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:
- Precognition with linear time line
- Precognition with branching time line
- 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.