Sunday, December 5, 2010

Space-Continuum, Time Travel and the Illusion of Free Will

Glimpse of a revolving star in universe

Do we have free will? If we do, how much free will do we have? Obviously, we can never have absolute free will because of the limitations that genetics (nature), the environment (nurture), our personal experience, our past, and other conditions of our surrounding impose upon us. 

Hence, there may be only a limited array of choices that we have at a particular moment in time; in other words, we do not have an unlimited set of options. There are many things that will not even occur to us in any given situation due to those constraints mentioned earlier.

Let us look at the following mundane scenario. I wake up in the morning, get up and have eggs for breakfast. Now usually I do not choose when to wake up; it is often based either on external circumstances, such as noise or alarm clock, or internal conditions, such as my body, regular sleep cycles or nightmares. Put differently, I usually do not have control over when I wake up so I have no free will or say in this matter.

Furthermore, my breakfast is also limited in its choices. I can only have what is available in my fridge / kitchen at the moment. Technically, I could go to the store to buy more items, but then again knowing how lazy and often hungry I am in the morning I choose to have what is there already.

Based on my taste palate and my desire to have a hearty breakfast, scrambled eggs would be the only option and it would be accompanied by a cup of coffee with a spoonful of sugar and no cream. I refuse to have bacon because of my concern for high cholesterol. 

As can be seen, in this simple example, I may believe I have free will, but others with enough information about me and my routine could quite accurately predict my behavior.

Now let us look at free will in terms of time. The arrow of time points forward, and it is generally assumed to move along the line of the past-present-future continuum. Notwithstanding, we experience the world from the crucial crossroads of the present; the present turns immediately into the past, while we have a sense of an unknown constantly looming future ahead of us.

What about my breakfast options if there existed the possibility of time travel? If I could travel in the past, I would be able to change the present, to choose to do otherwise by actively selecting to have cereal in order to show that I could act differently from how I had acted in the first place.

This is rather different from the fact that I would consciously choose now in the present to have cereal instead of eggs to prove my free will. One could say in this case that being led to prove that I have free will I purposely acted against my inclinations. That would mean I was compelled to act against my inclinations, and it was not really my independent free will. Anybody could have predicted my act of defiance.

In the case of time travel where I could choose a different outcome from what had actually happened, I would have the option to either a) do as I did in the first place (have eggs) or b) to do things differently (have cereal instead). The fact that I am not compelled to do as I already did once opens up a certain freedom of choice. 

Put differently, I have the ability to do otherwise and hence change the future. This is known as the “alternative stories theory.” It was a premise that “Back to the Future” explored in a playful manner. It is also one that is fraught with difficulties, such as the riddle if you travel to the past and kill your grandfather, would you still exist?

But let us assume I go back to the prehistoric time of the dinosaurs, how could I possibly change the course of history? Whether I know that the meteorite will hit the earth and make them extinct makes no difference: it will happen anyway.

Reading the renowned British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking I realized something crucial. If we can go in the past or future, we assume we would still be the same. But Hawking claims that one alternative theory proposed by physicists tells us that we cannot transfer information along the time continuum.

That would mean if I go in the past I will become my past self, therefore not have knowledge about future events. Simply going back in time I might be deleting all the future information and data and find myself in the exact position I was when I was in that past situation. Hence I would make exactly the same choices and not be able to exert my so-called free will.

Second option, what about future time travel? It would be similar. I would incorporate all the data, basically filling in all the gap by the time I arrive where I will be. In other words, my future will be my natural present. 

Although I have traveled forward, it is like forwarding a movie. All the events are going to happen the same way, and I will be in the same position, only that time has moved much faster.

And yet another point. The past is often seen as fixed or rather transfixed. So it becomes solidified, and we cannot change the facts. What I did in the past everyone knows, and yet, what I will do in the future remains still fluid and at best can only be a prediction with the current means and limits of science.

But if I move forward in the future, then my past will be my future from the current state. Yet according to the movie example I was giving, if my future is my past, then it means that it has been determined already. By this what will happen in the future has already passed, and I have no choice or say in the matter no matter what I do!

