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Free Willy
May 20, 2010 9:36 PM   Subscribe

You've stepped out of a time machine, it's 1894 and you're standing in front of a young Adolf Hitler, with instructions to assassinate the child. What you do next may depend a lot on your belief and definition of free will (never mind the unintended consequences)

Whilst we make think we're free, seemingly innocuous things can have a surprisingly large affect on our choices and actions. Even choice itself can affect our choices!

So, why should we still believe in choice? Because it makes us better people - "Helping people who are in danger is not a matter of courage but from making a decision that every human being has to make in his life when he or she distinguishes between good and bad."
posted by smoke (205 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
But... little Adolf is so cute!
posted by twoleftfeet at 9:47 PM on May 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


If time travel were possible, that would mean the travelers would have had to put a priority on killing somebody who would have been WORSE than Hitler. Think about THAT.
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:48 PM on May 20, 2010 [24 favorites]


"So, why should we still believe in choice? Because it makes us better people"

"Should" has no meaning in a world without free will. You either will or you won't believe in it.
posted by TimeTravelSpeed at 9:52 PM on May 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


Nietzsche's idea of eternal recurrence means I'll have to sit through the "Ice Capades" again...
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 9:53 PM on May 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


There's a great Orson Scott Card (I think) short story about this sort of thing, time-travel-wise, where there's a time travel enforcement group not unlike wikipedia editors, continually going back to thwart everyone's continued attempts to assassinate Hitler, because it's what every n00b time traveller does (sometimes predictably, sometimes with great creativity.) Also, he has a good novel-length story (Pastwatch or something?) that I enjoyed on the same subject, that touches on the worse-than-Hitler thing, regarding slavery and human sacrifice.
posted by davejay at 9:53 PM on May 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


Doesn't matter what you do to young Adolf. This is the best of all possible worlds. How could you be sure your actions don't backfire, resulting in someone just as crazy coming to power in Germany? Only this guy doesn't invade the Soviet Union...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:55 PM on May 20, 2010 [6 favorites]


There's a great Orson Scott Card (I think) short story about this sort of thing, time-travel-wise, where there's a time travel enforcement group not unlike wikipedia editors, continually going back to thwart everyone's continued attempts to assassinate Hitler, because it's what every n00b time traveller does (sometimes predictably, sometimes with great creativity.)

Desmond Warzel's "Wikihistory", from Abyss and Apex. Absolutely hilarious.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 9:56 PM on May 20, 2010 [38 favorites]


I should point out this (via this. See also this).
posted by motty at 9:56 PM on May 20, 2010


In any event, your minute is up! So what’s it going to be—and why? With millions of future lives at stake, do you murder the innocent six-year-old boy as a pre-emptive homicide?

Turn to page 64.

Do you deliver the package to his parents, in the hopes that the shocking vision of the Holocaust will lead Adolph—one way or another—to choose a different career path, or even to flub his own rise to fame from all the pressure?

Turn to page 21.

Or, like those who lived in Nazi Germany and who were bombarded with (false) deterministic messages about the Jews, do you simply not intervene at all?

Turn to page 103.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:57 PM on May 20, 2010 [18 favorites]


After clicking through he links and skimming the familiar arguments, my utter disdain for anyone "wrestling" with this problem and my summary dismissal of it all as mental masturbation came as no surprise to me.

This is good, because if I knew I had a choice to feel any differently, I would respect myself less.
posted by Avelwood at 9:59 PM on May 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


You know, let's say for the moment that we don't have free will. Okay. So we're preordained to do the things we do, and can never take a different path. However, we're imperfect beings, who don't always succeed at the tasks we take on, and don't always complete the same task in the same way, so there's a huge element of randomness that results from even the most preordained task. Couple that with the ongoing collisions between the actions of multiple people, each following their preordained tasks, and each collision results in different future tasks than would have resulted if the collision did not happen. That is, even if we don't individually have free will, the inevitable interactions between us (and the randomness of everyday life, such as natural disasters and disease and the weather) guarantee a rich, varied life that cannot possibly be predicted.

And, since we can't predict it, it's indistinguishable from having free will in the first place. So it doesn't really matter whether we do or not, does it?
posted by davejay at 10:01 PM on May 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


Hmm, my framing could have been better - I think the interesting thing here is not a hypothetical about killing Hitler, but that the research is indicating people respond to a perceived lack of free will by acting more antisocially and selfishly.

I.e. we use the idea of a sort of fate to abrogate our personal responsibility when it comes to our interactions.
posted by smoke at 10:01 PM on May 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Thank you, fairytale, that's totally it.
posted by davejay at 10:02 PM on May 20, 2010


If time travel were possible, that would mean the travelers would have had to put a priority on killing somebody who would have been WORSE than Hitler. Think about THAT.

Or Hitler was a necessary creation, built to eventually fail, to keep the Soviets from steamrolling over western Europe and then taking the world. A whole planet of Katyns, Gulags, and Lubyankas.
posted by codswallop at 10:03 PM on May 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


Since I read the post as "it's 1984 and you're standing in front of a young Adolf Hitler," my answer is "I have no frigging idea."

What would Morrissey do?
posted by evidenceofabsence at 10:06 PM on May 20, 2010 [7 favorites]


Years ago, Dr. Anthony Cashmore was one of my biology professors, and he gave a talk in one of my seminars that attempts to deal with answering the question of free will with real science.

His excellent paper in PNAS (PDF) raises an interesting point:

Finally, I would like to make the following point: In the introductory chapter of many undergraduate texts dealing with biology or biochemistry, it is common to stress (as I have in this article) that biological systems obey the laws of chemistry and physics; as living systems we are nothing more than a bag of chemicals. It is almost with a sense of pride that the authors of such texts may contrast this understanding with the alternative earlier belief in vitalism—the belief that there are forces governing the biological world that are distinct from those that determine the physical world. The irony here is that in reality, a belief in free will is nothing less than a continuing belief in vitalism—a concept that we like to think we discarded well over 100 years ago! It is my concern, that this vitalistic way of thinking about human behavior—a style of thinking that is present throughout our scientific institutions—serves only to hinder what should be a major onslaught on determining the molecular genetic and chemical basis of human behavior. [emph. added]

Even as Nature seems to behave in a causal and statistically repeatable fashion, the argument goes, we believe ourselves to be exceptional, in that our individual behavior is not deterministic, that some agent within us lies outside the bounds of physical laws — by definition, supernatural — and allows the freedom to choose different outcomes.

He is right to note that this is an odd idea for biologists — for rational scientists — to hold.

Another personally interesting question is why there is fear of acknowledging not having free will. We build societies around the fact that people need extrinsic governing to act as a collective, yet in contradictory fashion, we build judicial and penal systems around the notion that people should not need governance, and should be punished when they do.

If we hold Cashmore's argument to be true, then we not only evolved an illusory sense of free will, but we evolved a very primitive and very strong emotional hold over that illusion. That is fascinating in itself, to me.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:07 PM on May 20, 2010 [25 favorites]


Take it easy on the kid, SilverFox316; everybody kills Hitler on their first trip. I did. It always gets fixed within a few minutes, what's the harm?
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 10:07 PM on May 20, 2010 [11 favorites]


I hate this question for two reasons.

In a terribly practical sense it is a choice that nobody will ever have the opportunity to make.

In a terribly impractical sense, if I had a time machine I don't think I'd ever have to resort to something as unrefined as murder. And you have to explain what sort of time travel rules we're operating under as well. At least 50% of time travel stories are "Be careful what you wish for" style morality tales. (Honestly, as a programmer, this seems like a fairly simple problem to solve with iteration or possibly recursion), you just make sure that the results of your attempt can be reported back to "yourself" at a safe "point," in the timeline, expect that some of your attempts will result in oblivion or dystopia and plan accordingly! You can fix whatever problems come up, you have a fucking time machine.

I swear this is just like when Hiro Nakamura failed to save the day in at least 400 different easily deducible ways. Or when people find genies and the first wish isn't "I wish wishing for infinite wishes works perfectly with no negative ramifications" and the second wish isn't "I wish for infinite wishes."
posted by SomeOneElse at 10:08 PM on May 20, 2010 [8 favorites]


Kill him.
posted by nestor_makhno at 10:10 PM on May 20, 2010


Just to be clear here, all those "Downfall parodies" you've been seeing aren't creative works by bored internet nerds. They're documentary leakage from alternate realities.
posted by cortex at 10:11 PM on May 20, 2010 [35 favorites]


That is, is the person an autonomous entity who genuinely chooses how to act from among multiple possible options?

Here's the crux of fuzzy thinking around free will. To consider "genuinely choosing" to be a possibility implies that it's an intelligible concept in the first place. To choose is to choose for reasons. Without reasons to compare the preferability of one option to another, choice isn't just difficult, it's impossible. And reasons entirely determine the decision, by definition - there is nothing else at play.

It's all very well imagining a little person in our head selecting from the options at hand, but there has to be another little person in that person's head to pick how to pick the options. And so on.

Free will is a logical absurdity, but people treat it like a hypothesis. Might as well be talking about square circles.
posted by Wataki at 10:11 PM on May 20, 2010 [8 favorites]


Reminds me of the Dan Bern song, God Said No.

Guy meets God at the edge of town, says send me back in time so I can kill Hitler. God says No, you'll just get caught up in theory and discussion, let your fears delay and distract you, make friends, take a lover, never get around to it ...
posted by philip-random at 10:15 PM on May 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


i went back in time and killed jesus to save the world and look what happened instead.

what a waste of time-travel.
posted by Hammond Rye at 10:15 PM on May 20, 2010 [27 favorites]


If it turns out that we do not have free will, we must hide it from the the masses!
posted by vorpal bunny at 10:23 PM on May 20, 2010


Maybe a better solution would be to go back in time and bribe someone to let him into art school. Since there are no consequences to changing the past we might also consider warning the victorious Allies about the possible consequences of destabilizing the Wiemar government with harsh reparations, limiting the size of the army to the point that paramilitaries are a serious threat, and fostering a perception (false, of course) that it is an accomplice in the victimization of the German people. There's all kinds of things we could do without killing anyone.
posted by Tashtego at 10:30 PM on May 20, 2010 [8 favorites]


Everything I know about this I learned from Lost.
posted by tracicle at 10:30 PM on May 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


The question arbitraritly constrains the decision tree. Don't I get to choose to go back in time? A model of reality cannot be used to speculate on the nature of reality without replicating te stimulous and inputs of the moment. For example is the day hot or cold? Do I smell fresh baked bread on the air. Is young H seen bullying another child, torturing a dog, or pehaps bearing the scars of a fresh beating from his father? Are you aware of the consequences on the future? Has some supercomputer simulated reality already determined that killing Hitler at this moment will result in a marginally better existence for 92% of reality, including a dramitic discovery of a new medicine by an older Ann Frank which will spare the life of your own father tragically killed by a disease on your 3rd birthday. This incident having precipitated a saga of foster homes and abuse. Do you pull the trigger now? Are you standing there with the gun sighted and an elderly reverened mother holding a needle of gom jabbar asking you if you are an animal or a human? All of these questions affect the range of possible decisions.
posted by humanfont at 10:30 PM on May 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


Heh, did this get posted yet? Godwin's Law of Time Travel: As the amount of time-traveling you do increases, the probability of Hitler winning World War II approaches one.
posted by chaff at 10:31 PM on May 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


i went back in time and killed jesus to save the world and look what happened instead.

You think you feel bad? I was the one who went back and resuscitated him, trying to fix your error, but I only made things worse. Sorry.

[And that stone was a bugger to roll away. If I had it to do again, I'd take a backhoe.]
posted by pracowity at 10:38 PM on May 20, 2010 [22 favorites]


It occurs to me that as a society we really like to hold one individual responsible for great wrongs. We really love having someone to blame. Hitler is the perfect example of that. Knowing that this is often a mischaracterization of what actually happened (Rose Parks' famous actions, for example, were backed and organized by the NAACP) so as to diminish the role that organizing has played in our history, I wonder... Probably there was more to it than Hitler that led to what he is now held colloquially nearly solely responsible for. If that's true - if he was the front for a much larger, more organized movement - then surely it wouldn't matter much whether he lives or dies? There would always be someone else.

In any event, this question doesn't seem very difficult to me. Killing a child is wrong. Period.
posted by lunit at 10:43 PM on May 20, 2010 [6 favorites]


You've stepped out of a time machine, it's 1976 and you're standing in front of a young Marc Andreessen, ...
posted by Crabby Appleton at 10:58 PM on May 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Kill. Free will or whatever, I wouldn't leave that much to chance that a packet of documents would work. Maybe a number of years in tutorials and involuntary detention.
posted by oneironaut at 10:59 PM on May 20, 2010


"No, your honor. I killed the boy because he was destined to become an evil dictator responsible for the death of millions. I rest my case. Oh, and you're welcome."

(What, everyone just assumes they could murder the boy Hitler and get away with it?)

Also, if you buy into time travel and the belief that Hilter was the least worst outcome for WWII, then doesn't that also imply that Kennedy and Lincoln (among others) were killed for good reasons? It would also seem to imply that (I realize that this is stretching things a bit) the owners of the time machine are likely Americans, or at least probably not Russians, Germans or the Japanese.
posted by Davenhill at 11:05 PM on May 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


Required Reading.
11/21/2104
At 02:21:30, SneakyPete wrote:
Vienna, 1907: after numerous attempts, have infiltrated the Academy of Fine Arts and facilitated Adolf Hitler's admission to that institution. Goodbye, Hitler the dictator; hello, Hitler the modestly successful landscape artist! Brought back a few of his paintings as well, any buyers?

