Thu. Apr 18th, 2024

The Topic of Time Travel and Free Will

In both the context of the series itself and our reality, the topic of time travel pushes us to debate the existence of free will. In the story of Steins;Gate, Rintarou Okabe is an eccentric mad scientist who conducts experiments involving space and time. With time travel becoming possible in this universe, the concept of determinism becomes relevant. Unlike fatalism, determinism implies that natural laws or previous events will causally determine all psychological phenomena, natural events, and acts. In other words, every event is caused by the laws of physics and preceding circumstances. Many viewers might agree with the concept that all events have causes. Cause-and-effect relationships govern it. For instance, a ball will rise when thrown upwards because it receives an initial velocity from the force applied. As the ball moves upwards, the Earth’s gravitational force pulls it back down. When the ball’s velocity decreases to zero at the peak of its trajectory, Earth’s gravity continues to pull the ball downward. Therefore, Earth’s gravitational force causes the ball to come back down after being thrown upwards.

The Implication of Determinism

The consideration that our actions may be caused rather than freely chosen raises the question of whether true freedom exists. In the context of Steins;Gate, the series implies determinism. In a quote from its visual novel, it has been established that the time machine will appear on that day at that location, even before the protagonist sends the first email. His participation has already been assured; even rejecting Suzuha Amane is merely a coincidence. Everything is unavoidable. With determinism, the idea is closely related. Then, our characters in the series learn through tragic events that meddling with the past can have profound effects. Attempts to change the outcome are futile, indicating the existence of predetermined paths of events.

The main protagonist, Okabe, has to witness the death of his friend, Mayuri Shiina, repeatedly. He realizes that his experiments may have caused these events, a point also raised by Kurisu Makise. She explains that every event requires a cause to occur, suggesting that determinism may apply in this universe.

According to this principle, an action is considered free if the decision-maker could have chosen differently from what they chose. For example, someone commits to regularly exercising and living a healthy lifestyle, but one day they choose to relax and rest due to feeling tired or having other pressing priorities.

The Paradox of Free Will and Determinism

However, how can free will and determinism coexist? Those who argue that determinism and free will can be reconciled in metaphysics are called compatibilists. They propose that just because our choices may have been predetermined does not mean they do not exist. According to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the current world has been created by God to be the best possible world. God, having all knowledge, knows the outcome of every possible action and has thus determined our choices even before the creation of the universe. He also states that we have free will to make choices, although God has previously foreseen the outcomes.

On the other hand, David Hume firmly maintains compatibilism by stating that human actions are free because they are driven by our desires, which are influenced by determinism, resulting from the laws of physics and the past. Actions we take based on these desires are considered decisions we make ourselves. For example, someone has skills and interests in music and art. However, pressure from their environment or family pushes them to pursue a career path in technology or business, which is considered more financially beneficial and stable. This individual chooses to listen to their conscience and follow their true desires and interests, despite external pressure to make a certain decision. Facing expectations and pressure from others can be challenging. However, they align with their values and identity by trusting their intuition and valuing themselves. The career path in music and art may be riskier and unconventional. Nevertheless, by pursuing their passion, the person feels more fulfilled and meaningful in life.

Agency vs. Determinism

In Steins;Gate, the discovery of time travel by the characters and their attempts to change the past leads to profound questions about free will, determinism, and the possibility of altering one’s fate. The anime explores the idea that seemingly insignificant actions can have far-reaching consequences. Changing the past can result in unintended and unpredictable outcomes, giving rise to the butterfly effect concept. On the one hand, the series grapples with philosophical debates between agency and determinism. The notion of time travel and its potential consequences suggests predetermined paths for various events. The characters’ choices and actions demonstrate agency, even within the constraints of time travel mechanics.

Steins;Gate also introduces the concept of the Attractor Field and World Lines, which are comprehensive timelines converging towards specific crucial events. The Attractor Field creates determinism and a sense of inevitability for these pivotal events, challenging the assumption that time travel can completely alter the course of history. The Attractor Field is an overarching timeline converging toward certain events in the anime. These events are referred to as fixed points, meaning they will inevitably occur in every iteration of time travel, regardless of attempts to change them. This idea aligns with determinism, which states that the past has predetermined events and certain outcomes cannot be avoided.

