Originally, I planned on writing an article about time travel. It’s one part of fiction I always loved. But during my research, I was confronted with a much more fundamental and real question. The question of whether we truly have free will, or not.
Time travel and the concept of free will
According to the Einstein field equations and general relativity, time travel appears to be possible under certain circumstances. Though these circumstances are not in reach with our current technology and understanding, it’s an interesting topic to discuss.
One famous problem that arises if time travel into our past is possible, is the grandfather paradox.
The grandfather paradox
If you would travel into the past to kill your own parents or grandparents before your own conception, you’d not be able to exist to travel back in time in the first place. This is the grandfather paradox. You can’t prevent your own birth through time travel, as it would remove your present self from existence. The grandfather paradox is the main premise of the whole Terminator franchise.
How would this paradox be avoided? Are there any forces holding you back from say, pulling the trigger on a gun? Or would you vanish the moment you fire the killing shot?
There are multiple theories that try to shed light on the matter. One famous thought mentions multiple realities or dimensions that coexist parallel to each other. If you were to travel into the past to change the present, you’d arrive at an alternative past, only being able to change an alternative reality, separate from your own true reality. This is known as the “Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI)”.
You would be able to kill your grandfather, but for yourself, nothing would change. You just prevented an alternative you from being born.
Another idea is found in the so-called “Novikov self-consistency principle”, which states that the probability of any event that could cause a paradox must be zero. In other words, the chances that you’d be able to kill your grandparents or parents in the past if you tried to, would be zero. This sounds a bit like space magic, doesn’t it?
This would mean that no matter how hard you’d try to prevent your own birth, you’d ultimately fail. What’s even more interesting is the notion that you could simply not have the will to kill yourself. The universe would not allow your brain to make this decision.
Novikov argues that we already have physical laws in place that prevent us from doing other things. Gravity prevents us from flying. The law of condensed matter prevents us from walking through solid walls. He argues that there may be laws in place that prevent time travel paradoxes in a similar way.
And this leads to the big question: If you are not allowed to will your own death in the past, do you still have free will?
The answer to that question could be “predestination”. It’s also the name of a mindblowing movie I really recommend you to watch. It’s on Netflix, so don’t waste any time!
The movie, much like this article, deals with both time travel and the question of free will.
Though within the movie, the power of predestination occurs from the time traveler being bound to his timeline. He has no power to change the events or break free from the cycle he finds himself within. And it’s a fiction movie. But the problem underlying the plot is very real and asks a question philosophers and scientists are trying to answer to this day. Do we have free will or not?
The movie explains it with predestination, a predetermined path that we can not avoid or alter. From the moment our heart starts beating, our journey has been carved out for us. We are moving on a fixed timeline with a fixed outcome.
Free will in philosophy and why it’s different
Philosophers have founded different camps of opinion on the matter of free will, namely compatibilism, incompatibilism, determinism, and indeterminism. I won’t get into those. They mainly argue whether our choices are truly our own free choices or if they are forced upon us based on internal and external influences that are out of our own control.
For those people, the question does not look at predestination as a whole. They merely try to define whether we truly are responsible if we for example murder someone.
My answer to that is: “Yes. If you murder someone, you are responsible for it.”
My understanding of the lack of free will does not remove our accountability for the things we do. Which is why I stated in the subtitle that it doesn’t matter.
The true meaning of lack of free will
This lack of free will, in my opinion, stems from our path being chosen already. Every decision we make in life was already decided before we made it. It doesn’t matter whether you apply for that job or not, whichever decision you make is the one that has already been made for you.
“A man can do what he wants, but not want what he wants.” — Arthur Schopenhauer
Don’t misunderstand this as a call to not apply for that job or to not pursue your dreams. It does in no way mean that you can’t escape your fate. You don’t know your fate yet. Much like Schrodinger’s cat, your fate at this point is both getting that job and not getting it. The lack of free will is above the layer of you making a decision. It is sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whichever decision you make is known as the only decision you’d ever make in that situation.
So what does it mean really?
For one, it means that it really doesn’t matter. If the above is true and we don’t have free will, then it won’t interfere with our decision-making. After all, we still don’t know which decisions we will make in our future. Since we don’t know our future, we can take it as it comes, one step at a time. We only know where it leads us once we get there.
But it also means that if you somehow were able to learn about your future, then you’d still not be able to change it. Every decision you’d make, even if to aggressively try and avoid the future you’ve seen, would ultimately lead you to the exact future you try to change. This is not about short term decisions, like whether you should go to that brunch next Saturday. These decisions are only pebbles in the canvas of your life.
Whatever happens, is meant to happen.
And lastly, it means that there is no “higher sign” that you should stop doing something just because you failed one, two, or a hundred times. It just means that you were meant to fail one, two, or a hundred times at first. No one and nothing can tell you whether it’s worth pursuing something. So if your inner feeling tells you that you are doing the right thing, then keep doing it. Don’t give up.
To me, this also means that each failure we endure in life is not the ultimate failure. All things that happen, both good and bad, are bound to happen. But we will never know if our ultimate predestination is to succeed or to fail. We have to keep going. Only time will tell.