• James Tam

Calculus of Predetermination

Updated: Aug 6


中文链接:微积分谈宿命论


Reality being increasingly counter-intuitive is not only a problem in politics. Quantum mechanics is also taking us further and further away from the neat and simple perception of reality that Homo sapiens have enjoyed for millennia. The more we think we know, the less sure we become. Perhaps it’s meant to be. 


The latest dilemma is that “Reality, Relativity, Causality, and Freewill” cannot coexist (New Scientist No.219 Vol 2928, 3 Aug 2013). One of them has to go. But which one? To me, the answer is obvious: Freewill! 


I suspect General Freewill to be an anthropocentric delusion spawned by arrogance and wishful thinking, a notion I briefly entertained fictionally in Man’s Last Song. Believe it or not, I reached this conclusion through a mathematical approach. Well, kind of.


Let’s freeze this moment for illustration.


Right now, this very moment, a single point in time, is the consequence of the preceding instant, and precursor of the ensuing one. But what’s a moment? To assist visualisation, let’s arbitrarily chop time into discrete tiny chucks each lasting a trillionth of a nanosecond. It would not be difficult to see that whatever happened one trillionth of a nanosecond ago has a dictating effect on this moment. The particular molecules approaching my nostrils; electrons and photons about to bombard my senses, thereby influencing my perceptions; the locations of countless bacteria in and on my body; the state of various ongoing biochemical processes, including the firing off of signals between nervous synapses, which would shape my consciousness and decision making, and so on, have been irreversibly set off a moment ago, perhaps down to the quantum level. How could the human will — whatever it means — freely interrupt this relentless cascade of events within a trillionth of a nanosecond?


If we trace the chain of events backward in time, moment by moment, a technique similar to integration in calculus, we’d go all the way back to the Big Bang and realise that every moment is intricately and inevitably linked to its precursor and successor. There’s no room for manipulation by artificial Freewill. Putting human existence into perspective, this seems entirely reasonable, to be expected in fact. Look at us in universal terms: We are but one of innumerable organisms (albeit the “top” one according to ourselves, subject to the kind permission of pathogens which could wipe us out) living on a mediocre planet no more impressive than a grain of sand amongst all the beaches on Earth. And that’s only within one scantly-known universe amid possibly infinite others, according to some theoretical physicists, and Buddha!


A common reaction to determinism is that without Freewill, life would lose “meaning”. This seems to me a fallacy. 


Firstly, those who despair losing “meaning” in a predetermined life can’t say what this “meaning” is. How can anyone lose something that he doesn’t know, cannot define, and has never seen or possessed? 


Secondly, many enjoyable things are clearly predetermined. When we relish a beautiful sunset, admiring the felicitous movement of a willow swaying in orange light, everything in that picture had been set in motion at the moment of Big Bang. The sunlight, the turbulent molecules exerting pressure on the leaves, have all travelled remarkable distances, through unknown aeons, to compose the enchanting scenery.


Another example. When we read a book or watch a movie, all the details have been fixed to the last comma. The exclusion of our Freewill doesn’t make it less interesting. Discovering a story moment by moment can still be fascinating if we pay attention. Perhaps that’s how we should deal with the story of our own existence?


However, regardless of my reasonable conjecture, my sense of having a defiant will inside has not diminished. Maybe I’ve been programmed to feel that way? More likely, there indeed is a potentially independent spirit in each of us, just that it’s carried by the overwhelming cosmic dance like a molecule in a waterfall, therefore not free. To free this will may require metaphysical efforts — efforts beyond the current realm of science. And I wonder what would happen to the rare individual who has succeeded in freeing his will. What impact can he possibly deliver to the big picture? My guess is none. Identifying our will, setting it free, getting out unnoticed, taking a one way trip to Nirvana is about the most that one can achieve.


Well, I better leave this boundless obscurity and return to the world of physics, where quantum mechanics has been making intriguing discoveries. If science needs to eliminate Freewill in order to move on, why not? It’s been largely redundant anyway.


James Tam

Guo Du Blog 

2013.9.6

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