Fate’s scales, quivering | Daily News

Fate’s scales, quivering

When we make a choice, whether trivial or substantial, it seems to us that the choice makes the difference between two possible futures, and that there was nothing set in stone in advance that determined the outcome. But with the advent of classical mechanics in the seventeenth century it became possible in principle to write down equations that, in conjunction with a complete specification of the initial conditions of the universe, could allow us to predict everything that we will do – every movement we will ever make, every word we will ever speak.

These equations aren’t speculations. They are the first equations students learn in physics courses, the equations that let us calculate the motion of a pendulum and the trajectories of the planets. They are the equations that describe the laws that keep planes in the air and bridges from collapsing under the weight of cars. These equations, tested and confirmed time and again, allow us (in principle) to calculate within measurable precision the movements of every body in the universe, given enough information about its past. There are some corrections to the equations that make a difference at velocities close to the speed of light, and when we look at how things move at a very small scale (a length between ten and twenty times the diameter of a proton), but those corrections are well understood and don’t (except under very rare conditions) make a difference for the movements of things as big and slow as us.

This means that any universe that started in the same global state as ours 14 billion years ago (roughly the age of the observable universe), with all of the particles in the same positions, with the same momenta, would have eventually given rise to you and me. Moreover, we would have all the same experiences and all the same thoughts and feelings and make all of the same decisions. And it also means that as you toss and turn in the throes of a difficult decision, there is really only one possible outcome. You are no more free to choose otherwise, than water is to flow uphill. This is the problem of free will and determinism.

This problem has been around for millennia, but physics gives it a precise formulation and a concrete setting. It’s a beautiful problem because it brings physics into contact with issues of central human concern and forces us to think hard, in concrete detail, about what a scientific view of the world really entails about ourselves. The problem confronts us with a vision of human action that appears to be irreconcilable with the way we experience the world.

What do I mean by “the way we experience the world”? It’s hard to pin down.

More basic than a belief but more articulate than a sensation, it’s the sense you have when making a decision that it is open to you – open right up until the last second – to act in any one of a number of different ways. The best description I’ve read is from William James:

The great point is that the possibilities are really here … at those soul-trying moments when fate’s scales seem to quiver, and good snatches the victory from evil or shrinks nerveless from the fight … the issue is decided nowhere else than here and now.

The reality of the possibilities is what gives weight to our decisions. It is what keeps us up at night. It is what bestows urgency on sorting out what to do. It is what, in James’s words, “gives the palpitating reality to our moral life and makes it tingle … with so strange and elaborate an excitement”. But it is the reality of the possibilities that physics seems to contradict.

Some claim that the idea of human freedom is built on illusions about human specialness that are a holdover from a religious conception of the world, and that they should be swept aside with the advancing tides of science. This position has been trumpeted loudly by people who present themselves as brave defenders of science: by scientists such as Einstein, Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins, and by philosophers including Alexander Rosenberg and Sam Harris. To most people, however, it seems literally unbelievable that the scales of fate don’t hang in the balance when making a difficult decision.

And it is not just those dark nights of the soul where this matters. You think that you could cross the street here or there, pick these socks or those, go to bed at a reasonable hour or stay up, howl at the moon and eat donuts till dawn. Every choice is a juncture in history and it is up to you to determine which way to go.

Yet, if there is one foundational scientific fact, it is that things can’t happen that the laws of physics don’t allow. And the clash between these two things shows that there is something centrally important about ourselves and our position in the cosmos that we don’t understand.

So far I’ve been speaking as though the problem of free will is the problem of how to reconcile our experience of our actions with what physics says. This aspect of the problem is one that many people latch onto, when they first encounter it. But there’s a much more serious aspect of the problem that reveals itself when we consider the practice of holding people morally responsible for their actions. Consider the crime made famous by Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. On the night of November 14, 1959, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock entered the home of Herb Clutter and his family in Holcomb, Kansas, while they slept.

Armed with a knife and a 12-gauge shotgun, and believing that Clutter kept large amounts of cash in a safe, the pair had driven 400 miles with the intention of robbing the family. In the house were Clutter, his wife and their teenage son and daughter. On discovering there was no safe, Smith and Hickock bound and gagged the family. They continued to search for money, but found little of value in the house. Smith then slit Herb Clutter’s throat and shot him in the head.

Kenyon and Nancy, the children, were killed with gunshots to the head. Mrs Clutter was killed last. Smith confessed to all the murders, and then refused to sign the confession, claiming that he only confessed because he felt sorry for Hickock’s mother (though Capote himself believed that Smith pulled the trigger).

From the crime the two netted a small portable radio, a pair of binoculars and less than $50 in cash. The radio and binoculars, which remained in their possession, would later lead to their conviction.

- Times Literary Supplement


Add new comment