Time, free will, and the first-person perspective

Here’s an essay on some interesting philosophical problems, especially relating to self-reference and divine simplicity. I’d like to trim and polish the material up someday for my future blog, but I won’t have the time or energy for the foreseeable future.

Part I: that the “flow of time” and libertarian free will don’t make sense

It’s not just that I disagree with the popular ideas that time “flows” and that human beings have “free will”. These ideas are just meaningless; they’re not even wrong. But when even great philosophers have embraced nonsensical ideas, they must at least be placeholders for something very important.

What could it mean for time to flow–with respect to what could it flow? Yes, time advances with time, but this is trivially true. (Cf. latitude increases with latitude as well.) Past events don’t exist now, but they exist at their own times. (Cf. other latitudes aren’t present at my latitude, but at their own.) If the past were somehow destroyed, as the A theorists believe, then all statements about the past would be undetermined or false, or they would be statements only about our memories. It’s not even necessary to invoke relativity, as if the A theory would make any more sense in a Newtonian or Aristotelian universe.

Nor can I make sense of a mode of causality that is neither deterministic nor random. I am baffled that others claim to have a direct experience of possessing such a power. I myself am not aware of any internal assurance that from a given prior mental state I ever could have willed other than I did. I don’t even know what that would feel like. If “free will” made any sense, it would be heresy. Christianity clearly teaches predestination and slavery to sin. Fortunately, “freedom of the will” in any sense other than compatibilism is nonsensical, so insufficiently coherent to impute heresy.

Can we find some common ground? I agree that the spacetime metric locally has Lorentzian signature and that causality operates within light cones. I agree that deliberation and choice are part of the causal chains involving people. You will say “if that’s all you mean by the flow of time and free will, then clearly you don’t believe in them.” So be it.

That can’t be the end, though. There must be a reason people are so drawn to such beliefs even when it is difficult to reconcile them with both science and religion.

Part II: Paradoxes of self-references and the limits of the first-person perspective

From a global, third-person perspective, free will and the flow of time make no sense. That goes for any global perspective–scientific, religious, or philosophical. The best that can be said for free will is what Kant said: we must treat ourselves as free agents when we are making decisions. However theoretically incoherent, free will seems to be an unavoidable pose for practical reasoning. “I will do whatever I am causally determined to do” (or “I will make a nondeterministic random choice”) may be true, but doesn’t help when we are in the midst of making a decision.

Laplace asserted that a demon with complete knowledge of the universe at one instant in time could, using the laws of Newtonian mechanics, predict the entire future and infer the entire past.  Karl Popper later realized that this couldn’t possibly work if the demon is itself part of the universe.  Then the demon would have to be able to predict his own future choices.  But suppose he decides to do the opposite of whatever he predicts he will do? We have a paradox. Paradoxes related to self-reference like this were used by Russell to critique “naive” set theory and can be used to prove the undecidability of the Halting problem over Turing machines.

It has been argued by Thomas Breuer that no observer can perform a complete measurement of the state of a system of which it is a part.  For the proof, a self-measuring system consists of a total system with its list of possible states, the measuring apparatus with its list of possible states, and an inference map that associates sets of apparatus states with sets of total system states.  Breuer makes an assumption of “proper inclusion”, i.e. that the apparatus is a proper part rather than the whole, and interprets this to mean that there are distinct system states with the same apparatus state.  Given this, the conclusion is unsurprising.  Notice how the problem is set up.  One could, I suppose, identify the measuring apparatus and the system itself, and then say that the system perfectly “measures” or “knows” itself simply by being itself and in whatever state it’s in. Clearly this is not measurement or knowledge as normally understood, which requires a duality between subject and object and a representation of the latter in the former.

For the impossibility of complete self-knowledge, it doesn’t matter whether the knowing being is deterministic or not. Descartes realized correctly that consciousness involves privileged knowledge of itself. In the 20th century, we realized that a being’s perspective necessarily also involves a certain ignorance of itself.

I am a unique perspective of the whole universe, as Leibniz taught us. (To quote Wittgenstein “I am my world.”) This distinctive perspective is necessarily partial. In particular, some degree of knowledge of myself is only possible from an outside perspective. (Wittgenstein again: “The subject does not belong to the world but it is a limit of the world.”)

This, I believe, is what greater minds than mine have found troubling. If the flow of time and freedom of the will are necessarily connected to a limited perspective, can only be conceived from a combination of knowledge and ignorance, then doesn’t that mean that my first-person perspective is an illusion, is a lie? And that the only truth is the third-person perspective of science and religion?

Part III: Validity of the first-person perspective

We emphasize again that the conflict is not between science and religion or between competing philosophical schools. All global viewpoints–scientific, religious, philosophical–clash with what I’ve called “the first person perspective”. This can and has been used to argue that the latter is simply false. Indeed, I myself have claimed that certain conceptualizations of personal experience, when carried over as objective statements about the world, are false, or rather meaningless. However, it does not follow that the manifest picture of the world, our lived experience with it, is simply invalid.

