Issue #18 ‘Stuff’ has arrived, you can buy a copy online, subscribe now, or visit one of the stockists listed…
Pierre-Simon Laplace postulated a demon of vast intellect will full knowledge of the “forces that animate nature and the mutual positions of the beings that compose it”, and suggested that to such a being, “nothing could be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.”
The ramifications of the Big Bang are far more significant than you probably think. Not only did it give birth to the entire universe in a cataclysmic eruption in-and-of space and time, but it also determined, down to the finest subatomic detail, precisely what you ate for breakfast this morning. At least, that is if the thesis of determinism is true.
After all, the Big Bang set in motion the paths of countless particles, some of which bumped their way through 13.77-odd billion years to coalesce momentarily as your breakfast. Not only that, but some of those particles also bounced around through eons to galvanise as you.
If this is the case, then not only what you ate for breakfast was fixed at the moment of the universe’s birth, but so too was your decision as to what to eat for breakfast. That flicker of deliberation over whether to have peanut butter or vegemite, or that momentary urge to drink tea instead of coffee. Those, too, were written into the very fabric of the universe.
So much for free will then. Sure, it might feel like we genuinely deliberate over possible courses of action, and we feel like for any particular decision we could have chosen otherwise. But if determinism is true, then this fundamental sense that we can genuinely choose between actions is little more than an illusion fuelled by our ignorance of what the future will look like.
After all, if you were really, really smart – let’s say “omniscient” – and you knew the position of every particle in the universe, and were versed in the details of all the natural laws, and you had the computational clout to run the numbers, then you could predict with perfect accuracy the entire future of the universe, breakfast decisions and all.
And if you’re hoping chaos theory or quantum mechanics will save free will, well you’re out of luck. Both are, in fact, thoroughly deterministic in their own way. If genuine free will existed, it would break both theories.
Don’t be too despondent about the death of free will though. The illusion of free will doesn’t imply fatalism. Fatalism says our future unfolds the way it does regardless of our beliefs and desires. Determinism says our future unfolds the way it does because of our beliefs and desires, only that the latter are themselves determined. Although, if you do become despondent, well, that was bound to happen.