The Other Side of Time
Free will, time, and Jurassic Park...
The Other Side of Night, my novel about love, loss, time and free will, publishes in North America next week. NPR said it was one of the best books of 2022, and the New York Times said it was one of the best thrillers of 2022. I’m not sure I’d describe it as a thriller, but I’m not going to argue with an NYT best of list.
If you haven’t read it and like books that prompt thinking about big themes, you can find out more here.
I had a few comments and emails after my last post on whether we could know anything for certain, and a couple of people brought up the theory of possible worlds as a counterpoint to a deterministic universe. If that sounds like a philosophical word salad to you, don’t worry: I’m going to break it down into language and concepts we all understand.
At its most basic level, there are two ways of perceiving the universe. In one, we have objective free will and in the other we don’t. Determinism is the idea that everything we do is predestined and that we are just following tracks laid down by prior events that might also include things that shaped us psychologically. If one had a sufficiently broad perspective, one could predict the future, because one would have the information inputs required to see the tracks. According to determinism, it is our limited perspective that gives us the illusion of free will. If we could perceive more, we would be able to anticipate future events.
The other way of conceptualizing the universe is to believe the tracks don’t exist. That every decision point involves genuine choice, and the future is unpredictable. There are two principal issues with this. One is rooted in reality, and the other in time.
Our real, lived experience of the world is that we know certain things are predictable. If most people put their hands in a fire, they will feel pain, wince or cry out, and remove their scorched hands from the flames. If I know your favourite flavour of ice cream is coconut, I can make a reasonable prediction about what you might order in a restaurant where coconut ice cream is on the menu. Simple examples, and I’m sure you can think of better ones, which demonstrate that some of life is quite predictable. With more information about people or prior events, our ability to predict outcomes often increases.
The other issue with the unpredictable universe is time. We’re all familiar with the idea that the light from a distant star takes a long time to reach us. If we had a sufficiently powerful telescope, we would be able to see events on a planet orbiting a distant star. Those events might have taken place a million years ago, and to us it would seem as though the individual aliens involved were exercising free will, but we’d actually be looking at things that had already happened. In this instance, the tracks would most definitely have been laid and we’d be binge watching a million-year catch up.
This is one of the reasons some philosophers say a deterministic universe is the only conception that is compatible with our understanding of physical reality. Time is relative, it is experienced differently depending on whether a subject is in motion or how much gravity they experience –time passes more slowly for a subject close to a centre of gravity than it does for a subject who is further away. Scientists have proved this is true with high altitude experiments involving atomic clocks, and the clocks in satellites have to be adapted to compensate for the fact time passes marginally quicker when in orbit than it does for us on the surface of the Earth.
If time is relative, then our perception of events as they occur in time is also relative, but the events themselves cannot change, which leaves us with the idea that there must be tracks and that it is our limited perception that creates the illusion of free will.
The philosopher David Lewis tried to reconcile these difficulties with our understanding of physical reality and free will by postulating modal realism, the idea that there are possible worlds – a concept that has hit the mainstream through movies like Spiderman: Across the Spider-Verse or Doctor Strange. Lewis hypothesized that these possible worlds are real places that exist, and that they represent the multiplicity of possible outcomes whenever we are faced with a choice, or an event occurs. Or rather that there is a possible outcome every time every creature is faced with a choice or for every single event.
There is no evidence to suggest there is an infinite multiverse of potential universes for each and every choice each and every one of us might make. It seems to me a philosophical contortion aimed at refuting the idea of determinism or fate and is at odds with how we understand the universe.
Why does any of this matter? Years ago, when I answered my university entrance exam question, “Does free will exist?” I argued that it doesn’t exist objectively, because with a sufficiently broad perspective, everything is predictable. In Jurassic Park when Dr Ian Malcolm, played by Jeff Goldblum, explains chaos theory by using the example of a drop of water running down a hand, the chaos he expounds is ignorance. If one had an accurate topography of the hand and knew the mass and shape of the water, one could chart the course of the drop.
I went on to say that even though some objective all-seeing or omniscient perspective might allow us to see the tracks, we aren’t omniscient, and our limited perspective gives us the illusion of free will. And since we are subjective creatures who perceive the world through our senses and thoughts, the illusion of free will is just as valid as the reality of free will. Beings with limited perspectives cannot tell the difference.
So, at one level it doesn’t matter whether free will does or doesn’t exist, but at another it does. Without getting into the blurred boundaries of philosophy and spirituality to the extent of a philosopher like Alan Watts, our interaction with the world is ever so slightly different if our role is to understand what lies further along the tracks, rather than to try to forge the tracks afresh. Understanding involves a different mindset and temperament to creation through completely free choice: it is gentler, inquiring and requires reflection before eventual action. These qualities are lacking in our fast-paced 24/7 world, and since determinism concludes all our outcomes are fated, why not make the process of life and of making ‘choices’ more pleasant?
I want to say one last thing about the oddity that is time, and it is something that should come shining through when you read The Other Side of Night: Time is the one thing we can’t manufacture. It is finite and constantly depleting for each of us, but we waste it like we’re time billionaires. Hours spent scrolling social media rather than with families, years on trash TV rather than hobbies that give us pleasure, or acquiring skills that improve our lives. For the most part we rarely make conscious decisions about time and how we allocate it, but if we could see our finite bank of time in an account the way we can see money, I think we might make very different choices in life.
If there’s one take away message from The Other Side of Night, I hope it’s that we should all think more about this precious gift of time. Of course, this assumes we have free will to choose how we use it…