Heroes, Not Superheroes
Here is a superpower:
- “To have done not that which you have done.”
Does anyone have this superpower? No, because it is necessarily false by virtue of entailing a logical contradiction.
We can detect this a bit better when we put “have done” into X, such that the superpower becomes:
- “To X and not-X.”
“But surely,” you might say, “you can have done something, but then do something differently, in a similar situation.”
Sure! But that’s not a superpower. That’s very mundane.
e.g., “I paid too much for a bad sandwich yesterday; if confronted with a similar situation, like at the same restaurant, I will do differently.”
But what about an identical situation?
Well, then we’d be back talking about superpowers, because the only way to undergo a completely identical situation would be to rewind the universe somehow and go back to the exact same circumstance…
… including myself reverting to that which was inevitably prone to make that sandwich mistake! After all, by rewinding, I have lost that which enabled me to see that I would be making a mistake at all.
The point of all of this is that there are three very different “abilities” at play.
- The first power, a superpower, is to have done not what you have done. This is necessarily false because it is a contradiction. Nobody can have this superpower, and as such, we hesitate even to call it a “power.” It’s a “nothing.”
- The second power, a mundane power, is to do something differently than what I have done, in the future, in a similar situation (I say “mundane,” but that is not to imply that this is always easy).
- The third power, a superpower, is to rewind the universe and relive a past experience exactly (which would require losing my memories of having gone through it in the first place, obviously dooming me to repeat any errors).
We humans cannot do this because we cannot rewind universes. But even if we could, and ourselves were swept up in that undoing, we’d be nonetheless doomed (that is, blessed) with the same reliable “who I am dictates what I choose” rule, and make the same choice “again.”
A False Superfreedom
Libertarian free will is, roughly, “true causal independence in some sense,” and is something nobody has. It is the perceptual result of being surprised at unexpected behavior, plus having an imagination that dreams up hypothetical and counterfactual situations.
(More exploration: Why is libertarian free will so popular?)
Libertarian free will advocates have a remarkably hard time articulating their doctrine in a both positive and coherent way, which is a symptom of it being an ambiguous perception lacking a positive and coherent definition.
They try, though, and one of their attempts is this: “The ability to have done other than what you have done.” This is often cloaked for brevity and obscurity within, “To do otherwise.”
But as we see above, depending on how this is understood, this is either a false nothing, a mundane thing compatible with determinism, or a cosmic superpower that, when exercised, still fails to “get there.”
One thing we know for certain: We cannot actually do false nothings or have false nothings, regardless of any ungrounded invocations of possible worlds.
In other words:
- We can’t do otherwise.
- But we can imagine having done otherwise (and this is a useful imagining).
- We can, tomorrow, do otherwise than what we did today, even if many things are circumstantially similar.
That’s all we need to affect ourselves, in a recursive way, and develop our knowledge, wisdom, skill, charity, ambitious projects, and all manner of other virtuous things.
It’s also all we need to be held responsible for decisions both bad and good, and for others to endeavor to fix or encourage us accordingly.
For us Christians, the Biblical solution to freedom & sovereignty is compatibilism through the “heterophroneo.”
The fact that we use open language to discuss the future doesn’t mean that the future is open. That’s because we use open language about the past, too.