Scripting the Future: Spacetime and the Nature of Control

Commonsense has it that the future doesn't yet exist and that what we do helps bring it into being. We control, at least to some extent, what happens in the future. But widely accepted physical theory says that all events, past, present and future, coexist in four dimensional spacetime. How can we have control if the future is fixed? It turns out that having the future not be fixed might involve giving up control.

You don’t meet many committed and consistent fatalists, those who act on the belief that nothing they do makes a difference. A fatalist would say that if he’s fated to die crossing the street in New York City on a particular day, it obviously makes no difference how careful he is crossing streets that day. But, not being omniscient, he doesn’t know his fate for sure – the exact date, time and manner of his death. Assuming our fatalist wants to live (most do), he’ll likely take precautions crossing the street, as well as other precautions people generally take to avoid premature death.

This gives the lie to his fatalism, since his precautionary behavior obviously affects how things play out by reducing the chances of an accident. He isn’t a committed and consistent fatalist, only a lip service fatalist. But, let’s say he actually dies crossing the street: after looking both ways on 2 pm April 29, 2010, he gets flattened by a falling construction crane. This doesn’t change the fact that his behavior played a role in determining his fate, since had he not been careful crossing the street on previous days, he may well have died before April 29. This shows our fates are to some extent in our own hands, within our control. Our behavior makes a difference in how things play out. If you don’t believe this, and act on it, chances are you won’t survive and prosper as long as those who do. So you better believe it, and of course you do. Nothing said below should change that belief.

The block universe

Still, as sometimes happens, the scientific view of our situation puts pressure on commonsense, in this case the idea that the future isn’t as set as the past. To have control, after all, seems to require that the future be open, not fixed or closed. But according to Hermann Minkowski’s 1907 formulation of Einstein’s special relativity, the future actually exists in a way that’s just as real and concrete as the present moment. On this view, widely although not universally accepted in the physics community, reality is a four-dimensional spacetime continuum (3 spatial dimensions, 1 time dimension) in which all events, past, present and future, simply are. They coexist in what’s often called the block universe.[1] Just as in our present moment we see all objects around us coexisting in 3 dimensional space, in the block universe – our actual universe according to Minkowski – all our moments, past, present and future, coexist, but we can’t directly see or experience that fact. We experience our moments serially, one after the other, such that only the present moment is what’s actual for us. But from the standpoint of physical theory they are all equally actual – that is, they all equally exist. This means that the future “already” is, which means that it’s “already” fixed. (We have to put “already” in scare quotes since we’re illegitimately applying a temporal adverb to the time dimension itself.) As physicist Brian Greene puts it in his book The Fabric of the Cosmos:  

Just as we envision all of space as really being out there, as really existing, we should also envision all of time as really being out there, as really existing, too. Past, present and future certainly appear to be distinct entities. But, as Einstein once said, “For we convinced physicists, the distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion, however persistent.” The only thing that’s real is the whole of spacetime. (p. 139, original emphasis) [2]

But doesn’t this mean, then, that no matter what you do, your future is fixed, is scripted, a fait accompli?  What sense can we make of having control over our lives if the future is “out there” as a matter of brute physical four-dimensional fact? There seems more than a little tension between the idea that our actions make a difference to our fates and the idea that the future is a fixed fact about reality. Having control seems to require that my fate isn’t fixed, but instead depends on what I do now. My actions make a difference in that I exert causal power to bring about certain things, to make things happen that otherwise wouldn’t have happened.


This concern is at the heart of ABC’s new prime-time science fiction series FlashForward, airing Thursday nights 8 pm Eastern time. The starting premise of the plot is more than a little improbable, but it sets up the question of control nicely. Here it is, as quoted from the website:  

What if you saw your future 6 months from now? A glimpse of where you will be and who you will be with. Would you look forward to what was coming...or would you try to stop it?

A mysterious global event causes everyone to black out simultaneously for two minutes and seventeen seconds, and each person sees a glimpse of their lives six months from now [on April 29, 2010, 11 am Pacific time]. When they wake up, everyone is left wondering if what they saw will actually happen.

Los Angeles FBI Agent Mark Benford (Joseph Fiennes) is desperate to uncover why this happened and who or what is behind it. And he's not the only one. Before long, everyone starts asking, "What did you see?" As Mark and his team struggle to figure out what caused this bizarre event, they begin to piece together the future by creating a huge database of people's flash forwards [as opposed to flash backs] from all over the world - The Mosaic Collective. No one knows what these flash forwards mean or exactly what the future really holds. But it is clear that across the globe people who've never met will somehow be intimately connected and will have an impact on each other's lives in the next six months. Some will fear what's coming, others excited; but not a single person will be unaffected.

