Is the Future Already Written?

Generally speaking the future is impossible to tell. The story of us could take many different paths branching into ever different versions of its current self. There are an infinite number futures, which we shape and select every day, every hour, every minute with our conscious decisions, our actions and deeds. We make our choices based on free will and select the right or wrong path ahead of us based on morals and ethics.

The bad news is, that this is only a myth, incompatible with the laws of physics.

Living in an illusion

Having self-consciousness comes with certain limitations and a good deal of illusions to help us disregard those limits. Through what appears to be a cause and effect relationship however— like having a desire to eat an apple, then grabbing one from the kitchen table — it makes us believe that it is us who are making conscious decisions resulting in deliberate action.

The hard truth is that there is neither ‘you’ or ‘I’, ‘us’ or ‘them’ in this story, nor there was a ‘conscious decision’ in the first place. There is no need for those. We’ve lived without these concepts for many millennia just fine, so do our fellow animal companions we share this planet with. Pronouns are mere artifacts of our language accidentally ‘invented’ together with the story of an ‘independent self’. One, which is free to decide what to do, where to go, whom to talk to. One, which has a free will to do so. The problem is that this idea is fully incompatible with the laws of nature and physics — and thus can safely be called an illusion.

Sorry to disappoint you, but you neither have free will — and as you will see — nor a separate independent self.

The right to say ‘No’

Most of us find themselves screaming and kicking when confronted with the fact that we have no free will. ‘It cannot be! I’m a rare individual! No one tells me what to do!’ — the thinking goes. Where the confusion comes from however is the misinterpretation of what freedom actually is. The term free will means that you have an individual actor inside your head, making decisions on his/her own; completely independent from others or the outside world. This is of course completely false. No one lives in a vacuum.

What makes us cling to this story still, is that we experience a slight dopamine hit whenever we act according to our desires, without any interference from others. This is what we would like to defend: the notion of spontaneity and the idea that we have the right to act according to our dreams. The right to say no others. The right to ‘choose’ the path ‘we’ would like to follow. The idea that we are not slaves, but free individuals.

The funny thing is, that neither of these concepts actually requires us to have free will in the first place.

All of our desires, dreams, emotions and even ideas come from the subconscious part of our brain. They seem to appear out of nowhere. Like, for example: ‘Oh, how I would like to eat chocolate!’ In hindsight we can trace these ideas back to past events, like remembering the taste of chocolate, and more importantly the pleasant feeling which accompanies eating it. Most of us don’t give too much thought to this though and would simply like to act on the desire now (go to the kitchen cabinet and open it). Whenever someone or something prevents us from doing so (like the cabinet being out of chocolate, or Mom shouting from the living room: ‘No chocolate before dinner!’), we feel frustration, anger, disappointment.

Sorry, no dopamine hit today.

You could argue, defending the indefensible, that you — as a proud independent being — could stop on the way to the kitchen and say: ‘No, I have reconsidered my idea, and I will not eat chocolate this time’. What made you say that though? Maybe a counterargument from the depth of your brain whispering: ‘Chocolate is full of calories and you will gain weight by eating it’ ? If so, where did this argument came from…?

None of this self-talk is ‘you’. Neither the desire, nor the counterargument. They are all coming from past experience: random electric signals in the back of your brain making their way to your prefrontal cortex where this stubbornly false mental model of ‘I, the one who makes decisions’ sits.

Notice how this ‘I’ is neither a spectator, nor an individual actor in this story. This ‘I’ gets bombarded with ideas, memories, desires and so on from the subconscious all the time, while what appears to be its ‘conscious decision making process’ is just as subconscious as anything else. In fact, ‘your’ decisions emerge a few milliseconds earlier than ‘you’ would realize them.

The input was given by hormones and electric currents.

The calculation was made using memories, past experience, prior judgements, parental conditioning etc.

The result is ‘you’ walking, or not walking towards that cabinet.

Nothing more, nothing less. There is no need to have an independent self, producing original ideas in order to experience freedom.

It really does not matter if your actions are a result of predetermined impulses and calculations as long as you are free to act on them.

If you have seen the joy of any captured wild animal released into the wild once again you know what I mean.

