Eternalism & Free Will


In the common-sense view of time, called presentism,  each of the four instants of time in the snapshot above exist one after another and only the present exists. The main problem with presentism is that it conflicts with the theory of relativity.

In contrast, according to eternalism, the past, present, and future all exist.1 Eternalism is the theory of time supported definitely by modern physics and advocated by the majority of philosophers.2 But does this conception of time conflict with my previous advocacy of compatibilism regarding free will vs determinism?

I too endorse eternalism—a view of time also referred to as the block universe. In fact, more philosophers defend eternalism as their temporal ontology than presentism and the growing block theory combined.2

The central idea for the possible incompatibility of free will and eternalism stems from the fact that eternalism considers “different times as being as real as different places, and future events are “already there” in the same sense other places are already there.”3 However after some study I’ve concluded that the two are compatible.

In the most relevant and recent peer-reviewed journal article I read the author states that “the idea that eternalism threatens our freedom is problematic” and “The conviction that eternalism threatens our freedom is predicated on a firmer grasp on eternalism than anyone should profess to have.” In short, it doesn’t seem there are definitive reasons to doubt that (my type of) compatibilism and eternalism conflict.

However, researching this topic briefly—as I had recently done with free will—reminded me 1) that I’d need to read and digest everything written on the topic to have a fully informed view; 2) #1 is impossible in a finite lifetime; and 3) even if I achieved #1 (impossible!) I still wouldn’t know the answer to my question with certainty.

And I’ve come to the same conclusion about so many of the philosophical puzzles I’ve encountered in a lifetime of study—we simply don’t know the answers to life’s big questions. For the moment then, intellectual honesty demands living without being sure, tolerating ambiguity about the big questions.

For answers to those big questions, we need better brains.

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Notes.

  1. There is another view called the growing block theory of time where the past and present exist but not the future.
  2. From Philosophy Imprint (Eternalism 40%, Presentism 18%, Growing Block 17%, Other 25%.)
  3. From Wikipedia.
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