Saturday, May 8, 2021

The Case Against Free Will

Albert Einstein, age 42.  Einstein may have been the smartest human who has ever lived.  To paraphrase No Country for Old Men: "If he ain't, he'll do til the smartest one gets here."  Einstein believed that we do not have free will.

If you're like Thee Optimist, you're always doing stuff.

You try very hard to get it done, and make it happen, with varying degrees of success.  Sometimes things go well, sometimes things go horribly awry.

Either way, you strive to make your way in the world.  You're a striver.  You're striving hard.  So am I.  There's nothing wrong with that.  It's good, in fact.

If it's going to happen, I've got to do it.  So I choose to do so.

Cause and effect + free will.  Simple enough.  

Of course, maybe you believe that God helps you in this effort.  He just pops in here and there, puts His almighty thumb on the scale, and tilts things a bit in your favor. 

Or maybe you believe that you attract the things you desire with your thoughts.

Or maybe you even recognize that sheer luck plays a large role in what happens.

But what if none of this is true?  What if nothing you do has any impact at all on what happens?  And what if the things you're choosing to do... you're not actually choosing?

Could such a thing even be possible?

We are aware that we live in a tiny corner of a middling-sized galaxy, tucked far away from the theoretical center of the universe.  We don't love to think about this, but we are aware of it.   

Along Comes Mr. Albert

In the Western world (and maybe everywhere), Albert Einstein's name is synonymous with the idea of genius.  

Indeed, so smart was Einstein that when he died in 1955, the medical pathologist who performed his autopsy stole and preserved his brain, then kept it for 40 years.  The wacky doctor did this in the hope that future scientists might have the tools to figure out what made Einstein the way he was.

Spoiler:  It didn't work.

Anyway, a lot of people know Einstein was smart, but most people don't know what he actually did to gain that reputation.

Einstein was a theoretical physicist.  His two interrelated theories, the retroactively named Special Theory of Relativity (released in 1905), and the General Theory of Relatively (released in 1915), govern our understanding of the way the universe works.

This is true, on a grand scale, in the reality we can observe.  On the subatomic scale of Quantum Physics, things work differently, and we will come back to that in a moment.

For now, the thing to know is that everything General Relativity predicts or implies about the large-scale universe has thus far been proven correct, in many thousands of experiments over more than a hundred years.  

Nothing it implies has been disproven.  As far as we can tell, it is a very accurate model of reality.

For example, one thing General Relativity predicts is the existence of so-called "black holes" - areas in space where gravity is so intense, that everything nearby, including light itself, gets sucked into them.  

The first black hole was detected in 1964, long after Einstein predicted it, and wasn't confirmed until 1990.  Get it?  His model made accurate predictions before the technology was developed to confirm them.

Yowza!  Usually technological breakthroughs debunk the things that people used to say.  With Einstein, it works the other way around. 

Another thing General Relativity predicts are "gravitational waves," which a joint venture of the US National Science Foundation, Caltech, and MIT detected in 2016, a full century after Einstein predicted their existence.

Yet another thing General Relativity predicts is the so-called "block universe."  And this is where the trouble lies.

The Block Universe.  This is where shit starts to get squirrelly.

Time Does Not Pass

As humans, we perceive ourselves to occupy space in three dimensions.  These three dimensions are length, width, and depth.  So far, so good.

We also perceive time going by.  We can remember the past, we live in the present, and we anticipate the future.  

The past already happened, and there's nothing we can about that.  Our actions in the present can impact what happens next, but no one really knows what the future holds.  It hasn't come yet.

What if I told you that none of this is true?

According to Albert Einstein, space and time are welded together, in a construction known as spacetime.  It's all one thing.  It is a "block," and it is eternal.  It just is.  Time doesn't go by.  Everything is now, existing all at once.

The "space" we occupy is four dimensions, not three.  

We perceive time passing because of our limitations.  We evolved to exist on Earth, just for this brief moment.  We can't possibly perceive the grand sweep of the universe in its majesty.  All of this is too large, and we are far too small.

In a sense, we are like how the lights of fireflies used to flicker on warm summer nights, winking in and out of existence. 

Whatever happened to those fireflies?

Remember dioramas?  Those little moments in time that you used to make in a shoebox for school when you were a kid?

George Washington crossing the Delaware!

The Boston Massacre!  Look!  This black one is Crispus Attucks!

