Timeless October 24, 2016

I still need to finish blogging about the last few episodes of classic Doctor Who. And then I’m on to Star Trek: The Original Series. But I want to at least mention (even though I don’t plan to blog about every episode) the current series Timeless. A colleague of mine clued me in that the show is borrowed (or ripped off, if you prefer) from the Spanish TV series El Ministerio del Tiempo. I haven’t watched the latter and so can’t comment. My colleague prefers the Spanish original, but is enjoying Timeless as well.

The three episodes that have aired so far have been engaging and emotionally moving. The exploration of issues of race and gender past and present has been woven into things nicely. And I’ve really enjoyed the way the characters have started to articulate and to challenge ideas that things are “meant to be” or “dumb luck.” The question of when history is “close enough” that one can say it has been “saved” is also interesting, as is the knock-on effect that even minor changes can have in an individual life.

This relates directly to a discussion of free will that I had recently on Facebook, in response to a blog post on that topic. It seems that time travel and history get nicely at the balance between causality and freedom. History isn’t “random” – there are causal factors and constraints. There are moments at which one person acting decisively can make a huge difference in the fragile early days of a nation. And there are moments when even a devastating attack will not be enough to destroy that long-established country. Each individual is influenced by countless factors, and yet unless our experience is completely misleading us, we have the potential to do otherwise than we do. And like subatomic phenomena, what one individual will do can be very hard to predict, and yet on the larger scale matter and societies behave predictably.

Have you been watching Timeless, and if so, what are your thoughts on it?


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  • I’ll have to start watching Timeless on Amazon.

    Our inability to predict the outcome of events at the human or subatomic scale is an indicator of enormous complexity – not free will.

    • I wonder on what basis you claim to know that, at the human level, our inability to predict the behavior of individuals with absolute certainty has nothing to do with free will?

      • That’s not exactly what I said. I said that our inability to predict the outcome of events is not an indicator of free will, any more than it is an indicator of ghosts moving articles invisibly around us.

        This has nothing to do with “absolute certainty”, a suggestion that sounds rather like the fundamentalists who claim that atheists must be agnostics if they are not “absolutely certain” that there is no God.

        One could posit that Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo because Wellington enlisted the aid of ghosts; but that supposition does not make Napoleon’s defeat an indicator of ghosts.

        • Sorry for the overstatement. Would you agree that we also therefore lack evidence against free will? Do you think that belief in free will is akin to belief in ghosts?

          • I think that depends upon what one means by “free will”. Defining our ability to make decisions loosely as “free will”, doesn’t really get to the heart of the question of whether our will is truly “free”.

            I think that there can be great philosophical value in questioning the freedom of our will. It changes the way we think about culpability. Imagining that we have a completely “free” core that bears responsibility for all of our decisions has led to forms of justice that balance fault with punishment. We still treat punishments for crime as a function of what we think individuals “deserve”. But if we questioned the notion of desert in the first place, then we might begin treating crime with rehabilitation rather than punishment.

            At other levels, the sense that we have of bearing responsibility can also be valuable, and can lead to behaviors that help everyone. But taken too far, the notion of responsibility can lead to evils such as vengeance.

          • You wrote, “But…then we might begin treating crime with rehabilitation rather than punishment.”

            However, if we have no choice in anything, it might be determined that a Trump/Republican sort of view might be determined.

            If there is no human choice, if everything is determined, then of course, the future is as locked in as the past and the present. All space/time (future, present, past) in determinism is one huge petrified piece of amber, and we humans are only illusionary conscious chaff caught in it briefly.

          • It’s possible that all of space/time is locked into a predetermined future, assuming that quantum effects of indeterminacy don’t have larger, randomizing effects on the scale of the larger universe.

            But even if the future is determined, we still don’t know the future, and this future still incorporates at some level all of the decision-making that humans experience in their pursuit of things such as happiness, meaningful relationships, love, etc.

            In other words, what does it mean that the future is pre-determined, if no conscious being knows what that future is, and if conscious beings are still connected to the future through their experience of decision making?