The assumption is that our partial viewpoints can be contrasted with some global omniscient viewpoint, and that the latter would then be the ultimate standard of truth. However, there might not be any such global view from nowhere. Or, equivalently, the global perspective might just be the union of all partial perspectives.

An example of how this would work is Carlo Rovelli’s relational interpretation of quantum mechanics, which assigns a distinct state vector/wavefunction to every system relative to every other system.  Such theories would recognize states of systems relative to various other systems, but no perspectiveless “true” state. This is a more radical form of something we have already learned to live with from the theory of relativity.  Even in Galilean kinematics, each observer has his own standard of rest, and it is meaningless to ask which is truly at rest.  Clocks on the ground run slightly slower than clocks in orbit.  Which is right?  Both:  they both correctly measure proper time along their worldlines. One must settle for answers to such questions, because that’s all there is.  Could it be possible that all physical processes–including those in our brains–are slowing down at an equal rate so that we would never notice?  No, because ideal clocks are defined to keep uniform time.  As Aristotle said long ago, time just is the measurement of change, one thing relative to another.

In physics we have learned to live with perspectival relativism without it leading to incoherence or pure subjectivism.  One notices that physics has been quite a bit more successful with this than continental philosophy.  Post-modernism promises to deliver us from the tyranny of metanarratives but immediately imposes its own obnoxiously tyrannical metanarrative.

How did physics avoid the fate of postmodernism? First, abstract truths (mathematics) as well as the contingent laws of physics are taken to be universally valid. Second, partial truths become absolute truths when the necessary indexicals are attached. Other observers may see things differently than observer A, but they all agree on what it is that observer A observes. Third, every observer can explain every other observer’s observations from its own perspective and the same universal laws of physics. Fourth, the framework explaining how different observers/frames/system perspectives relate does not surreptitiously adopt one particular perspective the way postmodernism, contrary to its own principles, adopts the metanarrative of oppression as universal and absolute truth.

On the other hand, perhaps there is a global, all-encompassing “view from nowhere” which presumably would not involve features such as a flow of time or libertarian free will. Would that be a problem? Well, one could presumably reconstruct any and all of the partial views from the global view, while no single partial view could recover the global view. Does that not mean that the global view would be more true?

The situation is analogous to the case of emergence. Macroscopic substances are made of atoms. From the configurations of all the atoms, one could infer the state of the macroscopic object, but since that state is a course grained description, the reverse is not true. Does that mean that atoms are more real than the things they compose? This seems to be a common philosophical belief. However, in this time of anti-metaphysical skepticism, the idea of one existing thing being “more real” or “ontologically prior” to another existing thing should be treated with more suspicion than it usually gets. What does it really mean? An object either “really” exists or it doesn’t. Wholes can’t exist without their parts, but parts can’t exist without forming some sort of whole.

Similarly, we should question whether a perspective that is more complete is therefore more true. If a global perspective exists, it may be true that partial perspectives can only exist given its framework, but it is certainly true that there could be no global perspective without there also being partial perspectives (because each constituent of the universe globally conceived is a particular perspective, cf. Leibniz again). If anything, it is the partial perspectives that here are in the role of atoms. Of course, just as in the case of emergence we compared existing atoms to existing composites, we are here comparing the global viewpoint (if there is such a thing) to valid first-person perspectives. False beliefs held in the first person perspective are not equal in truth to a correct global perspective, or for that matter to a correct partial perspective. I am assuming there is a correct apprehension of the world from my point of view.

But wait a minute. Don’t we know that there is a global perspective? Isn’t that God’s perspective?

Part IV: God doesn’t have a perspective

It’s interesting to consider why Breuer’s and Popper’s arguments fail when applied to God. How is it that God can have complete self-knowledge? The reason is that our usual model of knowledge fails in His case. For finite subject A and object X, we think of A’s knowledge of X as an internal state of A, the presence within A’s mind of a representation of X, this knowledge being a proper part of A and ontologically distinct from X, indeed which may or may not even correspond to the truth about X. However, God is completely simple, so He has no internal states. In this case, we are told not regard God’s self-knowledge as a proper part of His mind (from which one could show that it must be incomplete) but as identical with His being.

It is unacceptably anthropomorphic to think of God as having a perspective on the world. This would make Him part of the universe, rather than its transcendent principle. God has no internal mental state corresponding to his perspective on the universe; His knowledge of the universe is rather a property of us–one might almost say that it is us. The scholastics used to put it that we have real relation to God but not vice versa. If there is a global, third-person view from nowhere, it has nothing in particular to do with God’s knowledge. It is not one degree closer to His omnipotence than our partial, first-person views.

Here is another way to reject the idea that this global view makes our first-person views to be falsehoods. Just as your perspective and my perspective are just two partial views compared to the global perspective, our perspectives and the global perspective are just three finite creations compared to God’s absolute transcendence.

