• Kate Stone

Space, time and the paradox of free will and determinism

So, this is just a little fun to play around with some ideas about space and time, don't take me too seriously as we go on a little journey through space and time, Ill leave the choice up to you. :)


If you prefer to watch the video see below, if you prefer to read the text is below the video. I'd love to know what this makes you think!

A few weeks ago I woke up at two am and began to ponder something I have, like many other people, pondered for many years. I asked myself the question, ‘do I have free will?’ I last went into depth about this question, around a decade ago and came to the immediate conclusion that I was not able to answer with impartiality. Essentially I would be asking myself if I exist. If the answer is ‘no’ then how could I have asked the question? Furthermore, I would not be ‘free’ to select an answer. Therefore, I, as the questioning entity, must, for the sake of impartiality recuse myself from the pondering. So, what should I do? I concluded that what I could do was ‘wear’ the potentially uncomfortable option as if it was a piece of clothing. I chose to believe, wholeheartedly, that, for the sake of a thought experiment, I have no free will. I would wear it as if it were a coat, just to see how it felt and fitted.


The first thing that came to mind, as it often does for most people, was, if I have no free will then I can just let go of the steering wheel of life and ‘what will be will be’. Can I do whatever I want, absolved from all responsibility. But I didn't let go of the steering wheel. The second thought that crossed my mind was, ‘if I believe that everything I do is predetermined by the previous state of the universe, then how can I be emotionally immersed in my environment and experiences’. But then I told myself ‘when you watch TV, a film, a play, or read a book, you are totally emotionally immersed, you know that it is fixed, predetermined as it where, in fact, even though you know most stories follow a similar arc, you still laugh, cry and hope that the bad guy does not do the gory dead, you somehow feel you can ‘will’ a different outcome’. Furthermore, you consume the book, film, play, TV show a second time, now knowing it is not only predetermined but what will happen, and you still feel you can ‘will’ a different outcome and you are, yet again, totally consumed with emotion.


Our brains have evolved, in tandem with our environment, into incredible reality machines in such a way as to present our minds with similar enough versions of reality to each other. These realities projected into our minds enable us all to be fully emotionally immersed in our everyday experiences. If we knew, for certain, that every twist, turn and unfolding of the universe was predetermined by its ‘starting conditions’ or its previous state we would still be fully emotionally immersed in our every moment; we would not let go of the steering wheel. And as for responsibility, our society is built on a set of rules that mean we are responsible for our actions whether we have free will or not, this feedback mechanism of responsibility is what keeps us all in check and allows civil society to function. These consequences of our actions are what, in part, determine or moderate our actions, they are all part of the system.


I pushed this thinking a little further, I wanted to also wear the ‘hat and gloves’ of free will, alongside the coat of determinism, could I have it both ways? I thought, well, if a physicist can say that light is both a particle and a wave, then why can I not have free will and determinism at the same time. Is it possible that in any given moment I am free to choose whatever I want to do and that the very choice I make is the choice that I was always going to make. This is, of course, a paradox, how can both be true? A paradox often occurs when we map two opposing states into an environment or world view within the wrong set of dimensional space. What I considered was, if the dimensionality of space and time are not what we commonly believe, which to be honest I don't actually know what that is, then perhaps there is a way that both free will and determinism can be not just possible, at the same time, but entirely obvious. In a similar way that several hundred years ago it would have been entirely at odds with anyones thinking that a ship could sail off into the sunset one evening and reappear, several weeks and months later from the sunrise in the opposite direction. Because, obviously with our hindsight, they had the dimensionality of the earth very wrong. The earth has no ‘edge’, it has no beginning nor end. As most humans now know, the earth is a sphere and it is obvious to most of us that if you sail off in one direction and continue, without hitting land, you will appear from the other direction.


So, when I awoke at two am, those few weeks ago, I had two questions, what mechanism enables an entity to have free will and what dimensionality of space and time could permit it.


