Precognition and Free Will

Here is another post for the musings category. I have always considered precognition to be a rather unfortunate burden rather than a gift. I consider precogs to be tragic figures who have been robbed out of their right to self determination. This is what I want to talk about today: precognition and free will.

I submit that the gift of precognition nullifies the concept of free will because it suggests a deterministic, predictable nature of the universe. In such a universe, all actions have predetermined outcomes and choice is only a subjective illusion. You are free to choose, because you don’t know your choice has already been made for you. A precog however does not have that luxury. She knows the future and therefore has no free will.

Conversely in an indeterministic world, free will is reality but precognition is impossible. All predictions would be wrecked by random chance and entropic events. Precognition is simply impossible because has not yet been written and there is no way to peek ahead. Let me put it this way – in a indeterministic universe things cannot happen the same way twice. For example, if you traveled back in time, the knowledge of how events unfolded the first time around wouldn’t help you much. The person who arrived on time could now be late due to an unforeseen traffic jam. The person who slipped on a banana peel may notice it this time. The winning lottery numbers will be different this time around. Random events are truly random. Furthermore, changing conditions that preceded an event may not affect it’s outcome at all. For example, picking up a banana peel does not prevent the accident, since the person that was supposed to slip on it decided to take a different path that day and got hit by a bus. Or nothing at all happened to him. The point is, the precog’s intervention didn’t matter at all.

Therefore if we talk about seeing the future we must assume we are talking about a deterministic universe. In such universe random events are not truly random – they just appear random because we don’t know how they will turn out ahead of time. They are governed by This allows a precog to see the winning lottery numbers or predict a guy will slip on a banana peel on a specific day. Furthermore the outcome of every event can be determined based a chain of events that led up to it. If you change the conditions, you can change the outcome. This is precisely the theme of all stories featuring precognition. You see something terrible, and then you try to avert it by influencing events that lead up to it.

Let me put it this way: in a deterministic world works like a simple random number generator always initialized with the same seed. If you know the seed that was used last time and the algorithm, you can predict the numbers it will generate with 100% accuracy. Indeterministic universe works like a random number generator always initialized with a different seed obtained from a highly entropic source. Predicting numbers it will generate is almost impossible. Knowing the previously used seed, does not help you on the next run in any way.

Most of stories about individuals with oracular powers ignore the problem of free will. And trust me, it is a problem. As mentioned before, in a deterministic world ability to choose is merely an illusion. Out choices are influenced by prior conditions, and the freedom comes from the fact that we do not know the outcome. We can choose selfishly, against our best interest, or maliciously pick at random – but a someone gifted with precognitive vision will know our choice every time. That’s a property of this universe – all choices have been already made for you, you just act them out.

Therefore I submit that a perecog loses ability to choose freely – or rather the illusion we all share. If you see the future, you know what you will do next, and therefore you no longer choose. You follow along with a plan.

Of course, there are some twists in here. Precognition is not always portrayed the same. In fact I Can think of 3 different ways movies and books try to tackle this subject:

  1. Precognition with linear time line
  2. Precognition with branching time line
  3. Limited precognition with blind spots

In this post I would like to show that in each of these variants, a precog has no free will.

Precognition with linear time line

This is the simplest model which assumes that the univer is linear and immutable. As a precog you can see the future, but cannot change it. Time is a straight line that never branches and the universe will conspire to stop you from affecting changes.

Let me try to illustrate this by way of an example. Let’s say you have seen the future. Something happens to your friend, and you have an option to tell him about it or keep quiet. The problem is that in your vision you are nowhere near your friend to deliver the warning. You try to call him, but he doesn’t pick up. You go to his house but he is out. You find out where he is, but you get stuck in a traffic jam and your vision comes true before you can get to him. Turns out you never had a choice.

I call this “Prophetic Precognition” because it is exactly the type of scenario that surrounds religious prophecies. Prophets predict events that will come to pass whether we want it or not. For example, we may know the signs of approaching apocalypse (the four riders, various signs described in the Book of Revelation) but no one can stop the end of the world. It will simply happen.

What if our precog actually manages to change the future? Well, then it’s not a linear scenario. Then it’s limited precognition – see below.

Absolute precognition with branching time line

In this scenario the time line is mutable. As a precog you don’t see time as a straight line but as a branching tree or perhaps even a graph (in case you didn’t know, graph is what happens when you take a tree and merge it’s branches at some point creating a loop). Each choice causes a branch, and you can follow these branches up and down to see the outcomes. To be able to predict something you need to know exactly what happened at each of the branching points to put yourself on the correct pathway.

In this variant you can affect the future, but but only along predetermined paths. Time is like a railway with multiple switches, and the precog is the only person who can turn them. If she does not interfere the train simply follows along a predetermined path. If she does, it switches other to another predetermined path. Knowing where the train turned, allows you to predict the future exactly. There is nothing a precog can do to actually break out of the known pattern. If she does, it means we are talking about an indeterministic universe where there are infinite number of possible outcomes for each event, all based on chance rather than pre-existing conditions.

Still, for the precog life is basically a long multiple choice quiz – one to which she knows all the answers. She has some ability to choose, but she can only play with the cards she was dealt. That choice is further constrained by the implications of her actions. For example, our precog might be compelled to conform to strict sequence of actions in order to prevent certain events from occurring (ie, preventing an accident, stopping a war, or her own death). So really, the freedom to choose is heavily constrained and mostly artificial in this scenario.

What about other precogs? What if there are two, or three, or a million of them, an they all flip the railway switches at the same time. How do we account for that?

I say we don’t. We assume they are they are accounted for. In a truly deterministic universe, actions of precogs would not affect each other. Think about it this as sequential processing rather than parallel. Each precog works with his own instance of the universe which already includes all the branching choices made by the previous precog. If two precogs meet or interact in some way (even indirectly), they will likely influence each others’ choices thus resolving possible conflicts.

Or we could assume other precogs are blind spots – sort of like in Frank Herberts Dune, where presence of one could hide you from others gifted with oracular powers. But then it’s not really an absolute precognition, but limited precognition instead.

Limited precognition with blind spots

This is possibly the most popular variant, because it manages to hide the free will issue the best. In this scenario a precog gets a limited vision of the future full of blind spots. The timeline is branching but due to limitations of the vision, she can see it as a straight line. Each deviation of the line will then seem to change the future, and derail the vision or lead it up an unknown branch.

It’s important to mention that despite this seeming freedom, we are still working with a deterministic universe. Therefore if the precog simply stands back and observes, events will unfold just as she predicted them. Normal humans will assume they are choosing freely but they will follow the predicted path exactly. She can interfere with the predetermined, but her choice is also constrained as well. She ends up with two basic choices – to change the future or not to change it. If she changes it, she simply takes an unknown but predetermined branch. She can pick up he banana peel, or not pick it up – but it is all the same.

Precogs create blind spots in oracular visions of their peers – they introduce more unpredictable variables into the equation. This is how precognition works in Dune. If you recall, in Herbert’s novels both of the most prominent precogs (Paul and Leto II Atredies) confine themselves to a certain course of action. They become slaves to their “Golden Path” which is a centuries long scheme to fix the human race – to make it evolve in new ways, to help it shake stagnation and conformity to known patterns. It is designed to break the power of omnipotent oracles, and give humanity back the freedom of choice and self determination that was taken away from them when they discovered the spice. They both give up their own freedom, so that future generations can develop new ways to cloud oracular vision and thread their own paths.

Anyways, this is my take on the subject. Precognition robs one of free will, or severely limits their choices. We normal humans enjoy limitless freedom. We can get up in the morning, and choose to do anything – anything at all. An oracle has no such freedom. She knows exactly what she will do each day – or at least to a certain degree. The more complete is her vision, the less choice she has. Seeing the future is a curse – a burden I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. For one, I value my freedom of choice – even if it’s borne entirely out of my ignorance of the future.

Then again, I believe that we live in an indeterministic universe – one governed by chance as much as by causality. An universe in which precognition is at most unreliable, if not impossible. But since I do enjoy science fiction, fantasy and hypotetical scenarios this was a rather interesting excercise.

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15 Responses to Precognition and Free Will

  1. road UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I knew you’d write this post today….

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    @ road:

    LOL. Stop ruining my argument with your precognition. Also, enjoy your lack of free will. :)

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  3. hdrev MEXICO Mozilla Linux says:

    Well, that was a long post…

    Still I like your hypotetical scenarios, but I believe as you that we are in an indeterministic universe, but who does not love to be told stuff like “You were destined to do this” and that kind of stuff like in movies? Sometimes it can cheer you up.

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  4. Alex Vostrov CANADA Internet Explorer Windows says:

    Have you considered that in a deterministic world, precogs would generate their own blind spots, thus removing a lot of useful predictions? Oracular powers are just a type of backwards causality, so the only possible stable configuration is a loop.

    You wouldn’t be able to see anything that you have a remote chance of preventing. Considering that modern communication spans the globe, the effective blind spots would be the size of Earth and range far into the future. The predictions that you’d be able to make would either be really short-term or trivial.

    By the way, free will is absolutely compartible with determinism. For a good discussion of this, I recommend Daniel Dennet’s “Elbow Room”. You can also see his interview with Robert Wright for a preview.

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  5. road UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    @alex
    i’ll look at the Dennet article and come back, but at the outset, free will and hard determinism are necessarily incompatible. anyone that says they are compatible is just changing the definition of one of those words. either the future is fixed or it isn’t. if it’s fixed, you can’t change it. simple as that.

    fwiw – i’m of the opinion that free will *is* an illusion and the future *is* fixed.

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  6. Alex Vostrov CANADA Google Chrome Windows says:

    That really depends on what you mean by “fixed” and “change”. “Elbow Room” is a book, you can get the summary of it here: http://meaningoflife.tv/video.php?speaker=dennett&topic=freewill

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  7. James Heaver UNITED STATES Google Chrome Mac OS says:

    Don’t we all posses precognition of a sort. We are able to predict the future, make plans. We know to a reasonable degree what will happen if we choose a certain course of action.

    Many precog models are incomplete and unreliable. They misinterpret their instincts, see one part of a picture and make a false assumption about the rest of the picture. Isn’t this simply an extension of our existing awareness of cause and effect?

    A feature of precogs is the ability to predict the consequences of events they have no awareness of. A person places an amazon order, meaning the delivery van drives a certain route and runs someone over. The precog has no way of knowing that the customer has just finished reading their last book and needed to order another one.

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  8. James Heaver UNITED STATES Google Chrome Mac OS says:

    In this video feynman talks about seeing and a bug sat in the corner of a swimming pool and being able to work out everything going on in the pool based on its tiny snapshot of wave.

    Couldn’t a precog have an awareness of this sort?

    This would also place limits, %s of certainty and blind spots. Take the double pendulum. Very sensitive to starting position, just like the real world. A double pendulum fractal shows the length of time until the pendulum flips over. With some study many of us would be able to predict the time if the pendulum starts in the middle of a large region, we’d recognise the starting positions and map them back to the simplified fractal we’re able to remember. A precog would be able to hold a far more detailed version of the fractal map in their head and recognise the starting conditions more precisely. They would still make mistakes in the edge case. Precogs may nto be able to calculate the route the pendulum takes to get there, but would be able to see the important result (time when the pendulum flips).

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  9. James Heaver UNITED STATES Google Chrome Mac OS says:

    Now, this model of precognition is open to everyone, but like 3D gaming years ago, you could emulate a 3D card, but its not going to be much fun unless you’re born with a Voodoo card .