At 02:29:17, SilverFox316 wrote:
All right; that's it. Having just returned from 1907 Vienna where I secured the expulsion of Hitler from the Academy by means of an elaborate prank involving the Prefect, a goat, and a substantial quantity of olive oil, I now turn my attention to our newer brethren, who, despite rules to the contrary, seem to have no intention of reading Bulletin 1147 (nor its Addendum, Alternate Means of Subverting the Hitlerian Destiny, and here I'm looking at you, SneakyPete). Permit me to sum it up and save you the trouble: no Hitler means no Third Reich, no World War II, no rocketry programs, no electronics, no computers, no time travel. Get the picture?
posted by zarq at 11:17 PM on May 20, 2010 [8 favorites]


Doh... missed that fairytale of los angeles had already posted that link. :P

Uh... carry on.
posted by zarq at 11:19 PM on May 20, 2010


If it weren't Hitler, it would be somebody else, particularly as the fascist current had other emergent leaders, most notably Francisco Franco and Benito Mussolini. You'd really need to kill several million people to shut down the fascist movement of the 20's-40's.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:19 PM on May 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


The thing about time travel is, if it ever gets discovered, then by definition it exists for all time.

It's not like you have to wait for someone to invent time travel.

Then, assuming every time period would eventually be visited (i.e.time travelers more or less everywhere, always), that means one of two things:

a) either time travelers conceal themselves really well, or

b) no one ever discovers/ed/will discover time travel.


Think about it.
posted by gottabefunky at 11:23 PM on May 20, 2010 [8 favorites]


There's a great Orson Scott Card (I think) short story about this sort of thing...

Actually Card wrote a novel called Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus which asks the question: what if the natives of Central and South America had advanced to such a state that when Columbus and the Europeans landed in the New World, there wasn't such an imbalance of power? Namely, that the natives were immune to smallpox. How would that play out?

I won't spoil it any more than that, I'll just say it's a very good, very memorable novel. Both a time travel book and alternate history fantasy.
posted by zardoz at 11:41 PM on May 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Let me guess: Columbus turns out to be Hitler, who we should feel sympathy for.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:44 PM on May 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I remember enjoying it quite a bit in high school, but the compromise ending made me a little uncomfortable. Worth it for a few key twists, though.
posted by lumensimus at 11:49 PM on May 20, 2010


I always thought the point of alternate history tales was to point out how inexorably linked all matter and energy is and how it would be impossible to change anything whatsoever so you would tire of the discussion and go get laid or something instead.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:57 PM on May 20, 2010


Go back to 1885. Kill his father. Preferably while he's on the toilet.

Also, if I used a prostitute,

1) I suspect I'd use a condom
2) I totally wouldn't anyway
3) Just say I contracted an STD which I then passed on to my wife I don't think any discussion of free will or the biological imperatives that drove me to it are of any practical use because I'm a dead man.

Wait, perhaps I avoid using prostitutes because I know my wife would kill me? Or maybe because I choose not to because it's icky.
posted by tigrefacile at 12:11 AM on May 21, 2010


smidgeon is an awesome word.
posted by jeremy b at 12:17 AM on May 21, 2010


If it weren't Hitler, it would be somebody else, particularly as the fascist current had other emergent leaders, most notably Francisco Franco and Benito Mussolini. You'd really need to kill several million people to shut down the fascist movement of the 20's-40's.

And here I thought historical determinism had gone out of style.

(There would still have been Fascist movements in the early 20th Century if Hitler had died as a child. That is a far different claim than saying that an expansionist, eliminationist party would have risen to power in Germany if Hitler had died as a child. When you consider just how contingent the Nazis' rise to power was even with Hitler...)
posted by asterix at 12:26 AM on May 21, 2010


a) either time travelers conceal themselves really well, or

b) no one ever discovers/ed/will discover time travel.


c) They find a way, but only one way, into the future. Now you have a certain date after which people are continually plagued by refugees from horrible times in the past. "Fuck! It looks like another batch from WWVII. Someone call the vaccination squad before we have a thousand naked screaming refugees rolling around at our feet and bleeding out their assholes on to our shoes. This shit keeps happening and I'm going to take a time hop myself."
posted by pracowity at 12:43 AM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


And here I thought historical determinism had gone out of style.

(There would still have been Fascist movements in the early 20th Century if Hitler had died as a child. That is a far different claim than saying that an expansionist, eliminationist party would have risen to power in Germany if Hitler had died as a child. When you consider just how contingent the Nazis' rise to power was even with Hitler...)


You're going to call my opinion facile and then spout Great Man Theory?
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:03 AM on May 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


In any possible universe where time travel is discovered, the people using it mess up their history in interesting ways until they stumble upon a way to prevent the invention of time travel in the first place, thus turning it into a universe where time travel is never discovered.

Ergo, every possible universe you look at will be one where time travel will never be discovered.

am I doing this right?
posted by DreamerFi at 1:03 AM on May 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


"So, why should we still believe in choice? Because it makes us better people"

No.

We should believe in free will, because our belief in free will is a fundamental part of what makes free will possible.

If you believe you're a civilized human being, that makes it possible for you to act like a one.

If you believe that your life is spiraling out of control, and that you don't have a choice as to how you react to it... you're probably right.
posted by markkraft at 1:19 AM on May 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


The thing about time travel is, if it ever gets discovered, then by definition it exists for all time.

It's not like you have to wait for someone to invent time travel.

Then, assuming every time period would eventually be visited (i.e.time travelers more or less everywhere, always), that means one of two things:

a) either time travelers conceal themselves really well, or
b) no one ever discovers/ed/will discover time travel.
Think about it.
Maybe? But that seems to assume a lot, e.g. that technology will advance to a point that time travel is easy and can occur between any two points in time. If time travel depends on exploiting worm holes, for example, you might not have a lot of control over the when and where of your departures, destinations, or returns. And for all we know it could be more expensive and more technically difficult than the moon shot. For example, time travel mike require some kind of space travel as well: if you can only transport to/from an exact location in absolute space your choices include now-ish or back during the Permian mass extinction, 250 million years ago. You have to deal not only with the earth's orbit around the sun -- if you travel back in time from winter to summer, the earth will be on the other side of the sun and you'll be floating in space -- but also our solar system's rotation around the galactic core, which takes about 250 million years per revolution. On top of that, our galaxy is speeding away from the center of the universe, too.

Also, the motivations for time travel might be different than you or I might expect, and the opportunity for improving on rudimentary time travel capacities might be limited in time. For example, rudimentary time travel is discovered shortly before a giant asteroid destroys earth. Your goal for traveling to the past might simply be to accelerate technological advances (in which case the loss of life in WW2 may be an acceptable consequence of accelerating humanity's technological advances, since the long term goal is saving all of humanity).

The above might help to explain the scarcity of time travelers. But it also seems like there would be plenty of good reasons why time travelers wouldn't reveal themselves. Would the authorities believe them and cooperate with them enough to warrant revealing themselves? After all, their goals might not necessarily align with any particular government's goals (as per the race for technology scenario). And even if one government and all of its factions supported them, you still wouldn't want to reveal yourself for fear that other governments would try to stop you.

And of course it might simply be easier and make more sense for time travelers to operate on their own, both in terms of expedience and also in terms of taking a more discrete, methodical and testable scientific approach to the changes they make.

And presumably you'd have to worry about doing anything that would prevent the time traveler's trip to meddle in the first place. Perhaps you'd have to recruit time travelers who are less likely to be effected by changes to history, e.g. recruit people from New Zealand or the rain forests of Borneo instead of people in major cities.

And as per my jokey post above about being prosecuted for killing a young Hitler, would we necessarily know if some major, history changing event was effected by a time traveler? A time traveler could just as easily set events in motion and/or hire someone to do their bidding rather than commit the necessary act(s) themselves.

If there's a reason why time travelers would want Hitler to live, it's easy to see why they might not reveal themselves to anyone. Or at least, not let it become public knowledge. And if there could be some as yet unknown reason why time travelers might have wanted the 9/11 attacks to happen, you can also see why they wouldn't have revealed themselves (publicly anyway).

(I'm probably too sleepy to be talking about this so my apologies for any rambling incoherence)
posted by Davenhill at 1:19 AM on May 21, 2010 [4 favorites]


I wouldn't take Hitler out of the picture without doing something about Stalin. But why kill the child if you could just go back to 9 or so months before his birth and drop some plan B in Mom's drink?
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:22 AM on May 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


Also... if this was a purely Newtonian world, life itself would simply not exist. We only exist as a result of chaos and highly random circumstance that Newtonian physics simply could never possibly explain.

There's something very beautiful about the idea that life is utterly dependent on chaos. That means, essentially, that at the most basic building block element of our human mechanism, there is a fundamental assumption of free will... of not behaving like a wind-up mechanism, but of being utterly, amazingly unpredictable, and, as such, very very human.

It's not even just us... it's less evolved animals as well, which are capable of showing profound levels of emotion and utterly irrational self-sacrifice.

Maybe the psychologists in question should consider trying to explain to a dog or a chimpanzee that they're just wind-up toys, so that they'll behave more in accordance with their tests?!
posted by markkraft at 1:31 AM on May 21, 2010


I would kidnap baby Hitler and baby Stalin and raise them to be the nicest, happiest guys in the world, but then they would discover my notebook ("TBD: Kidnap baby Hitler and baby Stalin, change world.") and my time machine in my closet and hate me for destroying their destinies and they would snap and kill me and take the time machine back to 1930s Europe with secrets from the future and become Two-in-a-Box, Co-Rulers of the Universe.
posted by pracowity at 1:36 AM on May 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


What if ho-hum ordinary bloke Hitler died in the trenches during WWI and was replaced by a diabolical time traveler from the future?

("Time is bunk.")
posted by maxwelton at 1:41 AM on May 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'd kill Hitler, since now I've read this article I'd know its actually not a choice and I don't have to take any responsibility for it.

Stephen Fry's novel, Making History, is concerned with bumping off Hitler via time travel and the consequences. To be honest, I found it a bit no0b sci-fi writer in not suggesting anything new, but worshippers of the holy Fry may enjoy it.
posted by biffa at 2:00 AM on May 21, 2010


"If it weren't Hitler, it would be somebody else, particularly as the fascist current had other emergent leaders, most notably Francisco Franco and Benito Mussolini."

If it weren't Hitler, it would be *completely* different.

One of the things I have appreciated as a result of seeing their tremendous impact is the power of the right -- or wrong -- person making the right -- or wrong -- decision at the right -- or wrong -- time.

If the leader of the German Nazi Party wasn't Hitler, it is almost a complete certainty that many of the important strategic decisions that led to the Nazis coming to power wouldn't have happened. Hindenburg wouldn't have faced such a determined threat from the right, and would've had time to turn the German economy around.

Franco would have been without a vital ally, and would've lost the Spanish Civil War. Pablo Picasso would've been painting pictures, not of the bombing of Guernica by German planes, but most likely of celebrating the rise of an exciting and, most likely, far more progressive and less totalitarian system of communism in Spain.

France, most likely, would be heavily influenced by such a movement.

England would've likely isolated Mussolini, and might've had the freedom militarily to stop his aspirations in North Africa and the Balkans cold. Indeed, if he pushed it by trying to expand into Albania, Yugoslavia, or anywhere else in the Balkans, he not only would've likely seen defeat... he very likely would've faced the downfall of his government.

Hitler was an instinctive genius at the art of controlling the mob. What he failed to understand, however, was that the mob wasn't merely some sort of statistical average that could be controlled, but that there would always be those who would come to resolutely refuse to knuckle under to his threats and demands, even when it meant war, death, and great hardship.
posted by markkraft at 2:03 AM on May 21, 2010


The New Scientist piece is a bit of a ragbag but the real point seems to be not about free will itself, but about how belief in free will influences behaviour. To flesh that out slightly, Eddy Nahmias' concept of bypassing, set out in his forthcoming book Rediscovering Free Will is interesting: he has found that people are granted moral immunity if they are thought to suffer from some condition that bypasses their normal decision-making apparatus, but not if they are subject to problems which are thought to leave that apparatus in charge. In particular, subjects tended to dismiss psychological excuses, but accept neurological ones. De Brigard, Mandelbaum, and Ripley (pdf), by contrast, found it made no difference to their subjects reactions whether a mental condition such as anosognosia was said to be psychological or neurological.

Then again, a 2009 paper by Baumeister, Masicampo and DeWall, suggests that determinism is associated with lower levels of helpfulness and higher levels of aggression. 

Blazecock, your prof's concern is misplaced. Vitalistic free will is only one version out of many, and one that no-one is actually advocating so far as I know. No-one is saying we need to invoke free will to explain findings in biochemistry, for example. However, on another level, the fact that animals' behavioural responses in similar circumstances vary, that in some sense they make choices, is a subject of legitimate interest. The aim is to find an account which grounds that kind of choice, when made by humans, acceptably in the biochemistry without throwing out the baby. To speak of free will does not mean we're bringing back the spooky stuff.
posted by Phanx at 2:27 AM on May 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


No one has mentioned the equally dangerous possibility of jumping forward in time. How can you not have free will if you can alter things that haven't happened yet?

Nostradamus traveled forward in time to make the following prediction:
Bêtes farouches de faim fleuves tranner;
Plus part du champ encore Hister sera,
En caige de fer le grand sera treisner,
Quand rien enfant de Germain observa.


Which can be translated:
Beasts wild with hunger will cross the rivers,
The greater part of the battle will be against Hitler.
He will cause great men to be dragged in a cage of iron,
When the son of Germany obeys no law.


As anyone can see, this proves that time-travel is possible in the forward direction, although occasional spelling errors ("Hister" for "Hitler") could happen.
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:54 AM on May 21, 2010


There's a great Orson Scott Card (I think) short story about this sort of thing, time-travel-wise, where there's a time travel enforcement group not unlike wikipedia editors

When did Poul Anderson change his name to Orson Scott Card?
posted by DU at 3:31 AM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


you're standing in front of a young Adolf Hitler, with instructions to assassinate the child.