That would then mean there is no free will although I have the illusion there is. Another illustration would be the sum of all the physical forces that are exerted on objects and matter in the universe. I cannot defy gravity, for example. A planet cannot choose which way to turn. 

We are equally in a web of interconnected events that define us both from outside and within. If we have free will, it may be so limited that it may be insignificant; if we do not have free will, then we may be even nothing but actors with lines that may be written by a supernatural creator!

I am quite fascinated by the concept of karma, but what if karma is set not in this life, but is a consequence of another life. If in another realm, one of the spirit, we had free will and, as a result, we must live out a scripted life in order to be free again. 

These are just hypotheses and mind games, and I am just sharing them with the universe in a moment of euphoric philosophical thrill. You must believe me when I say I had no choice to do otherwise!


JMyste said...

Isaac Singer said something like: "We've got to believe in free will. We have no choice." It is one of my favorite quotes and more profound than it sounds at first. I take it to mean that for utilitarian purposes, free will must be assumed, even though we know it may be ultimately impossible. I am a philosophical determinist. We do everything we do because we most want the outcome of the action we choose. We are subjected to our desires. Even acts of altruism fall into this trap. We try our best to cause the outcome that we can most easily tolerate.

You cannot choose to want or choose what you want; therefore, your action is an autonomic response. If one could choose what he wants, I would want to get a head start on Monday’s work. Instead, I am browsing the web and giving officious opinions to other people’s blogs. Furthermore, if I were going to blog, then I would work on my own blog, something for which I currently have little enthusiasm and will probably allow to decay from neglect.

If I were to counter my own argument, I would do so thus: “Doing what you want is the definition of free will, fool.” If you define free will as doing what you want, then I acknowledge we have free will. However, since we do not control the mechanism to which free-will is subordinate (our desires), it is pretty useless. For example, someone who wants to rape another person may do so in deference to his free will. Were he able to choose to not want to follow this dangerous and mutually destructive course (or even want to follow it), he probably would. If following ones desires is the definition of free will, then we are certainly all victims of our free-will and would be better off without it.

As for time travel, the idea of going back in time is absurd. The idea of moving forward in time is proven empirically. In fact, I am doing it right now, whether I want to or not.


xenolithofreason said...

This is excellent. I've often toyed with the idea of a set number of "souls" acting out all parts in life, sort of a Hindu notion. But I have problems with scientifically reasoning out a creator.

Maybe a linear life is all there is. Following from what you've said, sure, there is room for complexity, but in the simplest case, the nature of reality can be exceedingly simple.

JMyste said...


I like the odd way you express yourself. I also like your diversity of knowledge of Religion and how you seem to post on things you recently read/researched in some way.

Have you ever considered doing a piece on the origin and evolution of western religion? I know that would be a larger piece, and is one that I want to do, but frankly am too lazy.

Christianity is not original. Christmas is a celebration to the "pagan" god Mithra’s birthday. Jesus was not born in December if the “New Testament” is accurate. Zoroastrianism gave us Satan and some other Christian notions. Christiantiiy is said to be monotheistic, and yet has several gods, The Devil, the Father, the Son, etc. To deal with the contradiction it has the concept of the Trinity and angels.

The influence of ancient Roman and Babylonian beliefs is obvious. Christianity is a compromise that mixed "pagan" beliefs with Judaism in such a way as to appeal to the oppressed Jews at that time and to the “Pagans” of Rome and Middle Eastern lands Rome controlled. Christianity preached love and utility, primarily through the political epistles of Paul and the later Gospels of Matthew and Luke, as an alternative to the Spartan ideas of Judaism and the pure polytheistic ideas of a conquering super power.

However, there are other western ideas, like scientology, which seem to be a mixture of Festinger’s Cognitive psychology with Buddhism (and perhaps other things).

Western religion and western thought seems to mostly be a mixture of existing ideas with little newness involved. It seems to me like the first religion invented and embraced almost purely out of political necessity. It seems to me like the first known religion to have embraced compromise to gain a large following. It would be a fascinating study for someone smarter than I.


