Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Is Free Will Dependent on the Arrow of Time?

The concept of Free Will confuses me. It's one of those subjects I skirt around simply because I have no real opinion on it.

Recently, however, I read something interesting in the American physicist Sean Carroll's book From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time.

He mentions in the preface that Free Will is defined by the arrow of time. The arrow of time is the strange physical properties of space-time in which time seems to flow in only one direction, even as there is no clear reason for this. As such, all events seem to progress in a linear fashion along the direction of this arrow. This gives rise to causality. In other words, we can remember the past, and perceive the present, but we cannot see the future. So events seem to unfold in an A, B, C, or 1, 2, 3 type pattern.

What this means is that all our experiences happen within the same framework of the arrow of time. So whatever choices we make, however we make them, appear to fit the patter of A, B, C and 1, 2, 3.

Needless to say, Free Will is the observation of causal choices we make. I realize that this in itself doesn't answer for how we go about making a choice in the first place, but this is a secondary consideration (I'll explain why below). 

A choice is made, something happens, and then there is a reaction to it, and our observation of the event falls into the past as the reaction plays out in the present along the direction of the arrow of time. So events leading up to choices made and the reactions to them must inevitably conform to a simple A, B, C, and 1, 2, 3 type pattern.

Therefore, it seems to me, our understanding of Free Will is dependent on our understanding of causal events. Coincidentally , however, I think this leads to an interesting assumption. That Free Will is just as real as the ticking of a second hand on the face of a clock.

Now there is a lot philosophy and science have to say on our perception of causal events and how choice arises in the first place. I am not about to get into all of that, as it seems a discussion for another time. What I merely wanted to point out is that before we can even get to that broader discussion about how Free Will works and how it is understood from various points of view, that ultimately, we must  acknowledge that it exists as certainly as time exists. 

We may not understand everything about how time functions, and certainly we don't understand everything about Free Will, let alone the human mind, but it seems, to me, that those who say Free Will is an illusion are the same who would deny the existence of time, calling it an illusion, because there is no clear way to understand it's properties for why it conforms to a linear pattern and moves in only one direction. Actually, that's only partially true. We do know why time plays out (because entropy) but what we don't know is why the arrow is fixed. Why couldn't the arrow go in reverse? Why doesn't the arrow go in both ways simultaneously? 

Well, the point I am trying to make is that we eventually must get comfortable with the idea that the arrow is fixed. The same could be said of Free Will. It exists, since we can perceive it causally, meaning that somewhere in the making of a choice, and the events leading up to it, and subsequently the events which follow, there is a fixed progression of cause and effect daisy chaining to create what we call an awareness of the past and present. I think this is interesting, because it predicts that if we could not perceive the present as we do now, as a series of causal events playing themselves out, then Free Will would not be perceived at all. 

On the other hand,  if we could see the future, then the choices we make would already have been written, and thus Free Will couldn't exist. This distinction is important. It is precisely because the future hasn't been written yet that allows for the existence of free will. Free Will is dependent on the arrow of time in this way. Thus the actions or reactions we make create events which will ripple throughout time until all the causes and effects play themselves out, or else trigger new causes and effects, thereby creating new ripples (like the skipping of a stone on a lake which gets interference with other ripples from a stone plunked in nearby from another part of the lake and then creating a new set of ripples between them).

As I think about it, Free Will has everything to do with causality progressing along the arrow of time, and this fixed perception of causality, along with our inability to foresee the future, has everything to do with how we come to recognize there being such a thing as Free Will in the first place.

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Advocatus Atheist

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