In the Middle Ages, it was generally believed that a hierarchical universe was most neatly congruent with monotheism. Given the universal human symbolism of heaven and the sky god above, we should always speak of this intuition with respect. But it was challenged, first by Nicholas of Cusa, precisely on grounds of theological appropriateness. Cusa thought a universe without center or privileged perspective and with a number of indeterminate features more fittingly expressed God’s complete transcendence. We have now grown used to the idea of the Earth as just one more celestial body flying through space and can’t appreciate the disorientation such ideas must have caused at the beginning of the Renaissance.

Or perhaps we can. Suppose it should turn out that we must accept the Everett interpretation of quantum mechanics after all. Wouldn’t that take Cusa’s program of equalizing perspectives to a whole new level?

10 thoughts on “Time, free will, and the first-person perspective

  1. I appreciate your specific differences between physics relativity and post-modern relativity – thank you!
    Also, what is A theory? (2nd paragraph part 1)

  2. It’s possible that there are two modes of human experience: our perspective, with which we each perceive a shared physical reality via our unique sense organs at our space-time position, and our “conceptive”, with which we each conceive our own concepts. In other words, we are cobbling together our own little conceptual universe through the process of thinking and perceiving.

    Occasionally, we discover external Concepts (ie. from Heaven), which we experience as revelation, inspiration, epiphany, and so on.

    The body lives in and perceives the physical cosmos. One’s consciousness lives in and conceives one’s own mind-cosmos, and, occasionally, the actual higher conceptual levels of existence, what they called Heaven in the old days.

    Incidentally, the physical cosmos seems to be an index of the conceptual “spiritual” metaphysical cosmos. This is why physical adjacency is necessary to most intensely experience things like love and beauty, and why it is better to be resurrected from the dead than to be a purely spiritual being.

    The atomic level is most directly apprehended and shared across all human perspectives. The “object” level of trees and cars begins to edge into the level of human conceptives, which may or may not be shared. And the “social” level of justice and rightness may diverge entirely, only uniting (presumably) when the society experiences a conceptive of a Heavenly Concept together, ie. a “spiritual awakening”.

    It’s possible that the contents of our personal mind-cosmos – our conceptive – is a tiny, conceptual super-version of space-time, a miniature universe in which we have been given the sculpting power of gods. In which case, God can look down and have perfect knowledge of both our perspective and our conceptive, while we here below are “imprisoned in our own labyrinth.” For now, at least.

    It’s possible our belief in the necessary localization of perspectives and conceptives is false. What we experience as the infinitesimal only-I-can-see-this-point-of-view actually has real metaphysical existence, but we are not permitted to perceive it or conceive it during mortal experience, aside from the occasional angelic gift. While we live, we are like a little kernel of light traveling across the face of our own waters. After we die, perhaps, God will lift us up so that we can look down on our own creation ie. Judgement Day.

    I don’t know if these ideas solve any of the problems you describe, but they’ve come to mind after reading your thought-provoking article. Thanks!

  3. Great stuff, Bonald, thanks. I’m glad you posted it all here as one essay, because I was having trouble figuring out which part to comment on over at your site.

    Nor can I make sense of a mode of causality that is neither deterministic nor random.

    It’s even worse than that: you can’t make sense of causality that is either deterministic or random. If things are deterministic, then there are no causes, properly so called; rather, we inhabit a block universe in which, despite appearances, nothing actually happens – because it happens all at once, including its entire temporal extension – and there are no disparate occasions, entities or events that bear causal relations to any others, precisely because nothing actually happens. In that case, causation is a null category. Things just are, period full stop.

    If on the other hand everything happens just randomly, then no event has any causal order – or any other sort of order – to any other, and again causation is a null category. Again, things just are, and that’s the end of it.

    If the cosmos is pervasively either determined or random, there can be no events causally related to each other; so, no events of knowledge in which subject is causally related to object; ergo, no events of knowledge that the cosmos is pervasively either determined or random. In other words, on either determinism or randomness, it is impossible to believe truly that the cosmos is either deterministic or random. So, whatever the cosmos is like, it is impossible for it to be either wholly deterministic or wholly random. We’ll have to come up with something else.

    Fortunately, complete randomness and complete determinism are not the only options available to us. There is stochastic teleology, on which events arise from the factors of their past, and aim at a telos, but can miss (often because they are confused by a plethora of fairly similar, and similarly alluring, potential teloi). This view has the advantage of fidelity to our actual experience of what it is like to be. It does not force us – as either determinism or Democritean atomism both do – to repudiate the basic material of all our explanations: our own lives.

    I myself am not aware of any internal assurance that from a given prior mental state I ever could have willed other than I did.

    That’s because you *can’t* know what you have willed until you are done willing it, and are figuring out what to will next. What you “did” will is what you willed in the past. As past, that item of volition – let’s call it a voliton, I like that neology – is now, in retrospect, quite definite: completely determined. As now determined, so are all its causal factors now determined, together with all their relative influences upon it. In retrospect, it looks as though the character of that voliton followed ineluctably from what preceded it, for it is now definite, and therefore *in every respect* definitely *ordered,* from and by its past. But in prospect, the character of a voliton now in the process of formation is imponderable. It cannot be known, or determined, because it is not out there yet to be known or determined.