Adapting award-winning author Robert J. Sawyer's revolutionary novel, executive producers David S. Goyer (co-writer of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight), Brannon Braga (24, Star Trek: Enterprise), Marc Guggenheim (Brothers & Sisters, Eli Stone), Jessika Borszicky (Revelations) and producer Mark H. Ovitz (October Road) invite you to embark on a journey to answer the question, "if you knew what your future held, what would you do?"

In the early episodes, evidence accumulates to suggest that all the flash forwards will indeed happen, so a sense of inevitability, of fatalism, starts to take hold, globally. Some people saw nothing during the blackout, which is widely taken as a sign that they won’t be alive in six months, and as result suicide cults form. The ensuing deaths are of course consistent with the fatalist view. Still, some characters in the show resist the idea that what they saw during those two minutes and seventeen seconds must happen. After all, we can influence the future, can’t we? Some of their visions are terrifying, some encouraging, some merely mundane, but they all seem to be mutually consistent as catalogued by the Mosaic Collective database. The coherence between flash forwards lends plausibility to the idea that they indeed foretell how things will be on April 29, 2010. But still, whether one wants to avoid or bring about a pre-visioned future, don’t our actions make a difference in how things play out?  

Yes, they do. In a terrific bit of drama, one person liberates the world from the fatalistic assumption that what’s seen in the flash forwards is inevitable. During the blackout, FBI agent Al Gough (a colleague of Mark Benson) sees himself having a phone conversation, during which he’s told that he’s responsible for a woman’s death. But he realizes that he can falsify this depressing vision, one that has him alive in six months, if he can commit suicide. And he succeeds. His self-sacrificing gift, to everyone alive on Earth, is the proof that at least not all flash forwards will come to pass. A newspaper headline about his death reads: “THE FUTURE CAN BE CHANGED – Agent’s suicide gives woman second chance at life.”

Inevitability and control

But hold on. According to the block universe view, also known as eternalism or four dimensionalism, the future can’t be changed – it’s simply there in spacetime. Al Gough didn’t alter the future, he only acted in a way consistent with it. His flash forward was, it turns out, a false model of the future, a false prediction, but his act of proving it false was what the future actually held.[3] Generally, if someone predicts that you’ll act in a certain way at a certain time, for instance that you’ll vote Democratic in the next election, you have the capacity to falsify that prediction. That is, it obviously isn’t inevitable that you’ll vote Democratic, since you can vote Republican simply to thwart the prediction.[4] But on the block universe view whether you do or not is “already” settled. Your exercise of control in response to wanting to defeat the prediction (or fulfill it, depending on what matters most to you) is simply there in spacetime. The future can’t be changed.

But hold on again. How can we speak of exercising control if your response to the prediction is simply there in spacetime? Doesn’t that render your exercise of control inevitable? And if so, how is that control? It seems as if we might want something more in the way of control than the block universe affords us. The question is, are we being sensible in wanting something more, and what would it consist of?

Commonsensically, exerting control on your own behalf is simply to choose and act according to what you want. You want things to turn out a certain way, and they often do because you act to fulfill your desires. Lack of control is being forced to act in a way you don’t want, or to have something upset your best laid plans. Of course you don’t always know when you’ll be successful and when not, but you do know that being pro-active on your own behalf is very much associated with success. We see a reliable causal connection, playing out over time, between efforts to achieve goals and their actual achievement.

Causation, David Hume argued, just is the observed conjunction of classes of events, where causes precede effects in time; for instance, the class of efforts (cause) generally precedes the class of achievements (effect). The observed reliability of these cause and effect relations – same cause, same effect – is what we call determinism. From our time-bound perspective in which the future doesn’t seem to exist, one state of affairs causes or determines another to come into being. Your effort (along with various other circumstances) determines your achievement, an instance of successful control. From the block universe perspective, with past, present and future all before us, your successful exercise of control forms a coherent timeless pattern of desire, action and fulfillment. We also see other patterns: the defeat of control as events unforeseen by you end up thwarting your projects. But either way it’s all there in spacetime. Containing all events, the block universe also contains the law-like relations we experience as cause and effect. We can now ask: what’s disconcerting about the inevitability of the future, that it exists, as seen from this perspective?

Such inevitability might seem to violate our ordinary notion of control, which has it that it isn’t inevitable that any given desire will be fulfilled or thwarted, but that instead it depends on what you do. But notice that this dependency relationship exists in the block universe: the pattern of successful control is all there, that of desire, action and fulfillment, comprised of adjacent slices of spacetime with you at various stages of getting what you want. That your successful exercise of control exists in its entirety from start (desire) to finish (fulfillment) doesn’t change the fact that it is control. After all, how else would you describe it?