It should suffice to disfigure him, maybe cut off his nose.
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:45 AM on May 21, 2010


Time Travellers Bulletin Board This made me laugh.
posted by marienbad at 4:00 AM on May 21, 2010


Phanx, I dunno how closely you read the article; it's all about the Baumeister paper you linked to.
posted by smoke at 4:02 AM on May 21, 2010


edit: damn - beaten toit.


is this like christianity and predestination? cos i dont believe that shit at all.
posted by marienbad at 4:05 AM on May 21, 2010


Sorry, smoke - that's what happens when I start a comment in one place and then finish writing it two hours later in another place without paying proper attention.
posted by Phanx at 4:11 AM on May 21, 2010


My perennial problem with discussions of free will is that they include a garbled notion of the self, the part of us that seems to make deliberate choices. If a choice is made by some part of us that isn’t our conscious part we discount it as being unwillful. But the conscious, self-aware part doesn’t act unilaterally, independent of other parts to which we have no conscious access. Our conscious choices are informed by inputs of which can have only limited awareness. We can’t summarily discount the parts of ourselves we can’t explicitly know. They are also us. So our free will doesn’t work the way we think it does.
posted by Jode at 4:19 AM on May 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


Problem 1: You can't go back in time. There isn't room for you. There's air. If you put your body right over the top of it, the air will kill you instantly.

Problem 2: "Hitler" isn't one simple single entity. He was (and you, and I are) billions of trillions of particles in a certain configuration. Each of those particles has a past and a future. Each individual possibility in the vast array of possibilities for each and every one of those particles, counts as a "possible future". There are trillions of trillions of possibilities to be explored to traverse between "typed the letter A" and "typed the letter Q".

Problem 3: Even if we could aggregate these "die rolls" into human actions, there are a vast number of them that have ongoing ramifications far beyond what might be expected to occur. Miss a bus, and you avoid meeting someone who later introduces you to someone else who you have kids with. If a time traveller comes back and causes you to miss that bus, your future kids cease to exist. Your, and anyone's, history can be seen as a series of recorded dice rolls; go back to point X, and all of the dice from X forward get rerolled.

I love time travel, but I don't for a second believe in it.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 4:57 AM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


BANG!

dead
posted by caddis at 5:06 AM on May 21, 2010


If I went back in time and Hitler, Bin Laden, and Toby Flenderson were in a room, I'd kill Toby twice.
posted by Astro Zombie at 5:13 AM on May 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yeah, you have to worry about those unintended consequences. See, I went back in time to keep Hitler from being conceived, and it turns out that Alois Hitler was, by that time, impotent. But, well, his mom was hot. I mean, really hot. And Alois worked late... some schnapps, a few laughs... well. I'm only human.

On the other hand, I did keep Lovecraft from getting his hands on an authentic, complete copy of the Necronomicon and unleashing nameless, numberless horrors upon the world, so there's that. So, please, don't go back in time and
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:14 AM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Man, if I had a time machine, of course I'd go to 19th-century Germany to kill six-year-olds. I think that's pretty common, yeah? Now, who's this Hitler kid?
posted by Greg Nog at 5:23 AM on May 21, 2010


As anyone can see, this proves that time-travel is possible in the forward direction

Of course it is. In fact, this very web page is a time travelling machine that will travel into the future. Don't believe me? Just wait.
posted by namewithoutwords at 5:29 AM on May 21, 2010


Doesn't everyone know that removing Hitler paves the way for Nehemiah Scudder?
posted by galadriel at 5:43 AM on May 21, 2010


For fans of LOST: eponysterical.
posted by condour75 at 5:45 AM on May 21, 2010


How about help the parents with the kid, instead a just killing him?

Or adopted him? Or kidnap him back to the present?

If I could only stay for a few minutes, then find the parents and provide them with money.

Another idea, art classes for little Adolf, so that he makes it into the college he wanted to later in life.

Same thing with Stalin, alter his childhood in a positive way.

Why does this have to be a zero sum mental exercise?
posted by KaizenSoze at 5:47 AM on May 21, 2010


Forgive me for pointing out the bleeding obvious, but as a person born of parents born suspiciously close to 1945, killing little Adolf may have significant ramifications to my own existence in a heartbeat.

To kill Adolf is to pretty much entirely alter the faces of human race of the human race from 1939 to the big crunch, and to pop you out of existence. Even if you made it through the singularity of chance unscathed and found yourself still conscious after throttling the little Austrian kid, you'd probably have to find new mates on your return...
posted by 6am at 5:48 AM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


As anyone can see, this proves that time-travel is possible in the forward direction, although occasional spelling errors ("Hister" for "Hitler") could happen.

I don't like the sound of these here 'boncentration bamps.'
posted by palindromic at 6:03 AM on May 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


That article completely ignored the historical context of what it condemns. It seems to imply that Hitler is the sole originator of the Holocaust — that is, no Hitler means no Holocaust. It's easy to simplify history like that, but doing so ignores completely the anti-semitic historical context. The environment in which he grew up held a latent anti-semitism which came into sharp focus in light of the economic crisis Germany underwent in the aftermath of the First World War, compounded by the Dolchstoßlegende, the rise of Communism and Hitler's own personal failures (his rejection from art school and homelessness to name but two). Assuming you could prevent this from happening by confronting his parents with photographs of Auschwitz utterly neglects the impact one's upbringing and environment impacts the individual. After all, you could just as easily travel back in time to Harry Truman's parents and tell them that their son will drop a pair of atomic bombs on hundreds of thousands of civilians.

On top of all this, our sense of history is painfully short. If you support killing Hitler/preventing his birth (the effect, after all, is the same), then life wherever in time it exists should be protected, surely? Do you propose to kill a Pope or three to prevent the Crusades? Would you have had Columbus refrain from landing in the Americas to prevent the genocide of native American indians, either by disease or nation-building? 'Tis is a slippery slope…
posted by jaffacakerhubarb at 6:07 AM on May 21, 2010 [4 favorites]


Why time travel is impossible.
posted by condour75 at 6:10 AM on May 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


Actually Card wrote a novel called Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus which asks the question: what if the natives of Central and South America had advanced to such a state that when Columbus and the Europeans landed in the New World, there wasn't such an imbalance of power? Namely, that the natives were immune to smallpox. How would that play out?

Meh, I've played enough Civilization scenarios to know how that one turns out.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:18 AM on May 21, 2010


Experimentally, how does a universe with free will differ from a universe without free will? It's a bit like asking if monkeys have souls — how would you know? That the assumption we have free will (and that the sounds "fuh-REE whuilllll" can be related to a meaningful question) changes people's behavior is rather sad.

Many years ago, I ran across a fantastic book, Days of Cain, devoted to the viewpoint of someone who served as a warden of sorts for the time police. He has to track down and stop one of his peers from preventing the Holocaust, which is widely viewed as a lynchpin of history, affecting events and the tone of humanity up and down the line. Exactly why the overseeing group ("the Moiety") wants to keep history intact is revealed in the end; kind of a mind-bender. Suffice to say, they're believers in free will.
posted by adipocere at 6:26 AM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


I hate this question because positing a reality in which time travel to the past is possible makes it a question about a reality which is fundamentally and irreconcilably different from ours. It is not a question that sheds light on anything about our universe, because it starts with a premise that is necessarily impossible here. It is analagous to saying "You and everyone else can breathe water comfortably and indefinitely. You and three friends fall off a boat in the middle of the ocean. Who do you save first?" The premise makes the question not difficult, but totally irrelevant and pointless.
posted by rusty at 6:44 AM on May 21, 2010


I love how mefi nerds are caught up in the time travel aspect of the question instead of the free will aspect of the issue.
posted by garlic at 7:11 AM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


What i would do in 1894 is whip out my iphone, bring up this page and then see which answer got the most favorites.
posted by storybored at 7:39 AM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


If ultimate power corrupts ultimately, I think we need to kill these time travellers.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 7:44 AM on May 21, 2010


In any event, this question doesn't seem very difficult to me. Killing a child is wrong. Period.
Yeah, but what if that kid was Hitler?
posted by Aquaman at 7:45 AM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Problem 1: You can't go back in time. There isn't room for you. There's air. If you put your body right over the top of it, the air will kill you instantly.

Seems to me there is a problem ("Problem 0," I suppose ) ahead of this one, to do with the conservation of energy. If you go back to 1894, there is the small problem that the trillions of atoms that make up your body were all in use in 1894. Where does the energy come from to create all these atoms again?
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:48 AM on May 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


I love how mefi nerds are caught up in the time travel aspect of the question instead of the free will aspect of the issue.

We have no choice.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:49 AM on May 21, 2010 [4 favorites]


If I went back in time and Hitler, Bin Laden, and Toby Flenderson were in a room, I'd kill Toby twice.

DAMMIT, MICHAEL!
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:04 AM on May 21, 2010


I'm a little confused on how this scenario, and its option of providing historical documents to the Hitler parents, actually deals with free will. Assume that this act does prevent the holocaust. Why say that free will was involved? Can't we say that the historical documents were a stimulus that altered Hitler's environment? This explains the change in history in a deterministic way, right?
posted by Sfving at 8:08 AM on May 21, 2010


c) They find a way, but only one way, into the future.

d) Time travel requires both a sending and receiving end. The first person to build a receiving end is immediately overrun by travelers from the future.
posted by fings at 8:09 AM on May 21, 2010


Traveling into the future isn't so hard, I came here to 2010 all the way from 1948. It seems like making time stop would be harder. Or maybe not, now that I think about it.
posted by TwoToneRow at 8:40 AM on May 21, 2010


Why time travel is impossible.

After you've gone through the borderline-arcane energy-rearrangement processes that would facilitate motion through the timestream, working out the relatively simple astrophysics that would account for the location/position of the earth at any time relative to your own is a cakewalk. Seriously, lunar and martian expeditions do this right now without major complications, it wouldn't be a problem for something with the processor power of a desktop computer.
posted by FatherDagon at 8:59 AM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Louis CK, asked by a friend what he'd do with a time machine, said he'd use it to go back in time 30 minutes and punch the friend in the mouth before he asked that stupid question.

I can kinda sympathize.

The segment about time machines, with some interstital videos spliced in and some annoying music over the whole thing, is available here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xx03WNy7kxI

Louis had his own unique plans for Hitler.
posted by edheil at 9:10 AM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


BTW, in my own weird little mental universe, the fact that disbelief in free will makes people antisocial is itself evidence that there is in fact free will. I don't really believe in a universe that requires people to lie to themselves about it to live decently. I just don't.
posted by edheil at 9:12 AM on May 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


I don't know why everyone thinks time travelers would be hidden. Where do you think Lady Gaga came from?
posted by sugarfish at 9:21 AM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Seriously, lunar and martian expeditions do this right now without major complications

Well, except for those pesky times when there is english/metric unit confusion...

All that aside, sure I cannot be the only MeFite who has read Robert Silverberg's Up The Line?
posted by hippybear at 9:31 AM on May 21, 2010


It's really interesting that a column about free will has spawned a huge discussion thread about time travel. I guess we had no choice about that.

I'm surprised that (apparently) neither the columnist nor the psychologists saw a contradiction here:
If exposure to deterministic messages increases the likelihood of unethical actions, then identifying approaches for insulating the public against this danger becomes imperative.
Of course, without free will, one can't choose to "insulate the public" from the fact of its non-existence, imperative or no.
posted by Western Infidels at 9:32 AM on May 21, 2010


You can't go back in time, because the past does not exist. Nor does the future. There is only the present.

Problem. solved.
posted by Xoebe at 9:53 AM on May 21, 2010


Besides, what's all the fuss about Free Willy? Seriously people, watch better movies.
posted by Xoebe at 10:00 AM on May 21, 2010


we might also consider warning the victorious Allies about the possible consequences of destabilizing the Wiemar government with harsh reparations

We had a good man on the ground, but he failed.
posted by ersatz at 10:06 AM on May 21, 2010


I'd simply nab little Hitler and take him with me in the time machine. He could be the Dick Grayson to my Bruce Wayne. We'd travel backward and forward through time, solving crimes and having adventures and stuff.

There might also be costumes.
posted by Atom Eyes at 10:21 AM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


When Luke lets go of the fin or whatever it is and lets himself fall into that huge abyssal shaft, rather than take his father's hand...that kind of rejection has to hurt.
posted by sandraregina at 10:42 AM on May 21, 2010


I--no, never mind. (Turns out I had a choice after all.)
posted by saulgoodman at 10:53 AM on May 21, 2010


That article completely ignored the historical context of what it condemns. It seems to imply that Hitler is the sole originator of the Holocaust — that is, no Hitler means no Holocaust. It's easy to simplify history like that, but doing so ignores completely the anti-semitic historical context. The environment in which he grew up held a latent anti-semitism which came into sharp focus in light of the economic crisis Germany underwent in the aftermath of the First World War

Yeah, I read this, and I was like, you land in 1894 and try to stop World War II? But World War I would be much harder to really stop, so then I started wondering if it might be better to plink off the Archduke myself and get that shit overwith twenty years earlier with slightly inferior technology. It's a good thing I couldn't do this anyway because what a headache.
posted by furiousthought at 10:55 AM on May 21, 2010


People who discount free will usually do so because it's logically inconsistent with determinism. It makes much more sense to me to believe that determinism is the illusion.
Like Newtonian mechanics, determinism appears to accurately describe the universe at the macro scales in which our everyday observations lie, but breaks down at the extremes. The discovery of relativistic and quantum effects didn't constitute 'magical' thinking, so why should nondeterminism?
posted by rocket88 at 10:57 AM on May 21, 2010


You can't go back in time, because the past does not exist.

