Time, free will, and the first person perspective, Part I

It’s not just that I disagree with the popular ideas that time “flows” and that human beings have “free will”. These ideas are just meaningless; they’re not even wrong. But when even great philosophers have embraced nonsensical ideas, they must at least be placeholders for something very important.

What could it mean for time to flow–with respect to what could it flow? Yes, time advances with time, but this is trivially true. (Cf. latitude increases with latitude as well.) Past events don’t exist now, but they exist at their own times. (Cf. other latitudes aren’t present at my latitude, but at their own.) If the past were somehow destroyed, as the A theorists believe, then all statements about the past would be undetermined or false, or they would be statements only about our memories. It’s not even necessary to invoke relativity, as if the A theory would make any more sense in a Newtonian or Aristotelian universe.

Nor can I make sense of a mode of causality that is neither deterministic nor random. I am baffled that others claim to have a direct experience of possessing such a power. I myself am not aware of any internal assurance that from a given prior mental state I ever could have willed other than I did. I don’t even know what that would feel like. If “free will” made any sense, it would be heresy. Christianity clearly teaches predestination and slavery to sin. Fortunately, “freedom of the will” in any sense other than compatibilism is nonsensical, so insufficiently coherent to impute heresy.

Can we find some common ground? I agree that the spacetime metric locally has Lorentzian signature and that causality operates within light cones. I agree that deliberation and choice are part of the causal chains involving people. You will say “if that’s all you mean by the flow of time and free will, then clearly you don’t believe in them.” So be it.

That can’t be the end, though. There must be a reason people are so drawn to such beliefs even when it is difficult to reconcile them with both science and religion.

To be continued

10 Responses

  1. I agree with you, as far as you go. But try this:

    Then take a look at Covenantal Theology, Vols. III and IV, free on the same site.

  2. Thanks.

  3. ” If “free will” made any sense, it would be heresy. Christianity clearly teaches predestination and slavery to sin. ”

    Not true. Calvinism teaches the lack of free will only with respect to salvation. The other Christian sects do not teach even that. Predestination is compatible with free will, for example via molinism and middle knowledge, although other mechanisms could be possible. According to your definition, all Christian churches are heretical.

    “That can’t be the end, though. There must be a reason people are so drawn to such beliefs even when it is difficult to reconcile them with both science and religion”

    As I said it is not incompatible with religion. It is not incompatible with science either, because science only cares about the physical world. If you say that the physical world is the only thing that exists, then you are a materialist. And yes, free will conflicts with materialism, not with science. See “Where the conflicts really lies” by Plantiga. Although if you are a materialist, I don’t know why you are a Catholic.

    Do you want a reason why free will and time flow are probably true? Because they are so fricking evident, that’s why. It is evident that the time goes in one direction. It is evident that free will exists. Science might explain how they work one day or not, because these things may belong to the non-material realm. But the evidence in favor of them is so huge that you will need a good evidence against them to say that they don’t exist, beyond “they don’t fit in the materialist understanding of science right now”

    In addition, if you don’t have free will, you have arrived to the conclusion of the non-existence of free will because the laws of physics forced you to do that. Since laws of physics have nothing to do with truth, your conclusion is unwarranted and we don’t have to believe anything you say, including the non-existence of free will. We cannot trust anything science says or anything a human says, because they are physical processes. Knowledge is annihilated

  4. My objection is not to the claim that “time goes in one direction” but that it “goes” at all. With respect to what? I believe you are referring to the so-called “arrow of time”, the asymmetry between the two time directions. There are respectable arguments that such a thing may be real.

  5. (Different JohnK from the one suggesting the Catholic learning site)

    I believe the main issue with a rejection of free will is the matter of justice. If a person’s actions are simply a deterministic function of all the inputs, genetic and environmental, that he has received in his life (with some random input thrown into the mix), then in what sense is it just to punish him for wrongdoing? I suppose earthly punishment could be seen as a means of deterrence – a corrective input administered to the perpetrator and to society at large.