    Your past volitons, on the other hand – what you did will at this or that moment of your past – are wholly determined. That is what “past” *means.* What is not yet determined is what you are *now* willing. Your present voliton – the present occasion of becoming of your life – won’t be determined until you are done determining it, and have moved on to devise your next.

    What does not yet exist – what is still becoming, and is not yet actual – has no properties at all, properly speaking, because it is not yet definitely one thing versus some other that it might yet become. It has a suite of factors – it has a past – that furnishes it with an array of optional teloi – of potentia – but it does not yet have a definite response to that past. *It does not yet exist.* Only its past yet exists. That past is of course wholly determinate. So, the space of teloi open to the becoming occasion is wholly determinate. But nothing else than that past yet exists, to be determinate, or indeterminate, or anything else whatever.

    What is not yet is not yet determined. But that does not mean it is just random.

    Christianity clearly teaches predestination and slavery to sin.

    It also clearly teaches the perfect freedom of righteousness and liberation from slavery to sin, in and by Jesus. It teaches furthermore that both that righteousness and that liberation can begin to be realized during our mortal life – that we can begin to be saints, *right now,* and furthermore that saintliness is what God expects of us, wills for us, commands for us, *right now,* as the fulfillment of our proper and original nature. It teaches us that we are therefore obliged to choose salvation, and that our choice is our responsibility. Baptism is the sacrament that first effects our liberation and purgation, and begins our career of saintliness. To believe otherwise is heretical. That all being the case, there must be a way to understand predestination, slavery to sin, the perfect freedom of the saints and liberation from sin in a way that reconciles all those notions.

    And there is. Usually it is a proper conception of eternity that subsumes and resolves most of the paradoxes that, because we are naturally somewhat stuck in the categories of temporal thought, otherwise so perplex us.

    Another such way of understanding I have not so often here dwelt upon: more than one adequate and complete account of phenomena can be true. E.g., it can be true that all your motions can be accounted for by parsing them into the motions of your constituent particles, *and* it can be true that all your motions can be accounted for as the acts of a person, in which the subsidiary acts of his constituent particles participate. The two explanations are not contradictory. They are, rather, agreeable, albeit couched in the terms of different logical calculi.

    In just the same way, that I am doing something does not mean God is not doing it, and vice versa. When I act, my constituent particles do themselves really act, in response to my act and in concord (more or less) with it, as by it informed. So with our acts vis-à-vis the divine Act. This is how we can understand compatibilism without falling into improper reduction of an entire logical calculus.

    I agree that the spacetime metric locally has Lorentzian signature and that causality operates within light cones. I agree that deliberation and choice are part of the causal chains involving people. You will say “if that’s all you mean by the flow of time and free will, then clearly you don’t believe in them.”

    On the contrary. If that’s what you mean by the flow of time and free will, then as far as I can tell you clearly *do* believe in them.

    I would say however that your critique of the notion of the flow of time is well taken. Time does not flow: for, it is a nexus of causal relations between actual events, which, as past, are static, and cannot change.

    As Aristotle said long ago, time just is the measurement of change, one thing relative to another.

    Exactly.

    Our phenomenal experience of the flow of events (not of time, NB) is what it is like for us to apprehend the character of the past and integrate it into our present moment of experience, thus effecting our own character. By our apprehensions of the past, the past “flows” into us; it marks us (Greek kharakter is “engraved mark”), influences us, forms and shapes us. We in turn – by our affective effect upon them as they apprehend us – flow into the events of the future. Thus it is effects that flow. Time – and space – are but a record of that flux.

    “Event” is a Latin gerund of ex + venire, “to come out” or “to outcome.” An event then is literally an outcoming. The experience of what we call “temporal” flow is the experience of eventuation, which as essentially causal is inherently extensive (for, causal relations are (among other things) extensive relations; indeed, are defined in extensive terms (sc., F = ma, E = mc2, etc.)). Eventuation manufactures extent, both spacelike and timelike.

    The spatio-temporal extent that separates one event from another prevents the logical contradiction of two disparate and incompatible events occurring in exactly the same way, and so as the same thing.

    Anyway: it is not the flow that flows. The flow is itself quite still: is nirvana, “no wind;” is Donne’s One Equal Music. The flow of the Tao is within the Tao.

    “I will do whatever I am causally determined to do” (or “I will make a nondeterministic random choice”) …

    Again, nondeterministic ≠ random. It just isn’t the case that if an event is not completely determined ex ante it is therefore *entirely disordered.* Indeed, as I have argued, events *cannot* be completely determined ex ante, for if they were, they would not actually exist qua events. They would in that case, rather, be nothing but aspects of their antecedents (& vice versa). And in that case, there being no actual disparate events, there could be no orderly relations between such events; so, no causation at all; which is to say, no cosmic order; which is to say, no cosmos.

    From a global, third-person perspective, free will and the flow of time make no sense. That goes for any global perspective – scientific, religious, or philosophical.

