Free Will and Timeless Observers

Free Will and Timeless Observers January 21, 2012

After reading my post on decidedly undivine First Causes, one commenter had a question about my position on free will.  I had referenced a quote from Arcadia,

If you could stop every atom in its position and direction, and if your mind could comprehend all the actions thus suspended, then if you were really, really good at algebra you could write the formula for all the future; and although nobody can be so clever as to do it, the formula must exist just as if one could.

Butterfly5906 asked the reasonable next question:

Do you believe we have free will? If so, how do you reconcile that with the Tom Stoppard quote? Theoretically, we could predict the movement of all of the atoms in our brains, and the behavior of our neurons and thus all of our choices, but that seems to negate free will. (I ask because I’m trying to find the answer for myself, and the best I can come up with is “I don’t understand quantum mechanics- so maybe it’s something to do with that” which is an absolutely awful explanation.)

I don’t find free will that hard to reconcile with the equation for everything, because foreknowledge isn’t a big constraint if it happens outside of time.  Let me put it this way, if someone in the future has knowledge of all my actions and thoughts, because they’re looking back at past events, I don’t find this threatening.  And most people don’t.

I am also non-threatened by someone or something having knowledge of my actions and of my state of mind if that thing is outside of time.  From my timebound point of view, this is similar enough to the person who knows things after I do them.

But if that doesn’t do it for you, I’ve got another out for you.  It’s not scary to imagine that someone with a lot of data can predict your choices.  That’s a necessary consequence of continuity of your identity.  It wouldn’t take very much data to predict that I would have a cheese sandwich for lunch any day in elementary school, because I always chose to bring a cheese sandwich.  Developing an identity means limiting the scope of things you’re likely to choose.  My friends can predict my behavior, sometimes better than I can.  I don’t think my choices are rendered meaningless by that fact.

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  • deiseach

    “It wouldn’t take very much data to predict that I would have a cheese sandwich for lunch any day in elementary school, because I always chose to bring a cheese sandwich.”

    But you could always decide, just for one day, “I’m tired of cheese sandwiches; today I’d like a tuna sandwich or a jam sandwich” and I have no problem with that kind of predictiveness.

    My difficulty (both scientifically, if that’s the best category, because I don’t think he means his ideas philosophically but rather as material fact) with our friend Jerry Coyne and in religion with classical Calvinism and double predestination is the determinism of the view; that you could never choose another sandwich but are conditioned to always eat cheese sandwiches for ever and ever, amen.

    I don’t mind an explanation as to why you picked cheese sandwiches is because you like cheese sandwiches is because genetics gave you the taste for cheese because you belong to a population with lactase persistance etc. etc. etc.

    I do mind explanations that say you can only pick cheese sandwiches because “Our brains are simply meat computers that, like real computers, are programmed by our genes and experiences to convert an array of inputs into a predetermined output” and since, at the instant of the Big Bang, a particular particle zigged instead of zagged, Leah likes cheese sandwiches – and can only like cheese sandwiches, and can never, ever at all decide to bring a different sandwich to school for lunch.

    Same way that, as a Catholic, I don’t agree with classic Calvinism (and funnily enough, I’m not seeing this attitude amongst modern Calvinists) that God’s foreknowledge of the future is tied up with His omnipotence and His absolute sovereignty and that means you are damned to Hell regardless of what you might do or believe. If He cannot see the future, then He is not omnipotent, and not God; if the future is changeable, then again He is not omnipotent and not sovereign, and not God; if He foresees that you are going to Hell, then to Hell you are going, and moreover, He doomed you to Hell even before you were created, else if you can go to Hell without God’s choice, then He is neither omnipotent and sovereign, therefore not God. (“Irresistable grace” is in there somewhere, too).

    Whereas as a Catholic, I am instructed by my Church to believe that we can go to Hell by our own choices, because we do have a will, and it is free.

    • Hibernia86

      You might not like the idea that we are meat machines, but it is hard to see how it could be any other way. Our brains are a wiring on neurons. When you hear a sound or taste food, it sends electrical impuses up through the neurons that follow a path according to the connections of the neurons. If you mapped out all of your neurons, you could track how the outside impulses affected your neurons, which in turn, affect your movement. There is no “choice” part of the brain. It doesn’t make a choice any more than a computer makes a choice. It just follows input, though that input can be complex. You may feel like you have free will, but feeling isn’t the same as having. Quantum mechanics deals with a scale too small to change actions of the neurons and even if it did have an effect, quantum mechanics is funamentally random which isn’t the same thing as choice either.

      • deiseach

        There is no choice part of the brain? So why don’t I like shrimp and prawns and shellfish in general (can eat ’em, just don’t like ’em) and my brother has no problem yumming them down? We share genetics and environment (if you saw us, you could tell by our similarities).

