Both philosophers and physicists have wondered about the implications of the block universe theory, which states that we live in a 4D world where there is no real passage of time. In this response piece to the recent IAI News Article Ethics, Death and the Block Universe, philosopher David Kyle Johnson argues that the block universe has radical implications for our experience of life, including death.
“This is indeed a disturbing universe” - Maggie Simpson
The block universe is a fascinating concept. Also known as “eternalism” or “omni-temporalism,” the block universe theory holds that all moments in time—what we would call the past, present, and future—exist, together, in a four-dimensional “block.” Although they don’t necessarily “occur” at the same time (more on that later), all moments are equally real. The past exists just as much as the present, and so does the future. It’s a view entailed by some very convincing philosophical arguments, but also by Einsteinian relativity—one of the most well confirmed theories in all of science.
Despite this, the block universe conflicts with how most people view the universe. Commonly, people think: while the past did exist, and the future will exist, all that does exist is the present. Given that the way people live their lives is directly influenced by the way they think the world is, the truth of the block universe theory would seem to entail that we should be living our lives in a very different way. In a recent article for IAI news, however, Nikk Effingham argued otherwise. The block universe theory is a just theory for scientists and philosophers, he says, not for psychiatrists or therapists.
I think he’s wrong. To be fair, I don’t think he’s entirely wrong (I’ll elaborate later). But I will argue that the truth of the block universe theory should not only change how we live our lives, but it should reshape society.
The Threat to Free Will
The first and most obvious “threat” that the block universe theory raises is to our free will. If what I will do exists before I even do it, it doesn’t seem I freely choose to do what I do. Why? When I think I am freely choosing to do or not do some action, I think that both doing that action and not doing that action are both genuine, actual, real possibilities. If, instead, only one is possible, it is not within my power to choose otherwise; and if the future already exists, only one action is possible. And on the block universe view, the future already exists. It’s as set as the end of a movie I am already watching. I may think it could go any number of ways—but that is only because I am currently ignorant of what already exists. In reality, both my decision and action are already written; they’re already “in the can.” So, my choice to do the action is not free.
The absence of free will would also make the supernatural punishment systems of the world’s major religions nonsensical
Now Effingham argues that we have the power to change the future, despite the fact that it already exists. Granted, he argues, we don’t have that power at the present moment; but when the future moment that contains the action in question arrives, we will. In the same way he had the power to not break up with his girlfriend in 1998 back then (even though he can’t change how things went now), he will have the power to change how he will act in a future moment (say in 2033 when he is considering getting a divorce) when that moment arrives. But there are two things wrong with Effingham’s argument.
First, it’s question begging—it assumes the truth of what it’s trying to prove. In a block universe, Effingham’s choice to break up with his girlfriend in 1998 also existed before it occurred; and if it existed before it occurred, then he couldn’t have chosen otherwise—even up to and including the moment he made the decision. Sure, if he could have done otherwise in 1998, then he could do otherwise in 2033—but if we live in a block universe, neither is the case. The reason that I can’t change what happens during some future moment is not the fact that I lack the power to do so long before that moment occurs; it’s because I won’t have the power to do so when that future moment arrives because that future moment already existed before it occurred.
Second, in a block universe, the very concept of changing the future is logically inconsistent. In order to have the power to change the future, it must be the case that you can make some future moment go from containing one event to containing another instead—and that can’t happen. If Effingham chooses to get divorced on June 1st 2023 at noon (EST), then that moment always contained that event. We can’t say that in 2020, it didn’t contain that event, but then later in 2030 it did. If Effingham chooses to get divorced on June 1st 2023 at noon (EST), then during every previous moment it was true that moment contained that event. And that is true just as much as it will be true forever after that June 1st 2033 at noon (EST) contains that event.
What Effingham is trying to employ here is similar to the “backtracking counterfactual” argument. It suggests that, even if the future is fixed, it’s still the case that we can choose otherwise because, “If we were to choose otherwise, the future would be (indeed, it would always have been) different than it is.” We won’t choose otherwise, because the future already exists—but that doesn’t mean that the quoted counterfactual above isn’t true.
