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In time


Lately I’ve been thinking about determinism and free will. In particular I’ve been thinking about this essay by Alan Watts in which he offers an alternative to the idea the present and future are causally determined by the past.

Watts offers an analogy whereby a scientist is sitting in his garden looking through a gap in the fence at the block next door. There’s a snake living there which regularly passes the gap. He sees its head, followed by its body and finally its tail. Then he sees it again. And again.

Being a fan of inductive logic he develops an hypothesis to explain his observations. As he always sees the head, followed by the body, then the tail, he concludes the head causes the body which in turn causes the tail. He tests his hypothesis with further observations and eventually considers it proved.

We can see his mistake. The snake’s body and tail don’t causally follow its head. But they do logically follow it. Snakes don’t slither backwards.

That’s the difference between causal determinism and logical determinism. It’s possible for one thing to follow the other by necessity without the former causing the latter.

But that’s just pedantry, right? There’s no real difference between the two.

Actually there is. Causal determinism doesn’t admit the possibility of free will. If the entire history of the universe is determined by unbreakable chains of cause and effect you can’t really choose one way or another. Your choices are bound by the laws governing causality. You only think you have free will (because you have no choice but to think that).

Logical determinism however allows the possibility of free will, even though you can’t freely choose anything other than that which you must choose by necessity. So how can it be free? Let me explain with this story.

Peter receives word that his father, an amateur experimental physicist, has died and left him everything. That includes the family home, all his father’s meticulously kept diaries, notes and records and a half-finished project on a desk in the laboratory. It also includes a beautiful but mysterious chest in the cellar which has been there since his father bought the house. It’s locked, there’s no key and it’s never been opened because it’s so beautiful no-one has had the heart to break into it.

Going through his father’s diaries and notes, which give detailed accounts of every day of his his adult life and all the important decisions he’s made, Peter learns his father was working on a time machine when he died. The plans for the machine are complete and Peter decides to bring his father’s final dream to fruition.

The work takes several months. Shortly before completing it Peter is browsing an antique shop where he spots a beautiful box identical to the one in the cellar. The key is in the lock and Peter opens it. There’s nothing inside. He buys the box and takes it back to the laboratory, putting the key in his pocket.

The next day Peter finally completes the time machine. He puts all his father’s papers in the box, locks it and puts it in the time machine, setting the position controls to the cellar and the time controls to the day before his father purchased the house. He pushes the send button and the box disappears. He then goes down to the cellar, takes the key out of his pocket and opens the box that has been there since before he was born. Inside are his father’s papers.

The whole time Peter’s father was living in the house there was a box in the cellar containing details of everything he would do and all the decisions he would make.

Did that make him any less free?

From → unclassified

  1. Mind bender

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This is the problem with linear thought. The illustrations of the snake is a good example that the whole process is one event, especially when you remove time from the equation. The whole cosmos is the same event happening forever now. It is very large, tangled, and complex, but where and who gets to demarcate where one event begins and another ends?
    Like Watts says, we cast a net (or graph paper) over marked areas of study and and measure it, but the edge of the net is completely arbitrary.
    A few months back I watched the octopus teacher with my daughter. What really stunned me was how the earth was alive. The whole thing.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. …” to be inevitably compelled by God is to be one with God, and in this way, determinism becomes freedom.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, that’s more or less how I see it. Except for the “compelled” bit. The whole question of determinism and free will only arises if you see yourself as something separate from the universe that acts upon it and is acted upon by it.

      But if you’re into a dualistic, omniscient God then logical determinism vs free will also works for theological determinism vs free will. Your freedom to choose isn’t restricted by your God knowing what choice you’ll make any more than a child’s freedom to choose chocolate ice-cream over strawberry is restricted by her parent knowing which one she’ll pick.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Beautifully written ❤️


    • Thanks, but I’m a bit embarrassed about the compliment. I slapped it together as a concretised illustration of an abstract point. If it has any literary merit that’s entirely coincidental.


  5. “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards” (Søren Kierkegaard)


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