        Sorry, Hibernia86, but if we’re just ‘meat computers’, then the hopes of transhumanism are in vain, because there is no mind separate from the brain and once the brain goes, that’s it. Anyway, that computer analogy holds for us because at the moment computers are the most advanced tech we can use as an analogy; I suspect in 2112 our descendants will be comparing the brain to an ansible and in 2512 to FTL drives 🙂

        • Hibernia86

          You and your brother might have similar genes, but they aren’t exactly the same. I doubt that either of you would say that you chose your favorite foods. Rather, you just tried eating them and liked them or not. I don’t think that you could just decide to make shrimp your favorite food just like that.

          Transhumanism is not in vain because if you replace the complexities of the brain with the complexities of a computer, it should work similarly. There doesn’t seem to be anything necessarily special about neurons that can’t be copied by computers.

    • anodognosic

      Meat computers aside, I just don’t understand any conception of a mind that is not determined, even if you toss substance dualism into the mix. Personalities and minds clearly have some constraints built into them: people have preferences and personalities which are unchosen. That means that not only would a proclivity for cheese sandwiches be determined, but so would the capacity to choose to avoid cheese sandwiches be determined, and will cannot be anything but that which prevails of conflicting forces in the mind, be they meat computers or of some spiritual stuff. And be these forces determined by genetics, experience, or God, they are still determined. I mean, what’s the alternative? Even Plato saw this clearly enough, and you can’t get less materialistic than him. What would something be like, that isn’t so determined?

      By the by, it’s hard to express how utterly alien it is for me to come to conclusions about the world based on a priori ideas about God. (and that’s without even touching “instructed by my Church”)

      • deiseach

        “By the by, it’s hard to express how utterly alien it is for me to come to conclusions about the world based on a priori ideas about God. (and that’s without even touching “instructed by my Church”)”

        andognosic, I can’t help it, that’s the output my poor meat computer produces based on input. Now, you could say “Well, naturally you are not a Calvinist because your upbringing was Catholic and you have been programmed to that strand of religious belief”, but people do change their minds and change denominations or drop out of religion altogether.

        I have no problem with a limited form of determinism, that is, with explanations about how genetics, environment, social expectations and so forth shape us, but for me, the argument about “There isn’t a real you, it only feels like there is” makes as much sense as the one about how a donkey, if placed equidistant between two identical bundles of hay, will starve to death because it cannot make a choice between them.

        I don’t think even a donkey would do that, and I’m certain sure that in real life, a hungry person would not die of inanition because “Ooh, the lasagne and the curry both look equally inviting, I can’t make a choice as to which to have”.

    • leahlibresco

      Slightly less of a problem for me since the Christianity I don’t believe in is universalist.

      • Daniel A. Duran

        Catholics are allowed to be universalists, no?

        • leahlibresco

          To the best of my knowledge.

          • … if by Universalist you do not refer to “universal salvation,” purported associations to which got Origen in a lot of trouble, but rather, “This is a universal thing,” which Catholic is. That’s what “catholic” means, for cryin’ out loud.

  • 1. You do not address the question. Free will is not, “our actions have meaning,” but, very roughly, “we have the capacity of choice.” Do not conflate choice and meaning.

    2. Depending as it does on both knowing all things and being abstracted from the cosmos — therefore outside time — this thought experiment boils down to, “if you were omniscient and transcendent.” Is your point that our free will is not threatened by a figure sharing in the attributes of God?

    3. Materialists in the vein of the Saganite heresy — that the cosmos is all there ever was and ever will be — strike me as if they’d appreciate the assumption that an equation exists which explains all things. They should be cautioned that if taken farther than a re-expression of their foundational dogma of faith, which is to say an illustration of their creed, it is a circular argument.

    4. Saganites as defined above, abstracted from humanity as they are, have the distinct temptation of assuming themselves better than those contented pigs. Lost in the Cosmos had something to say about that.

  • Hibernia86

    Leah, I think I agree with you that an observer outside of time does not necessarily deny free will if we assume that the events are created by the people in space time. If, however, the space time object exists as a whole from the beginning, then free will can not exist, regardless of whether their is an observer or not.

    As some people have already pointed out, induction is not deduction for the cheese sandwich example.

    See my response to deiseach for a neurological explanation for why free will does not exist.

    • anodognosic

      “If, however, the space time object exists as a whole from the beginning…”

      There is no beginning outside time. To conceive of something outside time is, as far as I can see, to grant a space-time object, and consequently to grant determinism.

  • Ray

    Also worth pointing out — even given determinism, an omniscient entity’s ability to predict your actions is contingent on you never finding out what the prediction is. Even a computer can be programmed to do the opposite of what it is told it will do. (this is at the heart of the proof that the halting problem is non-computable.)

    Thus, if you can know the mind of God, then God cannot necessarily predict what you will do in advance. Of course if God is beyond our understanding free will is hosed, but then no one is suggesting that — right? :).

  • One objection I have to this is that I can’t reconcile it with moral responsibility. I don’t see how someone could be culpable for something they couldn’t have done differently even theoretically. Yes, I have heard suggestions we could still punish people without objective guilt just for the deterrent effect it would have even in a universe without free will. But punishing people is not what I actually care about, what I care about is objective morality which needs to relate to a free will to have something to bind.

