What If the Future Has Already Happened?

VOICE OVER: Ashley Bowman WRITTEN BY: Mark Sammut
Are we masters of our own destiny? Of are we fated to a certain path? It's a question that has kept philosophers and scientists busy for centuries, inspiring countless theories on 'the meaning of life' - some more plausible than others! For this video, we explore the options and investigate the facts... to separate fate from fiction.

What If the Future Has Already Happened?

As the old saying goes, time waits for no man. But, while the hour hand always moves forward, the laws of physics suggest that time doesn’t flow in a linear direction, and there’s nothing separating the past from the present and the soon to be. Throughout history, philosophers and scientists have pondered whether the future is fluid or set. The topic has bewildered, fascinated, and sometimes terrified even the greatest minds to ever exist. And humans seem forever compelled to question whether we can do anything to change the passing of time? It’s a complex and diverse subject, so we’ll begin with the philosophy before diving into the science.

Say something wonderful or horrifying just happened. It surely must have transpired for a reason – right? The concept of "fate" or "destiny" appears across various religions, implying the existence of a predetermined master plan that directs the course of history. For believers, it’s a natural tendency for events to work themselves out according to a universal system – that none of us can do anything about. So, does that mean that the mother of all human abilities, free will, actually doesn’t exist?

To some degree it’s true that regardless of someone's actions, certain circumstances cannot be avoided. The sun will always rise and set, while every living thing is doomed to die. For better or worse, certain parts of the future are, clearly, inevitable. But, Fatalism is built on the notion that human agency is incapable of affecting any events decided by fate. It essentially reduces humans to cogs in an all-encompassing machine, so the future has already been written and we’re all merely waiting to fulfill our roles. In this case, even the act of rebelling against fate is predetermined by fate.

Building on the "law of non-contradiction," which states that something can either be true or false, Aristotle's Logical Fatalism suggests that nothing can be done to change an outcome. Imagine that tomorrow you have the option to either eat or not eat an apple… Your future can be split into two alternatives: either with or without the fruit. Despite the illusion of choice, Logical Fatalism asserts that if you do pack an apple for lunch, it’s because you were powerless to prevent that event from transpiring. Essentially, any demonstration of ‘free will’ is false. Only one future will be experienced, and an alternative could never have existed.

Even though there might be some similarities, Fatalism isn’t quite the same thing as Determinism – which supposes that all past, present, and future situations are caused by antecedent events – or the things that happened before them. Determinism sees time as a domino effect that will continue until the end of the universe. This theory extends to ethical choices and implies that even the most apparently chaotic actions are, in fact, rational – happening one after the other. The future hasn’t exactly ‘already happened’, but its path is set by cause and effect.

But, again, what about ‘free will’? It’s not exactly a major player, here. Of the many philosophers rejecting its presence, J. J. C. Smart argued that, regardless of whether the future is determined or random, humans have no control over their actions. So, if the future has (or hasn’t happened), it’s got nothing to do with us, either way.

In a more unusual theory, Arthur Schopenhauer introduced the idea of "The World as Will." Here, the universe is determined by a blind force known as the "Will," and the human body is just a physical manifestation. Pessimistic in its nature, Schopenhauer's Will drives people to seek trivial goals that provide brief moments of relief – like working, eating or deciding which film to watch. But, our actions are ultimately meaningless. The only constant seems to be that the Will cannot be satisfied and that misery is inescapable. If the future has already happened, then Schopenhauer's is a bit of a bleak one.

Forget predicting, changing or charting the future, though (with or without free will). Some say it doesn’t even exist in the first place. Presentism denies the existence of any object which doesn’t reside within the immediate space and time, so the future and past are simply ‘not a thing’. Then there’s the Growing Block Universe theory, which accepts the existence of the past and present – but, again, not of the future. According to advocates of this idea, as time passes, the universe increases in size and more objects are introduced into a person's reality, but they can only exist in the present or past. Clearly, for ‘Presentists’ or ‘Growing Block’ theorists, the future definitely hasn’t already happened!

On the other side of the spectrum; Eternalism views the past, present, and future as being equally real – and it’s a perspective which pushes us toward some more scientific studies. Various physicists have famously attempted to investigate the properties of time, but it has proven to be among the most challenging of ideas to nail down. Isaac Newton thought he’d solved it by introducing Absolute Time. Progressing at a stable pace and undeterred by anything else, Absolute Time flows at a consistent rate across the entire universe and cannot be perceived by humans. For Newton, too, the future hadn’t already happened.

A few centuries later, though, Albert Einstein's Special Relativity became the more readily accepted interpretation. While Newton proposed that space and time were separate entities, Einstein combined the two into a four-dimensional block.

Using Einstein’s ideas, both the place and date are required to define an event. For example, D-Day was on 6th June 1944 in Normandy, and it wouldn’t make sense to omit either characteristic (if relaying the fact accurately). Every specific point in space has a correlated line that encompasses an infinite number of events spread across all of existence. In theory, the future and past are always there, but these points aren’t currently being experienced – and therefore don’t feel as though they’re ‘present’. Rather than an endlessly flowing river akin to Newton, time is now viewed as a flexible dimension… So, the future already exists, somewhere.

The Theory of Relatively adds that an observer's speed of motion determines the rate at which time passes. The closer one gets to the speed of light, the slower time starts to move. All in, Einstein's hypothesis theoretically supports the ideas of time travel, although it would only ever be a one-way trip to the future.

However, while Einstein's work continues to shape modern views, the Theory of Relativity has been mostly superseded by quantum mechanics. Largely accepted as today’s leading model of the universe, it’s an approach that can come across as science-fiction, but these ideas are backed up by research. Focusing largely on sub-atomic particles, quantum physics states that an electron exists simultaneously in various positions and only becomes fixed when observed from a specific angle – therefore its past, present and future all blur into one. The idea is based on probability rather than certainty, though, as the mere act of observing an object causes the other versions to disappear.

Hugh Everett III's Many Worlds Interpretation tried to remove this uncertainty by concluding that a particle is seen from every possible position by the observer but, instead of disappearing, the different versions are split into various parallel universes. If this is the case, then reality splits into multiple trajectories and triggers alternative futures. So, in this case, the future is always already happening, but it’s impossible to track.

Whether it’s tackled from a philosophical, religious, psychological, or mathematical viewpoint, the future is fraught with complexity. Are events predetermined because they’ve already transpired? Is free will just an illusion? Even if everything really is planned out, surely an individual's actions still need to be viewed as part of the equation? After all, if you need a glass of water, then simply waiting for the universe to work itself out isn’t likely to quench your thirst.