Okay, smartass, where'd I get this bruise on my ass from then?
posted by philip-random at 10:59 AM on May 21, 2010


People who discount free will usually do so because it's logically inconsistent with determinism. It makes much more sense to me to believe that determinism is the illusion.

For the last thirty years or so (ever since my first serious psychedelic wanderings), I've always been amused at the tendency for folks to argue either for determinism or just full-on reptilian eat-or-be-eaten Darwinism.

The "answer", of course, is "Maybe". Maybe we're not just a bunch of hungry reptiles doing our worst to survive. Maybe we're not just a bunch of stupid spectators sitting around waiting for God's latest weird plot twist. In other words, it genuinely matters what we choose to do. We're that culpable. We're that involved in life, the universe, everything.
posted by philip-random at 11:06 AM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


The discovery of relativistic and quantum effects didn't constitute 'magical' thinking, so why should nondeterminism?

Because relativistic and quantum effects exist only at particular scales which are not the scale that we as human beings operate-quantum effects existing only at the subatomic level and relativistic effects having significant effects only at speeds which are significantly higher than any speed 99.9999999% of human beings will ever travel at. This is why it took us so long to discover quantum and relativity- because it took us a long time to have the ability to perceive or affect the conditions under which they exist. We use Newtonian physics to describe the physics of biology precisely because Newtonian physics are the appropriate tool for the scale at which human biology occurs. It is inappropriate to consider things which do not have effects at the scale and under the conditions that quantum and relativity cover.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:15 AM on May 21, 2010


While it’s entertaining to talk about time travel or Hitler or free will, what’s new in the OP is the links that illustrate the effects on people’s behavior when they are told that they don’t have free will. There seems to be evidence that such a belief leads to antisocial, amoral behavior, which we as a society want to minimize. Therefore, with increasing evidence of the limited extent of free will in the human psyche, how can responsible scientists report such findings, knowing they may increase antisocial behavior?

My conclusion is that, we can’t hide such results, indeed we must not, since they are fundamental to our understanding of humanity. Instead I would argue that what we must do is develop ways to relearn what it means to act morally, what we should do to be responsible and productive members of society, and why it is important to do so, regardless of whether we have free will. Ultimately I think these findings will require us to reevaluate our moral centers, to account for outcomes and incentives rather than relying on some arbitrary measure of whether an action was free or forced.

(I have lots of ideas floating around about what it means to be moral if you have no free will, but I don't think that's what the post is about; it's about what we do when the secret gets out and everyone turns into dastardly morality-zombies.)

(also: woot! first post) /lurk on
posted by Illusory contour at 11:20 AM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also, whoever said free will should be a simple binary proposition? Why can't there be various degrees of conditioned freedom and autonomy? It seems to me that it's those who view the question to be as simple as "we do or don't have free will" that are engaging in a kind of essentialism that borders on magical thinking.

But then, earlier, I decided not to get into this topic, so now I guess I'm bound by that choice (oh noes! logical aporia).
posted by saulgoodman at 11:22 AM on May 21, 2010


Then, assuming every time period would eventually be visited (i.e.time travelers more or less everywhere, always), that means one of two things:

a) either time travelers conceal themselves really well, or

b) no one ever discovers/ed/will discover time travel.


This is a great and true point, one that I've said to other people.

If you frame it a little bit differently, the odds get even worse.

If it can be done, it will be done, and it will be done, infinitely.

Just like any other human technology, human time travel would become easier and easier to optimize and replicate, until a time travel machine would be as ubiquitous as a phone. That means there's potentially an infinite number of time travelers in the future in a great big recursion orgy.

There's no such thing as time travel for humans, because we would have met them already.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:28 AM on May 21, 2010


You're going to call my opinion facile and then spout Great Man Theory?

It's not Great Man Theory. Hitler was necessary but not sufficient to the rise of Nazism; without the historical context of Germany after the war, he would have been a nobody. But without Hitler, the Nazis wouldn't have been as successful as they were. But if you think I'm wrong, I'd be very interested in your argument to the contrary.

My perspective is that both context and personalities matter, and that history is spectacularly contingent. Neither historical determinism nor Great Man Theory is true.
posted by asterix at 11:54 AM on May 21, 2010


When did Poul Anderson change his name to Orson Scott Card?

Hey, I said "(I think)" because I wasn't sure. And someone else found it, and it wasn't Poul, either, it was Desmond Warzel. Just sayin'.

hey when did poul anderson change his name again to desmond warzel lol
posted by davejay at 12:34 PM on May 21, 2010


There's no such thing as time travel for humans, because we would have met them already.

That's like saying there's no such thing as alien life, because despite the universe being billions of years old we haven't yet met any. It's a pretty strong claim to make, for lack of evidence. A better line of reasoning, perhaps, is built upon physical laws that (for the moment) explain why it isn't possible to travel backwards in time.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:42 PM on May 21, 2010


I wouldn't kill Hitler, but I'd spank the hell out of him. At least it would settle for once and for all whether spankings do any good.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:08 PM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


garlic: Of course a thread about free will has largely dealt with time travel. The two are intimately connected, and the best reasons not to believe in free will come from relativity and the impossibility of (backward) time travel.

rocket88 & Pope Guilty: Relativity provides a very good reason not to believe in free will, which has nothing to do with the small influence of relativistic effects at low speeds, but instead comes from what relativity says about what time is. If there is no such thing as absolute simultaneity -- that is, events happen at different times to different observers -- it's hard to reconcile that with any view of time other than one where all of time just *is*, always. So if the stuff you're doing one year from now already exists -- there it is, one year from now, visible already to someone in the proper frame of reference, how can you think what you do right now has any bearing on what you're doing then? So free will sort of falls out of the running as a way to explain why some things happen and others don't.
posted by rusty at 1:14 PM on May 21, 2010


The thing about time travel is, if it ever gets discovered, then by definition it exists for all time.


Not so. You invent a time-travel machine by, say, bombarding a Bose-Einstein condensate with entangled alpha particles. Perhaps it's only good for one transition in each direction per charge; maybe it's like a teleportation device that swaps the current and future contents of a sealed box.*

Anyhow, if your time travel depends on the construction of a time gate then it's only as flexible temporally as its earliest point of operation. Consider that the first telephone was entirely unfunctional until the second one had been built; no entreaties from Bell could have summoned Watson if he hadn't had a second apparatus in the other room. Nor can you begin by hanging from a rope and later affix the other end to a support. For that matter, open a terminal window and try resetting the date on one of your computer's files to something earlier than 1980 (or 1970 if you live in Unix world). A transmission of information is dependent on the existence of a medium: whether a wire, a taut rope, or a database table.

Now, supposing our machine can receive things which are put into it in the future, what if we send back the plans for a much more detailed and superior time machine, or indeed a superior time machine which can be folded up to fit inside ours, and sent back to before we invented it? That might seem to violate causality, but it would no more do so than if Watson had been sufficiently inspired to reply to Bell by reciting the TCP/IP specification along with instructions for the manufacture of semiconductors and fiberoptic cables, or if I descend the rope to reach a coil of stronger rope and throw it up to you. So you could bootstrap to a degree, but only as far back in time as your original temporal anchor.

I strongly suspect that the energy required is not so much a function of the matter * C^2 going through your time gate, but of the cumulative entropy involved in its creation. Thus, when I switch on the machine and suck a few gigawatts before opening it to find a paper bearing next week's winning lottery numbers, the power drain is not equivalent to the energy in the paper, but that which was lost in the operation of the ball selector, and subsequent transmission of the numeric data to my television and thence to the paper. So really, all you have to do is figure out the energy signature defining that exact sequence of events, run it through a fourier transform whose window is the length of the temporal gap which you wish to span, charge the time gate with that precise frequency and amplitude spectrum, and we'll be in the money. But it's got to be spot-on, otherwise...

* I think time travel might be possible, but only in a Schrodinger's cat kind of way, where the superposition of complex quantum states collapses as soon as an observation is made. So you build your time machine around a large refrigerator, switch it on, and it locks itself shut. Nothing happens, so an hour later you switch it off and climb inside while I wait outside. I turn it back on.

Either: it deactivates immediately, you climb out saying it's the most boring hours you've ever spent, and your watch is 1 hour ahead of mine; or you emerge saying nothing happened and my watch is an hour ahead of yours. Temporal flow inside the box is reversed or frozen with respect to that outside, but changes in our shared world (your age, and more obviously the time on your watch) are contingent on knowable information. If time goes backwards, you could run it for an hour, then get in and take a book and a candle with you; you exit immediately (to my perspective) with the stub of the candle and and can tell me the contents of the book. But we can't exchange information while you're in the machine. If there's a window and I hold the book up to it while you are inside the machine, one of us will see the window go black and the other will see it go white for the entire period. which is which depends on the arresting or reversing behavior of the machine.

Of course, I might be totally wrong about this. Maybe a time machine would function like a washing machine, where dirty clothes appear in the present but only if you stock it with clean laundry next week...
posted by anigbrowl at 1:29 PM on May 21, 2010 [6 favorites]


I don't think that necessarily follows, rusty. Events do happen at different times to different observers, but both observers are always looking into the past. No observer can see an event before it occurs. So while all of my past actions exist 'at once' visible as 'now' to observers in different frames of reference, the stuff I'm doing one year from now isn't visible to any observer in any frame of reference. The arrow of time is directional, even relativistically.
The reason I brought up both relativity and quantum mechanics is that before these were conceived of or observed, Newton's laws were considered hard facts, unquestionable and absolute natural laws. We now know this isn't true, and that they are just first order approximations (that fit very closely at macro scales and sub-light speeds) of the true laws of nature. I believe the current view that a deterministic universe is a given fact is similarly false, and that there is no need to give up on the existence of free will.
posted by rocket88 at 1:43 PM on May 21, 2010


Oh yeah, Hitler. No I wouldn't.

Aside of all the theoretical physics about whether our time machine wholly depends on the past progress of history in order to exist, behavior (IMHO) is a mix of predisposition and circumstantial potential. In Hitler's case it's not obvious that such predisposition even existed.

Some people really are psychopaths. I know of one family that is struggling with a 7 year that has both stated and acted on a violent agenda: said kid is a walking PhD thesis on juvenile psychopathy, though whether this is genetic or environmental.

But in that case the family knows a problem exists and is trying to mitigate it in some fashion. And even if they fail, a kitchen fire will not burn down a modern city where fire departments and other measures exist to check the spread of flame. In an environment which is ripe for a large-scale fire, it doesn't really matter that much which kitchen it starts in. Sure, Hitler's pathological turn, subsequent rise to power, and the hideous consequences amount to a peculiar set of circumstances, but given enough coterminous factors something similar would have occurred involving another person.

Think of how scientific discoveries are often made independently quite close in time. Of for that matter, think of a lottery: the likelihood of any specific ticket matching the numbers drawn is extremely remote, but jackpots are won on a regular basis because a large number of people purchase tickets in a more or less random fashion. History only seems unlikely if you pull it out of context: like evolution, if you have sufficient time and raw material, something superficially different but fundamentally similar will take place sooner or later, and trials are correlated rather than causally linked.
posted by anigbrowl at 1:49 PM on May 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


Not so.

Well, you're missing the point, in that, if it's possible, it will always be possible. Moreover, it will have always been possible. There's nothing inherently special about the future that makes time travel possible. If you knew how to do it now, you could do it now.

By the same token, you are not a unique snowflake. If you can figure it out today, some other guy can figure out tomorrow. Or next year. Or 100 years from now.

Keep going with this ... there are about six billion people on the planet. They're all eligible for time travel vacation right now. So will the six billion people that will exist tomorrow. And so on, and so on. And all of these time travelers would be operating within an endless recursion -- the time traveler you meet today could be interrupted by his future self.

And keep going further ... a time traveler you meet today could really be a person from the past, brought forward by another time traveler. That means that all the people that have EVER lived are potential time travelers. Endless recursion...

But let's say a meteor hits the planet and wipes out humanity before the time travel lightbulb ever goes off for anyone. The concept of time travel will still exist, waiting for some other intelligence to figure it out and start visiting from the future (and the past).

Which leaves us with another interesting possibility...

* Time travel exists and we haven't figured it out yet, but humanity dies before we figure it out.

AND...

* There is no other intelligent life in the universe. Otherwise, we would have met alien time travelers, who are capable of scooping up people from the past and bringing them to the present and future.

Together, this would explain why we haven't met any human time travelers.

Or, you know, it can't be done, period.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:57 PM on May 21, 2010


So if the stuff you're doing one year from now already exists -- there it is, one year from now, visible already to someone in the proper frame of reference, how can you think what you do right now has any bearing on what you're doing then?

But aren't you' basically changing the terms of the discussion of free will here to make it something that either is or isn't a property of the physical universe, when no one necessarily claimed it was?

By my estimation, free will is an irreducible ideal. By considering what's basically a non-reductive problem using reductive methods, your answer to the question "Do we have free will?" becomes a weird non-sequitur about the motion of atoms and gravitational forces, rather than a straightforward discussion of the topic right in front of you.

Reductive attempts to answer the question of free will, IMO, misunderstand the basic question. Free will isn't a property that either inheres to things or doesn't; it's a set of human beliefs, social conventions and ideals that make sense only within the context of interactions at the level of individual human actors, not a physics problem that can be answered by pointing to diagrams of universal forces interacting and setting particles into motion.

It's as if someone asked you, "What color is this bike"? And you answered "What bike? All I see are gears, wheels, handlebars and a seat bolted together in a more or less arbitrary configuration! This so-called 'bike' does not exist!"
posted by saulgoodman at 1:59 PM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


rocket88: No, that isn't actually true -- there is no universal "before it occurs," is the thing. "Before" implies a relativistic frame of reference, and for any event you can construct a frame where "now" is after the event occurs. (I mean, maybe not physically construct it, but describe its properties at least.)

