Identity & Choice

Consider who you are at this very moment. All the particles, connections, and electrical activity in your brain are at a specific state of being. The next moment, it will be slightly different. It will continue to change from state to state every moment that goes by and will never be in the same state twice. It's the same for your mind. It's the same for all of who you are.

When you change from one state to another, how are you still you? Especially considering you're never in the same state twice? Perhaps the concept of "you" is a fuzzy concept. There is controversy about the subject of "continuation of self". But putting that aside, your identity comes down to the relationship between states.

For example, what if your current state at this very moment, while you read this text, led to a next state where you are a ball of yarn, and then the next moment you become a baby dolphin. Imagine if this was the case for everything in the world. Nothing would have any real identity, other than randomness. Lets call this type of state change "detached states".

In the world we live in, it appears that your current state does determine, at least mostly, your next state. That's why you can read this. That's why you can talk, dance, work, play, and make decisions. It's all because previous states completely or almost completely determine next states.


So far I have been simplifying. The transition from you current state to your next state is a combination of your current state plus the state of your current environment. You don't live in the universe alone, so how you change through time depends on what is around you.

Lets talk about systems. More specifically, lets talk about closed systems.

Closed System
A system that does not interact with or receive input from other systems.

We can now rephrase as: "the state of a closed system completely determines or almost completely determines the next state of the closed system". So of course, when considering how you change from moment to moment, you have to think about everything that affects you. That's a really big system. When you look up at the stars for instance, every single one is part of that system of change, because all of them affect the state of your visual field.


If the current state of a closed system 100% determines the next state of the closed system, then it's called determinism. In a deterministic universe, if you knew the exact state of a close system and how states evolve, then you could predict the exact next state and so on.

Humans make predictions every day. When you cross a street, you avoid stepping out in front of a car because you know what happens if you get hit by it. When you want to get something to drink, you make sure you don't let it go because you know it will fall to the ground. Not all predictions are so easy, since we don't know the exact state of things. If your friend is drinking alcohol, you may take their keys because you don't know if they will try to drive or not. With a different friend, you may not worry at all.

The idea of determinism can make people feel uneasy, when it comes to controlling ones destiny. In a deterministic universe, its initial state would inevitably lead to all the next states, including every decision you've ever made. It also means that if the exact state of this universe was duplicated in a parallel universe, then you would make the exact same decisions in both universes. If you think about it, it makes sense, why would you make a different choice if everything about you is the exact same?


If the current state of a closed system does not 100% determine the next state of the closed system, then it's called indeterminism. With enough indeterminism in a closed system, you wouldn't have much of an identity at all, or even be able to make decisions, such as deciding if you want to open the front door in your house because you, at some moment in time, wanted to leave.

But a little bit of indeterminism could allow you to have a solid identity and be able to make decisions. As of now, we describe how our universe works at a very small level, using a theory known as quantum mechanics. The Copenhagen interpretation of it is indeterministic. However, it's not entirely clear how this affects the universe at a very large level. But it appears, that the universe still behaves deterministically at this level.

Consider the thought experiment called Schrödinger's cat.

Schrödinger's cat is a thought experiment, sometimes described as a paradox, devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935, though the idea originated from Albert Einstein. It illustrates what he saw as the problem of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics applied to everyday objects. The scenario presents a hypothetical cat that may be simultaneously both alive and dead, a state known as a quantum superposition, as a result of being linked to a random subatomic event that may or may not occur.


One can even set up quite ridiculous cases. A cat is penned up in a steel chamber, along with the following device (which must be secured against direct interference by the cat): in a Geiger counter, there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small, that perhaps in the course of the hour one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, the counter tube discharges and through a relay releases a hammer that shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid. If one has left this entire system to itself for an hour, one would say that the cat still lives if meanwhile no atom has decayed. The first atomic decay would have poisoned it. The psi-function of the entire system would express this by having in it the living and dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts. Schrödinger's cat

Our everyday experiences appear to be deterministic. If I write a computer program and install it one your computer, it will run as designed. You don't have to worry about the indeterministic nature of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.

Free Choice

The term "free will" has to do with making choices. The existence of free will is likely argued every day. Not everyone defines it the same though. So lets take a look at some of its definitions.

Arguing about free will is very label centric. That is, there is a lot of concern on how to define it. What really matters, when trying to understand the world, is understanding how identity and choices work. How you label something, how you define a label, comes down to semantics. It doesn't have anything to do with how the universe works

Christian God

Lets consider the predicament of the Christian God. You have a religion that teaches that their one God created everything, including every human. It also teaches that if you do not choose certain things, that their are consequences, namely going to Hell.

This brings up an issue, because is choices are determined, then why would this God create human that would make choices that lead them to Hell? Why create humans that desire sin? Why create humans that choose sin? Why create humans that will not believe he exists, if he wants them to believe that he exists?

Even if you add indeterminism to the mix at the quantum level, it cannot be controlled. That is, if the choices you make are affected by quantum phenomena in a indeterministic way, you can't stop that. You behave as designed. You do what it is in your nature to do, down to the last particle. You don't have to define free will a specific way and debate its existence to understand this.

Moral Responsibility

Putting religion aside, there is still a perceived issue of morality and punishment. How do you hold someone morally responsible for their actions, if it is impossible for them to make any other choices than the ones they have made? This, again, comes down to how you define "moral responsibility". But just like in the case of free will, you don't have to bother with debating semantics.

Consider fire. Fires burn houses and kill people. When you put out a fire, you don't do it because you believe the fire is morally responsible for killing people. It's damage control. You put the fire out to save people. Animals, including humans, are no different in this respect. If someone is killing or raping and you want to stop people from being killed and raped, then you have to stop that human from doing so.