The Philosophical Ramblings of a High School Graduate

Free Will and Time

The quandary of free will is troublesome in the fact that both its possible existence and possible absence puzzle the mind’s logical reasoning skills. Intuitively, we believe free will to exist, on the basis that we are able to command our bodies as we wish and perform tasks based on what we desire. However, if free will exists, its existence raises disturbing possibilities for reality that rational thinking uncovers.

For the purposes of this text, free will will be defined as every individual human’s complete control over his or her individual choices and decisions. Free will will not be defined as an individual’s control over his or her destiny or eventual social position, as many external factors beyond an individual’s control contribute to one’s status in society. Free will will simply be defined as one’s ability to make choices with the outcome of their choices not predetermined by some external, otherworldly force.

I have done extensive thinking on free will, often during classes that I hated. I would ponder that if I truly had free will, I could stand up, punch the teacher, and leave the classroom uninhibited. Joking aside, many hours of thinking have led me to create my own hypothesis on free will, which I have dubbed the incompatibility hypothesis. The incompatibility hypothesis is, simply put, this: the existence of time as it commonly believed to exist and the existence of free will are mutually exclusive within a singular reality. What this means is that in order for time to exist, free will cannot exist, and vice versa. Think of it this way:

Say time exists in the generally defined way, with a past, present, and future. Events currently occurring are the present, events that have previously occurred are the past, and events that have yet to occur are the future. In order for time to exist in this manner, with a past, present, and future, free will cannot exist. In order for the present to exist, past you has to perform the same actions present you performed at that point; otherwise present you would not exist. If any point in the past was altered, present you would not be able to exist in its current incarnation. Similarly, in order for future you to exist, present you must perform the actions that future you performed when the current present was the future. If present you at any point deviates from future you’s actions, future you cannot exist in its intended incarnation. Thus, if time exists linearly, with a past, present, and future, free will cannot exist because all actions must be predetermined.

The only way for free will to exist in a reality is if only the present exists; if there is no past and no future, each individual is free to act in whatever way he or she wishes with no restraint. However, if only the present exists, “time” as a concept does not exist; time never “passes,” because there is nothing to pass. Reality exists at one singular point, and no previous actions are recorded while no future actions are determined. Thus the logical paradox of time and free will ensues, and the incompatibility hypothesis becomes known.

In order for both free will and time to exist, time must exist in an incarnation either outside of human comprehension or not currently observed or hypothesized. However, this is not a caveat of the incompatibility hypothesis, as it is stated outright that that hypothesis only applies if time exists in its traditionally understood linear sense. Thus if a new interpretation of time is hypothesized that allows for the existence of free will as a concept, the incompatibility hypothesis no longer applies.

The reality in which time does not exist is preferable, in my opinion. If time does exist, then every action one takes is predetermined, whether by an otherworldly force or by the laws of the universe. Free will does not exist, and so every choice one takes isn’t really a choice, but a course of action that was meant to happen from the universe’s creation. If time does not exist, then individuals become masters of their own actions, and are able to act in ways in accordance with their own thoughts and motivations.

In a scenario where time does exist, however, an interesting opportunity for immortality emerges; if time exists, then the past will always exist, as will the future. Because of this, after one’s death, one may still “live on” in a sense through the constantly existing past. In a callback to the previous chapter, perhaps after death one’s consciousness reverts to the start of his or her life, and “replays” his or her existence as if one were watching a movie. While this may seem appealing at first glance, this potential reality becomes nightmarish upon closer inspection. Every painful, embarrassing, or gut-wrenching moment in one’s life exists ad infinitum. Furthermore, every objectively terrible life lived by specific individuals, such as starving children or tortured prisoners, occurs forever, trapping the individual in a never-ending “hell.” The implications of predetermined destinies become more horrifying the deeper one delves. Are some people meant to be sociopathic? Do some lives exist to harm others, and if so, why? Every ruthlessly terrible person exists forever, and is not bound by the shadow of death. Assuming time exists makes every real-life villain less a horrific monster and rather a sympathetic actor in a constantly occurring Shakespearean tragedy. They cannot control their actions as no one can control their actions. As such, can anyone be truly held accountable?

While viewing time in a completely linear sense gives rise to the above horrifying reality, viewing time in a partially linear sense creates an entirely new conundrum. If one assumes that the past and present exist, but that the future holds infinite possibilities, the multiverse hypothesis commonly seen in science fiction becomes apparent. Every present holds different future possibilities, and whichever choice one makes determines the course of one’s future. However, despite claims to the contrary, the multiverse hypothesis does not allow for free will because it is still partially linear in nature. Think of it this way: every choice one makes has at least two possible outcomes, and these outcomes lead to separate, different choices for one to make. Despite having choices that lead to different outcomes, people still do not possess free will, as I postulate that there is a limited number of possible outcomes from every scenario. While the potential choices one encounters in each outcome can increase the number of simultaneously existing realities, every “choice” leads to one of two or more predetermined realities. Thus while choice exists in a multiverse, free will does not; every action leads to a predetermined outcome. I reject the notion of an infinite multiverse for this very reason; while each choice compounds upon the number of possible outcomes and exponentially increases them, there is still a limited number of possible realities from the universe’s beginning to its end, assuming that the universe exists with the same physical laws in every incarnation. While one may consider all the different realities to be functionally infinite, they cannot be literally infinite.

To account for the existence of the past in the above scenario, think of time existing as an incredibly huge branching “tree.” Past events can lead to multiple present events, so one may trace back from his or her current present and up to a “new” present, thus allowing the past to exist while accounting for the generative existence of the future.

The idea of a reality with linear time gave me another idea I do not even hypothesize as I believe it to be absurdly improbable; rather, I just imagine it. Suppose that memories, as they exist, are merely humans looking into the past as it occurs. Perhaps consciousness itself “time-travels” and is able to watch events as they occur in another time. Extrapolating from this, what if every book of fiction, or every semblance of inspiration, comes from the mind peering into another reality where this fiction truly exists? However, the second part of this “idea” can only exist if one assumes that the physical laws of the universe are not necessarily the same in every incarnation, to account for fantastical fiction; if this is the case, then free will can functionally exist as there are literally infinite realities, and the incompatibility hypothesis no longer applies.

The multiverse hypothesis is disturbing in its own right, as it implies that realities exist where you personally experience extreme pain or sorrow and realities exist where you inflict pain and sorrow upon others. You become both a monster and a victim. Every action you knew was wrong but decided against doing was performed by you in another universe. Every time you’ve contemplated what would happen if you crashed your car or killed another person has been played out in another universe, and this knowledge of what could be can entangle you in a web of mental anguish. I choose not to dwell on this idea for that very reason.

Thus, despite the opportunity at immortality, I prefer to believe that time does not exist, though I know that nothing is definite and that our current scientific understanding hints that time does exist, at least in some sense. While I long for free will, my wish for the existence of this phenomenon is notoriously elusive in its motivations. Why do I long for free will? Why is it unsettling to think that I am a puppet, controlled by quantum strings? Human motivation will be covered later on in this text, but it may be useful to start pondering these questions now in preparation.

-Kleiner Bruder