Is there any sense in resolving a new year if the future is already ordered?
Meach of us set new year’s resolutions in the hope of making better habits. Some of us might want to be more environmentally friendly. Others want to eat better, quit smoking, or if you’re like me, start running more often.
Making these resolutions is based on the belief that we can change our ways. They assume that what will happen in 2022 is not yet decided: it’s up to us to buy a pack of cigarettes or a new pair of running shoes, right?
We believe that the future is not yet set in stone. But is it possible that everything is pre-ordered? This idea has been explored in several ways, from medieval theology to modern physics.
There ain’t no big now
We all understand time as divided into past, present and future. This understanding, however, was shaken when Albert Einstein proposed his famous theory of relativity in the early 1900s.
Before Einstein, the âpresentâ was shared by everyone in the universe: there was a âBig Nowâ. Before Einstein, I could look at the clock, see that it says noon, for example, and say that there are a lot of things going on “now”, even for people very far from me. For example, as I look at the clock in my office, the bells of downtown Belfast are ringing noon, a person in London is watching a bird in the sky, and planets collide in a galaxy light years away. We all share a present, a âBig Nowâ, in which it all happens.
After Einstein’s discovery, this was no longer true. I could only speak of the “present” from my own point of view on the universe, in my “framework”. There was no longer a “Big Now” that spanned the entire universe. What I observe as happening “now” from my perspective may seem very different from another. A Martian passing Earth aboard a spaceship at an incredibly high speed, for example, might see the clock indicating noon in his now, but might not yet see the bells ringing in Belfast. My “now” is different from the Martian “now” and what counts as “the present” depends on our individual perspectives.
To use an analogy, “the present” or “now” is exactly like “here”. “Here” is not a location that you can find on a map – it simply describes your position in relation to your surroundings. My “here” currently includes Belfast, but your “here” probably includes something else, just as my “now” is different from the Martian.
Einstein’s discovery has a surprising consequence. My “gift” is no more special than that of the Martian (or anyone else). If “the present” is just a matter of perspective, then all times must be equal. And if they are all equal, they must all exist, much like all cities in the UK exist although what counts as “here” varies from observer to observer. It would be silly to say that only Belfast exists because I am watching it here.
But this clearly calls into question our belief in an âopen futureâ. If all moments of time exist, does that mean that my stay in bed every morning in 2022 instead of going for a run also exists? Are future events already “there” without my being able to do anything about them?
God on top of a mountain
Another way to think about this is through the Christian idea that God knows all things past, present, and future. But how does God know the future? On what basis does God know if I will be jogging in January 2022 or not?
Philosopher Boethius offered an answer that would be held to be true for over a thousand years. He said that all things, past, present and future, exist for God. He compared humans to travelers crossing a valley and God to an observer standing on top of a mountain above. As we see the ends of the road ahead of us, God, from the mountain, sees the entire way. All of his segments exist for him. Likewise, God eternally sees my birth, my current writing of this article, and everything I will do in 2022 and beyond.
This leaves us with a problem similar to that implied by Einstein’s relativity, one that many medieval philosophers love. Thomas Aquinas Where Scot recognized. Since the knowledge of God is unmistakable, if God knows that something is going to happen, then it has to happen. If God sees which turn the traveler will take in the path, does that mean that the journey of the traveler has already been decided? If my stay in bed instead of going for a run in January 2022 already exists for God, does that mean I shouldn’t bother buying running shoes this afternoon?
The future is ours
If God sees the future and all times already exist, what’s the point in even trying to change or make a resolution?
Those interested in medieval thought and modern philosophers grappling with Einstein’s relativity recognize that language is the main culprit in this problem. For example, we have just said that the future exists “already”. But we have to recognize that the word “already” is just as relative as the “now” or “here”.
In physics, all times can exist, but what happens in the times relative to our “present” is always up to us. The whole chain of events in the universe may exist, but we are still active agents there: not everything exists “at once” or “already”. It simply exists. And it still depends on how I act now, in the present in relation to me.
Likewise, for medieval theologians, God can see me get up and go for a run on January 1, but also see me put on my alarm clock on December 31, promising my friend to start running with them on December 20 and head to the store will buy running shoes, right away. Whether or not the future exists for God, what happens there is always up to me.
This means, paradoxically, that even if the future exists, it does not âalreadyâ exist. And what happens there depends on what I’m doing here and now.
Matyas Moravec is Lecturer in Philosophy at Queen’s University, Belfast. This article first appeared on The Conversation.