    This leaves a sour taste in the mouth, since we’re punishing a man for a crime whose occurrence was determined by matters completely out of his control, and it may seem even more grossly unfair if e.g. someone else was planning the same crime that same day but got cold feet upon hearing what happened to the first perpetrator. However, I think it still stands, despite its distastefulness.

    The more interesting question would then be the matter of divine justice. Perhaps there is some deterrent value as well, but the consequences suffered by those punished are much more serious, and it becomes harder to justify such consequences for something that could not have turned out any other way. If we deny the reality of free will, such that the outcome of deliberation is deterministically fixed beforehand, then even Molinist solutions fall apart, since free choice would be impossible even hypothetically.

    While the suggestion that our thoughts are either deterministic or random seems clearly false at first, a little further reflection will show that this position is a lot stronger than one might think. The idea to act in a certain way arises in response to external stimuli, or purely at random. In either case, the specific idea that comes to mind, and the various deliberations for and against, arise within our minds in a way that is determined, in some complex way with deterministic and probabilistic elements, by our pre-existing habits and dispositions – and perhaps the action of grace. Our final course of action is determined either by the weight of evidence of the deliberations in one direction or the other (deterministically, perhaps corrupted somewhat by random failures in our reasoning), or else by sudden, random surges in feeling. It seems that the whole process of human reasoning can be decomposed into deterministic and random components.

  6. Two John Ks? I’m going to have to remember to pay attention to that space between “n” and “K”.

  7. I’d argue that “past”, “present”, and “future” are irreducible ontological categories. “X existed”, “X exists”, and “X will exist” are simply different types of statements.

    As for free will, I think it’s sufficient to say that human actions cannot be predicted by our physical state. God knows what humans would do given any possible contingency, so such predictability must be possible given total knowledge of all aspects of a person.

  8. I agree that the flow of time does not make sense. As you said in the third post, time just is a measure of change. Furthermore, Zeno’s paradoxes show that any change must be discrete. Continuous change does not make sense because there must be a qualitative break with what came before, so there must be moments, or fundamental units of time.

    However, because two different objects may differ in the smallest changes they can undergo and the number of those changes relative to another may change, this implies that time can pass at different rates in different situations. As to in what sense the past exists, I have no idea how that is possible, yet I believe it to be so, as you said in the post: “But when even great philosophers have embraced nonsensical ideas, they must at least be placeholders for something very important.”.

    The continuous and the discrete gives a way to envision the relationship between determinism, chance and free will. I have a hard time trying to imagine something between the continuous and the discrete, yet, because the Continuum Hypothesis is independent of the normal axioms of mathematics, there may yet be something between the two.

    If Cantor’s Continuum Hypothesis was true and first uncountable cardinal was indeed the cardinal of the continuum, then there would be nothing between the continuous and the discrete, yet if it was anything higher (and because CH is independent, it can be), then there would be an uncountable set between the discrete countable infinity and the continuous uncountable infinity, which itself might be neither continuous nor discrete.

  9. Likewise, what is determined is completely constrained by what came before, while what is random is entirely unaffected by what came before, so there is at least room in the conceptual space for there to be something between the two.

    It’s also similar to the idea determinism versus the quantum multiverse. The common sense view is that in most situations there are many possibilities but only one happens.

    Determinism says that the idea that there were multiple possibilities is an illusion.

    The quantum multiverse says that the idea that only one possibility happens is an illusion.

    But both of those solutions aren’t really solutions because they just sidestep the problem. Even though we have no idea how there could be many possibilities but only one happens, we see that it is indeed the case.

    So, if we start with the theory and try to fit our experience into it, we may not be able to but if we start with our experience and realize that we have no theory to explain it, then that is the way out of the paradox.

    Thank you for an interesting series of posts on a fascinating topic.

  10. I’m not convinced that discreteness matters, but I’ve never been impressed with Zeno’s arguments. (Maybe I just don’t get it.) Your last point is quite intriguing to me. You’ve identified the qualitative importance of the continuum hypothesis, something that had never dawned on me. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: