I really dislike speculative fiction, but I really want to like it.
I grew up loving science fiction in particular, but I find most entries into the genre aren’t to my tastes. So when I get a solid recommendation I’m usually ecstatic, because it increases the odds that I’ll like it from 1% to maybe 20%. So when Robin Hanson, a thinker I very much respect (here’s his blog!) started talking about Ted Chiang’s Exhalation, I was eager to pick it up.
I’m 4 stories into the collection, and so far I’m not disappointed! But this isn’t a review; rather, I want to talk about a specific idea he explores in one of those stories. Minor spoilers, but I’ll try to avoid anything that would ruin your enjoyment.
So, let’s start with a basic premise: You have a small device that consists of a button and a light. The light always lights up exactly one second before you push the button, because of something called a “negative time circuit.” Basically, if you push the button it turns the light on one second ago. So if you see the light and try to push the button faster, you’ll always fail, and if you try to wait for the light and then not push the button, the light never comes. Supposedly this disproves free will.
Now, people way smarter than me have grappled with issues of determinism and free will for a long time, and I’m far from an expert on that discourse. But I don’t know that I believe that this device, functioning as described, means you don’t have free will.
For starters, there still seems to be a free choice involved in pushing the button, it’s just being made by a slightly-future you. The light isn’t telling you that you have to push the button; the light is reacting to the fact that you did push the button, only it’s sending that reaction back in time. But the light is still reactive. And it’s reacting to my own free choices that I make – at least some version of me.
Robin raised a point on Twitter – can I see the light and then decide not to push the button? The device says no, and thus I don’t have free will, argues Robin. But maybe I can – maybe I see the light, and choose not to push the button, and since I don’t push the button no light goes back, and that’s what’s happening when I look at the device and there’s no light. How could I tell the difference between that scenario and one where I never pushed the button at all?
My head is starting to hurt.