The other thing relativity says, of course, is that the arrow of time is directional, in the sense that information from future events in a frame cannot ever be perceived in that frame. So if relativity takes away the true existence of free will, it also gives back the necessary appearance of it. We might as well act like it exists, because we can't ever experience anything but that illusion. And I'm almost positive I've written this on MeFi before so I'll spare you the lengthy disquisition for fear of repeating myself. :-)

But your second point is very true -- given that we still don't have any good integration between quantum mechanics and relativity, or relativity and gravity, there is every possibility we might find that all of these things are, like Newtonian mechanics, just good approximations that don't fully capture reality.

On the other hand, relativity is possibly the most experimentally successful theory in the history of science. It is kind of hard to imagine how it could end up being modified so that all the experimental results confirming it are still correct, but what it says about the nature of time is altered. The possibility does exist, though.
posted by rusty at 2:00 PM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


(In case the first attempt wasn't clear: Events do happen at different times to different observers, but both observers are always looking into the past. No observer can see an event before it occurs. Both observers are always looking into their past. An event in observer A's future can be in observer B's past. I'm saying that for every event in observer A's future, there exists a theoretical observer B for whom that event is in the past.)
posted by rusty at 2:02 PM on May 21, 2010


The question arbitraritly constrains the decision tree

You know who else arbitrarily constrained the decision tree?
Seriously tho', I found the same idea ironic nested in a question about free will:
“Ok, you only have ‘x’ or ‘y’ parameters – which you pick determines whether free will is..”
“Wait a shake there guy, why do I have only those parameters?”
“Because you’re traveling back in time and…”
“Can I chose to travel further back in time and make people less anti-semitic?”
“NO! This is about Free Will. Stop trying to make choices!”

The dice are a bit loaded there.
Y’know, people say random numbers don’t really exist either. But beyond a certain complexity it’s close enough to fake.

but most modern scholars believe that this horrifying preview of WWII would meaningfully alter Adolph’s childhood.
Because most modern scholars believe that if you show up at someone’s house with a story about how you’re a time traveler from the future and tell people their kid will grow up to lead the slaughter of millions of people – it prevents child abuse.

‘His bad deeds would have occurred irrespective of the vicissitudes of his personal past. There is something essentially evil about this individual. And so I decide to kill the child: it’s probably best in this instance,’
The irony is, most of the evil in the world is perpetrated by people with this attitude – that evil is a trait inherent in a particular person’s being and you can kill them because of it.
‘I decide to kill the child’ – jesus fucking christ it’s the same thing the Nazis thought about the Jews. Hey, they’re essentially evil, we’re deciding to kill them before they start some worse trouble. If I knew and could verify a child had a bomb strapped to him and was charging a crowd, I would shoot him if there was absolutely no other way. That's not a casual decision, that's an expression of impotence of any other method at that instant.
If I knew a child had a plan to strap on a bomb and blow up some people, I'd probably understand there are other options and complexity involved and just because I have a firearm doesn't mean the best way to deal with it necessitates its use.

Very often we destroy the complexity that supports us by reducing it.
Alexander the Great? Yeah, still dead. His empire, not so resilient either.
"What is not capable of action cannot do anything by chance" - probably should have opened his ears when Aristotle was schooling him.

If you believe that your life is spiraling out of control, and that you don't have a choice as to how you react to it... you're probably right.

I remember when I was a kid I had a car that was essentially the Millennium Falcon of automobiles. Very very very fast engine (I routinely blew away fast sports cars) . Lousy everything else. Built by patchwork and spare parts and 100 different guys doing different things to it through favors and whatnot. I added some special modifications myself (I’m not much of a mechanic really, but).

So one time it was late, I was going faster than I should have and deftly maneuvering through some twisties on a back road enjoying some metal and a cat ran out in front of me. So I swerved and my tire glanced off a curb. Something broke somewhere and the steering wheel fought me for control. Miraculously I kept it on the road but when I tried to brakes, they grabbed a bit, then the pedal mushed to the floor.

I was headed for another curb so I expertly jogged the wheel a bit to the left then the right which would have had the car dodge the outcropping curb and put me in the middle of the road. Y'know, in theory. It was academic at that point. My steering was out. I ran right over the curb, I knew I’d probably messed up my rims. But I was off the grass and back on the road, so I pulled the emergency brake.

The handle snapped off in my hand. Plus? No brakes.
About that time I started to spin.

Having no means to control the vehicle I completely relaxed and resigned myself to whatever happened. Fortunately I was wearing my seat belt. Unfortunately I vaulted another curb and slammed backwards into a tree (prompting endless stupid jokes ‘Hey, it rear ended me!’ ‘I think the tree was drinking’ etc).

So I busted my chair, my head went through the sunroof, which shattered, and I was thrown into the back seat into my gym stuff (which was nice and soft – clothes, impact pads, gloves, etc. I can honestly say studying martial arts saved my life.), shattering the rear hatchback window as well. Some accidents you see the radio still playing, the lights are still on. Not this time. I hit hard.

As it happens a cop was not too far behind me (looking to give me a speeding ticket) and saw the whole thing – speeding, flailing out of control, jumping two sets of curbs and spinning out on grass backwards into a tree at high speed.

So he comes up shot full of adrenaline but maintaining. I remember he used the term ‘body’ several times when radioing in. I sat there for a moment contemplating how I would talk my way out of this to the cop and what I would tell my mom. Not really seeing any way to get out of it I decided to, y’know, come clean.

So while he was looking into the front and rear seats saying that for some reason there was no sign of blood, I stepped out of the open window of the hatchback. He just sort of gaped at me. So I said “Uh, I’m not drunk.” Still didn’t say anything. “I just came back from the gym.” As though that explained something. Started brushing the safety glass from the sunroof off my shoulders and out of my hair.

Before he could stop me I chased down a med ball that had flown out. But I jogged back over and he asked me if I was ok. I said yes. He said he thought whoever was in there was dead. About ten seconds later the ambulance arrived the paramedics checked me out and I asked him if he was going to give me a ticket. He laughed and said I’d have to replace the tree.

So I lost my car. Had to run or bike to school (or take the bus like a schnook). Lost long hours of hard labor and all the extra money I put into the thing. Oh, and almost got killed. And for a long while there I thought that if I had it to do over again: I would run. The fucking cat. Over.

And I retold that story to people and they got a kick out of it and the debate goes over what we would or wouldn’t swerve the car for. Dogs. Cats. Racoons. Lizards. Dolphins.
But I had some life experiences after high school and I grew up quite a bit. (Surprising because a lot of people who can rely on their physical gifts don’t seem to grow up much until they grow old enough to start losing them.)
So I was lucky, in that, I learned that to think that you should have killed the cat is arrogance.
And relying on a single point of failure is stupid.

Whatever the technique is, gizmo, whatever, you're always you and you're always going to be you.

So I should have been more mindful of my vulnerabilities. Which in this case (surprisingly) turned out not to be my body, but, because I couldn’t afford another car for a long time I lost what little freedom I had, and my mom had to make sacrifices she shouldn’t have had to make in order to get me to places.
And I should have taken more into consideration, like what if some guy was walking his dog and was standing by that tree. Very improbable any kids would be playing on a back road in the evening. But there's no reason a guy wouldn't walk his dog or jog, whatever.

Risk isn't mitigated by control - illusory or not, your vulnerabilities remain. And they can be more complex than what's in front of you or what you have in mind.
So yeah, I could have easily killed the cat and gone on with my life. But I shouldn’t have been speeding like that in the first place.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:05 PM on May 21, 2010 [6 favorites]


saulgoodman: We might just be talking about different things. I get what you're saying. I think I'm trying to think about whether the concept of "human actors" itself can be said to have any reality, beyond a purely approximate conceptual one, on about the same level as the concept of "Saturn" as an actor in the sentence "Saturn orbits the Sun."

I think you're talking about "free will" in the sense of "are your actions freely chosen from an array of options, or largely determined by biological propensity and social environment." Which is a different question, I agree. I suppose I'd have to say that technically your question is kind of only relevant if my idea of free will is not true (that is, if humans are in fact actors and not basically just mechanistic parts of a pre-existing spacetime). But really, I think it's an interesting question too, regardless.
posted by rusty at 2:09 PM on May 21, 2010


Both observers are always looking into their past. An event in observer A's future can be in observer B's past. I'm saying that for every event in observer A's future, there exists a theoretical observer B for whom that event is in the past.)

Not if the event is local to observer A and distant to observer B, which is the case if we're talking about the events caused by observer A's free will. It's like a bubble of 'now' expanding from the local event in all directions at the speed of light, appearing as 'now' to all other observers at a later time (in A's reference).
In other words, all distantly observed events have already happened long ago in the event's local reference. No observed events are yet to happen.
posted by rocket88 at 3:36 PM on May 21, 2010


working out the relatively simple astrophysics that would account for the location/position of the earth at any time relative to your own is a cakewalk.

I dunno, you'd have to keep levelling up... The sun's motion relative to the center of the galaxy, the galaxy's motion relative to the local group, and then what? Isn't one the tenets of Relativity that there's no fixed frame of reference?
posted by condour75 at 4:51 PM on May 21, 2010


I would favorite philip-random's comment twice if I could. What an awesome song.
posted by drdanger at 5:07 PM on May 21, 2010


Johnny Smith: What about my question?
Dr. Sam Weizak: Huh? Huh? Oh, you mean the one about Hitler?
Johnny Smith: What would you do?
Dr. Sam Weizak: I don't like this, John. What are you getting at?
Johnny Smith: What would you do? Would you kill him?
Dr. Sam Weizak: All right. All right. I'll give you an answer. I'm a man of medicine. I'm expected to save lives and ease suffering. I love people. Therefore, I would have no choice but to kill the son of a bitch.
posted by kirkaracha at 5:48 PM on May 21, 2010


I'm a physicist turned neuroscientist, and therefore in an excellent position to make pointless quibbles. A few thoughts:

I've often wondered at all the heat from the free will debate, because I'm still not sure what free will is supposed to be. Near as I can figure, people think, "I have preferences, and these preferences originate in my identity as a unique person. I call these preferences free will." My thinking is that this is backwards: "I have preferences, and the collection of all these preferences constitute my identity." To my way of thinking, the mechanism by which these preferences manifest themselves is scientifically fascinating, but morally unenlightening.

On to physics. There's no fixed set of coordinates in relativity. It doesn't make sense to talk about "the same place, but earlier in time", it's gobbledygook that translates roughly as "the same coordinates but different coordinates".

Relativistically speaking, all objects, intelligent or not, travel along trajectories in a curved four dimensional manifold. At every point locally one direction is is time-like, and three are space-like. Trying to cut out pieces of the manifold and fill them in "on the fly" (whatever that would mean) doesn't work, because spacetime itself has dynamics. Anyway, traveling backward in time means following a smooth trajectory that moves towards earlier times, not zapping blam-o to "the same spot" earlier. There are all kinds of problems with this though. The way "the rules" of relativity work, everything goes forwards in time locally, because that's what "forwards in time" means. So to go backwards in time, that means there's a discrepancy ---you have to twist the fuck out of the spacetime manifold so that "forwards in time" for you, corresponds to a direction that most of the rest of the universe would call "backwards in time". People have ideas about how to do that... I don't want to get into them, in part because I think they're all fanciful.

Quick brainpain points:
-people often talk about the the big bang like everything's expanding away from "the center". There's no center.
-relativity and quantum mechanics are very well integrated. It's been shown that if you try to make gravity into a quantum field theory, you can't do the standard trick, which is called renormalization or perturbation theory. It has not been shown that there's no quantum field theory of gravity.
posted by Humanzee at 7:46 PM on May 21, 2010


For the record, C°ntinuum already solved all these problems.
posted by cthuljew at 9:49 PM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't know if I have it in me to mindlessly slaughter a 7yr old boy, whether it would prevent future suffering or not. Calling this a "means to an end" just doesn't seem fundamentally right, no matter what evidence is involved. Killing just seems cyclical in that sense.
posted by deadreagan at 12:11 AM on May 22, 2010


I've often wondered at all the heat from the free will debate

Then you just don't get free will, or you are pretending you don't get it for the sake of some argument you want to make.

People want to believe that they have actual (not illusory) choices: that they could turn left or they could turn right, depending on what they freely decide at the intersection. They want to believe that they might make a different choice if you could roll time back to just before they turn and give them a second chance to decide.

People don't want to be told that they are windup toys clattering away with the false "belief" (just the state of a windup toy's guidance mechanism) that they have choices. If they believed they had no choices and couldn't be good or bad any more than a washing machine can be good or bad, it would make their lives and laws and religions meaningless to them.

That's all obvious stuff. But just as obviously, that's where all the "heat" comes from. There's nothing to wonder about it.
posted by pracowity at 12:58 AM on May 22, 2010


Also, as for "free will", Wataki's comment is spot on. Either we have some previous motivating factor that determines what we do, or a random fluctuation of electrons in our brains cause us to take a certain action. Unless there is a ghost floating outside the physical universe, watching our bodies, and pushing the animal spirits inside our pineal glands to effect our actions, then all we have to go on is the chemical and electrical processes in our brains. And these are determined by either the patterns already stored up there, or random firings of neurons. Without positing such supernatural interference (which I really hope most scientists aren't willing to do) the entire idea of "free will" becomes nonsense. Plus, as davejay pointed out, there's more than enough chaos and unpredictability in the world that there's no way for oneself or anyone else to tell what you're actually going to do, and I don't see how that differs from "free will".

