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Vaevictis Asmadi writes...

I read "All You Zombies" by Heinlein a while ago, based on your recommendation that it demonstrated working paradoxes in time travel, and although it was not recent I decided to finally type up and share what I thought from reading it. First of all, the story creeped me out!

But what I'm writing to you about is free will. Did the main character of that story have free will? On the surface at least, it appears to me that he did not for much of the story. He clearly remembered everything that had happened to him, yet he did not have to option not to seduce himself, or not to catch take past self back in the time machine, nor could he choose to change what he said and did in that bar when he was the bartender. When interacting with his past self, I think he had no choice but to say and do exactly what he remembered seeing his future self doing and hearing his future self saying.

He did have options regarding abducting the baby, mainly because he didn't remember being abducted, but one way or another he had to abduct that baby or get someone else to abduct her: he only had options in how he did it. This is comparable to Goliath time-travelling with Griff in M.I.A. Goliath could not possibly get Griff back to his clan in the 1940s, but he had plenty of options of what he could do instead. In that situation Goliath had far more options than the character in "All You Zombies" had when abducting the baby, but still this is a situation with free will.

But what options does a character really have when meeting their past self, if they DO remember the entire encounter? This is apparently what happened to Demona in Vows. She remembered Goliath's "little speech" (or maybe she was lying to him or to herself, but let's assume she was telling the truth this time) and so she must have remembered what her future self said and did. Does that mean she had no free will to change the encounter with her past self when she went back in time? For example, did she really have free will to change what words she said, or not to kick Goliath? It appears to me that this is a situation where she didn't have free will. When the Archmage(+) told his past self that the future is a place of science, not superstition, and that Demona and Macbeth were only "cannon fodder" he couldn't even have understood what he was saying, let alone invented it himself. In fact his entire bizarre mini-timedance seems to abrogate his free will, because as he said "I should (know what to do), I watched you do it."

Demona's PAST self certainly had free will in Vows, since she did not yet remember the encounter. Likewise, the Archmage clearly had free will during his first pass through his time loop. I would think that any time a character is in a stable time loop, they have free will as long as they are unaware of what "already happened." But when they do remember what happened because their past self is there at the scene, they don't have the option to change what already happened. They already KNOW what happened. If they already know what words they spoke to their past self, then those words are something they remember, not something they are thinking up freely, and they don’t have the option of saying anything different from what they remember.

Am I missing something?

Greg responds...

I tend to disagree with you about the free will thing. Heinlein's character could have chosen NOT to cooperate with his memories. Either because he liked the end result or because he felt oppressed by the inevitability of it all (or some other reason I can't think of at this moment), he CHOSE to play along.

Again, Free Will doesn't mean you get to live the life you want to lead. It means that at best you have the option of STRIVING for the life you want to lead. But some people use their free will to conform. Doesn't mean it's not a choice.

Now, that raises the obvious question: what would have happened to Heinlein's character, to Demona, to the Archmage had they chosen NOT to play along. We'll never know.

Response recorded on September 17, 2010