Jan 302017

Rewind-Time-AnalogyThere is a common complaint that I’ve heard by more than one free will believer: when asked to think about “if all events are caused (deterministic) and if we could bring back time to some point before a decision was made, could the person have decided differently?”, some people complain that “well we can’t do this”. They note that it is impossible to rewind time or to travel in time to before the decision. They note that we “cannot test this”.

This response, however, is one that misses the point entirely. The point isn’t about whether we can have the ability to “rewind or reset time” or “physically test it”. The point isn’t a claim about time travel, or magical powers over time. Rather, the idea of rewinding time or going back to a point in a time is used as a legit thought experiment, and the only point in the thought experiment is to get the person thinking about the causality and what that means for the decision that was made.

We don’t need to be able to actually rewind time to understand why the thought experiment works for its intended purpose. The purpose of the thought experiment is to show how, prior to the decision or decision process, the outcome could never have been some other decision, if every event in the universe has a cause.

So if the universe is deterministic (indeterminism is different and has its own problems), and you opened the refrigerator door, deliberated on a pepsi, rootbeer, or lemonade, and after a certain amount of deliberation decided on lemonade, the pepsi or rootbeer were never real possibilities in the sense that you could have physically been drinking them instead. Imagining going back to the point prior to the deliberation with the same causal setup, allows us to understand that causality would flow the same way. You would open the refrigerator up the very same way, deliberate the very same way, and finally opt for the lemonade the very same way.

At this point, some might say “but if we cannot rewind time to the point, we cannot test for this. We cannot know that we would decide lemonade if we did rewind time.”

That response, however, assumes that all knowledge needs to be a posteriori knowledge, meaning that we need to be able to observe it to rationally make a conclusion. This is incorrect. We can assess causality deductively (a priori knowledge), and recognize that if one is suggesting that causality can play out differently on “rewind”, a cause that holds self-contradictory characteristics would be required, either that, or a causeless event is being postulated, and we are in the realm of taking about indeterminism (and how any non-caused event cannot help grant free will either). If you are unsure why, pick up a copy of my book and/or check out these other posts:

To put this another way, a cause requires ‘sufficiency’ or what I call “must lead to causality”:

In short, if one suggests that the configuration of cause X can both have the characteristics (variables within the structure of X)  that lead to effect Y and those same characteristics can not lead to Y (but to Z instead), would mean that those characteristics hold a contradiction.  They are thus, the causal structure that lead to Y and also the structure that do not lead to Y, breaking identity of the causal structure.

The only way out of this logical conundrum is to postulate an event that does not have to do with the cause to push to the outcome of one over the other. The only way out is to suggest a non-caused event, and we are no longer in the realm of discussing the scenario that every event has a cause (determinism).

So no, we certainly do not have to really be able to “rewind time” to assess the thought experiment. We just need to understand that, if we are talking about a “rewind scenario while postulating an entirely causal universe”, we can understand what that would entail. First, since we are rewinding a universe to a point in time that already happened, and every event has a cause, the conditions of the universe and physics of the universe would be unchanged (as that would be deterministically dictated by what was already in place prior to the point in time – including the same initial condition). Second, once we have that identical universe state, logic dictates that the next events would causally happen the same way.

This also includes our conscious thoughts and actions which would not fall outside of causality into some magical structure. We’d open that refrigerator door the exact same way, our brains and mental state would be identical, we’d deliberate between the pepsi, rootbeer, and lemonade the exact same way, and we’d choose lemonade the exact same way. Given causal determinism, we could not have chosen the rootbeer or pepsi instead. Given causal determinism we could not have changed our mind and decided on no drink. Given causal determinism we could not have decided not to even open the refrigerator.

And given causal determinism, if we could rewind time to right before we open the refrigerator door, all events will play out identically, each and every time we rewind time to that point….and the only way a change could happen, ever, is if an indeterministic event pops into the mix. As we all know, however, indeterminism is not a free will savior. Nor is the belief in free will something we really want or need anyway:

Further reading:

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'Trick Slattery

'Trick Slattery is the author of Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind. He's an author, philosopher, artist, content creator, and entrepreneur. He has loved and immersed himself in philosophy since he was teenager. It is his first and strongest passion. Throughout the years he has built a philosophy based on analytic logic and critical thinking. Some of the topics he is most interested in are of a controversial variety, but his passion for the topics and their importance drives him to want to express these ideas to others. His other passions include pen and ink line art and digital artwork.

  49 Responses to “The “But We Can Never Rewind Time” Response (for the free will debate)”

  1. I agree with everything you said in this post. I also have another funny thought. Isn’t it odd that people believe that someone could have chosen otherwise in the past when considering that time can’t be rewinded?

