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Looks Like We're Fated!

life in a determined universe

(References are made to pivotal events in The Matrix Reloaded. If you haven't seen the film yet, I'd recommend waiting until you do to read on. It won't completely ruin the movie, but it's more fun to go in without knowing. This column will still be here for you when you get back. What are you waiting for? Go see it!)

Unbeknownst to me, until I rolled up my sleeves and really got into the meat of Matrix Week, I'm fascinated by the concept of fate. I thought I was kind of into representations of fate, but not the real thing. For example, I love turning over the concept of Oedipus Rex in my head, and I even wrote a paper about it in college – in terms of Oedipus's parents being told exactly what his future would be and despite their desperate struggle to prevent it, everything happens exactly as predicted. I wondered if the Oracle could have been more specific. Did it also know that the child's parents would try to have him killed, but that the designated assassin would have second thoughts? That is, was the fate of the story's characters absolutely decided or was it that the child would somehow grow up to murder his father and marry his mother, via an undetermined course of events? I leaned toward the former, because it makes more sense with my world view. I just don't buy into the heavily paranormal stuff. (Plus it makes more sense anyway; if they had raised the kid, it would have been far less likely for him to have murderous feelings toward his dad and libidinous feelings toward his mom. Had the Oracle's prediction been what the king and queen interpreted – that Oedipus would grow up living with them and still want to kill the king and marry the queen – it wouldn't have made any sense.) However, this opens up a larger question: since the only reason the parents sent the child to his death was the prophecy of the Oracle, would the fate have come true without the prediction? (It's like the Oracle says to Neo in The Matrix, "would you have knocked [the vase] over if I hadn't said anything?")

In my studious preparation for Matrix Week (particularly "Finding Neo," linked on this page), I read a lot of philosophy and I began to notice that there were concepts of fate (or, in more philosophical terms, "determinism") that fit more snugly with my view of the world than I had previously realized. As someone who doesn't believe in an omniscient supreme creator, it was always fairly difficult for me to separate the concept of fate from the concept of some all-knowing deity. But what I read about determinism was somewhat easier for me to reconcile with things that I do believe in, like quantum mechanics, parallel universes, and chaos theory. And with things that fascinate me in a more scientific than paranormal sense, like time travel. I began to realize that it might not be some intelligent being that was designing all these determined events, but simply the fundamental laws and makeup of our universe. As the Architect in The Matrix Reloaded, the formula can be set in place, but it's not the creator that determines what events will happen, it's the rules of the system. You set up the formula and the system provides one and only one solution. Or in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, when Deep Thought designs the Earth as a giant computer to determine the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. Deep Thought doesn't know what will happen on the Earth, but it knows that everything that does happen will be a step in the process of finding the ultimate question. Each step is the unique and inevitable result of everything that came before it, and the combination of that step with its predecessors results in the inevitable next step. In both examples above, something initially created the system and its rules, but I have no problem conceiving of our universe (known and unknown) as a similar setup where the laws are simply a matter of fundamental physics (known and unknown). After all, as one of the philosophers I read stated, our universe could be the result of a black hole in the "next universe up."

Furthermore, I realized that some of the concepts that most tantalize me, like time travel paradoxes, actually relate directly to the ideas of determinism. (I was watching "Anthology of Interest 1" from Futurama today, which made it all come into focus for me. Once again, that show gets better every time I look at it. It might just be the most perfect thing ever.) See, as I discussed in my review of The Why of Fry (see link on this page), Fry's seemingly random cryogenic preservation until the 30th century was actually part of an elaborate plan to save the universe. What I had forgotten at the time of that review was that in "Anthology of Interest 1" Fry asks "what if" he had not been frozen for 1,000 years. The answer is that the universe ceases to exist. Which serves as a satisfying comedic principle for the show and provides a fantastic line for guest star Al Gore. (Al, in response to Fry's query "Where are we?": "I can darn well tell you where we're not... the universe!") But as it turns out, the end of the universe is more than just a great punch line – it's exactly what would happen! The episode originally aired in May of 2000, almost three years before "The Why of Fry") and well before the imperative of Fry's cryonic experience was revealed in "Roswell That Ends Well". Taken together, though, they indicate that without Fry's preservation, he wouldn't have the opportunity to become his own grandfather through time travel, which would eliminate the one person who could possibly save the universe in the 31st century, and therefore the universe would cease to exist. The epiphany that I had was that the whole thing relates to determinism thusly: the future is determined because it is someone else's past. None of us would deny that our past is determined. We can look it up and see exactly what happened. It's locked in. So, from the perspective of someone else in our distant future, our future (their past) is locked in as well. Otherwise, they might not exist!

Once I'd figured that out, it all made sense to me. Physical laws exist. It's a result of physical laws that our universe and our solar system exist. It's a result of our universe that we exist, the gradual result of billions of years of tiny steps toward resulting in intelligent life. And we're made up of all the same tiny particles as everything else in the universe, and all of those particles are governed by the same laws. We are the sum total of the interaction of all the particles up to now, and our actions and interactions are the result of those same particles acting within the highly rigid boundaries that the physical world imposes upon them. It sounds depressing to think that everything is determined, just as it does in The Matrix Reloaded, but it's really not. Because just like in the movie, we're not aware of some unseen force guiding our every decision. The decisions are, for all intents and purposes, free – because they're free as far as our consciousness extends. (See "Finding Neo" for more on this relativistic view.) In the movie, it's a little more ominous because there is some designer that created the system in the first place. (And the movie does some artful philosophical weaving which shows that those few choices that Neo and the fellow Zionists believed to be the most free were in fact all part of the design.) But for us, there's nothing to fear from determinism. In many ways, it's kind of fascinating to be part of something so that is built out of such intricacy but yet unfolds on a scale so epic that you can't see the machinery.