Emergent systems

The gray matter in between our ears is an immensely complex piece of evolutionary equipment. A real self-regulating adaptive system. It iterates in every passing millisecond: throws up ideas, bombards you with desires, emotions and so on while it constantly optimizes its behavior in the background based on the results and feedback it gets.

Want some chocolate? No? Then how about going for a walk in the park? — and so on.

There are no selves here making no decisions at all. Every ‘decision’ is an emergent result of a calculation — thrown up by the current version of your mental software. They are a result of electric charges running their way in your brain, while some hormones are being released according the right chemical impulses. Your present ‘self’ — which is totally inseparable from others — is nothing more than the summary outcome of many small neurochemical reactions, the result of which (all of which) is determined by the laws of physics.

Taking this idea one step further, one can easily realize that there are not even different pasts or futures possible. That things could’ve unfold in history any other way they’ve unfolded is just a fantasy. An illusion. It is like imagining (then expecting) that pouring a pound of salt into a bowl of soup would make it sweet and delicious.

Your brain is nothing more than this whirling soup of electrolytes, hormones and neurotransmitters. It — as anything else in the Universe — obeys the laws of physics. Chemical reactions play out the only way they can, resulting in the only action they could result in.

To make things complicated an endless flow of stimuli from the outside world keeps changing the picture all the time — forcing an array of some 86 billion neurons in your brain to iterate and re-iterate every time. Since the ‘program’ is constantly re-adjusting itself to reality, it would be foolish to expect it to behave the same way every time. Thus determinism — in a sense that it can be foretold what you will do in the future — would also require you living in a perfect vacuum, without the influence from the outer (as well as from your inner) world. Everything has a constant effect on everything else.

If this makes your head hurt, it is because your mind has not evolved to comprehend its own internal workings. Let alone understanding the internal workings of a society of some 8 billion similar beings constantly chatting, interacting and conditioning each other to do or not to do things.

Humanity is an interconnected system of 86 billion by 8 billion neurons. This system of some 688 quintillion human brain cells is embedded into an even larger system of 133 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 atoms (on Earth alone), which themselves are being in constant interaction, forming molecules, cells, organs, animals, plants and so on.

This constant whirling is what shapes the future. Not any individual’s or group’s illusion of being in the driver seat.

Our ‘leaders’ are as part of this grand theater play as anyone else. Everybody does what he or she thinks is the right thing to do (at the moment), then forced to live with the consequences: good or bad. This observation was not lost on the late sociologist C. Wright Mills either. As he once famously wrote:

“Fate is shaping history when what happens to us was intended by no one and was the summary outcome of innumerable small decisions about other matters by innumerable people.”

Now consider how all those innumerable small decisions were ‘made’ in the first place…: innumerable small chemical reactions carried out between innumerable brain cells…

Coping with all this

I know that this raises a significant amount of cognitive dissonance: anger, disbelief, denial… ‘No! It cannot be! We are the ones shaping our future! Because… well… just because we have always been!’ Too bad, that the Universe, with all its atoms, planets, stars, plants, animals and other life forms does really not care what one of its many inhabitants likes to think about itself. (To be correct, the Universe as such is not a sentient being with thoughts and beliefs, it is just what it is: an almost infinitely complex whirl of molecules with all its emerging behavior.)

So is the future already written?

In certain sense yes. If we knew exactly all the parameters of every single brain cell, atom and molecule (plus we could factor in all quantum uncertainties) then we would be pretty good at telling what is coming and when. But we cannot. The calculations would be so complex, requiring so much energy and matter that we would need a second Universe to perform them.

The irony is that although the future is written, no one can read it.

All we think we ‘know’ is just a tiny-tiny fraction of what’s out there. We establish patterns, trends, sometimes completely false ones, then stumble upon new data which either confirms or disproves our hypotheses. In the later case most of us simply ignores just about any proof contradicting one’s theories about the world then moves on.

I don’t blame deniers of the subject shutting this essay close after the first few paragraphs. It’s not their fault. Everyone’s brain is wired different somehow, was shaped by different events and people. We process information differently. Those who want to believe in free will and human agency will continue to do so, but should be aware that they are part of religion. Those on the other hand who were already open to a different perspective, one supported by science, will continue to look for answers with an open mind.

It wasn’t their choice anyway.

Until next time,

B

P.S.: Many thanks for Dave Pollard for the inspiration and the link.

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