            Whether or not I am a creature predetermined to experience loving relationships, for example, I do know that I am a creature that values loving relationships, and I know that my pursuit of loving relationships is part of the equation that determines whether, further in the future, I will experience them.

          • I mean by “free will” only that sense we have that we do indeed deliberate, and faced with options and influences, we perceive ourselves as able to make choices. Whether those choices could ever have been otherwise is something that neither theology, philosophy, nor neuroscience seems to agree on.

          • I’m not sure that such a limited definition of free will serves to answer theological quandaries such as theodicy.

          • I don’t think that anything else does, either. 🙂

          • granted ;^)

          • You, wrote, “and this future still incorporates at some level all of the decision-making that humans experience…”

            Nope, not in determinism. In determinism, decision-making is an illusion, and that illusion was also determined.

            You are only saying this because it was determined, and I am only rejecting determinism because it was determined.

            In determinism, the future is completely closed. That is the essential characteristic of determinism.

            Then you wrote, “I do know that I am a creature that values loving relationships…”

            Not in determinism; in the latter there is no love, value, no relationships, etc.

            As famous determinists, of all sorts, emphasize, we humans are but “puppets” getting yanked by cosmic strings hither and thither.

            Heck, some determinists emphasize that my sense of “I” is an illusion, of course determined, too.

            Anthony Cashmore, the plant biologist, claims that you and I have no more choice than “bacterium” or a “bowl of sugar”!

          • I’m afraid I can’t accept your “Nope”, given that every statement you’ve just made about determinism is a matter of constant debate by philosophers:


            Hume actually argued basically the opposite of what you have said, that “determinism is a necessary condition for freedom”.

            I believe the majority of philosophers these days land on the side of compatibilism.

            Whatever Anthony Cashmore thinks about our ability to make choices, as a biologist, he behaves on a daily basis as though he has the ability to make choices.

            One person’s “illusion” is another person’s emergent phenomenon.

          • Oh, I know that words are variously interpreted and even mean contradictory things. Heck, some determinists claim there is “free will,” but what they mean by free will isn’t what most people mean, alternative choice.

            For instance, there are determinists who state that all humans are free like a shot bullet is “free.” If nothing stops it, it is free to fly through the air and hit the target. And a puppet is free to do whatever its strings force it to do if it isn’t stopped by another force.

            I was using determinism in the sense that most thinkers use the term, the sense in which is used by determinists such as biologist Jerry Coyne, neuroscientist Sam Harris, etc.–that no one has alternative choice.

            At university we studied determinism under a brilliant professor who earned his PhD in determinism, have read upteen books by famous determinists, and have personally dialogged with famous determinists over the years, etc.

            They have all stated that determinism means what thinkers such as Sam Harris and other determinists mean–that no one can do other than what has been determined by the cosmos or fate or a god.

            According to them, I didn’t get to choose whether or not to respond to your different definition but it was determined from the Big Bang that I must.

            And, according to a recent atheist thinker online, Muslims in the Middle East are incapable of not slaughtering. It’s been determined.

            How can you make an alternative choice of whether or not to change professions,
            decide whether or not to lie to the government as ordered to by your employer (that happened to me),
            decide whether or not to eat beef or become a vegetarian,
            everything is determined?

            How can the future be open to alternative choice, if it was all fixed at the Big Bang?

            Oh, and last but not least, I am an advocate for rehabilitation, NOT punishment for criminals. One of the reasons I think that rehabilitation can happen is that I think every human can
            choose differently from his past!
            Like psychologists such as Eric Berne (founder of Transactional Analysis) emphasized, humans can re-decide.
            He called deterministic thinking “wooden brain”–like a puppet.

            We humans aren’t puppets.

          • But even Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris have little issue with the compatibilism expressed by Dan Dennett.

            Funny you should mention Coyne and Harris, though. They are my source for the idea that we should “begin treating crime with rehabilitation rather than punishment.” In fact Coyne and Harris make arguments calling for action and decision-making all the time. Clearly their view of determinism allows for it.