The pitfall of ultimate control

Well, you might describe it as pseudo-control if you suppose there’s a real kind of control that the block universe makes unavailable. If your life in its entirely is just there, “already” scripted, you might feel as if you’re not really in control, even though your life includes many episodes of getting what you want. You might think something like this: Ok, even though I don’t know how my life is going to turn out, the block universe view has me playing a scripted role. But I want to be unscripted in my role, or put another way, I want to write my own role. I don’t want it scripted for me by the block universe or anything or anybody else. That’s the sense in which I want to be in control. It’s a sense in which my future isn’t fixed, but follows from how I script my role.

Good luck with this. In order to have this sort of control, the first problem you have to solve is what sort of creature to be. In the actual world described by science, the starting parameters of your being are of course set by biological and environmental forces and factors completely beyond your control. But you want to choose yourself ex nihilo, so that you determine your own parameters. The difficulty of course is that you have no basis for deciding this, since in advance of being something definite  – existing – there’s nothing which could determine that decision. Sadly, but necessarily, the idea of scripting your own role from scratch is a non-starter.

Giving up on ultimate self-origination, let’s suppose you discover yourself in existence with a certain set of parameters, including a set of desires. Now, what would real, unscripted control look like, such that your future doesn't exist as a pattern in the block universe? Remember, these patterns include, very often, the fulfillment of desire as following on from intentional action. But you want something more: that the future be open in such a way that there is no block universe. The question is whether this desire, for what we might call ultimate control, is either realistic or itself desirable. What would that sort of control get you, if you could have it? 

You of course continue to want a reliable, deterministic connection between being proactive on your own behalf and getting what you want. You don’t want to abrogate that sort of causal regularity, which from the timeless block universe perspective is the pattern of successful control. You’ve also granted (I hope!) that you yourself have to be caused to exist – you can’t and don’t create yourself ex nihilo. But, you say, you still want it to be the case that your existence, once begun, not be completely patterned, since to be patterned in this way, having the future be fixed, usurps ultimate control. But successful control just is to exhibit a certain sort of pattern, of fulfillment following on desire. Your desire not to conform to a spacetime pattern seeks to abrogate the pattern of control itself, since the pattern of control is, after all, still a pattern. Wanting the future to be open in a way that would undermine the block universe is really to want, from a time-bound perspective, that your pro-active choices need not fulfill desire, that your life not conform to the deterministic causal regularities typically involved when exerting successful control. 

But of course you shouldn’t want any such thing, since ironically enough it amounts to a kind of fatalism: your actions wouldn’t make a reliable contribution to your well-being. Rationally, you want to conform to the causal regularities of successful control, to participate in such a pattern since that’s what control consists in. So the desire for ultimate control, for the future not to be fixed, comes with a high cost, were it realizable: that of abrogating the local control conferred by conforming to causal laws. You can’t have such control and have it be the case that your life doesn’t conform to a pattern.

You’re not convinced, let’s imagine. You still hanker after independence from spacetime. But where did that come from? You certainly didn’t decide to desire it. No, it’s been foisted on you by our Western culture of radical autonomy, the resilient meme that says human initiative, responsibility, dignity and meaning depend on our being self-caused causers. That too is part of the tenseless pattern of our lives. Do what you will, you can’t step outside the causal web, which is to say there’s no alternative to your being embedded in spacetime. If you imagine you’re striking a blow for personal autonomy by, for instance, flouting all social expectations, laws and norms, hoping to be a self-scripted rebel without a cause, you’d merely be someone whose desire for radical autonomy was causing such lamentable behavior. It wouldn’t vault you out of spacetime, only present the somewhat ridiculous spectacle of trying to achieve the impossible, such as defying gravity or regulating derivatives.

Seeing this should help dampen the desire for a metaphysically open future, one that doesn’t unfold as a (mostly) deterministic result of how things are now, including what you want.[5] It should help reconcile you to being a participant in existence, not lord over it. From our time-bound perspective, the future is epistemically open in the sense that we don’t know what those as yet unexperienced slices of spacetime hold for us. Therefore we act rationally, that is, in ways that past experience has taught us are consistent with success, but which, as we’ve seen, are necessarily consistent with what the (unknown) future is. This is all that control could amount to, given the way of the world. As Matt Lawrence puts it in his book on philosophy and the Matrix: “We can contribute to the future, but we cannot change it.” [6] Our actions make a difference by helping to bring the future about, just as the past brought us about. Additional control isn’t possible, nor would it be in our own best interests.

