Eternal Recurrence and the Illusion of Will (essay)

Sometime in the past, just before the Big Bang, the entire sum of the matter in the universe was concentrated at an incredibly dense and massive point in space. While thoroughly dense by any measure one can imagine, this seed of creation, however, cannot be reckoned to have been absolutely consistent; that is, there had to have been irregularities in its textural composition. That simple fact has been manifested in the patterned yet differentiated spread of matter across the universe, for if the particulization of that indifferentiable mass of matter had occurred in a thoroughly consistent manner, we would find the stars today to be spread evenly across the heavens. The force which flung those somewhat differentiated and individuated bits of gravitationally contained singularity must have been exerted with an element of unevenness, an element that must have been a function of the slight irregularities in that  ball of matter at the dawn of creation. Matter would seem to have inherently, coded into its substructure, some mysterious properties that cause it to contain certain wrinkles, even when compacted into the densest form possible. Those wrinkles have since swirled and blossomed out to form the spirallic galaxies, their uneven spacing in the cosmos, and other phenomena which would not have resulted from a uniform mass uniformly exploding. Obeying the stark laws of matter, these galaxies have come ever so gradually and inevitably into their present configurations through a protracted, continuous and on-going process, the historic stages of which have been estimated with an amazing degree of accuracy due to the basic  predictability of the forces of nature. Similarly, the status of most objects in space can be predicted into the future with reasonable assurance of accuracy.

Humans seem to be driven along  by some natural force as well,  one which we call our will, and which seems to be the result of our DNA sequences playing themselves out and developing our selves through interactions with our changing environment. This perfectly parallels the path of a comet through space or the product of specific chemical reactions under particular circumstances, in that our predictions will approach 100% accuracy as we improve the tools and equations we use to measure the forces involved. The social sciences simply have not yet developed tools appropriate for measuring the complex forces that drive humans. Geneticists, like those with the Human Genome Project, are making inroads daily into the connections between genes, personality and behavior, while other social scientists explore the interactions of genes and the environment and their impact on a person’s personality and behavior. However, we needn’t wait for the social sciences to prove what is already abundantly clear, despite our bitter protestations; that is, human behavior is frighteningly predictable.

Realize this, if you dare: if you could do anything all over again, you’d do it exactly the same. If you could do any single thing again a million times over, you’d do it exactly the same every time, because every time you’d feel exactly the same and your environment would be exactly the same. Don’t tell me you’d pause or act differently or that a fly landed on you and distracted you or anything else, because you cannot take those things out of the scene. They were there. You felt that way. After a certain amount of trepidation,  and I mean a certain amount, you made a willful decision, conscious or otherwise, resulting in your behavior. Upon examination of the subject and the environment, your behavior made perfect sense, as all behavior makes perfect sense once we truly see where it comes from. Everything does happen for a reason and always has, with environmental changes producing evolutionary changes and vice-versa and culminating seemingly with the transformation of this formerly barren planet into a world of outrageous fecundity, brimming with myriad life forms, not to mention PAC’s, of mind-boggling complexity. Indeed, today has followed yesterday as you have followed your ancestry, taking the tools of the past and reforging them in the fires of the future.

Realizing that there is a certain degree of determinism in one’s behavior is not in itself cause for undue alarm. Due to our own tremendous lack of self knowledge, we can  still feel genuinely unaware of how we will react to a given situation. Furthermore, our lack of environmental awareness will likely permit us the thrill of having truly surprising things develop in our natural surroundings. These will spur actions in us that are bound to surprise us further still, with the depth of our astonishment being an apt measure of our lack of self-knowledge. Those who know us best are actually never surprised by what we do, even when we are. Fortunately, few of us know anyone that well. As much as we want to be known, it is more important to us that we are unknowable. Ignorance and vanity grant us an exalted view of ourselves as “works in progress”, a designation which actually fails to differentiate any of us from a grain of debris swirling and melting in a methane cloud around Venus. None of this should detract from our appreciation of the surprising joy and beauty we might have the privilege to experience; predictability can scarcely dampen our enthusiasm for all those little discoveries and rituals in life that we’ve worked so hard for and cared so much about, both thoughtfully and thoughtlessly.