Arashmania said...

@xenolith: Thank you for your observations! The Hindu notion of "souls" appeals to me.

I believe that all is either incredibly complex or incredibly simple. Or rather both. The incredibly simple is often more complex than the incredibly complex!

Arashmania said...

@JMyste: Thanks for your comment! I am constantly thinking about writing a book, but have trouble finding one satisfying topic. My interests have a common basis, mostly Humanities, but within, they diverge too much to make a coherent book I believe.

I am very much interested in religion and have often thought of a comparative study between the Eastern and Western religions. I think religions have often a political basis, yet at the same time I do not deny the existence of spirituality (whatever that may mean).

But then again others have already been doing a much better job than me and I may not be smart or knowledgeable enough for such a task.

However, if you are interested in combining efforts, that would be great! It would be possibly at a casual pace, but you know about the construction of Rome, so we can take one step or idea at a time...


JMyste said...


As a very wise man once said: [it] is one that I want to do, but frankly am too lazy.

It would require an enormous amount of research and hard work and there just isn't time. That said, I would barely have just enough time to read yours. In fact, if you did write a book and wanted contributors for one chapter or something, I may be willing to take that on.

Keep in mind that you and I come from very different perspectives. I do not embrace any faith and I am skeptical about most spiritual matters. I perceive The Christian Bible to be a mostly a political work and the Jewish Bible to be a childish one. That said, I am impressed with the Jewish interpreters of the Jewish Bible, who I find to be very intelligent and highly entertaining.

I have a greater affinity for the concepts of Buddhism, but not enough to cause me to embrace it and I wonder if I knew more about it if I would be just as critical of it as I am of Western religions. I feel a slight protective sense toward more modern religions, such as scientology; not because I believe Ron Hubbard merited protection. I am convinced he was a charlatan. The reason is that he was very intelligent and organized and presented some worthwhile ideas, which makes his fraud overall superior to the myths that preceded him. What scientology teaches about Ron Hubbard and his life, of course, is no less mythical than the ancient fantastic tales about Jesus or Zeus. It is the deliberate false accusations against scientology that make me want to defend it (and then I only want to refute the logic of the false accusations against him). There are plenty of legitimate reasons to disrespect Ron Hubbard, but you almost cannot find them for wading through the lies. There are plenty of fables in scientology, such as that is a science and not a faith, but that does not mean that no scientific thought can be found there.

I am most interested in the Christian and Jewish Bibles, as they are what I grew up with. Some people believe in literal interpretations of this book, despite all the evidence to the contrary (even if you discount the miracles and the contradictions, knowing anything about history makes it hard to believe in a literal interpretation). The people we read about are real people from real times with real politics and real motivations. The Jewish God commands that you love your neighbor. He also repeatedly commands that you execute those that are not a part of your camp, those that are not your neighbors. In historical context, the command makes sense. That was the law of the day. However, later Christians read something else into it, something ridiculous. They take it to mean you should love everyone. God did not endorse this. I don’t think Jesus did either. Matthew, Luke and Paul did. The Jewish law commanded seven feasts. Christians ignore all seven and make up their own because they follow Jesus. Per the New Testament, the Christian Bible, Jesus was a devout Jew, who dutiful observed the seven Jewish feasts, as ordered. Every Jew in the time of Jesus observed the Jewish feasts. The other holidays, the one that Christians now observe, were mostly known also. They were mostly “pagan” holidays in different religions. Jesus would never have endorsed them, nor would any Jew. The land of Canaan, however, was an occupied territory; and as Christianity was being built, compromise was required if both some pagan and some Jews were to be brought aboard. In order to have enough unity and cohesiveness to resist the Romans and other would-be conquerors, as many people as possible would be needed. It is things like this that interest me; these are the reasons I regret being so lazy.

My perspective would be one of skepticism, combined with a very historical look into the time and place and goals of the human authors who created the various religions, which I suspect were not inspired by a deity of any kind. If I am wrong, I am totally convinced that the inspiring deity is nothing any of the authors of our religions would ever recognize.