On a more basic level, "you", or "I" (from a first-person perspective), is just the sum inclinations and thoughts of your brain. The person doing the observing is the same person doing the acting, and in a universe without free will, but with a concept of free will, there is absolutely no way for this rule-bound observer to be able to tell whether their thinking causes their acting, or whether they are independent, or whether the thoughts are as predetermined as the actions. Since "free will" requires a super-natural force (and I grant I didn't do due diligence on arguing for that above, but I think my line of reasoning is clear enough) it must be discarded out of hand, and the only option that remains is that everything you think and do is bound by the rules of physics, chemistry and biology. However, this doesn't mean you're a trapped observer helplessly watching the universe unfold. After all, there is nothing more to "you" than the collective inclinations and patterns of your brain activity. As such, there is no one to be trapped, as that draws a distinction between the prisoner and the cage, when there is none. You have free will in that the inclinations and drives that cause you to do what you do IS "you". And your ability to think and observe the universe around you makes you distinct from it. If there is an inclination in you to say "no" to some horrific action as you're about to undertake it, there will by psychological conflict, and it will play out as it must, and then you will go one way or the other. But all this will happen in the confines of a physical system that "you" are a part of.

In conclusion, "free will" in the traditional sense is meaningless without positing some extra-natural force somehow making choices based on pure reason. You cannot make choices that you have no previous inclination to make. If we use "free will" to mean "those inclinations that have been internalized by a conscious being", then of course there is free will; we see it and experience it every waking moment. And how could we NOT have the sensation of free will? What could possibly be the adaptive advantage of being observers trapped inside a body acting under alien volition? How could such a system ever even arise? It's absurd. Either living beings are completely non-conscious, or whatever level of consciousness they do have will experience total "free will" over the body it inhabits. Any other possibility is fantastical.

(Man, finally a metafilter thread topic that I've actually put a good amount of thought into!)

As for morality in all this? First, crime and punishment: this coupling is absurd and ineffective in every way imaginable. The legal idea of a crime is stupid and reflects only some violation of the will of an authority. It is not a moral consideration. Of course murder is wrong, but not because it breaks a law. Whereas, say, using (relatively safe) recreational drugs presents no inherent moral problem, but is illegal. And the type of punishment meeted out by most governments for crimes does absolutely nothing to rehabilitate the offenders or prevent more crime.

However, regardless of whether anyone agrees with that, corrective action of some sort (although preferably a more effective and rational sort than is used by the vast majority nowadays) is perfectly valid in a world without free will. If a person has done something which has caused harm to others, or has violated their rights, then corrective action should be taken so as to change their inclination to ever do it again. Since their having done the immoral action in the first place indicates that the environment they were raised in did not instil in them an inclination to act morally, such inclination must be retaught, or the person must be removed from the position where they can do further harm to others. It should be with remorse and sympathy that criminals (as such) are treated, not with hatred and scorn.

Now, as for time travel, I've read claims in a couple places (that I of course can't remember now) that a Tipler cylinder is a provably effective device for going back in time, although Hawking says it wouldn't work. However, it's a design that a sufficiently advanced civilization could actually try. I really dolike the system C°ntinuum uses (although, sad to say, the source books are almost impossible to buy, although there are still ways to get them). But overall, I'm a fan of the idea that you simply CAN'T create a paradox. No matter what you do, the universe will find a way to make it square again. The way that Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality does time travel strikes me as most reasonable.

Okay, now I noticed that I'm getting into novella length writing here, so I'll stop. Thank you metafilter, for yet another great thread making my night at work go by so quickly.
posted by cthuljew at 3:46 AM on May 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


Humanzee: thanks for updating my half-remembered physics.
posted by rusty at 5:18 AM on May 22, 2010


prowcity: I really just don't get free will. People talk about it, but I've never heard it discussed in concrete enough terms that I was sure what it is, or how one could tell if humans have it, or other animals do. It seems really vague. I think cthuljew said what I was thinking better than I did. To sum up: I don't think you determine your choices, I think you are your choices, and the mechanism that those choices originate is is irrelevant for morality. If people have the idea that their brains don't determine their behavior, they're provably wrong, since medicine has amassed a huge record of people with brain legions/brain damage and damn near every individual aspect of one's capabilities and personality has been shown to be affected by damage to the appropriate part of the brain.

cthuljew, according to your link, Hawking proved a Tipler cylinder wouldn't allow time travel. In general relativity, there's a huge difference between an infinitely long cylinder and a really, really long one.
posted by Humanzee at 6:02 AM on May 22, 2010


Then, assuming every time period would eventually be visited (i.e.time travelers more or less everywhere, always), that means one of two things:

a) either time travelers conceal themselves really well


There was a rather good Alfred Bester short story about this, "Hobson's Choice". Essentially a great majority of the homeless are actually time travelers. People with no means of support and saying crazy things that are somehow completely unable to adapt to the society they find themselves in.

True, it implies that you aren't traveling within a short period of time, but the degree of eccentricity and inability to adjust seemingly goes up significantly the further out you go. Even a mere hundred years into the past and modern ideas about racial and gender equality will quickly make you stand out as odd. This isn't even taking into account changes in medicine and hygiene.

All in all it's a pretty wonderful critique of time travel and how, ultimately, you really don't want to go to another time.
posted by Belgand at 5:13 PM on May 22, 2010


All this thinking supposing, conjecturing...and no mention of Lady Ga Ga.
posted by telstar at 2:02 AM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


And keep going further ... a time traveler you meet today could really be a person from the past, brought forward by another time traveler. That means that all the people that have EVER lived are potential time travelers. Endless recursion...
So, time-travel could be like vampirism or an STD? Interesting. Maybe vampires could be traveling backwards through time, 'recharging' after each victim?
posted by vhsiv at 9:55 AM on May 23, 2010


About the free will aspect of it. Just because we think we made a "choice" doesn't mean we have free will. No matter what, we would have made that choice. Free will and choice are an illusion, much like time and space. There's no reason that cause and effect have to run forward and we probably live in a hologram. It's our brains that make these things seem real.
posted by runcibleshaw at 3:14 PM on May 23, 2010


runcibleshaw, I can't help but disagree with you.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 4:02 PM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Free will and choice are an illusion, much like time and space.

Time and space aren't illusions; it's just that our commonsense understanding of them is limited/incomplete/misleading. There's no legitimate physical science I've ever heard of that discounts the reality of space/time completely (not that ontology is so much an area of scientific inquiry, but still). If space-time curvature is "real," then space-time is "real." The sense of the linear passage of time is probably, in a certain sense illusory--all change may be in some sense illusory--but the physical sciences could never prove that, and why should they? Those are metaphysical issues, and they're moot questions at best.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:43 AM on May 24, 2010


When I say, "I made a choice," and you proceed to tell me all about what "I" really am, and how it's nothing but random fluctuations in a vacuum yada, yada, yada--you still haven't rebutted me, you've just shifted the subject from the reality of choice to the question of self-hood, which is a different kind of question all together. I understand the urge to analyze a concept like free will in terms of physical reality, and I think interesting ideas can come from doing so, but I think it's a mistake to think of free will as the kind of idea that needs to be scientifically proved. It's an axiom of the human social system, not a conjecture or a theory.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:51 AM on May 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Theistic arrogance: We've already explained everything.

Scientific arrogance: We will explain everything.
posted by philip-random at 9:35 AM on May 24, 2010


saulgoodman: In that sense, I think it is trivial to see that free will exists (trivial in the sense of "doesn't even need to be argued", not trivial in the sense of "why did you even bring it up?"). It's what I mention above as the thing that "we see ... and experience ... every waking moment." That's why most people don't spend their time arguing about it as a part of human experience or society. And people who DO believe in supernatural things don't need to argue it, as they already assume any number of things that allow for free will: aether planes, souls, spirits, chakras, whatever. So, the real argument comes in squaring our experience of free will with an assumption of materialism and determinism.
posted by cthuljew at 11:28 AM on May 24, 2010


I can't find the exact quote but I have seen it, Einstein insisting that God does not play dice, that the Universe does not contain a MAYBE.

At first I found this comforting, then it started to bug me, then it clicked. Of course, the Universe contains a maybe. It's called free will. No equation that contains a human can ever be locked down because you don't know what the human will decide to do in a given situation. It's like a permutation of Schrodinger's Cat. Neither dead (for sure) or alive (for sure) until we open the box.

At best, you can calculate statistical averages.
posted by philip-random at 12:02 PM on May 24, 2010


Can people play chess? And do the moves the players make matter to the game's outcome?

I would argue, the answer in both cases is yes, and that much is obvious even to any child. Any version of science that doesn't allow for these simple facts--which is to say science that strictly and necessarily precludes the possibility of choice-making and free will--can't even offer a meaningful account of the games humans play in terms that are comprehensible and meaningful to other humans. So what good is that kind of science?

It seems to me that it's exactly this kind of information--science that doesn't generate anything of direct or even indirect value to humans--that we should regard as trivially true at best, in the sense that the phrase is used up-thread. Science that strictly precludes the possibility of free will asserts its own emptiness, denying its own relevance, and offering nothing of value but a certain smugness of conviction and fatalistic pessimism that encourages the lazier strains of moral nihilism.

So what if we can't make choices in the sense a strict materialist might mean? That won't stop me from playing chess, nor from taking every move an opponent makes seriously. Nor does it prove that the moves aren't real, or that they don't matter. Sure, to a point, I can force my opponent's moves--and the rules of chess themselves already work to constrain both players' moves to a significant degree--but no one can ever force all of the moves. And it's the moves that aren't forced that matter most to the outcome.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:45 PM on May 24, 2010


saulgoodman: One interpretation of relativity is that time and change are perceived by people as happening, but not, in any true sense, actually happening. Both of those things are the case: we live in time, we perceive change, you can never know for sure what the next unforced chess move is going to be, even though in the universe, the move already exists as the event that happened at that moment in that place.

There's physics, and there's metaphysics, and they both have something important to say about free will. If all you look at is one side, you miss what the other has to add to the picture. If you declare the reality of all time existing at once to be trivial, you decide to ignore what many think is a true fact about the universe. If you choose to ignore the real perception of time and change, you do (as you say) simply embrace a lazy fatalism.

You're arguing strictly from metaphysics, which is fine, but you're trying to use it to reject the physics, which doesn't really make any sense.
posted by rusty at 5:52 PM on May 24, 2010


If you declare the reality of all time existing at once to be trivial, you decide to ignore what many think is a true fact about the universe.

I didn't mean to say that that's only trivially true in the general case, just that it's only trivially true for the question of free will. Because free will doesn't depend on novelty or change over time, in my view of it. If we could plot our lives on a line graph, free will would be a hidden variable without which we would be unable to account for certain contours of the line. Free will is part of what defines the shape of our lives, even if those lives are in a certain sense fixed in space/time.

Believe me, I don't reject the physics at all. I've even used them to comfort my son when he's had to let go of moments he wanted to hold onto forever (by helping him understand that the moment he's letting go of is still every bit as real as the moment he's living now). I have no interest in rejecting physics, and I'd hate to give that impression.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:03 AM on May 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


I spent a long time last night trying to formulate a comment in which I dismissed as WRONG all physics that dismissed human experience from their "reality". But I couldn't get past the fact that, in terms of human experience, the world used to flat, the Universe used to revolve around the earth ... and so on. Our perceptions are sometimes proven to be very wrong, the proverbial blind man stumbling upon an elephant's trunk and concluding he's encountered a weird kind of snake.

And then I stumble upon a line like this ...

If we could plot our lives on a line graph, free will would be a hidden variable without which we would be unable to account for certain contours of the line. Free will is part of what defines the shape of our lives, even if those lives are in a certain sense fixed in space/time.

And I say, YEAH, that's it. Free will is real simply because it is. It has an effect. It causes things to happen that wouldn't otherwise. And the degree to which our current read of physical laws doesn't allow for it is the degree to which our current read of physical laws is not wrong, but definitely incomplete.

So yeah, let the Quantum Laws suggest whatever they must; just don't pretend that our experience revolves around their "truth" anymore than the universe revolves around ours. It's not either/or. It's just a dance, ongoing, in which neither partner is wrong. How could they be when it takes two to tango?
posted by philip-random at 8:19 AM on May 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


"I want" is not an epistemic statement.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:36 AM on May 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Can you elaborate, PG? Your comment seems like a non sequitur to me. Or am I missing some implied relationship between desire and epistemology?
posted by saulgoodman at 10:15 AM on May 25, 2010


I'm saying that your comment doesn't seem meaningful outside of a desire to believe in free will. I don't see any reason to believe in it, nor to bend science to accommodate those who do; it is the job of science to investigate and explain the phenomenon of free will, not to alter its findings.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:06 PM on May 25, 2010


I'm sorry, that was phillip-random's comment.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:06 PM on May 25, 2010


I regularly see people make the claim that quantum mechanics is the "in" for free will, but it doesn't make sense to me. I don't feel like I make decisions randomly, not in a chess game, not in my daily life. If anything, I tend to fall into repeated patterns. Those patterns are distinct to me and make me different from other people. There is of course some randomness in response, but then again, no two situations are every truly identical, in part because we have a memory of past experiences.