    If you abstract away from all particular concretes, you are naturally going to lose all the peculiar characteristics of particular concretes. What remains is a pure formalization that has no actual implementation. We could with equal probity say:

    From a global, third-person perspective, matter and energy make no sense. That goes for any global perspective – scientific, religious, or philosophical.

    Abstract away from every particular matter, and you end with Prime Matter. But there is no such thing actually as Prime Matter. Prime Matter is a formal heuristic, and no more.

    All global viewpoints – scientific, religious, philosophical – clash with what I’ve called “the first person perspective.”

    From any purely abstract – i.e., purely formal – perspective, no particular thing can be construed as quite real in the same way that the forms are real – i.e., real in a purely formal manner. The forms and their relations are by definition not particular, but rather perfectly general. So they cannot be concrete except insofar as they are expressed and present in and by some particular concrete. NB: all concretes are particular. And every particular defines a perspective: a frame of reference. That is part of what it means to be particular: to be a part is to be in some respect subsidiary to some supersidiary whole.

    So, free will cannot be a feature of reality from any global – from, that is to say, any purely formal – perspective. It can be concretely real only in, to and for particular concrete subjects, who are not treating reality under a global perspective.

    It is impossible for a particular to take a global perspective as his own, while remaining particularly himself. Global perspectives are not concretely possible to particulars. They are possible to particulars rather only abstractly, conceptually, virtually, or eminently.

    Thus the fact that free will seems (prima facie; not secunda facie) difficult to accommodate under a purely formal treatment of experience – a “global” treatment – does not at all tell that it cannot be accommodated as an aspect of concrete experience, which cannot be global.

    If the flow of time and freedom of the will are necessarily connected to a limited perspective, can only be conceived from a combination of knowledge and ignorance, then doesn’t that mean that my first-person perspective is an illusion, is a lie?

    No. Scribe a triangle in any way. It is imperfect. Is its triangularity therefore illusory?

    Popper later realized that [the demon of Laplace] couldn’t possibly work if the demon is itself part of the universe.

    Demons are not native to our universe. They interact with it the way that a game designer plays his game, as a character thereof. Laplace wins. But he does so only on the supposition that there are in fact beings such as demons that are supersidiary to our world; so that, contra his own assertion, the hypothesis of God is indeed indispensable to his explanatory system. For, no demons or anything of their general sort, then no cosmic coherence on the terms of Laplace. And of course, the actuality of any given demon implies the actuality of the whole daimonic hierarchy.

    Part IV is just brilliant, and a salutary reminder. The only thing I would add is mention of the fact that God in Jesus has certainly a particular human perspective from within and upon his creation – and upon his Father and his Spirit. As YHWH, too, he must have a particular angelic perspective from above and upon his creation of this world (and presumably of all other worlds he creates).

    Temporal beings cannot attain the aeviternity of the angels, and aeviternal beings cannot attain the eternity of God (let alone the priority to being per se of the Suprapersonal Godhead). The reciprocal motion is evidently quite possible. God can be a man in Jesus, and in YHWH an angel; the eternal Lógos is then in both his human and angelic forms coterminous with El Elyon, the Most High God. It would seem that eternity can condescend to aeviternity and to time. Philippians 2:5-8.

    This should not surprise us; the greater can encompass the lesser, so that if you have $10 you can shell out $5. Likewise, you can’t know more than you can possibly know, but you can certainly know less. The King can fight as an infantryman, but not vice versa. And again, the game designer can play his own game.

    So, Omniscience, that has no perspective, can apparently include – can constitute, and so be and make to be – lesser perspectives, which are nonetheless his very own.

    God has no internal mental state corresponding to his perspective on the universe; His knowledge of the universe is rather a property of us – one might almost say that it is us.

    Exactly. God’s knowledge of the universe is a property of Jesus – one might say that it *is* Jesus.

    • Hi Kristor,

      Thanks for your analysis. Your last sentence suggests a pleasing symmetry:

      God’s knowledge of Himself = God the Son (divine nature)
      God’s knowledge of the universe = God the Son (human nature)

      Regarding determinism etc, I have read you make similar claims before, but I still have trouble making sense of it. Let me see if I can restate the claim in my own language. Let us say at time t1 system S is in state X (which we’ll say include all the “inputs”, i.e. external influences). It sounds like you’re saying that R(S; t1), the response of S at t1, might not be determined by X but that, at later time t2>t1, it will not only retroactively seem, but retroactively become the case, that the response of S was determined by X at t_1. The only way I could make sense of this would be to introduce a second time, an additional indexical, so that there is no unique answer to whether the R(S; t1) is determined by X(t1). Only R(S; t1, t2), the response of S at time t1 relative to a perspective time t2, has definite properties like that. This seems strange, but I can’t dismiss it out of hand, given the perspectivism that the rest of my essay was playing with.

  4. “I myself am not aware of any internal assurance that from a given prior mental state I ever could have willed other than I did.”
    If that were true, you would be a most unusual person (which in many ways you clearly are.) Here’s C. S. Lewis: “For the first time I examined myself with a seriously practical purpose. And there I found what appalled me; a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion.”