(They been shooting black guys since way back.)

The Nine Planets!  Well, now there's only eight, because they blew up Pluto. 

But you get my point.

The universe, the reality that we live in, is like a gigantic diorama.  Except instead of encapsulating one famous moment, it encapsulates all moments.

I admit this is a little challenging to grasp.  

In fact, because of how we evolved, we can't even picture four dimensions.  You will notice that the block universe image above is actually rendered in three dimensions.  They always are.  Because that's the best we can do.

It is incredible to rub up against the limits of your own imagination.  

The Persistence of Memory, by Salvador Dali, 1931.  Put your clocks away.  Time is not passing.  Dali himself was a bit of a genius.

Let's Unpack This.

This shit is hard, so I'm going to try again.

Here's the deal:

Past, present and future do not exist in the way we experience them.  They are an illusion.  Because of our limited perception, we seem to move from event to event, as though they are unfolding.  

They aren't unfolding.  They just are.  Time happens all at once.  Cause and effect don't exist.  We are witnessing reality, but we have zero impact on it.  The results are predestined.  

No.  Not quite right.  Future events aren't even predestined.  They exist.  And we're just on our way to them.  And even that isn't true.  We are already at the events, and always have been.

Imagine we are on a conveyor belt headed from New York to Chicago.  Our efforts to arrive in Chicago don't create Chicago.  Chicago is already there, in fact was there before we were born, and we are going there whether we like it or not. 

In spacetime, the event called Chicago has always been there, and we have always arrived there at exactly the precise moment. 

This may explain the feeling of deja vu that you get.  You feel like you've "been here before," not because you've been here before, but because you've always been here.  

So what does this mean for free will?

If future events already exist (and aren't even in the future), then we have no choice except to take the actions that lead us to those events.  Hence, no such thing as free will.  We are not free to pick our actions.

This is what Albert Einstein's model predicts, and the model has never been disproven.  And this is what Einstein believed -  fervently, as a matter of fact.

So if our choices are not choices, and our efforts have no results, what are we supposed to do?

Einstein was known for being generally cheerful, and for having a nutty sense of humor.  This was because he knew that nothing he or anyone else did made a damn bit of difference.  

Do It Anyway

In the face of this somewhat strange realization, we might as well press on and do stuff anyway.  

Why?  Because from our perspective, doing stuff seems to work.  That should be good enough.  It's fun to do stuff.  We set goals, we make plans, and we take actions.  It's a big part of our lives.

Also, maybe Einstein was wrong (doubt it).  Or maybe he was joking (possible).

The truth is, we can't possibly know what's really going on here.  Maybe there is cause and effect.  There are individuals here with us who probably know, and maybe one day soon they will fill the rest of us in.

Until then, we seem to make choices, and our efforts seem to have results.

And here's where Quantum Physics comes in (I promised this earlier).  On the tiny, subatomic, quantum level, causes absolutely have effects.  At subatomic scale, merely witnessing an event changes the outcome of it.

In fact, at a quantum level, not only is there cause and effect, it can go in either direction.  The future can affect the present, and the present can affect the past.

Weird.  Very weird.

So in the absence of any other definitive proof besides Einstein's, we should probably just assume there is free will.  We choose the actions we take, and those actions create or change outcomes.

But maybe we should also be a little more compassionate while taking those actions, with ourselves and others.  

It's entirely possible that we are all just playing out a string.  That we were invited here to witness this thing (admittedly, it is amazing), and participate in it, but nothing we do moves the ball even one inch.

Even so:   

Keep on truckin'.

Words of Wisdom

“I do not believe in free will.  Schopenhauer's words: 'Man can do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wills,' accompany me in all situations throughout my life and reconcile me with the actions of others, even if they are rather painful to me.  This awareness of the lack of free will keeps me from taking myself and my fellow men too seriously...”


"For us believing physicists the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion."

- Albert Einstein

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  1. Whoa! My mind is blown. I also wonder if any of Einstein's theories predicted the exaggerated feet size of the "Keep on truckin'" dude. Did that artist create those feet of his own free will, or have those feet ALWAYS existed in the past, present and future?

    1. Einsteain has another theory. "Big Feet, Big Meat." True 80-90% of the time. ENough to make it a good bet.

  2. Except when you’re wearing shoes two sizes too big.