Of course your parents had to raise you the way they did; look at where they came from. Tracing that thread back, we see that they had to emigrate when they did; that’s where they were at and that was where the world was at. The soldier that saved you by hiding you in the box car had to do what he did. If you knew what he was going through, it would all make sense. If we had sufficient information, we could see why every interaction, every collision, every kiss, every curl on your head came from somewhere that made sense genetically, socially, personally and cosmically. If we could speed up time in reverse and watch our present fold back up into the past, we’d eventually revisit the Big Bang itself, and we’d see all matter returning to that immensely massive point in space and we might even glimpse a time before that wrinkled singularity billowed out into the twisted space we call the universe, but there would be no light with which to see it.

Some scientists believe that such a  Big Crunch may well occur to our universe after  the force of gravity exceeds the force of the expanding universe. In fact, many feel that an endless cycle of Big Bangs and Crunches are in the midst of occurring, and we are but a note played once by that endlessly wheezing accordion of time. It gives one a rather large feeling to consider that this wrinkle could reconvene in everchanging ways, producing unique universe after unique universe with each cycle, like an exploding godhead sending sprays of galaxies spinning outwards sequentially in ever-varying arrays, a resplendent fountain of matter sucking up and blowing out blueprints or seeds of evolution or entropy or extinction….

A rather different feeling is produced by the alternative. Let us consider the nature of that massive point that keeps reconvening at the end of each Crunch and before each Bang. One would imagine that the wrinkle embedded in that point in space would have resulted directly from the uneven distribution of matter in the universe during the previous Big Bang/Big Crunch cycle. As mentioned earlier, this wrinkle would then manifest itself again in the uneven distribution of matter in the next cycle. One must assume that certain physical laws constrain matter as it approaches that incredibly massive point. Perhaps, like the hydrogen atom, there is only one way that such a point can exist, only one kind of wrinkle that such a point could have, and only one way such a Big Bang would result. In such a scenario, each cycle would proceed along the laws of nature from the same beginning, and therefore produce the same distribution of matter in the universe. As galaxies formed, familiar things would begin to happen; the formation of stars and solar systems, the evolution of life on Earth, the ascendence of humans, the Holocaust , the American Dream, and finally, you. Remember, everything happens for a reason that can be found in physics, biology, genetics and social dynamics; that is, history. Now, if history has proceeded apace along such laws repeatedly and from exactly the same beginning, then it is clear that everything that is happening has happened before over and over again. Every moment, despite the seemingly impossible complexity of motion and thought involved, is happening because it is the only moment that can happen given the sum of the forces involved. These very forces have evolved through a series of moments that can be traced back to the wrinkled moment before the Big Bang and back through all previous sequences of Big Bang/ Big Crunch ad infinitum.

To put this theory in a nutshell: Whatever has happened in what we call history has happened over and over again and will happen again repeatedly as long as the laws of nature stand. An endless string of people before and after you have marched this route before, worn your shoes, eaten your food, had your doubts, tried your best, all for the same reasons that you do, because it’s what they came to and they couldn’t help but be thus and feel thusly, that is, you. All of them feel their feet falling to their beat and echoing up and down the corridors of time. All of them, that is, you, know what it feels like to be trapped in an iron cage of flesh and whipped by a slave-driving brain deluded by this power it calls its “will”. People of privilege, perhaps, are more likely to maintain a belief in their “will”, hoping to take credit for their good fortune and thereby elevate themselves above others. Of course, however, it is a silly notion to think that you did better or tried harder in your circumstances than someone else would have in the same circumstances; if they were in the same circumstances as you they wouldn’t be them, they would be you. Then they would do exactly as you did, moving and thinking the same way, struggling with their sense of self just like you must. And now, in a sense, all the yous there ever were and all the yous that will ever be are nervously looking up and down the corridors of history and seeing their own faces peering at them from behind cracked doors. I suggest thinking of this repeating ritual not as merely a wrinkle in the singularity generating copies of our universal history incessantly, but as a song with infinite verses. While it’s true that every verse may be exactly the same, each singer in turn is granted only one chance to sing, and if we are bound to sing, well, then, sing!

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