On September 23, 1971, B. F. Skinner’s new book rocked the intellectual world. Beyond Freedom and Dignity was a smashing success that seemed to explain some of the hidden mysteries underlying human behavior. Indeed, the author purported to set aside the very concepts of “freedom” and “dignity” as we normally think of them. You change human behavior, Skinner asserted, not by appealing to the “inner person,” not by teaching “self-reliance,” not by elevating human “freedom” and “dignity,” but by changing the human environment, by structuring it so that the only viable outcome is the desired outcome.
Beyond Freedom and Dignity quickly became the justification for, or the reason behind, an entire slew of measures in both the public and private sectors aimed at redirecting human behavior by manipulating appropriate segments of the environment. Conversely, Beyond Freedom and Dignity also became the focus of widespread vehement opposition to its underlying premise, which is that in the final analysis, when examined sufficiently closely, free will does not exist. Or, put another way, whether free will exists or not is irrelevant; what matters is the outcome.
When confronted with the idea that the exercise of free will may not be “free,” the initial reaction of most thoughtful persons is to demonstrate some trivial act of free will. In so doing, the self-evidence of free will seems incontrovertible. Skinner would argue, however, that the sequence of events that led to the free-will act in some way determined that act. In a sense he postulated an underlying set of micro-factors that inevitably determines each macro occurrence. In Skinner’s view, these micro-factors ultimately are completely deterministic, so that it logically follows that macro-events must be determined and, therefore, without free will.
Skinner went on to argue that since one can never completely know these micro-factors, one can function as if they did not exist; in other words one may accept free will as a determining variable. He then argued, however, that one can more effectively modify human behavior by understanding and controlling — to whatever degree possible — the underlying micro-factors, than by appealing to the factors that seem to influence free will decisions.
In Skinner’s view, the viability of free will is not particularly important. Free will is relegated to the uninteresting bag containing things in which we once believed. Free will becomes irrelevant.
It is instructive, however, to reexamine free will as a consequence of the interrelationships between Einstein’s General Relativity field equations and the quantum mechanical laws that govern gravity. While it is impossible to explain here the intricacies of these complicated realms of theoretical physics, it is entirely possible to glean some interesting insight from several of the exotic predictions that follow inevitably when these laws are applied in special ways.
One of the consequences of Einstein’s law of General Relativity is the probable existence of “wormholes” in the fabric of space-time. Most people know that in some mysterious fashion, nothing can exceed the speed of light. What people usually do not know is the relatively simple reason.
Einstein actually had two theories of relativity: the Special (1905) and the General (1915). According to the Special theory, matter, the stuff that makes up everything around us — air, furniture, ground, water, cars, etc. — behaves quite differently when it moves at high speed than when it is at rest. When you fire a bullet from a gun, although it is not at all obvious, the speeding bullet gets heavier. The amount is so small that it cannot be measured by any laboratory device we have, but this is only because a speeding bullet really is moving quite slowly, when compared to the speed of light. If you were to accelerate the bullet so that it was moving at some significant fraction of light speed, its increase in mass would be obvious. This characteristic, strange as it seems, is one of the fundamental facts of the universe — things that move fast increase their mass; they get heavier.
Another strange effect at high speed is that time slows down for a rapidly moving object. Several years ago, the amount of this slowing was physically measured when a satellite was orbited containing a highly accurate atomic clock, while the twin of the clock remained on the earth’s surface. Even though the satellite’s speed still was slow when compared to light speed, it was sufficiently fast for the slowing of the satellite’s time to be measured by the two clocks. Incidentally, both the mass increase and time slowing are significant factors in the construction of cyclotrons and other high-speed particle physics research instruments.
A third interesting effect is that a speeding object gets thinner in the direction it is moving. As before, this effect can only be observed when the object is moving at a significant fraction of light speed.
Each of these effects becomes more pronounced as the object’s speed approaches light speed. In fact, at light speed, an object’s mass becomes infinite, time stops, and it becomes infinitely thin — things which obviously cannot happen in any real universe. Hence, nothing can exceed the speed of light.
One of the consequences of Special Relativity is that “space” and “time” as we normally think of them really do not exist independently, but rather coexist as space-time; they are inseparable. Every object in the universe is immersed in space-time so that “my space” and “your space” are not the same (which is quite obvious), but also “my time” and “your time” are not the same either. On the other hand, “my space-time” and “your space-time” are the space-time of the universe.
General Relativity predicts more strange phenomena. In order to get from here to there in our universe, we and everything else must follow the path that a light beam would follow. To us this path appears like a straight line. In fact, the space-time fabric of the universe is quite “curved” whenever large objects occupy it — big stars, for example. It is sometimes possible for especially massive objects to “pierce” the fabric of space-time in such a way that two points which are very far apart in our normal universe can be very close together when viewed through the “pierced” area, called a “wormhole.” Imagine a folded piece of paper with two spots far apart on the paper’s surface, but located so that one spot is directly over the other because of the fold. The surface of the paper is like our normal universe — the spots are far apart. If you stick a short straw through the folded sheet so that it pierces both spots, this straw is analogous to a wormhole. The nature of wormholes is such that they not only “affect distance” in the universe, they also “affect time.” In effect, a wormhole can be thought of as a time machine.
Imagine a wormhole located so that both openings are quite near one another in the normal universe. Imagine that this wormhole has just the characteristics so that an object that enters one end will exit the other end exactly one second before it enters the first end. Imagine that you shoot a billiard ball into the first opening in just such a manner that the slightly older version of the ball that exits the other end strikes the earlier version of itself. One can imagine this to happen so that the original ball misses the opening — an obvious paradoxical consequence that should not be possible in any real universe.
Caltech physicist Kip Thorne and several of his colleagues worked out the detailed quantum mathematical consequences of this thought experiment. They discovered that no matter how you choose to set things up, if you hit the first hole with the ball, the exiting older version of the ball will assist the younger version on its way. It turns out to be impossible to set up a condition where the paradox becomes a reality. No matter from where you choose to start the ball, if the exiting older ball strikes the younger ball, it will enter the hole. Take out the time travel and the quantum effects, put it on a billiards table, and the consequences are as exact: spot the ball, cue it at a specific angle, hit it with a specific force, and there is only one path it can follow.
Free will? Certainly I can choose any starting point, any cueing angle, any speed. These are the domain of free will. What happens after that is the domain of physics — there ain’t nothin’ I can do about it!
In a sense, Skinner was right; the outcome is determined, but free will sets the conditions. The billiard ball moving through a wormhole doesn’t care about free will, but I do. The choices I make determine specific outcomes, which I control by making the appropriate choices. This is true in the bizarre world of relativistic quantum time travel, it is true on the parlor billiards table, and it is true in human society. Some choices inevitably result in undesired consequences, others inevitably result in desired consequences.
The difference is free will.