There was once a wealthy merchant walking through the famous market at Baghdad. In the crowd, he saw a stranger looking at him in surprise, and he recognized the stranger as Death. Terrified, the merchant fled the marketplace and escaped many miles away to the city of Samarra, sure there that Death could not him. But awaiting him in Samarra, the merchant again saw the grim figure of Death. “Very well,” says the merchant, “I am yours. But tell me: why were you surprised when you saw me this morning in Baghdad?” “Because,” replies Death, “I had an appointment with you tonight – in Samarra.”
This is the famous Babylonian myth and premise for the John O’Hara book Appointment in Samarra. More importantly, it nicely introduces the complex philosophical concepts of determinism and fatalism – concepts that rest upon the idea that the course of the universe is set in stone, and that humans do not have free will. If this is so, then, with enough data, our futures might be predictable. However, these discussions of the possibility of knowing our future raise complex philosophical themes. In addition, scientists and philosophers across fields cannot agree on what disproving free will means for humanity.
Briefly, from a biological standpoint, we must first discuss the idea predictable actions, and how modern brain science has encouraged that possibility. American physiologist Benjamin Libet demonstrated in the 1980’s that the brain has already set into motion each action the body takes, before the body consciously decides to take it. The brain begins the chemical process of, for example, lifting an arm, and the conscious decision to lift the arm is actually an afterthought. Therefore, our human actions can be simplified down to brain chemistry, which, with enough data, becomes a predictable science. However, this theory rests on the assumption that the “human condition” is not a variable, and that the biology of our minds does not change over time. Modern philosophers and scientists are now claiming that this is not, and has never been, true. Speech, written language, engines, medicine, computers all have had a profound effect on who we are and how we live our lives. As we discussed in class with a conversation about nitrogen fertilizers, there are advancements in our future that we cannot imagine, much less predict how they will affect our world. In addition, chaos theory (commonly known as the ‘butterfly effect’) has reasonably discredited Laplace’s theory that, with enough data, everything is knowable. Chaos theory places more emphasis on variations in initial conditions that have huge consequences over time. Even though many things may seem predictable in hindsight, that does not necessarily mean that we can predict the future with a similar type of accuracy.
The philosophical argument, however, comes more into play when examining the implications of knowing our future. The most pressing moral and philosophical question is that of moral responsibility in a world without free will. If we are not free to make our own choices, and if our brains and our lives able to be mapped out, then what motivates us to do the right thing? Determinism – the idea that we are all part of a greater world plan, or ‘everything happens for a reason’ – implies that people should not be held responsible for the actions, good or bad. If all of our actions are caused by fate, biology, physics, or some other power, then how can we as a society punish murderers and reward heroes? As discussed in The Atlantic article, “If moral responsibility depends on faith in our own agency, will we become morally irresponsible?” Studies have shown that, as belief in free will declines, humans becomes less creative and more likely to behave immorally.
Philosophers have been struggling with this topic for centuries, drawing on complex terms to contextualize different levels of free will and determinism, and using the science of the day to inform their claims. As others have said before me, thinking myself in circles about this topic has raised more questions than it answers. The moral and ethical implications of knowing our future are difficult to imagine because we cannot imagine a world in which all human actions are predictable.