For me to have free will I must have at least one dimensionality of freedom from my environment. I must be at least a partially independent entity in the universe, rather than a wholly dependent and connected part of the universe. This would require a special set of physics, that the atoms of my physicality and energy flowing through them (or their movement with the passage of time), could, in at least some way, be decoupled from the rest of the universe. This would enable me to make a change or choice that would have no impact on the rest of the universe or that, despite the present state of the universe surrounding me, I would be free to move independently. I can not see how this is possible in any way, I cannot conceive of a mechanism for this? I am entirely coupled to the universe, every movement of any atom that I consist of is determined by the previous state of the universe. I am a consequence or manifestation of my environment in the universe.


If I am entirely coupled to my environment, and ultimately, the entire universe, then I do not exist as a separate entity. I am in fact my environment, there is no ‘edge’ to who I am, and ultimately, I am the universe.


Now, by definition, the universe, which is ‘me’ is everything. The universe is coupled to nothing, its next state is not dependent on anything external, its next state is entirely dependent on itself and the physics which describe it. So, this is where I get even more weird. If the universe is not dependent on anything external then perhaps the universe can have free will, and because I am the universe then, by extension, I have free will. Furthermore, what if the universe, like the earth, has no ‘edge’, no beginning nor end, what if the universe is entirely spherical or some other type of dimensionality, what if that dimensionality, if I were able to conceive it, would make it entirely obvious that there can be no ‘outside’ the universe, and that there is just ‘the universe’. We often question what is beyond the edge of the universe, what is on the ‘other side’. We seldom question what is beyond the smallest thing, what if infinitely small meets infinitely large? I need to add, although, in this definition of the universe, it is independent from anything else external, which there can't be because it would have no way of knowing of its existence, it is still essentially wholly dependent and determined by its own previous state. For the sake of this thought process I am defining the free will of the Universe as a total independence from anything external and extending that to myself.


So, what about time, what if time has a similar dimensionality, what if it was also entirely obvious, that if we could conceive it, that time could not possibly have an ‘edge’ or beginning nor end, that time is entirely spherical as it were. This would mean that we are in some kind of loop of space and time, perpetually swirling around and around, with no beginning nor end, there was no before and there will be no after there just is. After all, the sign for infinity does imply an endless loop.


It would be as if the edge of my screen here is not an edge, and if I push my arm our here then it just reappears from the other side. And although you are watching this video you do not know how many times I have recorded it to get it jut right, and I dont know how many more times Im going to have to recorded until I know longer screw up!


And as I lay there, now at four am I wrapped all these thoughts up together; in any given moment I have a freedom to choose what to do, because in that moment I am the universe choosing what to do with its own power of free will, and that what the universe chooses to do is what it was always going to choose to do. And that this is possible because that choice, in that moment, becomes the precedent for itself, allowable because time is in a loop or spiral, and each time we go around it is slightly different than before. The present becomes its own prologue, it is the previous state of what happened or will happen.


I realize these are the ponderings or dreams of a mad woman, well, to be fair I was half asleep, what makes me a little mad is that I chose to remember, write it down and share it with you! And if you exercised your free will, as it were, to listen to me and maybe even believe me then perhaps you are just as mad as me, but then again, you are me!


But before I go, there is one final thought. Yes, I am responsible for every choice I make, and with choice comes consequence. And I can use the outcomes of those choices to weigh decisions I make in the future or past. But I am not, in any way, responsible for choices I did not have the opportunity to make. I should strive to make the best decisions I can in those moments, and when I look back, feel content that, given the evidence I had, and state of mind I was in, I made the best choice I could at that time. But what we should not do, is look at the lives other people lead, the things they have, the opportunities they are given and allow ourselves to feel anguish or jealousy, because, if there was not a set of choices we could have made to get ourselves into their shoes then it was never going to be, and a thought in any other way is just an act of self harm. In fact, because you are the universe, you are those people, you have their blessings and their pains and vice versa. In every moment take the time to feel the power of the universe to make your best choice and know that even if you get it wrong you can, perhaps, have a better shot next time, unless of course you come back as a lizard!



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