Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Determinism, Free Will, and the fate of us all...

For those of you who don't know, there are two theories on how the time line of the universe will play out. The first, determinism suggests that for any given state of the universe, there is only 1 possible state that can follow it. What this basically means is that history only has 1 possible path. The alternative to this, indeterminism, is the polar opposite. It says that there is at least 1 point at which there are at least two possible states that can follow. So the time line of history has at least one place where it can branch off.

Most people i think would tend to be indeterministic. We all feel that at any moment we can do one of a number of things, all of which would change the flow of history. That if we went to work, we'd get paid, and have a food for the next few weeks, or id we didn't, and spent the day at the beach, we'd be fired and have to get a new job. Things like that.  If history only has one path, it means that we never really have a choice in anything we do. However, people also seem to believe in destinies. That there is some master plan and that everything you do is leading up towards important events. These two ideas seem to conflict on the surface. How can we have choice, but still have a destiny?

The answer lies in the shape of the history timeline. Does every small change have a butterfly effect? if i step a few inches in-front of where I'm supposed to, do i cause earthquakes in south america? I'd have to say no. Your step has a lasting affect on the world, but it is insignificantly minor on a human scale. The microbes you step on, and the dust particles you disturb are forever different, but history would follow a parallel path overall, only minorly separated from the main timeline. And so  one could make decisions, branch history, and then destiny could cause it to realign with required events. If I'm supposed to die being hit by a train tomorrow, no matter what i do from now on I'm going to get hit by that train.

Now that i have shown destiny and indeterminism are not mutually exclusive, there was another point I'd like to raise. Are determinism and free will mutually exclusive? Can history only have one possible path, but people still have the freedom to make decisions? Am i being compelled by fate to write this blog, or am i simply doing it because i want to?

let us run a simple thought experiment. You are sitting at a computer, reading this text. Suddenly, you are surrounded by a bright flash of light, and as it fades you realise you are standing in a room with no indication of how you got there. You look in front of you and see a door. In fact the room is perfectly square, with a door in the center of every wall. The doors are all coloured differently, red, blue, green and white. Written on a sign to the right of every door are the words "One door will lead to your freedom, the others your doom". There is no indication which door you should choose, so on a whim, you pick the blue door. Suddenly you are surrounded by a bright light. You reappear in the center of the room. You have no idea how you got there, and no recollection of the events since you first appeared. You have even been de-aged by the few minutes you spent there last time. You are exactly as you were when you first entered the room. What do you do?

Exactly what you did before. Everything, in the same order, at the same time. You would spend the rest of eternity opening the white door. Why? Because given the same information, and the same set of experiences, you will always pick the same decisions. It doesn't make sense for you to pick the white door one time, and the blue door the next, for you have no idea that the white door won't work. You'll always think that the white door is your best first option. But it is still your decision to pick the white door. You are completely capable of picking blue, or red, or green, but you never will. So you can have a fixed fate, that you bring upon yourself with your own free will, whether knowningly or not.

I'm not sure if there was more i wanted to say. This has been the effort of about 3 days on and off, so sorry if it's a bit disjointed. Comment on anything that seems unclear. And for the record, I'm pro free-will + determinism.


  1. I disagree, you have to factor in people who are prone to do the most random things in any given situation, logic doesn't always apply to people who are in situations of white space and (what seem to be) randomly coloured doors

    for example if you were magically whisked into that situation with the same rules given except you were scared, logic would not necessarily apply... because you're freaking the fuck out and not thinking, which would mean that you'd go for the first door you see

  2. Which if you always appeared facing the same door would mirror the above situation. If you panic, you're always gonna panic in the same way.
    Also, I'm neglecting quantum effects here. Atleast once in eternity you would randomly fall through the floor.