    • Yes, that makes the positive assertion that they “could have done otherwise” hold a burden of proof that will not be proved. That being said, I also take on the burden to prove the other positive claim that, given causal determinism, they could NOT have done otherwise, …which is accomplished by showing the logical impossibility of a deterministic otherwise. 😉

  2. While your eloquence is profound, in this debate, it is primarily a tool of obfuscation. I do not mean to suggest that the confusion starts with you, but with gross miss-assumptions of what free will is and the overall decision process of brains. What is, you might ask yourself, the source of a decision to order pizza?

    • Hi Alan. What do you think free will is? What do you think is being “obfuscated”? For a free will skeptic like me, the definition comes down to the practical importance of the free will debate: On The Practical Importance of the Free Will Debate

      I also believe that brains make decisions, such as to “order pizza”; they just couldn’t have, of their own accord, decided not to. 😉

    • It’s all quite impractical as the debate can only lead to problems. It seems that once you actually convince someone they do not have free will, they start making worse decisions. They could never lose their free will, they just lose interest in its effective execution. Absent free will, there could be no decision for pizza, nor indeed could there be pizza. Just where do you think that pie comes from?

      (more to come)

    • I’m good with: . Libertarian free will –

      (1) We are in control of our will
      (2) Our mind is causally effective
      (3) In the same situation we could have done otherwise

      • (1) Agreed in some small sense. Are we in control of our will to control will, etc?
        (2) Agreed
        (3) Given indeterminism, agreed – but any indeterministic event cannot be a “willed event” or “up to us”

    • That said, I do not think that the most helpful definition – as you have noted, choices of words help frame how we think about the issue.
      So here’s how I see it: Our decisions are synthesized, real time and on the spot. In that process, multiple possible alternatives are synthesized, one of which is chosen (by our free will).

      • The only way multiple possible (meaning ontologically possible as in “can be actualized”) alternatives could be synthesized is via indeterministic events we have absolutely no say over. This is the problem with libertarian notions of free will. 😉

        • Here I most certainly disagree, as it is the alternative that is impossible. More needs to be said, so I will work on how to phrase it.

          • Thanks. Take your time. If possible, please keep it to a single comment so we can have more of a back and forth here. You can summarize and we can elaborate on individual parts as we go through. And no time constraints on responses, I’ll be busy this weekend so may be slower to respond than weekdays. Catch ya later good sir. 😀

      • I have looked through some of your posts, and I think this claim represents a fairly consistent error that leads you to your conclusions. So a good place to start. Can you, perhaps justify or expand upon your assertion that we have absolutely no say over these events.

        My contention is that we are biologically required to manage such indeterminate events and that our evolution as animals was very much dependent upon such management.

      • I suggest that if you have the ability to be aware of alternative outcomes that are likely for the future based upon alternatives choices available to you at the present, you have moral responsibility. What we evolved with can be thought of as a parallel causal structure where a range of scenarios are played out, each to a conclusion, each held for the moment at least, in memory.

        • The very way one will deliberate between “perceived options” will then be causally dictated, including the final decision. Even with parallel causal structures, each playout could never have concluded otherwise. For strong moral responsibility you would have needed to have been able to, of their own accord, have chosen otherwise. There is no evolutionary mechanism that can allow for this.

        • Your explanation represents a very limited set of caused events. There is no requirement for a caused event to be predictable or repeatable. Neurons are not static elements. Every ‘playout’ through a neural network has a different conclusion. We have memory. We regularly play out many possible scenarios without acting on any of them. We all do this, we all know this. We do not respond to all stimulus.

          • I agree with you about “predictability”, as some of the most chaotic systems are deterministic (but unpredictability is not free will). It must be, on rewind, repeatable, otherwise logically an indeterministic event is needed. If you say one is not needed, then you are invoking a causal contradiction (the cause is both X and not X). Our brain can act out scenarios without them being ontologically possible (able to be actualized).

        • The evolutionary mechanism is euphemistically referred to as survival of the fittest. There are two very powerful driving requirements for free will to evolve: We never know where we will be born nor what our particular situation will be at any given time. Free will was far and away the most robust solution for an animals’ brain.

          • Plants never know where they will be born nor what their particular situation will be at any given time. Free will (in a sense that grants strong moral responsibility) is no solution for an animal’s brain, as the best solutions are those that entail logical coherency. Evolution is an entirely causal theory, and the very notion of a causal “real alternate possibility” is logically incoherent.

      • Choice (true, free choice) is then made for one conclusion and the action which precipitated that conclusion in the imagined scenario.

        • Again, if the conclusion was through an entirely causal process, you simply couldn’t have chosen a different “conclusion”. What was chosen was causally dictated even before the causal deliberation process (between one possible option and perhaps many impossible options) even began. And if a non-caused event (indeterminism) forced a change somewhere, you simply couldn’t have a say on such an event or the change that arose. The type of free will needed here is logically incoherent. Later good sir. 😀

        • Here is the statement I was really looking for as it highlights the weakness of a determinate system: ‘What was chosen was causally dictated even before the causal deliberation process … began.’
          What I think you fail to recognize is that with any determinate system, all of the responses are stored or programed in advance. But before we chase that rabbit, could you please explain to me why you suggest that the type of free will needed here is logically incoherent.

