to veer off my “course” as it were, otherwise God would have been wrong.

Leprechaun Cocaine

This of course can lend itself to further complications if you believe in God. If God has free will, is He then bound by his choices? Cannot He not choose alternatively to what will happen in the future? In order to have free will, you must have more than one option, each of which is avoidable. This means that before you make a choice, there must be a state of uncertainty during a period of potential: you cannot know the future. Even if you think you can predict your decision, if you claim to have free will, you must admit the potential (if not the desire) to change your mind before the decision is final. Things start to get a little fuzzier as the circular argument gives way to an infinite regress…

Lasts almost as long as the Freebird solo

The best argument that helps to refute this claim of the absolute absence of free will is far from perfect but it does hold up to some scrutiny. It was an argument started by St. Thomas Aquinas and later expounded upon by dear old Clive.

But suppose God is outside and above the Time-line. In that case, what we call “tomorrow” is visible to Him in just the same way as what we call today.” All the days are “Now” for Him. He does not remember you doing things yesterday, He simply sees you doing them: because, though you have lost yesterday, He has not. He does not “foresee” you doing things tomorrow, He simply sees you doing them: because, though tomorrow is not yet there for you, it is for Him. You never supposed that your actions at this moment were any less free because God knows what you are doing. Well, He knows your tomorrow’s actions in just the same way—because He is already in tomorrow and can simply watch you. In a sense, He does not know your action till you have done it: but then the moment at which you have done it is already “Now” for Him

"Let me light up before I destroy your argument with one hand tied behind my brain"

Clive was freaking smart. This is, as far as I can tell, the best way to argue against this notion of complete determinism, but it doesn’t overturn it completely by any means. For one, it still doesn’t necessitate free will and a person’s actions are still bound by determinism. It also doesn’t really address is God has free will or not, but I think that’s a much more complicated issue to tackle. But this is definitely a step in the right direction, and takes alot of strength from determinism.

I think?

More on this after I think about it some more….