Imagine that you receive a message from yourself from the future. This message states that next Monday, exactly at 10:00, you will be in front of a panel with a green and a red buttons and that you are going to press the red one.
Then, in the next Monday morning, it’s 9:58 and you are in fact in front of such a panel. Would you be able to change the future and push the green button instead? Or would you be overpowered by forces beyond your free will and forced to comply with your pre-revealed future?
I personally feel that I would be able to contradict my future self and press the green button. There is hardly anything more counter-intuitive than to think that I would not be able to control my own hand for a simple act of pushing a button.
But I may be wrong, specially because I know well that my consciousness is a complex of different biological functions coordinated by my brain to give the sense of unity. Much of what I think that I control is just an illusion.
Even so—come on—why would I not be able to just freeze there until 10:01 and not pushing anything at all?
Nobody really knows the answer to such kind of question (supposing, in first place, that’s possible to send a message to the past), but many good people believe (Descartes and Einstein included) in a strong determinism: given a set of initial states for all particles composing the universe, the laws of the physics would determine a unique outcome. You can’t change that. Your free will is just an illusion fed by your ignorance on the true evolution of things in the universe, including yourself.
The opposite of the strong determinism hypothesis is to think that all events in the universe are stochastic. I guess no one would strictly support that. We all know that the laws of the physics work well: you don’t need to be a supporter of the strong determinism to be aware that if you jump out of the window, you will Newtonianally fall.
On the other hand, our current understanding of the microscopic structure of the universe tells us that things are stochastically messy down there.
Quantum mechanics may imply a weak determinism: the laws of physics only reflect approximately the evolution of the universe. We recognize that things tend to follow certain mathematical patterns, but they always deviate to some degree. Even in the limit of an absolute knowledge of the physical laws and the initial states, stochastic events would still produce unexpected evolution outcomes.
So, does quantum mechanics solve my green/red-button dilemma? Not necessarily. There are no guarantees (let alone evidences) that quantum fluctuations would give us any free will.
And even if it did, the paradox would remain: if my future self tells me that he pushed the red button and he is not lying (I never lie); and knowing that, I still insist on pushing the green… I will be causing my mother to dance with another guy but my father in the prom, and I will slowly vanish from all photos in my wallet.
I don’t play for the strong determinism team and I think I would probably be able to press the green button. At same time, I’m not comfortable with the idea of filling the universe with paradoxes. I don’t want to be blamed for that.
The solution may be in multiverse hypothesis: multiple parallel universes, in each of them green or red buttons are pushed, not pushed, smashed, or whatever you decide to do. I know, it sounds like cheap Sci Fi, but multiverse is in fact one of best metaphysical bets to explain not only my red/green-button dilemma, but why do we even exist!
I will come back to that in the next post.
- And what do you think? Would you be able to push the green button or not? Just tell us in the comments below.
- By the way, I’m not particularly fan of Harry Potter, but The Prisoner of Azkaban has the best time-travel sequence I ever watched. Every action of the characters was coordinated to produce a strong deterministic loop, without any paradox. They only do what they must do. They always push the red button.
- Enjoyed this post? Check “Vaccine for goose bumps” too.
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