    This post might be a bit confused, I’ve not eaten yet. And Im just throwing this out there. Also, Im being spam blocked, hence splitting up my post. :(

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  10. You watched Minority Report the other day too? :P

    I feel that precognition only sexists up until the point that you know of your future. Though there could be an argument that your future is always laid out, and even if you tap into a way to find out the future and you change your path, what you tapped into was not actually the future but an illusion of it, and the real future is set out on a different path… and you changed the “future” because you were supposed to change it.

    I believe that you can view the chain of events that will transpire based on current actions. However, since you know what will happen that action has broken the following events.

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  11. Btw, how many times have you ever picked up the phone to call someone to find out that that person is on the line, or you pick up the phone and it rings and its them.

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  12. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ James Heaver:

    Can we call this precognition though? To me what you describing sounds more like simple deductive reasoning. I observe the facts and make an educated guess as to what may happen.

    Have you read Frank Herbert’s Dune? What you describing here is very similar to a Mentat rather than true precog. Dune has both.

    Mentats like Thufir Hawat are trained logicians – living computer replacements. They are adepts at analyzing data and making educated predictions. You feed your mentat accurate statistics and intelligence and he can predict with high degree of probability the next move of your enemy. The only problem is that a mentat cannot predict something he does not know or that can’t be inferred from their data. Their predictions can be wrecked by random events.

    Paul Atredies and Guild Navigators on the other hand are true precogs. They get high on Melange spice and actually see the future – often many years or even centuries. Their visions are not based on data, analysis or deduction – they are actual glimpses of the future events.

    @ Travis McCrea:

    Actually that’s easy to explain – if you are picking up a phone to call someone, it is usually for a reason. Something happened and you want to talk about that person. You are both responding to the same stimuli. :)

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  13. James Heaver UNITED STATES Google Chrome Mac OS says:

    @ Luke Maciak:

    I guess my point is that you could have that ability to a superpower degree and it would appear as precognition. Very like the mentats from Dune.

    What you can also have is a sensing of the ‘fluctuations’ of the universe, like the bug in the corner of the swimming pool. This would allow the mentat to bring in knowledge they have no right to be aware of. Further enhancing their precog ability.

    In a Ken Macleod book (you’d love them btw) there is a android on the run who produces a full 3d render of her environment by capturing shadows and reflections in every shop window, hub cap and piece of tin foil and extrapolating what happens inbetween. This meant she could ‘see’ behind her and round corners etc.

    Since a precog is generally fallible and generally cannot direct what they see, don’t the resultant behaviours become identical?

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  14. Hassan Internet Explorer Windows says:

    One of the problems with seeing the future is that the mind will try to make sense of it using current knowledge. I once dreamed my bed was broken. A couple of days later there was a dissembled bed like mine thrown out in the alley. My mind, having no other reference, suggested the precognated broken bed was the same one I was asleep in.

    Another example: I had recurring dreams of a woman whose birthday is on the 3rd of September, so I began paying attention to events around that date. I even did a web search for anything interesting and found an earthquake prediction for the California coast. Instead, on that day, there was an earthquake in New Zealand – but on the 4th of September relative to New Zealanders. If this was indeed a precognitive instance, it was revealed to me using my reference of time and not the time reference of the people who experienced the earthquake directly.

    I personally see free will as an illusion. The future event has to exist prior to it being seen. I also believe the more influence a person has over the future, the less free will they will have to change it. The question becomes: Does the precog ‘see’ the future because it already exists, or does the precog create the future by ‘seeing’ it? Does the precog, in a sense, throw out a node and then is drawn toward it, thus creating a local-effect determinstic universe? Or does the event node pre-exist with free will gaps in between so that the details do not matter?

    I would like to meet other people who have experienced procognition and compare notes.

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  15. TK mann Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    You have no idea what you are looking at.

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