The future of FlashForward

It’s of course predictable that the creators of FlashForward would suggest that the future is metaphysically open (recall the headline: The Future Can Be Changed), since that’s probably what most viewers think must be the case to have control. It’s also predictable that they’d cater to the hope of being independent of spacetime, given the Western meme of radical individualism. Whether they will, at some point, challenge viewers with the science of the block universe is known only to the inner circle of writers and producers, who say they have the whole seven year series completely mapped out (see this interview at ABC). My guess is they won’t, but of course they can always defeat this prediction should they learn of it. The revised, unmisleading headline could read: Flash Forwards Falsifiable, Your Actions Do Matter! In any case, all the writers' script amounts to is a very detailed, concrete flash forward of FlashForward; they don't know how it's going to turn out, or even know if the show will last seven years. But given that they want it to last, they're ineluctably moved to be pro-active on its behalf.

Meanwhile, between episodes, understanding the relationship between the subjective and objective perspectives on time presents a challenge of its own. Why, if time is a “frozen river” as Brian Greene puts it, does it appear to flow, and flow in one direction only? Lots has been written on this, and there’s more to come.[7] But here’s a bit of first-person phenomenology that might bring these perspectives somewhat closer together. Notice that the immediate future, the next few seconds or so, does very much seem like it’s “already” there, since after all, here it is, immediately given to you now. Each moment, each now, is effortlessly available as a successor to the next, almost as if it were there, “waiting” to happen, waiting for you to experience it.[8] And you do. Add up all these maximally continuous moments into minutes, hours, days and years and you have a seamless block of spacetime centered around you as an experiencer. True, you have to live through it, but the seamlessness of it all might be a first-person window onto the third-person fact that it all exists, not just this present moment.

Of course the science of time isn’t over yet, so all of the above could be wrong. If you’re the least bit demoralized by the fact of a fixed future, although you shouldn’t be, you can always hope that a more “optimistic” physics will come along, one that puts us in ultimate control, whatever that might mean (see note 1). Until that comes to pass, we still have the local control afforded by the causal powers invested in us by nature. Not knowing how things will work out, but wanting them to be a certain way, we can’t help but act in our own interests according to our best lights. That will have to do for now.

TWC, November 2009


March, 2010: Physicist Julian Barbour advances his own version of the block universe idea, see here and here. Quote from the Edge interview, p. 9: " idea [is] that really the universe is static, and the only things that are real are Nows, in one of which we now are."  Note the last "now" is superfluous!


[1] Exactly how much consensus exists within the physics community on the block universe view isn’t clear. Physicist Brian Greene seems to suggest that it is the consensus when he says: “Time is a subtle subject and we are far from understanding it fully. It is possible that some insightful person will one day devise a new way of looking at time and reveal a bona fide physical foundation for a time that flows.” (p. 141, The Fabric of the Cosmos)

[2] For a complete discussion, see chapter 5, “The Frozen River,” of Greene’s book. For a great audio presentation of these ideas with Robert Krulwich, Brian Greene and V. S. Ramachandran, see here and listen to “No Special Now.”

[3] J. J. C. Smart puts it “…to say that we can determine the future is not to say that we can change the future. Suppose that I try to change the future by lifting either my left hand or my right hand. I decide to lift my left hand. This does not change the future. Lifting my left hand was the future” (emphasis added). From his book Our Place in the Universe, quoted at the Information Philosopher website.

[4] In his book Elbow Room and other writings, philosopher Daniel Dennett emphasizes this point: that we can and often do avoid anticipated negative outcomes, so our future isn’t inevitable or unavoidable in the sense there’s nothing we can do about it. See here for some Elbow Room excerpts on this.

[5] Quantum randomness or indeterminacy doesn’t upset the block universe view. As J. J. C. Smart puts it in his book, Our Place in the Universe: “The whole universe is determinate. This is so whether it is deterministic (as used to be believed) or is indeterministic (as is at present believed. The determinateness of future events does not imply determinism. An event can be just as determinate whether its occurrence does or does not depend on the laws of nature together with some earlier state of the universe” (p.155, quoted at the Information Philosopher website). Further, should quantum indeterminacy have effects on human behavior, it doesn’t confer control or responsibility. After all, if something is random or uncaused, you didn’t cause it, and thus can’t be responsible for it.

[6] See “How to really bake your noodle: time, fate and the problem of foreknowledge” from Lawrence’s Like a Splinter in Your Mind: The Philosophy Behind the Matrix Trilogy, pp. 79-81. This chapter is highly recommended reading about time and the block universe, and the mind-bending implications of physical theory as dramatized in the Matrix series. 

[7] Besides Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos, see Gary Dresher’s Good and Real, the chapter on time, “Going without the flow;” philosopher Vesselin Petkov’s papers and forthcoming book The Illusion of Reality: Time, Spacetime and the Nature of Existence; and physicist Sean Carroll’s forthcoming book, From Eternity to Here.

[8] This effortless availability is what I’ve called the perfection of cause and effect.

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