Eternalism and choosing the futures

Four WOMBO Dream takes on the prompt “presentism eternalism”

I asked the ChatGPT mansplaining, bullshit machine, “Which is correct, presentism or eternalism?” It answered me right away:

There is no one “correct” answer to this question, as it ultimately depends on one’s personal beliefs and philosophical views. Both presentism and eternalism are valid philosophical positions, and both have their own strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, the choice between these two viewpoints is a matter of personal preference and individual interpretation.

That is some bullshit. You can choose to believe what you want, but I believe your beliefs will not make either of these two beliefs correct or not.


I was already thinking about this question from reading Walter Isaacson’s 2008 biography of Einstein, which was the source of all I knew on the subject until I listened to Ezra Klein’s interview with Dean Buonomano, and this exchange struck me:

Klein: And then there’s this idea that comes out of special relativity and other theories and physics experiments and equations, that, well, maybe the future, the present, and the past are all laid out. Maybe they exist somewhere. And so the sense that we are changing the future with what we do in the present based on what we’ve learned in the past is in some, at least, linguistic tension with this idea the future is already out there, that the future exists in some fundamental way. How do you think about that?

Buonomano: Well, in this debate, in this tension between presentism and eternalism, I clearly fall in the camp of presentism. So to me, it doesn’t alter our intuitive view of that, yes, we can alter the future. And I think that’s a fundamental aspect of animal evolution, in the sense that the brain evolved to survive in a world governed by the laws of physics.

And part of that, as a result of that evolution, we have this feeling of the passage of time. And we have the feeling that the past is fundamentally different from the present, which is fundamentally different from the future. And I don’t think we would have evolved that subjective experience if it didn’t reflect some aspect of reality.

Remember, our subjective experiences aren’t simply for our viewing pleasure. They enhance our chances of survival. So pain enhances our chances of survival. Love presumably enhances our chances of survival, as do feelings — subjective feelings of the passage of time or color and so forth. So my view is that this is a case in which we have to trust our intuitive, subjective experience that time is passing. And that does tell us something about the nature of the universe.

Now, you’re absolutely correct in the sense that under eternalism, the question of free will is seriously put in jeopardy and that we wouldn’t really have free will because things have already happened. So I think at a level of your philosophical experience of what happening, that can be perceived as a blow. I don’t know if it should be, either way. But I think philosophically, those have very profound and distinct implications for topics of free will.

But as I said, as a presentist, I strongly feel that we, in effect, have the ability to make decisions in the present that shape future outcomes.

Again, I don’t think the structure of the universe cares about your feelings. But on the other hand your feelings don’t have to care about the structure of the universe, so you can believe whatever makes you feel better (unless you’re literally a physicist or someone who needs to have a true understanding of all this in order to build better technology for screwing things up, then you better know the truth). I also don’t think we can tell what’s true but what we evolved to understand — that just seems circular. Maybe evolving to understand the eternalism of the universe would have just weirded us and distracted us from foraging, so we used our brains on something else.

More importantly to his point, I don’t think eternalism puts free will in “in jeopardy.” I’m not going to bore you with my equations, but If the argument against eternalism is abut free will, I don’t think it’s a problem. I think our brains just can’t understand different paths through time the way we can through space. We think there is only one direction to travel in time, but we understand we can move around all directions in space. By my minute understanding of time as a dimension, our free choices are about where we go in time, or choosing our next present. The fact that there “are” other times which “would have” been the outcome of different actions isn’t real in our consciousness, but it could be real in reality. Just as we can step to the right or left in space, we can step to the right or left in time (and we don’t even have names for these); we act to go places in time along as well as to different places in space. We act to choose futures. So our actions determine our reality, and free will exists, even in an eternal universe in which all the possible time-space realities “already” “exist.” The question is which futures will we join.


Setting aside knowledge and science, lately I feel the eternalism. Or maybe it’s just my memory fading. But there are things I can’t imagine never existing. When I hear Purple Haze or Let It Be, I feel what Einstein said about Mozart’s music, that it “was so pure that it seemed to have been ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered by the master.”1 I don’t see the world before we heard that music as a world without it, just a world without it yet expressed.


1. Just a note on this quote, which is reproduced in Isaacson’s book and other sources. If, as I think I get from Isaacson’s footnotes, the original source is the biography written by Einstein collaborator Banesh Hoffmann (p 252), it’s not a direct quote but a paraphrase. Anyways.

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