Like in the movies
'Should we conceive the timeline of all events as already laid out on some film that starts from a past and reaches the future?'
Early last year I offered a thought experiment involving a demon and a lotto jackpot. What if, I asked, on your way to play your lotto numbers, a demon appeared to you claiming he knows the numbers you were going to play? What if he handed you an envelope with the numbers he claimed you were going to play? What would you do? Would you check the envelope? Would you change your numbers?
The thought experiment was regarding free will. What is the content of free will, it invited us to think, if a demon can have knowledge of our choices even before we have actually made them ourselves? I concluded by saying that the mere existence of a prediction regarding a future choice would affect the phenomenon under observation in a way that would render the prediction irrelevant.
But was this all?
Let us revisit the experiment. First, let us consider the demon. He appears to me and claims he has knowledge about my numbers. He does not explain how he does the trick. Is he able to follow the inner workings of my mind? Does this mean that the inner workings of my mind evolve along specific pathways that can be mapped and traced in any direction the demon sees fit? Should we conceive the timeline of all events as already laid out on some film that starts from a past and reaches the future? If so, then the present would be nothing more than a small window through which we can see the contents of the frames of the film come to life. Like in the movies.
The demon, then, would be like the projector operator, who has the whole film at his disposal and knows where it starts and where it ends.
Alternatively, we could think of the demon as being able to exist both within and without time. We could picture him as simply being able visit a future moment when I would have already played the numbers, take a note, and then jump back to the present, to hand me the envelope.
Two scenarios that are similar but not identical.
In the first, past, present and future are somehow already set, with no reference to the demon’s whims. This world would be like Laplace’s. The demon, qua observing intellect, would just need sufficient information, and then, all the history of the world, past, present and future, would be available to him. In such a scenario free will simply doesn’t exist.
In the alternative view, a demon can travel to the future, observe a state of affairs, and come back to the present with information about that future state of affairs. We no longer need to think that present past and future are already set in any specific way. Free will is salvaged. Our time travelling demon does not present any threat to it. He can have a knowledge of our choices because he looks at us standing in the future – in much the same way that we can have a knowledge of the past, because we look at it standing in the present.
Things seem settled, until we recall the little problem regarding the history of the world that we spoke about last time: There can never be a true and complete history of the world, we concluded, because there is no place one can stand on to speak about what we see. We are always a part of the reflection, a part of the picture we try to capture.
What about our demon then? Where can he be located?
A serious problem presents itself to us. Can the demon be outside time, free from any time constraints, able to travel back and forth from the future, and still be able to be inside time, able to interact with me and my lucky lotto numbers?
For what we try to picture is a demon who can both be a subject of time – in the sense that he is able to record and relay information, as well as interact with other beings of our world – and also be beyond and above time, presumably operating in ways we cannot even begin to fathom. There is an antinomy here. The main problem can be located in the very way we combine concepts in order to form the question. It is as if we are trying to conceptualise a rectangular circle. Think about it for a second. How can this be? A rectangular circle. It’s not a matter of imagination. You simply cannot have it both ways. It’s either circular or rectangular. End of story.
Similarly, at the exact moment that you will try to envisage a demon marching up and down the timeline of a world, all world-related and time-subjected notions – such as information, communication, or interaction –, all collapse away.
Like in the movie, where the spectators of the film are able to interact with the actors playing in it. It’s a nice plot idea and it can work brilliantly, as Woody Allen showed in his 1985 Purple Rose of Cairo.
But it can only work there, in a movie.
This piece was originally published in the April edition of Splinters.
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