    We do not have to ride shotgun on our every thought, fortunately, and that quite apart from the concerns Lewis expressed. I am sitting here writing a comment, and I have a sudden urge to have a pee. I can follow that impulse, then return to the keyboard, or I can suppress the urge, because I _want_ to finish the sentence or the paragraph or the comment, without interruption. I conscious of this decision, and I am conscious of the choice I have made.

    I have the intuition of an idea, or an argument. I sense it forming, but I must strive to make it actual, first in my mind. I’m trying to form this next sentence; I am waiting for a particular word to arrive, but it resists me, as once it would not. I know it’s there; it is shaping somewhere just above my solar plexus, taunting me with some of its characteristics; but it is by those characteristics that I will eventually snag it. If I turn away from the hunt for a little, it will probably present itself, smugly. But I know that it was my pressure that made it yield in a timely manner. Or I can choose to abandon the search and substitute a lesser alternative, and consciously decide to do so. This may be influenced by the lateness of the hour, or the press of other commitments; nonetheless, _I_ choose.

    [The place from which words emerge is utterly mysterious, but I assert that this place is not a function of some collection of my constantly regenerating bodily bits and pieces; but that addresses a separate point.]

    These are examples of our mundane experiences of freedom of will. They have obvious application to the life-threatening impulses to which we are subject — prevarication, theft, calumny, adultery.

  5. This is all a bit confusing, especially considering how your writing has cleared many things for me. Mainly, I don’t share your confusion, but then I am not a greater mind. In the hope that I am not straying into arrogance, I will try to participate with some nuggets and wait for you and Kristor to crystallize things. I will try to keep this short, which generally makes things sound sarcastic, but my questions are honest and not rhetorical.

    If the past were somehow destroyed, as the A theorists believe, then all statements about the past would be undetermined or false, or they would be statements only about our memories.

    I don’t understand what the past is here – some thing sitting besides you that can be obliterated at will? And if some thing is destroyed, what about its effects? And if a thing is somehow removed from existence, effects and all, what statements about it? I don’t see the sense of the sentence, nor the purpose of such thinking.

    I myself am not aware of any internal assurance that from a given prior mental state I ever could have willed other than I did.

    What would such an internal assurance be like? And who is that “I’ in there, the one existing now of whom what was willed is an integral part, who is then projected into the past to doubt whether that part is really “I”?

    It sounds like you’re saying that R(S; t1), the response of S at t1, might not be determined by X but that, at later time t2>t1, it will not only retroactively seem, but retroactively become the case, that the response of S was determined by X at t_1

    This is entirely out of my depth but I would like to give it a try and see what Kristor says.
    It’s determined by all prior states of the system insofar that it has to build upon them or from them. That’s why it’s an order. If it strays from its own terms it will be chaos or not that particular order (and any order is a particular order). So you cannot but take into account that order in your decision, which is a limit, but certainly not an absolute one. Looking back, what you willed necessarily stemmed from what preceded it. And it and its consequences being an integral part of your order now, your perspective cannot but recognize it. All else is conjecture, something you don’t know, nor recognize. You are looking for free will where it has left already.
    And if you cannot but think that you couldn’t have willed other than you did in a prior state, how come you don’t see the same in your current one?

    “I will do whatever I am causally determined to do” (or “I will make a nondeterministic random choice”) may be true, but doesn’t help when we are in the midst of making a decision.

    Help with what?

    But suppose he decides to do the opposite of whatever he predicts he will do? We have a paradox.

    I fail to see anything paradoxical here. As if predicting and deciding are two inherently different things to which your demon is subjected. A pointless mind game like the liar paradox. What am I missing?

    All global viewpoints–scientific, religious, philosophical–clash with what I’ve called “the first person perspective”. … The assumption is that our partial viewpoints can be contrasted with some global omniscient viewpoint, and that the latter would then be the ultimate standard of truth.

    Everything can clash and be contrasted if we make it so. It will be necessarily so when we forget that views look at something. The global viewpoint, or just objective one, is looking at principles. The particular, or subjective, is relating to those principles through their concrete implementation. Neither is more true or more anything. Precisely why when modern society strives for objectivity, it negates its existence. That’s the conflict and it’s with reality.

    then doesn’t that mean that my first-person perspective is an illusion, is a lie?

    Kristor absolutely nailed it with the triangle. I will try to add: your perspective *is* your relation to a principle. Your relation is not a lie, although it might be based around one (or many).

    Christianity clearly teaches predestination and slavery to sin.

    I am not Christian, but it seems to me both of those do not determine a path, only its end and how long it might be.

  6. Bonald, you have indeed noticed a pleasant symmetry. I would add only that God knows all things by introspection. That includes the human knowledge of Jesus about the world (and the angelic knowledge of YHWH about the world). God is; so is he in that one act the Trinity, the Lógos, the Creator, YHWH, and Jesus, all at once. As all those aspects (but not modes or parts!) of the Divine Simplicity, God is One, and is One act of omniscience. God knows what it is like to be human in virtue of the Incarnation. But this is how he knows what everything is like, and indeed, is; and it is how he creates everything.