Anyway, the randomness of quantum mechanics is somewhat overblown. It's true that compared to newtonian physics, the inherent randomness of quantum mechanics is a new feature, but it takes careful arrangement to amplify tiny quantum fluctuations enough to be noticeable in our macroscopic world. The vast majority of the time they are dwarfed by the much larger apparent randomness of thermal noise. We would not be any better at predicting the weather if newtonian physics was correct. Predicting the behavior of a brain is much more difficult than predicting the weather. We can be made of only atoms but still be more than "just" a pile of atoms.
posted by Humanzee at 12:06 PM on May 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


ach so! gotcha, pg...
posted by saulgoodman at 12:26 PM on May 25, 2010


Pope Guilty, saulgoodman, phillip-random: Physics does not explain chemistry. Neither does it explain free will. That is why we have the science of chemistry and the [insert noun here] of philosophy. However, chemistry does not allow chemical reactions to do anything that physics doesn't allow, and, if you really thought it was worthwhile, you could probably manage to model all the results of such a reaction using just physical interactions between elementary particles. It would explain nothing, would be nigh-impossible to make sense of, and would be way, way more work than is worth it. But, at base, all of chemistry is based on the properties of physical particles and forces, etc. You can't say, "well, there's a hidden variable that explains organic chemistry that you can't just assume is really explained by physics". It's the same case with free will. At absolute bottom, everything we do and think and feel is the result of particles bouncing around and shit. However, those particles themselves explain nothing. You have to actually talk about people and choices and thoughts and inclinations and reasons and morals and all that in order to make sense of free will. So in the same way that scientists don't talk about quarks to explain hydrogen bonds, philosophers don't talk about physics to explain free will. However, no chemist would claim that, really truly at the heart of it, chemistry transcends physics.

Chemistry, and by way of it, biology and ultimately the patterns in our brains, and the result of physical laws that play out completely blind to our choices and ideas. However, the patterns that arise from those interactions are what we are, what we experience, and are those experiences. Physics doesn't allow free will of the "non-physical puppet master" variety. You need supernatural forces for that. Physics DOES allow non-reducible, non-predictable, subjective, chaotic, personal choice and experience, which we experience as free will, because we are part of the system. We don't make choices outside of the system, because then those choices wouldn't mean anything.
posted by cthuljew at 10:25 PM on May 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


Right. We experience free will, but that does not mean that it is anything but an experience. We also experience 3D movies, but that does not mean that there is anything but a 2D image being projected onto the screen. That we experience a thing does not make it real on any level other than the experience.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:27 AM on May 26, 2010


That we experience a thing does not make it real on any level other than the experience.

As far as the science stands, time/space are not illusions, even though our particular mode of experiencing them are. Just because the particular way we experience choice and volition may be imperfect due to our experience of choice being bound up in the (limited) way we perceive the forward motion of time, doesn't mean that experience doesn't have any relationship to the reality.

In fact, if it weren't for our "flawed" perceptions of phenomena like the flow of time and movement through space, we might never have gathered the more complete scientific understanding we have of them today, which allows us to do things like put rockets in space or estimate orbital paths. Just because we've found some evidence that volitional choice may not be as simple or immediate as we intuitively expect doesn't mean it doesn't exist, in the same way that our revised scientific understanding of space/time don't mean space/time don't exist.

Again, even if in some perfect model of reality, it's all just a static, two dimensional picture that never changes, I see no reason to assume free will couldn't be one of the many variables in the formula that gives that static 2D image its particular shape.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:24 AM on May 26, 2010


Physics doesn't allow free will of the "non-physical puppet master" variety.

Wrong. That's your interpretation of the physics, but that's not any kind of essential principle of physics, philosophy, or really any coherent view other than the one you're trying to justify by invoking it.

Physics allows complex phenomena to exert causal force on other complex phenomena, right? That is, a set of events can give rise to another set of events, either by deterministic or indeterministic processes. That's a basic assumption of physics--one simple or complex set of factors can give rise to a particular set of outcomes. And that's all that's required for free will.

All that free will requires is the possibility that a "self," viewed as a black box, is able to interact with other systems in novel and not strictly deterministic ways. You can't redefine "self" as something other than a black box by making an appeal to science, because that's all that the idea of self is: an arbitrary boundary we define as a practical matter around the set of more complex processes that define us. You can correctly point out that the outputs of the black box are a result of processes internal to it. You can even identify and catalog all of those processes (if it's possible). But you still wouldn't have changed what self means, because self is a higher-level concept. And it's selves that we're concerned about having free will or not--not neurons or particles.

All the different levels of abstraction we use to describe the world don't neatly resolve into a single, absolute "correct level" of abstraction/description. They're different ways of describing different orders of phenomena, that are all highly sensitive to their contexts on different levels of description.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:43 AM on May 26, 2010


Again, even if in some perfect model of reality, it's all just a static, two dimensional picture that never changes, I see no reason to assume free will couldn't be one of the many variables in the formula that gives that static 2D image its particular shape.

As far as I can tell you don't actually have an account of free will beyond that you perceive yourself as choosing and like that perception enough that you privilege it above the evidence that it's an illusion. There's no room for black boxes in any sane epistemology or ontology.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:54 AM on May 26, 2010


There's no room for black boxes in any sane epistemology or ontology.

We don't have any evidence of anything beyond perceiving that we do. Your account of a "sane epistemology" is what I call "antisocial solipsism."
posted by saulgoodman at 7:56 AM on May 26, 2010


You're wanting to privilege your perceptions above all else, and I'm the solipsist. Brilliant.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:57 AM on May 26, 2010


No--I'm wanting to privilege the vast majority of humanity's perceptions to some level of consideration! You act as if I alone just invented some idiosyncratic new idea I call "free will" here on the spot, and you're the one representing the mainstream, consensus view, when of course, it's the other way around. Not just I, but most human beings report experiencing this crazy off-the-wall phenomenon of which you're so dubious! If you don't, then I find it hard to understand what motivates you to argue over it.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:19 AM on May 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


And besides, my remarks here were specifically addressing the mistaken view that certain implications of relativity rule out the possibility of free will. In my argument, I demonstrated that the possibility of free will is not incompatible with relativity--I didn't claim to make the positive case for free will, and I won't, because I'm not that ambitious and doing that could take years.

You haven't refuted my specific objection to the relativistic critique of free will, and I don't think you can. I don't want to get into arguing the positive case for free will, because some form of free will and intentional volition is so commonly accepted, it seems to me it remains the responsibility of skeptics to prove the negative case.

While I agree that absolute free will is impossible (except for maybe in the case of some supernatural entity, I doubt anyone would have ever argued otherwise), the case for the possibility of limited free will has not yet been refuted by a long shot, IMO.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:37 AM on May 26, 2010


Guilty, I really do think you owe us a refutation of this (from saulgoodman's earlier comment):

If we could plot our lives on a line graph, free will would be a hidden variable without which we would be unable to account for certain contours of the line. Free will is part of what defines the shape of our lives, even if those lives are in a certain sense fixed in space/time.

Seriously, I'm sitting on a chair right now, sipping coffee, looking out on a peaceful, rainy west coast morning at least in part because of a whole raft of choices I've made over the years, conscious and otherwise. And that soreness in my back, I'm guessing if I'd chosen to stretch more on Friday before splitting a bunch of firewood, it wouldn't be near as bad. I certainly thought about stretching more. I was just too lazy, so chose not to.

Your position in this discussion reminds me of an old Sufi vignette I remember hearing.

Young Man returns home from University and enthuses to his Grandpa about all the amazing things he's learned. "Tell me the most amazing thing," says Grandpa. "Well, I can now prove that reality doesn't even exist," says Grandson. "Oh, really," says Grandpa, "Prove to me that your nose doesn't exist." As Grandson starts explaining, Grandpa winds up and pounds him in the nose. "Owww!" says Grandson. "What hurts?" says Grandpa.
posted by philip-random at 9:18 AM on May 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


Am I understanding you correctly, phillip, when I characterise your position as being that free choice is necessary for self? Because if anything, your position (and saul's) puts you in the position of the Grandson, wanting to believe that you can overcome reality by reference to mind.

Anyway, as to:
If we could plot our lives on a line graph, Jesus would be a hidden variable without which we would be unable to account for certain contours of the line. Jesus is part of what defines the shape of our lives, even if those lives are in a certain sense fixed in space/time.
Wait, I'm sorry, that's not what you typed. Let me try again.
If we could plot our lives on a line graph, precognition would be a hidden variable without which we would be unable to account for certain contours of the line. Precognition is part of what defines the shape of our lives, even if those lives are in a certain sense fixed in space/time.
Shit, I'm not good at this. I mean, I keep copying that block of text, and pasting it, but somewhere along the line different terms with equal validity keep interposing themselves. Let me give that another shot:
If we could plot our lives on a line graph, telepathy would be a hidden variable without which we would be unable to account for certain contours of the line. Telepathy is part of what defines the shape of our lives, even if those lives are in a certain sense fixed in space/time.
One more try:
If we could plot our lives on a line graph, magic would be a hidden variable without which we would be unable to account for certain contours of the line. Magic is part of what defines the shape of our lives, even if those lives are in a certain sense fixed in space/time.
Well, I tried. But fantasy is fantasy, no matter how badly you want to believe it.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:37 AM on May 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


No, pope guilty because everyone--even you--directly and immediately perceives choice and no one has yet disproved the possibility of an actual physical process that allows for free will. It's a lot more obvious how an agent with an ability to behave in ways that effect subsequent events is a lot less supernatural a belief than belief in the power of religious idol.

You're exactly right. You are living in a fantasy of your own certainty.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:42 AM on May 26, 2010


Question not seriously answered but I smiled anyway (not by choice, it just happened) and where there's humor, there's truth.

Jesus is still Lord.




of something or other.
posted by philip-random at 9:43 AM on May 26, 2010


I don't say it's a hidden variable to be all mysterian because it's unknowable--in fact, we do know about it, to a limited extent, as much as we know any other scientific variable. My point is just that it's effects could be measured on the hypothetical line graph whether or not the shape of the line continued to change over time. Even in the absence of change over time, free will--intentional agency to use the philo-speak--could be a real factor in human behavior. We all experience free will as real, so why in the absence of any strong case disproving it should I accept the skeptical case?

I can tell you're feeling very self-righteous and sure of your position right now, but you haven't managed to induce the same degree of certainty in me, so I still maintain your case is deeply flawed.

We know of volition through our own direct experience of various forms of evidence of its existence in our lives (in, say, an opponents being able to make a novel move in a game of chess--like it or not, that's as solid a form of evidence of intentional choice as nearly any scientific evidence is for any more reduced phenomenon).
posted by saulgoodman at 9:49 AM on May 26, 2010


No, pope guilty because everyone--even you--directly and immediately perceives choice and no one has yet disproved the possibility of an actual physical process that allows for free will.

The issue is that to argue for free will is to argue that there is a case- a very widespread case, with billions of instantiations- in which physics stops working and particles arrange themselves not according to the laws which govern particles in every single instance that we have ever observed but rather in accordance with the poorly-defined "will" of a poorly-defined "being". There is another word for the suspension of physics in favor of will, and that word is magic. For free will to exist, physics has to be bunkum. Given that we can conjure up any number of examples of how our day-to-day perceptions are untrustworthy, it makes more sense to trust our understanding of physics than it does to trust our perceptions.

It's a lot more obvious how an agent with an ability to behave in ways that effect subsequent events is a lot less supernatural a belief than belief in the power of religious idol.

If anything, free will is even more egregiously magical than deity because where deity implies only a singly violation of causality, free will supposes that causality is suspended billions of times a day.

You're exactly right. You are living in a fantasy of your own certainty.

I am not certain, and that is a classic anti-intellectual canard. Were there evidence of free will, I would consider it. But I do not know of any evidence for it.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:53 AM on May 26, 2010


We know of volition through our own direct experience of various forms of evidence of its existence in our lives (in, say, an opponents being able to make a novel move in a game of chess--like it or not, that's as solid a form of evidence of intentional choice as nearly any scientific evidence is for any more reduced phenomenon).

Here is the crux of your nonsense: you are mistaking your inability to perfectly predict what other people do as evidence of free will. You are mistaking "I don't know" for "it is impossible to know."
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:55 AM on May 26, 2010


Putting it another way, alluding back to the previous comment about the scientific discovery that the world wasn't flat:

While we may have proved the world wasn't flat, in doing so, we didn't prove that the world doesn't exist. By the same token, we might learn all sorts of new things about how free will might or might not operate, but we haven't yet disproved free will. And it's no more a magical belief, given the near-universality of the subjective experience of volition, than belief that the world exists on the basis of our subjective experience.

You can go further from there, skeptically, but you'll eventually get lonely stuck over there in your head, looking for proofs from pure reason for the obvious.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:55 AM on May 26, 2010


You are mistaking "I don't know" for "it is impossible to know."

It has nothing to do with knowing! The fact is, a move is made. Some set of factors determined that move. Why is it necessarily true that everything in the world and the kitchen sink with the exception of intentional agency might be a factor in determining the outcome?
posted by saulgoodman at 9:57 AM on May 26, 2010


And it's no more a magical belief, given the near-universality of the subjective experience of volition, than belief that the world exists on the basis of our subjective experience.

"Lots of people believe" is not a reason to believe, and the use of argumentum ad populum has a long and horrifying past.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:58 AM on May 26, 2010


But I thank you for having kept the discussion civil and not resorting to weirdly personal invective. And I think now I'm going to exercise my volition, and leave you alone to argue with the emptiness that surrounds you.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:00 AM on May 26, 2010


It's not that lots of people believe--it's that lots of people experience. That is, they report using and seeing others use this thing it's so hard for you to imagine exists. Anyway, it's obviously a subject very near and dear to your heart, and I'm really just out of passion for the discussion. So I'll leave it there.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:02 AM on May 26, 2010


It has nothing to do with knowing! The fact is, a move is made. Some set of factors determined that move. Why is it necessarily true that everything in the world and the kitchen sink with the exception of intentional agency might be a factor in determining the outcome?

I can construct a general account (vaguer than some people- neuro types- might) wherein the particles comprising that person's brain are organized in such a way that they create what we call a mind, and that the interaction of those particles- the brain chemistry, structure, etc- leads to a situation in which that move was made. What have you got? Souls? Some poorly-defined "will"?

You are expecting me to believe that the laws of physics are suspended within the human brain for no reason other than to accommodate your belief in free will. This is little different from the requests made by homeopaths and chiropractors to similar effect, and that is why I find it so maddening- it is nothing but special pleading.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:04 AM on May 26, 2010


For free will to exist, physics has to be bunkum.

