Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Universal Remote

I distinctly remember a thought experiment proposed by one of my professors in college. We were talking about free will vs. determinism, and the thought experiment went something like this.

First, imagine a decision of some sort. It doesn’t matter what it is. Let’s imagine that Frank gets really ticked off at Steve, and thus makes the decision to punch Steve in the face. Now imagine that you own a remote that controls the entire universe – a literally universal remote, as my professor quipped. And with this remote, you could rewind the universe itself back to any moment in the past. So imagine rewinding the universe back to the moment just before Frank made the decision to punch Steve.

It’s important to remember here that since you’re rewinding the entire universe, this means that everything is going to be exactly the way it was in that particular moment when Frank decided to punch Steve. So Frank’s physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual conditions will be exactly as they were before, as well as any and all factors external to Frank (his environment, etc). Everything will be exactly the same. And once you rewind the universe back to this particular moment in time, you press play and watch what transpires. What would you observe? Would Frank punch Steve again?

But imagine that you rewound the universe repeatedly – let’s say an infinite number of times. The question is, would you ever observe Frank making a different decision than the one he originally made? Would you ever observe Frank deciding to refrain from punching Steve?

Regardless of how you answer this question, there are difficulties that arise. If you contend that Frank would always punch Steve, every single time, then it makes the universe seem programmed, as if there really isn’t any such thing as free will at all. In that instance, it seems that Frank is just doing what he’s hard-wired to do.

But on the other hand, if you argue that sometimes Frank would make a different decision, then how would you explain the alternate decision? Remember, we’re rewinding the universe back to the exact state of affairs in which the original decision took place. So if the exact same Frank in the exact same circumstances can somehow produce alternating decisions, then those decisions don’t tell us anything about Frank. Where do those decisions come from? Do they even belong to Frank? In that instance, it would seem like Frank’s decisions are entirely random.

Granted, this thought experiment is hardly realistic, but it’s just an elaborate way of asking a question that’s actually quite simple: For any decision that you make, would you ever have done otherwise given the exact same circumstances? And either way you answer, you’ve got problems to deal with. So I think the notion of “free will,” even on a bare philosophical level, is difficult to pin down.

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