    It sounds like you’re saying that R(S; t1), the response of S at t1, might not be determined by X but that, at later time t2>t1, it will not only retroactively seem, but retroactively become the case, that the response of S was determined by X at t1.

    If I understand you correctly, that’s pretty close. But I would qualify your formalization a bit. If the response of S is simply and totally determined by X, then regardless of our temporal perspective upon S – whether we regard it from t1 or t2 – there is no R(S), and thus there is no S. There is rather only X, and what appears to be S is just an aspect of X.

    In order for there to be R(S), and so in order for there to be an S, S must have options, and must choose among them somehow. Once the R(S) is complete, then in retrospect we shall be able to see how X influenced it; and this shall appear to us as the determination of R(S) *from* X. That might look to us like the determination of R(S) *by* X, but such an appearance is not quite accurate.

    S determines R(S) on the basis of X.

    Ouroboros is on the right track.

    Looking back, what you willed necessarily stemmed from what preceded it.

    I would say rather that looking back, what you willed must necessarily have been *derived* from what preceded it, but that it was not completely *determined* by what preceded it.

    • Thank you for your reply, Kristor.

      I’m not sure if I’m willing to go along with your addition on God’s knowledge. My concern is that we have to distinguish the Son’s human nature somehow as created and contingent. God’s attributes may all be identical to each other, but Jesus’ human nature must be ontologically separate. Your formula is a wonderful solution to the problem of how a simple God can know about His contingent creation; He can know it as a creature by incarnating Himself.

      Your claim on determinacy, as I restated it, is quite natural if one says that these things are dependent not on observers but on observations, so that my view on my own past, what I did at t1 as remembered at t2, is essentially another outside perspective. Maybe it’s not necessary to take either my t1 or my t2 perspective as superior; they are both partial.

      Is it really true that deterministic systems aren’t fully real? Suppose S is a ball thrown into the air (let’s say into a vacuum, to keep it simple). Its trajectory is fully determined by its initial velocity and the force of gravity, but it seems nevertheless quite real to my imagination.

      I’m sorry to be taking so much of your time. I don’t plan to keep asking questions.

      • Gosh, Bonald, don’t worry about taking my time. Your questions are tremendously valuable to me, because they provoke me to a deeper understanding. I hope I can answer them adequately; indeed, I hope that I *have* adequate answers to begin with.

        Thanks to *you* for taking the time to respond to me!

        We must to be sure distinguish between the contingent character of the human life and knowledge of Jesus on the one hand and the necessary character of his divine life and knowledge on the other. But then we face the same requirement with respect to all contingent events: how does eternal immutable Omniscience, Necessary and Simple, come to know of *any* contingent event in creatura?

        Let me try to put an answer in terms that might be amenable to a physicist. The first argument in the specification of any contingent event along all dimensions – of its locus in configuration space – is God. Inasmuch as it specifies God, who is the first forecondition of eventuation as such, that First Argument specifies *the configuration space itself,* in respect to which the specification has relevant meaning – and without which it is utterly meaningless. And God *is* that configuration space. God is the First Primordial Locus of all becoming.

        Notice that the First Argument specifies *itself.* God is a member of the specification set of every occasion of being. So is he both the configuration space and a dimension thereof.

        What is more, because he is present as a member in all their specifications as their First Argument, God is present at every node of the configuration space as First formal cause. Insofar as any node is actualized, he is then present in it as an aspect of its formal character.

        Like other beings, worlds have specifications in configuration space, and as with any other being, the Lógos is the First Argument of each world’s specification – of its particular logos. When a world is actualized, the Lógos is then actual in it, as an aspect of its formal constitution.

        This is not to say only that all worlds are somewhat God shaped, although it is that. It is to say also that all worlds have God actually in them, somehow. This is not quite the same thing as saying that God is incarnate in each of his worlds, although that might be so in fact. It is to say only that in each of his worlds, God acts; which, as being what all religion asserts is so, and which would seem to follow directly from the altogether proper characterization of God as ubiquitous Prime Act, does not seem controversial.

        Notice then that the configuration space of all possible events, being itself an aspect of God (being, per Augustine, God’s eternal intellection (and thus his origination) of all forms), is therefore an object of his introspective knowledge. Thus God knows about all possible worlds, and all their constitutive events, by introspection. He knows possible worlds that are actualized, and those that are not (if such there be ). He knows that actual worlds are in fact actual; this his knowledge is how those worlds become actual in the first place; he creates by knowing what he creates.

        God does indeed know what it is like to be human from the inside in virtue of his Incarnation. But, still, this is an act of introspection.

        I suppose I should add here a note about the compatibility of eternal necessity to contingent events. The first thing to remember is that God’s eternal knowledge of contingent events does not occur before those events happen, because in eternity there is no before or after. God’s knowledge of contingent events is contemporaneous with all of them. The second thing to remember is that God’s knowledge of contingent things – and, indeed, furthermore, his Providential responses to them – do not change him, again because in eternity there was no time before which he came to learn of or respond to them, nor any time afterward. The third thing to remember is that the fact that God necessarily knows all contingent things eternally does not render those things themselves eternally necessary.