    I actually agree about identitarian self-limiting. But this just pushes the problem further up the line. In the long run I either can change my identitarian self-limits, in which case I have free will to do it. Or I can’t, in which case the whole character-building stuff is bunk and in addition to not being responsible for my evil acts I’m not even responsible for being evil.

    • anodognosic

      I generally prefer to accept seemingly contradictory ideas, like determinism and moral culpability, rather than require absolute consistency, because I think it’s more likely that I’m confused about the nature of one or both of these concepts than that one of them is false. I’m not sure how justified I am. Is this an epistemologically irresponsible stance? Or is it acceptable as a judgment in relative ignorance?

    • deiseach

      G.K. Chesterton, Chapter II – The Maniac, “Orthodoxy”:

      “In passing from this subject I may note that there is a queer fallacy to the effect that materialistic fatalism is in some way favourable to mercy, to the abolition of cruel punishments or punishments of any kind. This is startlingly the reverse of the truth. It is quite tenable that the doctrine of necessity makes no difference at all; that it leaves the flogger flogging and the kind friend exhorting as before. But obviously if it stops either of them it stops the kind exhortation. That the sins are inevitable does not prevent punishment; if it prevents anything it prevents persuasion. Determinism is quite as likely to lead to cruelty as it is certain to lead to cowardice. Determinism is not inconsistent with the cruel treatment of criminals. What it is (perhaps) inconsistent with is the generous treatment of criminals; with any appeal to their better feelings or encouragement in their moral struggle. The determinist does not believe in appealing to the will, but he does believe in changing the environment. He must not say to the sinner, “Go and sin no more,” because the sinner cannot help it. But he can put him in boiling oil; for boiling oil is an environment. Considered as a figure, therefore, the materialist has the fantastic outline of the figure of the madman. Both take up a position at once unanswerable and intolerable.”

      • keddaw

        Chesterton, evil, evil man.

  • Danie A. Duran

    Miss Libresco , you’re conflating two different things: epistemic determinism and physical determinism.

    Butterfly presupposes matter is determined and is asking you how to reconcile *physical* determinism with free-will. However, (maybe because she use uses the word ‘knowing’) you mistakenly assume she’s talking about fore-knowledge and free-will instead.

    “Let me put it this way, if someone in the future has knowledge of all my actions and thoughts, because they’re looking back at past events, I don’t find this threatening. .. I am also non-threatened by someone or something having knowledge of my actions and of my state of mind if that thing is outside of time. From my timebound point of view, this is similar enough to the person who knows things after I do them. “

    It is true that having knowledge of a past event (“Napoleon lost waterloo”)does not necessitate that past event.
    This is irrelevant to god. Remember that God’s knowledge of our actions is logically prior to us making them. Couple that with divine simplicity (God’s knowledge, power and will are identical to his essence)and there’s no way for the Boethian defense to get off the ground.

  • butterfly5906

    @ Danie,
    Thanks! I’ve been trying to find a way to explain the confusion with my position and you just said it well. It’s the difference between physical and metaphysical determinism.

    I guess for me the concepts of “free will” and sentience/consciousness are linked. I could, with enough data about their genetics, environment, and current physiological state, predict the behavior of amoebas perfectly. But, I would not say that amoebas have free will in any meaningful way. If physical determinism is true, are we more “free” than an amoeba? If so, how?

  • Daniel A. Duran

    “If physical determinism is true, are we more “free” than an amoeba? If so, how?”

    There are several ways to understand free-will, I take it that you’re interested in the following:

    You’re sitting in front of your computer right now,


    It is possible for you to choose to watch tv instead.


    You’re eating ice-cream


    You can eat pizza instead.

    The ability to choose action B while doing action A is called the synchronic (simultaneous) ability to choose opposites.

    Do we have that ability or not?

    I take it as self-evident that we do. The people that say we do not have free-will are putting up a front, pretending to ignore free-will; if tortured by some psychopath they will quickly say that the person torturing them can *choose* to stop hurting them.

    Alas, there’s no way prove we have free-will since all first-principles cannot be demonstrated; we cannot prove that there’s an external world, we cannot prove that induction will continue to give the same results, we cannot that the world is material. The people that deny free-will are playing a double standard game, ignoring one intuition but never justifying their belief in others.

    Sadly that’s the best I can do to answer the question without getting technical; trust your intuition, if someone contradicts that intuition he has a big burden of proof that must be met in order to be worth listening.

    • butterfly5906

      I intuitively agree that we have free will, but I have trouble seeing where it comes from or where there is room for it in our understanding of the world?

      When I brought this up with my (Christian) boyfriend, he said that this could be what souls are for. They themselves are not affected by the physical world but are able to (somehow, through magic?) affect our physical brains. I’m trying to come up with a better naturalistic explanation for where free will comes from, and I’m failing at it.