The problem is this: The truth of that counterfactual is not enough to ground (to make true) the idea that we have the kind of robust free will that most everyone believes that we have. Why? Here’s how I explain it to my students. I ask “Is it possible for me to be in Times Square in ten minutes?” Since my college is a full two-hour car drive from NYC, and the nearest airport is 30 min away, they say “No.” But then I say: “But what if I had left 4 hours ago and caught the 3-hour bus to Grand Central? Couldn’t I be ten minutes away from Time Square by now?” “Well sure,” they admit, “if you had done that—but that doesn’t mean that you can be in Times Square in 10 minutes.” And they’re right. Because I didn’t leave 4 hours ago, and I can’t change the past, being in Time Square in ten minutes is not something I have now have the power to make happen.
Well, in the same way, if the block universe theory is true, then the future is already written (and can’t change); and if the future is already written (and can’t change), making the future different than it already is, is not now within my power. If so, choosing differently than I will is not now within my power—and thus I don’t have the kind of robust free will that everyone believes we have, and neither does anyone else. To have free will, as we make decisions, we have to have the power to make either of the options we’re considering occur. If the block universe theory is true, we don’t.
Or think of it this way: to have the kind of robust free will that most people believe we have as we make choices, then the options I am choosing between must both be equally possible. They don’t have to be equally probable, but they both must be genuine, actual, real possibilities. But if the future already exists, one option is possible in a way that the other is not. One already exists, the other can’t. In order to have the kind of free will that nearly everyone believes we have, the future must not exist at all—it must be truly open. Both options must be completely “up in the air.” If the future already exists, that is not the case. So, if the future already exists, my choices cannot be free.
Effingham will likely reply that I am confusing what is the case with what must be the case. The future that is already written is not the only future that is possible; so even if the future is already written, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other possible futures. But this argument equivocates on the word “possible.” Yes, other futures are possible in the sense that there are other logically possible worlds with different futures; but that doesn’t mean that other futures are possible in our world in the way they need to be for us to have free will. Notice that other logically possible worlds have a different past than our world does too; but that doesn’t mean I now have the power to make the past of my world different. In the same way, other possible worlds have different futures—but that doesn’t mean that I now have the power to make the future of my world different than it is. And I must have that power, if I am to have free will. (See endnote.)
It’s as if the block is a reel of film that is being shown; whichever frame is in front of the light, and thus being protected, is analogous to the moment in the block that is the present moment
The Effects of Embracing Eternalism
To be fair, it may be impossible for the realization that we don’t have free will change how people live their daily lives. As Isaac Singer famously put it, “We must believe in free will, we have no choice.” Belief in free will is so wired into the human psyche that, regardless of the evidence, we cannot help but see ourselves as free. I know, in my daily life, I can’t help but see myself as free, even though this fact—I am not free to see myself as unfree--is itself good evidence that I am not. Still, as Effingham suggests, philosophically speaking, if our choices aren’t free, but fated, it is impossible to rightly hold people morally responsible for what they do.
Now, it would still be possible to judge a person’s character—to recognize the difference between morally good and morally bad kinds of persons. But it wouldn’t make sense to judge them for having a bad character. Why? Because they didn’t freely choose to have the character they do; you could only judge (evaluate) the character itself. And if you recognize that it’s the character, not the person, that is the problem, you must approach reproaching them in an entirely different way.
For example, it would make no make sense for “they morally deserve it” to be the reason you put criminals in jail. If they don’t freely choose to do their crimes, that would make no sense. Protecting society could be the reason; we don’t want those inclined to murder, murdering others. But the purpose of imprisonment could never justifiably be moral retribution; it could only ever be societal protection and/or rehabilitation. (So, for example, the death penalty could never be justified.) In the same way, the moral correction of those who had wronged you, would have to have an entirely different motivation and goal.
The absence of free will would also make the supernatural punishment systems of the world’s major religions nonsensical. It makes no sense to punish/reward people with, say, heaven/hell or undesirable reincarnations, if they do not freely choose how they act. Granted, simple understanding of things like karma—good deeds should ultimately come back to reward you—could make sense. (Such notions might not be true—perhaps no good deed goes unpunished—but they could at least make sense.) But most religions rely on the notion that humans have free will, and that they will be rewarded or punished for how they freely choose to act. And I can think of nothing that would change how most people live their daily lives more than if they abandoned their religion because they realized that its fundamental assumption about free will, and thus it’s system of reward and punishment, was nonsense. Imagine if people started doing good actions merely because they recognized them as good (rather than because they fear they will be punished if they don’t).