          • Determinism doesn’t mean “stored in advance”, it just means causally dictated. For example, a chess program is entirely deterministic, has no free will when playing against an opponent, but has a specific output based on its very causal structure, which might entail various databases and weighting mechanism once information is given about the opponent move, etc. It could even assess different scenarios that have not taken place and weigh each, but it’s final output couldn’t be otherwise.

          • For all practical purposes, couldn’t be otherwise is equivalent to stored in advance. A wind up watch does not have a storage register, but its deterministic output is programed (or designed if you prefer) into its gears and springs.
            I am pretty sure you are perfectly aware of the necessary indeterministic mechanisms required by the theory of evolution typically captured in the phrase random mutation.

          • Sure, we can analogize that way, simply meaning the output is specific based on that past setup. The theory of evolution has no required “indeterministic mechanism”. The “random” word here is not indeterministic, anymore than a poor photocopy is indeterministic. A “random mutation” can be seen as a “causally imperfect copy”. The word “random” is often used for a deterministic roll of a die. The cause of mutation is either: A) DNA fails to copy accurately or B) External influences can create mutations.

          • No good chess program is deterministic. There is a range of fairly simple software tricks to achieve non-deterministic outputs from an otherwise deterministic series of processes. Once employed, there is never a case of an output that could not have been otherwise.

          • I’m sorry, but there seems to be some miscommunication somewhere, as all current day chess programs are entirely deterministic. To have an indeterministic program you’d need a quantum computer in which the chess program utilizes quantum indeterministic events for an output (which would probably be detrimental to its success as a good chess program) and it would also have to be the case that an indeterministic interpretation of quantum mechanics is the case (which we cannot yet know). Non-quantum computers / programs are always deterministic / causal.

          • Perhaps there is a definitional / semantic distinction that is leading us to talk past each other. Please read here for the way determinism and indeterminism are used in the free will debate (as well as physics):

            “Determinism” and “Indeterminism” for the Free Will Debate

  3. If I may: The correct operational context of both “could have” and “possibility” is not reality, but rather the imagination. Thus it is always true that “I could have done otherwise” if I had more than one option to choose from. However, I WILL always make the same choice after a rewind.

    • Not just “could have”, but “could have DONE” and not just “possibility” in the epistemic sense of “options in mind” but “ontological possibility”, meaning could be actualized in reality(context is important). The word “done” is an adjective about reality (a real action taking place). The only important question for the debate is whether an otherwise ACTION could have taken place (it could possibly HAPPEN), but your “I WILL always make the same choice after a rewind” shows that you recognize it could not have.

      • The extent of the context of inevitability is that everything that happens is always inevitable. There is no such thing as a “could be” within the context of inevitability. And there is no such thing as a “possibility” (= “might or might not be”) within the context of inevitability. There is only the single “inevitability”, and it simply always “is”.

        • Correct, if you inevitably must decide on and take action X, you could not decide on and take action Y instead.

          • The point is that you cannot mix them. The fact of inevitability has no impact on “could have”. I still could have made a different choice.

          • Not only can you mix them, you simply must: If you inevitably must decide on and take action X, you could not decide on and take action Y instead. If choice X is inevitable, you simply could not have “made a different choice” (it was inevitable that you would NOT make a different choice).

          • If you read your own comment, you’ll find there is no room for a “could” within the context of the inevitable. A “could” always references something that DID NOT happen. The inevitable ALWAYS HAPPENS. Apples, oranges.

          • If, on “rewind”, the “decision” inevitably WILL NOT happen, that is no different. This means that, if there was not a rewind, prior to the time it was still inevitable that not only will it not happen, it could not happen. You couldn’t have made a different choice/decision. You simply must mix the two, otherwise, you have a contradiction: “you inevitably could not make choice X”, “regardless of inevitability, you could make choice X”.

          • The context of “could have” is ALWAYS a mental review of a prior choice/action. In the context of inevitability such a review is pointless. By mixing your models you create both the contradiction and the paradox.

          • The context of “could have DONE” is always an assessment about being ABLE to DO something. It is an ontological assessment about an action that can be actualized. There is no distinction in models, if X choice/action is inevitable in model 1, it must be in any model about X action happening. If the lack of Y choice/action is inevitable in model 1, it must be in any model about Y choice/action possibly happening.

          • Time travel is impossible. Therefore the only way of being “ABLE to DO” (or re-do) something in the past is by our imagining what would have happened IF we had made a different choice. I’m pretty sure this is the only valid context of “could have”. Inevitability and “could have” do not mix. Different semantic models.