Compatibilists’ Argument

Even some compatibilists argue that true freedom depends on the truth of determinism. They point out that factors beyond our control also influence why we often believe we act. If our free choices are merely those that seem to be made without reason, it is difficult to claim that we are truly responsible for them. On the other hand, the choices will feel more connected to who we truly are and more like free choices if our beliefs, desires, backgrounds, and character traits explain our choices.

Another argument supporting compatibilism is based on our subjective experience of feeling free. Although not a substantial argument, many proponents believe our strong sense of freedom should be considered. They suggest seriously considering the possibility of freedom because it is a deeply ingrained feeling. In the Steins;Gate context, the characters indeed have free will if one agrees with compatibilism, as they ultimately shape their destinies. This view is reinforced by constant references to the butterfly effect throughout the series, indicating that their decisions have significant consequences.

Unintended Outcomes in Time Travel Experiments

Steins;Gate revolves around altering the past and the implications of time travel. When the characters experiment with a microwave phone, they face unexpected consequences that profoundly affect their relationships and lives. The series delves into ethical dilemmas of dealing with the butterfly effect and time. The concept of the butterfly effect is prominent in the anime, referring to the idea that small changes in the past can have unforeseen and significant consequences in the future. As the characters experiment with time travel and try to alter specific events, they often encounter unintended outcomes, challenging the deterministic view that the past entirely determines the future.

Even when the characters successfully change the timeline, the butterfly effect still applies. It suggests that even small changes in the past can have far-reaching and unpredictable consequences in the future. The Attractor Field may still pull events back to their original outcomes, leading to situations where characters inadvertently cause the events they want to prevent.

The Melancholic Perspective of Incompatibilists

On the other hand, those who believe that free will and determinism cannot coexist are called incompatibilists. In this case, they reject both free will and determinism. We focus on those who accept determinism but reject free will. The concern here is that determinism implies that what we do is always the only thing we can do. Therefore, we have no choices about anything, as opposed to being under the illusion that we might have choices. It aligns with the views of many compatibilists. For example, if the older Okabe already knows what our Okabe must do to save Kurisu, he cannot act differently. Based on our definition of free will, they are not free if someone cannot choose otherwise.

Like Democritus, compatibilists support the concept of reductionism, which states that everything in the world, including our experiences, can be reduced to a single entity. This entity could be some initial cause that set the universe in motion. They argue that the future could be entirely determined if someone could predict the trajectory of every atom in the universe or every move on a chessboard. Incompatibilists put forth another argument, questioning why humans perceive themselves as exceptions to the laws of physics that govern the rest of the world. It raises the idea that we may not have free will, which becomes a melancholic perspective.

Unfortunately, for those who believe in free will, it is the perspective conveyed by Steins;Gate. Just consider Okabe’s favorite phrase, which is the final sentence in the anime series: “The choice of Steins;Gate.” It is hard to believe that this sentence being his last words is a coincidence, as he embraces a happy life of ignorance in the world line, Steins;Gate. He has let go of his illusions of previous choices and accepted his vulnerability. According to Okabe, nothing is coincidental; everything is unavoidable. This revelation can evoke anxiety, leaving us devoid of free will, as if certain cosmic forces have determined every action since birth.

Quantum Mechanics and the Challenge to Determinism

Many arguments also apply to our world. However, the principles of quantum mechanics suggest that the laws of physics and past events do not entirely determine the actions of subatomic particles. As a result, many scientists now adhere to indeterminism and leave determinism at the micro level. Nevertheless, even if indeterminism is true, it does not always support the case for free will. As discussed earlier in the argument for compatibilism, if everything happens randomly without consideration of our desires or beliefs, it is challenging to assert the presence of free will.

Regardless of whether one aligns with indeterminism, determinism, libertarianism, or compatibilism, we all must act as if we have free will. Rejecting responsibility for our actions would lead to the collapse of society as we know it. Therefore, treating others well and striving to improve ourselves are essential aspects of human behavior.


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