            Are you a determinist? Or do you simply like to caricature determinists?

          • Yes, they contradict themselves, because Jerry Coyne elsewhere claims that we can’t even decide what to have for lunch!
            Furthermore, he declares that criminals “aren’t morally responsible.” They can’t help murdering and raping!

            So of course, he isn’t being a determinist when he declares that we can decide to change the criminal justice system.

            We can ONLY do that if we do have alternative choice. And as I mentioned in my last comment, I am all for rehabilitation and totally opposed to punishment.

            Their view of determinism doesn’t allow for it. They are being inconsistent.

            Listen to Harris’ infamous podcast “Tumors All the Way Down” where he claims that even if the world came again a “trillion” times
            we couldn’t choose something different, not even move a finger!

            Furthermore in that podcast, he claims that you and I have no more free choice than
            the Texas killer who murdered a bunch of people because of his brain tumor.
            Get the bad allusion–we all have “tumors all the way down” which force us deterministically.

            Harris states that we are “biochemical puppets.”

            Jerry Coyne, in a podcast with Harris, completely agrees.

            No choice whatsoever. According to him humans must rape and murder.

            Yet elsewhere Coyne castigates Muslims, Accomodationists for their determined actions, and anyone who disagrees with his views.

            Go figure.

            Dennett is a different thinker. I’ve read a number of his books, including the amazing, deep Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, one of the best science books ever.

            Harris takes Dennett to task in this article:

            In his writing, Dennett at times disagrees with determinism, at other times seems to agree.

          • As I suspected, you just like to caricature determinists. Must be all the insight you garnered from the “famous determinists” you’ve personally “dialogged” or that professor you claim who had (what was it again) a “PhD in determinism”.

          • Not a caricature, but the facts.

            Listen to Harris’ podcast “Tumors All the Way Down” and his interview with Jerry Coyne for yourself.

            And, if you haven’t done so read Dennett’s book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and the heated exchange between Harris and Dennett.

            Those are the facts.

            Please give me the urls or books of determinists who claim, based in determinism, that humans have the ability to make creative loving choices, and I will look at them.

            (Choice: ” the act of choosing : the act of picking or deciding between two or more possibilities
            : the opportunity or power to choose between two or more possibilities : the opportunity or power to make a decision
            : a range of things that can be chosen”
            Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

          • Already heard Harris’ podcast; already read Dennet and Harris. You have caricatured them.

            I get it. You don’t understand how a determinist who believes that choices are ultimately predetermined can still frame our experiences in terms of decision-making. Keep working at it. Even combatibilists understand the nuance of noncombatilists, though they disagree.

          • No, I haven’t.

            Harris claims that I and all other humans are as incapable of choice as the murderer in Texas who was forced to murder by a brain tumor on the brain.

            This isn’t true.

            Yes, I know that Harris and some thinkers claim this just as some thinkers claim that existence is meaningless and purposeless. Some claim that everything is a matrix.
            Heck, Harris even claims that “I” am an illusion!

            Who knows? Maybe “I” am an illusion, and that illusion is determined. I don’t “know.”

            But I don’t think so.

            I think “I” do exist, that this world is real,
            and I think we humans do have neural plasticity in our brains, the ability to change, the ability to create, and alternative choice.

            So we go our separate ways, not because it was predetermined.

            Good bye.

          • That is a very clear statement of what you think; but your caricatures were not a clear statement of what determinists think. You speak well for yourself, but not for others.

  • Herro

    Fun fact: The kidnapped professor in Timeless also plays a time traveler in Star Trerk: TNG!

  • Paul E.

    Just saw the first episode recently and liked it, especially the exploration, however superficial, of what history “means.” There are so many glib opinions about history, especially in an election cycle, it is good to remember how complex history and its meanings are.

  • HotnTasty

    I lilke Timeless and have watched every episode. One of the features of Timeless are the values of respect, care and trust in the emerging romance between Lucy and Wyatt. I hope it gets a 2nd season