          • This entire article addresses your “time travel is impossible” thinking. “Could have done” means there WAS an ability to actualize the action in the past. “Can do” means there IS an ability to be able to actualize the action in the future. If it WAS or IS inevitable that you have not/will not actualize the action, you neither could have (once it wasn’t done) NOR can have (prior to it being done) actualized it. Inevitability doesn’t mix with “could have DONE” or “can DO” other than what was/is inevitable, because the two are logically incompatible.

          • There WAS an ability to ACTUALLY have the steak or the lobster for dinner. The chef had the makings for both. If you ordered the steak you WOULD have had the steak. But you ordered the lobster. And, if you rewind time, then it becomes true that you ACTUALLY CAN have the steak or the lobster for dinner. Now, you inevitably WILL have one or the other. But that never changes the fact that you COULD HAVE had either one. That’s how it works.

          • If steak was inevitable on Jan 1, 2017 @ 5:50 PM, there was no ability to ACTUALLY have lobster instead. If lobster was inevitable, there was no ability to ACTUALLY have steak instead. If you suggesting that if you have steak on Jan 1, 2017 @ 5:50 PM, and rewind time to 5:00 PM that same day, you could have lobster this time around @ 5:50PM, then you require indeterminism. If you are suggesting that @ 5:00 PM both were ontologically possible (able to actualize), you require indeterminism for that.

          • ME: “Waiter, what can I have for dinner tonight?”
            Waiter: “Sir, there is only one actual possibility for dinner tonight. And it has been inevitable since Jan 1st at 5:50PM.”
            That is the result of mixing your models. And it makes no sense. Don’t your agree?

          • No, the waiter has no such knowledge. Everytime we talk you confuse the epistemic (knowledge) with the ontic (fact about existence). Could have DONE is an ontological assessment (of a real act that could HAVE happened), and even if we have no knowledge about the only thing we can DO prior (the one actual possibility for dinner) – that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. We might not have any knowledge that an asteroid is hurdling toward earth until it is too late, that doesn’t negate the FACT about the asteroid.

            1) “Could have DONE/Can DO” = an ontological model
            2) “Inevitable” = an ontological model
            3) Colloquial speak based on a lack of foreknowledge (I don’t KNOW what you will do) = an epistemic model

            3 has nothing to do with 1 and 2. Only 1 and 2 are relevant for the important facts about free will abilities “EXISTING OR NOT” which is ONTOLOGICAL as well.

          • 1. Ontologically, free will is what we call the event where a person decides for himself what he will do, free of coercion or other undue influence. Epistemologically, because we empirically observe that the even takes place, we can know that free will exist. 2. “Could have happened” means it did not happen and thus, while it was an actual possibility, it was not the inevitability. 3. Inevitability cannot negate a “could have”, if it could then we wouldn’t have the word “could”. (Irony)

          • 1. That is what YOU call free will, a definition that bypasses the entire importance of the debate and ignores the other abilities most (free will believing) people feel they possess. 2. There is no actual possibility for something inevitable NOT to happen, and hence “could have DONE other” is an incorrect assessment. 3. No, “could” works within it, given a specific CONTEXT.

            Context is important:

            The Important Context of “Could Have Done Otherwise” (for the Free Will Debate)

            It is the factual, ontic sense that is important for the free will topic, as without it, there is no responsibility in the strong sense that most people feel they and others possess. You also seem to leave out “DONE otherwise”, as if that is not as important.

          • I’m a Pragmatist. My definitions derive from how words actually operate in the real world. “Free will” operates to distinguish between a decision we make for ourselves and a choice forced upon us against our will. Your definition of free will is “freedom from reliable causation”, which is an oxymoron, because without reliable causation we cannot reliably cause any effect, and thus would have no freedom to do anything at all. So, why choose an irrational definition over a rational one?

          • Words depend on CONTEXT pragmatically, “in the real world”. Your definition of “free will” bypasses the pragmatic/practical importance of the free will debate:

            On The Practical Importance of the Free Will Debate

            My definition of free will is, in present tense “The ability to choose between more than one viable (ontologically possible) option or action, in which that choice was up to the chooser” or in past tense “The ability to have, of one’s own accord, done otherwise” – which if we don’t have this ability (which we do not) has major implications for the “practical importance” above. It has nothing to do with “freedom from causation” as such would not be “up to the chooser or of one’s own accord”.

            It is the “free will” ability that is irrational indeed, but this irrational ability is also the one required for “just desert moral responsibility”…the type most people feel they and others have (and hence have retributive attitudes, ideas of being more or less deserving, and so on). This is pragmatically very important, and people with less belief in free will belief are less retributive.

            Your definition ignores context in order for you to hold on to your (unpragmatic/harmful) ideology:
            The Important Context of “Could Have Done Otherwise” (for the Free Will Debate)

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