Now, whether the block universe also changes how you view death depends on what version of the block universe you embrace—what theory of time you think accurately describes it. On the “A theory of time,” it is true that all moments in time exist, but one moment has a special status: the present. And which moment is the present is always changing. It’s as if the block is a reel of film that is being shown; whichever frame is in front of the light, and thus being protected, is analogous to the moment in the block that is the present moment. On this theory, death is consequential. After death, all the moments in time that contain you being conscious will forever be past; although they still exist, and thus you still exist in a sense, no moment of time that contains you being conscious will ever occur again. This means you will never be conscious again.
On the “B theory of time,” however, there is no present moment; all moments simply exist, and no one moment is “occurring” while the others aren’t. They all just are and the passage of time is simply an illusion created by how each conscious mind experiences the moment it is in. On this view, every moment of your life “always” exists, in every sense (including whether it is “occurring”), just as much as every moment after your death. So your death really does not change anything at all. The moments in time that contains you being conscious, and the ones that don’t, are all always equally real and “happening.”
Since relativity entails that there is no privileged reference frame, and there would have to be for the A-theory to be true, I imagine that the B-theory is what Einstein had in mind when he comforted the widow of Michael Besso. And since on that theory, death really does change nothing, I think that Effingham’s critique of Einstein’s statement is ill-founded. If the B-theory of time is correct, the moments in the block during which Besso are still alive are just as real and occurring as the present moment. (For more on this, see my course Exploring Metaphysics.)
Fatalism is not an Excuse to do Nothing
Effingham and I likely agree on one thing, however: fatalism is not an excuse to do nothing. (For this section, I am borrowing heavily from Lance Belluomini’s chapter “Tenet as Philosophy: Fatalism Isn’t an Excuse to do Nothing,” which I highly recommend, and appears in my handbook The Palgrave Handbook of Popular Culture as Philosophy.)
Some people react to fatalism is the following way:
If everything is fated, then what’s going to happen, is going to happen, regardless of what I do. And if it doesn’t matter what I do, I may as well do nothing.
But this is not an appropriate response (or accurate understanding) of the kind the fatalism entailed by the block universe. It is an appropriate response to the kind of fatalism in movies like Final Destination. In Final Destination, each character is fated to die (soon)—but it doesn’t matter how. If they escape one way, another will get them. So it doesn’t really doesn’t matter what they do; they will always end up the same way: (soon) dead.
This is not true in a block Universe. If the future is already written, nothing else but what will happen, can happen—but that doesn’t mean that the same thing would happen no matter what you do. In a block universe, effects still have causes. Your choice to do an action still causes you to do that action. Granted, your choosing otherwise is not possible—but, as was pointed out above, it’s still the case that, “If you did choose otherwise, you would act otherwise.” Again, the truth of that counterfactual is not enough to ground free will (because it doesn’t mean you have the power to do otherwise); but it is enough to make what you choose to do “matter.” It’s false that the same thing would happen, regardless of what you do. So, it’s still the case that you should reason about what choice to make, to consider the potential consequences, and want to make the right decision. You are not able to change the future, but you still cause it; it is your (non-free) choices that will bring the future about. So your choices still matter. And if they matter, choosing to do nothing is a bad idea.
The (Partial) Wisdom of Doc Brown
To summarize, let me appeal to another bit of pop culture. At the end of Back to the Future (Part III), Doc Brown says:
[Y]our future hasn't been written yet. No one's has. Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one.”
if the block universe theory is true, then the future is already written
He’s half right, and half wrong. If he had paid attention to the work of the person after which he named his dog (Einstein), he’d know that the first half of his statement is false. Relativity entails that we live in a block universe, and in a block universe everyone’s future is already written. However, even in a block universe, it is still true that our future is whatever we make it—it is (primarily) our actions and choices that make our future what it is. We can’t change our future, but we can cause it. Granted, whether you will “make it a good one” is already a set fact; but deciding that you will do nothing because “what you do doesn’t matter” not only misunderstands the fatalism entailed by the block universe theory. Embracing that kind of non-action can only mean that you were always fated to have no say in how your life goes. And it is in that way that you shouldn’t let the truth of fatalism change the way you live. Even in a block universe, where you can’t do otherwise, you still bring about your own future … so (prudentially) you should do all you can do to “make it a good one.”
Some philosophers will argue that I have only shown that the block universe theory is incompatible with libertarian free will, and compatibilists have a better definition of free will that allows for free will to exist in a block universe. I don’t think Effingham would say this; from what I can tell, he is not that kind of compatibilist. But for my refutation of such notions of free will, see Lecture 18 of my Wondrium/Great Courses course, The Big Questions of Philosophy.