Coffe Shop Continuum

September 14, 2011 § 1 Comment

It was a view I had seen thousands of times before. Through the window of Kidd Coffee I could see the local dry cleaner, the American Legion, and the small alleyway in between. On the window of the dry cleaner was a painted baseball field with oversized players. Before that it had been a spring shower with flowers popping up from the grass. Before that a snowman, and before that the Grinch. I could give you all the scenes from that window for the last ten years if you had any desire to know them. The American Legion was Post 194. That random tidbit doesn’t even require a second glance. Suffice to say that as I drink my milky way latte (I know that’s not the manliest drink), I feel pretty comfortable. I’ve been here a few times before.

This spot has sparked quite a few philosophical debates between my twin brother and myself over the years. Today our conversation has turned to fate and free will. While our normally politically motivated discussions include a lot of agreement about liberal ideals, on this topic we are divided. We both agree that there is some sort of higher power and that people have the ability to make their own decisions; however, we differ on one key point. I take the side that God (or whatever you want to call it) knows the outcome of our decisions before we make them. Bobby, in his typically over-exaggerated style, finds this idea completely ludicrous.

Our conversation soon degenerates into joking and talk about girls, but an interesting and unresolved point has been raised. To Bobby, the fact that the outcome of a decision is already known excludes the idea of free will. To me, they are completely unrelated points. Just because the outcome of a choice is known by someone else does not mean that the decision is already made.

With that rather long winded introduction, I arrive at the story By His Bootstraps by Robert Heinlein. While reading this story I could not stop thinking about the discussion from Kidd Coffee. The main (and essentially only) character, Bob Wilson, is confronted with his inability to change his future actions despite knowing what they are. No matter what his initial thoughts are, he always reenacts the scenes exactly as they have occurred before. This presents a paradox. If he is doomed to repeat the same decisions he has already made, are they really his decisions at all?

I think Bobby and I would probably disagree on this, but to me they are still clearly Bob’s decisions to make. Each time he relives the scene in his office he makes the same decisions, but they are still his decisions at that moment. If he was going to do something differently, he would have done it differently the very first time.

While this story addresses a scientific phenomenon and my coffee shop debate confronted a spiritual one, they come to the same question. For me the answer is the same in both cases: free-will does not depend on someone or something knowing the outcome. Freedom resides solely in the making of the decision. If someone knows what I’m going to decide, what difference does it make to me?



§ One Response to Coffe Shop Continuum

  • erdos0 says:

    Interesting points! John McTaggart proposed two terms, the A-series and the B-series, to describe the passing of time. According to the A-series perception of time there is “past,” “present,” and “future.” However, according to the B-series there is “before,” “simultaneously,” and “after.” Adopting this B-series perception of time helps justify the idea that a being could see events that were going to happen without determining the outcome of the events.


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