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Strange Conversations: The Determinism Paradox

I think I may have come up with a paradox that throws Hobbes himself into question, but I’m going to have to run it by you guys just to make certain it is truly unsolvable. Think about it carefully, because the existence of free will potentially hangs in the balance.

Hobbes Who?

So to put this into context, Thomas Hobbes was an English philosopher who lived from 1588 to 1679, and besides a string of accomplishments which are beyond the scope of this post, it was his belief that “We can conceive only of [material] entities, and their, and our language and our [theory of being] must follow from that knowledge.” According to him, there was nothing in the world outside of the purely material, and that even things as complex and abstract as thought and choice were just the result of a chemical chain reactions in the brain. When Francis Bacon said “I think, therefore I am,” Hobbes disagreed. His correction: “I think, therefore matter is capable of thought.”


It was his firm belief that everything that would ever happen was the result of a linear series of causes and effects determined by the laws of the nature. In that sense, a coin toss isn’t really up to chance because there is no chance; the way that you flip the coin will give it a certain amount of torque that, when combined with the rate of its decent due to gravity, and the force with which it hits the ground allowing to bounce and flip over again, at a speed again dictated by a mix of gravity of the force of the coin pushing off the ground, will ultimately decide whether or not the coin will land on heads or tails. (It thus follows that, should you be able to calculate the effects of these forces on your coin, you could predict your next flip with 110% accuracy. That would be great for parties.)

Going even further, it could be argued the very act of flipping the coin was always going to happen because all the sensory stimuli that had ever entered your brain would have shuffled themselves over the years in just the exact way so that when you were in a specific place at a specific time talking to a specific person the specific impulse would present itself to ask the specific that would eventually steer the conversation toward the party you didn’t know was happening next week but would certainly like to come to.

I could go on, but long story short: According to Hobbes, there is no coincidence. Everything is the inevitable result of the interactions of matter in motion, including human beings and human thought. “We are matter in motion according to the fixed laws of mechanics,” he declared, finally coming to the conclusion that there is no such thing as free will because everything is predetermined by physics. Translation: Cold Hard Determinism, courtesy of the Dr. Manhattan of the Enlightenment.


Of course, the world recoiled at this thought, and has been trying to disprove him ever since. That was centuries ago.

Well, ever since I learned about determinism, there’d been this scenario bouncing around inside my head for a while that gave me a bit of hope for the possibility of choice. Although I’ve refined it for a long time now, it’s remarkably simple. Let me share it with you now.


Picture the following scenario:

You are in a room with an individual who can perceive the arrow of entropy. Let’s call this character X. X is acutely aware of all of the physical forces acting on all bodies at all times, and has the mental faculties to instantaneously deduce the outcome of all physical interactions in the world, including the flow of electrical impulses in the brain that will determine your next decision. In essence, X can predict your coin toss. X can predict your every move.


Now, imagine you have a ball and a stopwatch. Using the stopwatch, you will begin a 10-second period within which you either will or will not throw X the ball. But before you start the clock, you will ask X to tell you, with absolute honesty, whether or not you are going to throw X the ball during the 10-second period.

Do you see the trick yet?

Whatever X ultimately decides, you can choose to go against it. If X says you will, then you can choose not to. If X says you won’t, then you can choose to do so. It’s impossible to determine your next move because you can simply choose to do the opposite of whatever was determined.


And it gets better. You’ll notice that X’s judgement cannot be deduced based on whatever chain of causes and effects brought you two this point. This means that not only will X’s deduction be wrong, but that X cannot even make a deduction, because that deduction would by its very nature be tied to your still undetermined decision, which is itself tied by its very nature to X’s judgement, and so on, and so forth.

In the end, the two of you wind up linked in an endless loop. The situation is a paradox. There is no solution consistent with the school of Determinism. There is only the possibility of Free Will.


Sure, you could choose to go along with X’s prediction, but that would still be a choice.

So, what do you guys think? Is there a solution that I may have overlooked? If so what is it? If not, what does that mean? And what do you think of the split between Determinism and Free Will? Let me know in the comments. I’m itching for a conversation.

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