        It seems to me that things are indeed dependent on observations, rather than observers. In fact, it seems to me that an observer at tx simply *consists* of his observation of his past. He subsists as what he uniquely is, with his own particular perspective, in virtue of that consistence – literally, that ‘together standing’ – of his various observations (of the cat, the apparatus, the lab, his colleague, etc.).

        The elements of a wholly determinate system are real enough, to be sure, but as being nothing more than functions of their antecedent inputs, they reduce to those inputs without jot of remainder. That reduction is not merely formal, not merely a matter of our own thought; it is ontological. In a wholly determinate system, later events add *nothing whatsoever* to the causal account of the system – or, therefore, to the facts of its causal relations, or then in the final analysis to its mere facts – because they were entirely implicit in that system ab initio. They are at bottom then nothing but extensions of their inputs along a temporal dimension. They are not disparate things, though we may treat them as such as a matter of heuristic or rhetorical convenience. They are, rather, only and nothing but the way that their inputs appear after an interval of time has elapsed.

        Notice then that in any wholly determinate system, this analysis pertains to all events whensoever. It pertains to every element of the system. In a wholly determinate system, *no* event adds anything at all to the causal account of the system. *All* the apparently disparate events of the system reduce without jot of ontological remainder to the initial inputs thereto (which must therefore be exogenous, NB). So, there is in the final analysis no strictly causal account of that system. There is rather, only, an account of the initial conditions and the algorithm that shall govern its evolution by an iron rigor. No event in that evolution then properly causes another, or influences another. On the contrary, every bit of the motive oomph in the system is due in the final analysis – in the true analysis – only to its initial conditions and its governing algorithm. So, it is not quite apposite to speak of a causal order of that system. There is an order to it, yes; but it is not causal.

  7. I have been a superdeterminist for a long time – that nothing in the universe is truly stochastic and that everything, including the very rotation of electrons, is encoded in the boundary conditions of the big bang (or equivalent). The issue of predestination and free will are issues of framing, not of some interplay between deterministic and stochastic processes. From the perspective of the individual, there *is* free will. From the perspective of God, there is not, or rather, it is irrelevant. From the perspective of mathematics, there’s reasonable evidence that for every stochastic process, there is a deterministic process that will mimic it, and vice versa. So, for all practical purposes, the distinction between stochastic and deterministic is one of utility. Sometimes there is greater utility in viewing something as stochastic, and sometimes there is greater utility in viewing something as deterministic.

    This is reflected in the Bible, and is why there appears to be a contradiction between predestination and free will. Whenever the Bible talks about God’s interaction with people, it’s a matter of determinism. God *forced* the Pharoah to deny Moses’ request to free the Israelites. God “hardens” hearts and — apparently — removes free will from those who sin. Judas was destined to betray Jesus. God has been “disappointed” in people and “regretted” doing some things (hence the Flood), but that does not mandate that He was surprised. Anybody who has given money to a family member who is a hard core drug addict knows both the foreknowlege and the disappointment involved. A dog returning to his vomit is “free” to choose otherwise, but cannot. “Though you grind a fool in a mortar, grinding them like grain with a pestle, you will not remove their folly from them.”

    In contrast, when the Bible talks about the obligations humans, it always talks in terms of free will. Thus, we as individuals have the obligation to strive, to avoid sin, to pursue good as individual choices. Regardless of the degree to which our actions are predetermined by our situation, history, and heritage, we are obligated to work within the local frame that functionally reflects free will.

    From the standpoint of utility, it makes sense to view the acts of God as if He determines everything. From the standpoint of utility, it makes sense to view the acts of man as those involving free will.

    People object to this kind of deterministic view because it appears to negate the value of free will, and thus raises the question culpability for sin. I think the old Calvinistic approach that says that God “chooses” winners and losers and that people will or will not be “saved” regardless of what people do is wrong. The answer, I believe, is that the laws of morality are as immutable as the laws of physics. It doesn’t matter how, or why, one falls from an airplane at 10,000 feet without a parachute. One is going to land hard and suffer for it regardless of any antecedent event. The same thing is true for the moral laws of God. It *doesn’t matter* about why one sins — when you jump out of that moral airplane at 10,000 feet, you will land hard. Thus, it didn’t matter why Uzzah tried to save the Ark of the Covenant. God killed him for it, just as if it had fallen on his head.

    The implications of this for eternal judgment are beyond me, but are also irrelevant to my daily life. My obligation to God is what it is, regardless of things I cannot comprehend. As God told Job.

    It also provides another view of Jesus’ prayer to forgive his tormenters. He understood that they were, essentially, programmed to do what they were destined to do in order bring about His necessary sacrifice. Of xourse they did not know what they did. They were built that way and placed there to do exactly what they did. They made all of their choices out of local free will, but they were destined to make those choices.

    But the bottom line is that, since we cannot escape our cognitive closure, it is not a question of what is “true” in a context I am incapable of comprehending. There is only the question of what perspective has the most utility.

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