Or our mapping of the laws of physics is incomplete.

You are expecting me to believe that the laws of physics are suspended within the human brain for no reason other than to accommodate your belief in free will.

Can't speak for saulgoodman, but I personally am hoping that your grasp of the ongoing evolution of our inherently flawed perceptions of the Universe (and its physical laws) is sufficiently forgiving to allow for the possibility that we still don't know everything about everything, and in all likelihood, never will. Hence doubt. Hence, the possibility of pretty much anything, including L Ron Hubbard's divinity yada-yada-yada-yada.
posted by philip-random at 11:14 AM on May 26, 2010


Or our mapping of the laws of physics is incomplete.

And again, the proponents of every sort of magical thinking make exactly that same argument, and it's a silly one. Just because we don't know everything doesn't mean that what we do know is meaningless.

Again: to believe in free will, you must believe that causality is suspended within the confines of the human brain. This is patently absurd.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:20 AM on May 26, 2010


Epistemological Modesty. Get some.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:28 AM on May 26, 2010


phillip-random: Seriously, I'm sitting on a chair right now, sipping coffee, looking out on a peaceful, rainy west coast morning at least in part because of a whole raft of choices I've made over the years, conscious and otherwise.

How do you know that you're not sitting there because that's the event that happens at that time and place, and all those decisions you can trace it back to aren't just the story your pattern-seeking brain has constructed to explain the fact that there you are? I have little confidence in the human brain and memory as any kind of evidence of the nature of reality, but it seems to be a terrific machine for building narrative out of what may be entirely unrelated phenomena.

I think your overall gist is reasonable, but I don't think we can rely on the appearance of choice to prove the existence of choice.
posted by rusty at 11:37 AM on May 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


The laws of physics aren't as prescriptive as they are descriptive. We humans made those "laws" based on our observations and refined them (Newtonian -> Relativity -> Quantum) as our observational skills proved the old "laws" to be imperfect approximations.
In that sense, we have physical laws in the same way we have free will. That is, because both make sense to our perceptions of reality. Reacting to the apparent conflict between causality and free will with absolute belief in one and outright rejection of the other is a very non-scientific approach.
posted by rocket88 at 11:41 AM on May 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


looks up causality on wikipedia and finds this ...

The deterministic world-view is one in which the universe is no more than a chain of events following one after another according to the law of cause and effect. To hold this worldview, as an incompatibilist, there is no such thing as "free will". However, compatibilists argue that determinism is compatible with, or even necessary for, free will.

Guilty, you're a god damned incompatiblist determinist is what you are. I, on the other hand, am a dope smoking compatibilist.

And then the wind rose and the line in the sand disappeared.
posted by philip-random at 11:41 AM on May 26, 2010


We use Newtonian physics to describe the physics of biology precisely because Newtonian physics are the appropriate tool for the scale at which human biology occurs. It is inappropriate to consider things which do not have effects at the scale and under the conditions that quantum and relativity cover.

Quantum effects are felt all up and down the scale. For example, we've recently learned that quantum effects underlie the efficiency of photosynthesis. If quantum effects are important to a biological process as seemingly mundane as photosynthesis, why would it be such a stretch to imagine that they might be of some importance in the much-less-well-understood phenomena of human consciousness and volition?
posted by Crabby Appleton at 11:43 AM on May 26, 2010


I think your overall gist is reasonable, but I don't think we can rely on the appearance of choice to prove the existence of choice.

I never said I had proof of anything, just evidence.
posted by philip-random at 11:44 AM on May 26, 2010


> Reacting to the apparent conflict between causality and free will with absolute belief in one and outright rejection of the other is a very non-scientific approach.

This. Presuming that because we have a corpus of ideas that can usually describe "physics" on certain scales equals lack of free will is rather narrow minded. The fact is that we have brains that can choose C when all they are presented with is A and B. Maybe C was formulated from past exposure, but it would still be an independent axis at the time of choosing. Again, presuming that we know how the world works in toto simply because we have a set of descriptions that show how parts of it work is narrow, and arrogant.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:45 AM on May 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


phillip: That was the part I meant was reasonable. :-)
posted by rusty at 1:14 PM on May 26, 2010


Burhanistan et al: In case you haven't felt like reading the entire thread, I (at least) am not arguing anything based on causality. It's not Newtonian mechanics but relativity that forms the basis for a rejection of free will here. For me, anyway, and pretty much for anyone else who wants to make a convincing argument that physics does not really have room (currently) for true free choice.
posted by rusty at 1:18 PM on May 26, 2010


That was the part I meant was reasonable

Well, that's pretty reasonable, I guess.
posted by philip-random at 1:22 PM on May 26, 2010


Guilty, you're a god damned incompatiblist determinist is what you are. I, on the other hand, am a dope smoking compatibilist.

Well, yeah.


Reacting to the apparent conflict between causality and free will with absolute belief in one and outright rejection of the other is a very non-scientific approach.

Nonbelief in causality is one of those "What hurts?" sort of beliefs. If you don't believe in causality, it's impossible to make any sense of reality because you basically have to try and stop your brain from attaching any significance or connection to events. Things just happen, and there's no way to make any sense of it. You need causality to make any sort of argument at all.

Maybe C was formulated from past exposure, but it would still be an independent axis at the time of choosing.

Okay, but you could just say that the person was constructed in such a way by past events to choose C. That people do unpredictable things, or things which are not appropriate or obvious or apparent based on the situation they are in, is not evidence of free will. It is only evidence of the observer's lack of imagination.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:48 PM on May 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


> Okay, but you could just say that the person was constructed in such a way by past events to choose C.

I thought we were talking about observable phenomena. That's just making stuff up.
posted by Burhanistan at 2:52 PM on May 26, 2010


I thought we were talking about observable phenomena. That's just making stuff up.

I am offering a possible explanation which is consistent with observed phenomena (i.e. that events have causes and that beings are affected by the things that happen to them). You are proposing some kind of magical suspension of causality. And I'm the one "making stuff up".
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:17 PM on May 26, 2010


The quantum influences in photosynthesis are a subtle effect in the interactions between a photon and a large protein complex. It's well known that quantum mechanics can govern the behaviors of individual proteins (protein folding simulations use simplified quantum rules, and of course protein-protein binding is driven by quantum effects) but they simply aren't going to matter in the face of huge numbers of high-temperature molecules bouncing into each other.

Debating the ultimate solidity of the "laws" of physics is not so worthwhile an endeavor, as no one who is sensible will say, "they are 100% correct". Nevertheless they have some nice properties to them. They are quantifiable, they are 100% unambiguous (if you know the theory well enough). They are very well understood, to a degree that most laypersons don't seem to get. It's not like a theory of quantum gravity is going to come along and change our perceptions of the behavior of molecules. That's nailed down tight. On the other hand, psychology is crazy complicated, generally not quantifiable, and very ambiguous. Plus, when you try to understand yourself, you will fool yourself, because you have a huge, vested interest in the subject matter.

I don't know how anyone could seriously think, "I have a theory of the mind that conflicts with currently accepted theories of physics, but those physics theories are possibly wrong, so that's okay". Seriously, if you believe in the triumph of "will" over physics, how do you explain strokes? Are you going to be okay if I go into your brain and start cutting things out? Or is the brain a hugely complicated mechanism whose workings produce you: a non-physical entity that nevertheless is implemented with physical parts that have no privileged status with regards to behavior under physical law.
posted by Humanzee at 3:59 PM on May 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


The thing is, if you want to say that people have free will, you either have to hide it in some gap that we don't fully understand yet, or call something that we do understand "free will" just because that's what people call the experience.

But in the first case, scientific knowledge isn't like opening flaps on an advent calendar, it's like peaking through holes in a building site wall. Every hint informs and constrains what you might find in the holes, and the glimpses we have so far suggest that we work just the same way as everything else.

In the second, free will ceases to be a special thing. So why give it a special name?
posted by lucidium at 5:03 PM on May 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


What lucidium said.

Again, to the pro-free-will camp: The laws of physics simply to not accommodate the possibility of the completely independent sort of free will that you seem to want. As I suggest above, free will is perfectly possible as simply the workings of our brain filtered through our subjective experience. We FEEL like we're making choices, because WE are, but the "we" in this case is simply the process of your brain working, and not some sort of otherworldly actor controlling your body. We obviously make choices (I hope Pope Guilty would agree here), but we make them based on the way our brain works, and worked, and the environment around us, and our memories, and etc.

The crux of the matter is this: once we have an explanation for why we do any of the things we do, once we have a model of the world that covers the entire range of physical actions we undertake, we can dispense with free will, because it is no longer the simplest and most elegant explanation for our actions. As Pope Guilty said, in order for strings-free free will to work, it would have to be the case that "physics stops working and particles arrange themselves not according to the laws which govern particles in every single instance that we have ever observed but rather in accordance with the poorly-defined 'will' of a poorly-defined 'being'." The laws of physics we have now are certainly missing detail, but not so much detail that suddenly we can violate causality using nothing but neurons in a mammals brain-case.

HOWEVER, and this is vitally important, all this does not remove our motivation to figure out why we THINK we have free will! This is in fact one of the questions I find most interesting in the world, and, in a way, is at the heart of a lot of philosophy of mind and cognitive science. That we don't have free will is a more or less obvious result of physics. That we feel like we have free will is a more or less obvious result of everyday experience. The interesting thing to discuss isn't whether or not we have free will, but why we think we do.
posted by cthuljew at 8:35 PM on May 26, 2010


> The laws of physics simply to not accommodate the possibility of the completely independent sort of free will that you seem to want.

What proof do you have of this?
posted by Burhanistan at 8:37 PM on May 26, 2010


That we don't have free will is a more or less obvious result of physics. That we feel like we have free will is a more or less obvious result of everyday experience. The interesting thing to discuss isn't whether or not we have free will, but why we think we do.

The interesting thing is why you think physics (and its "laws") must trump everyday experience. As Burhanistan says, what's your proof? My fear is this proof would involve some extremely complex reading, comprehending etc which, in the end I'd probably just give up on anyway, and go eat some food, listen to music, take the dogs for a walk, EXPERIENCE some life.

Key point. I do accept that a rational read of currently accepted physical laws contradicts my belief in free will. But again, this goes back to Einstein's frustration that God does not play dice, the Universe cannot contain a maybe. Of course it contains a maybe. That maybe lies in the dynamic that I am constantly making choices (moral, philosophical, ethical, political, etc) that must influence life-the-universe-everything at least in some infinitesimal way (and so do all the choices made by all the other "I"s out there). It's an enormously complex dynamic which I submit, current physics is not up to reconciling. Which makes it physics' problem, not reality's.

Keep on calculating. I really do need to take the dogs for a walk.
posted by philip-random at 9:12 PM on May 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is a no-laughing-matter deadly serious comment. I'd not mess around with theories about the indeterminacy of historical events, and would simply disrupt baby Hitler's life course by, say, having him adopted to a family somewhere remote, like Australia.

If historical determinism is true, then a more moderate shift in his historical trajectory will do the trick. If it's not all that deterministic (turtles all the way down, metaphorically speaking) then a fairly major shift such as transportation to one of the colonies as a convict's adopted son should still work.

We might have sent him to one of the many German colonies, but he might have found his way back.
posted by koala at 5:41 AM on May 27, 2010


The Free Will Theorem: [W]e prove that if the choice of a particular type of spin 1 experiment is not a function of the information accessible to the experimenters, then its outcome is equally not a function of the information accessible to the particles.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 9:24 AM on May 27, 2010


We show that this result is robust, and deduce that neither hidden variable theories nor mechanisms of the GRW type for wave function collapse can be made relativistic.

So, ummm ... confusion is still the most scientifically sound position on this issue? Time for some Captain Beefheart.
posted by philip-random at 10:30 AM on May 27, 2010


[T]o believe in free will, you must believe that causality is suspended within the confines of the human brain. This is patently absurd.
It is not.

The human brain, like any sufficiently complex system, is chaotic. Not in the poetic sense, but in the technical sense that infinitesimal differences in the inputs to the brain can lead over relatively short times to dramatic differences in its output. It's not necessary to abandon Newtonian physics or causality to describe this, or to invoke quantum mechanics, or supernatural forces, or suchlike. Microscopic determinism does not imply macroscopic determinism.

I agree with cthuljew that this is indistinguishable from the traditional definition of "free will," but that takes me to a different conclusion: when two things are completely indistinguishable, then they are the same. The result from physics is that we do have free will.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 10:41 AM on May 27, 2010


But we still couldn't choose to do something that the physics going on in our brains wouldn't let us.
posted by cthuljew at 11:18 AM on May 27, 2010


Like what? I can't choose to fly, because the physics won't let me. But I can choose to whether my next sentence starts with a vowel or a consonant. I can choose whether to stay sitting or to stand up and dance. I can choose whether to say things I think are polite, or whether to be a jerk, or whether to keep my mouth shut. And if I'm careful enough, I can choose to alter the patterns of choices I make (my "attractors," in a mathematical sense that I've not justified here) to make myself more likely to dance the next opportunity I have.

Sure some choices are unavailable. That does not mean there are no choices.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 8:06 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


No, he's making a handwavey statement that the "physics in our brains" only allow for certain choices. I suppose that is valid, but when you look at the number of neurons in the brain and the number of possible connections, and then the groups of connections to groups of connections the numbers of possible choices start to get pretty um, mind boggling.

Anyway, using "physics in the brain" as a serious argument is kind of laughable.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:52 AM on May 28, 2010


Surprised there was no mention of Moorcock's "Behold the Man" in this thread. This game is more fun with Jesus rather than Hitler.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:56 PM on June 11, 2010


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