Is it pointless to have regrets about the past?

Mike asked:

Hello, this question is about things that have happened in the past, experiences we have had and how we think about them.

Does it make any sense to say this: Regardless of whether or not humans have free will, regardless of anything else, the universe unfolded the way it did until this second and it could not have happened any other way, therefore it is pointless and unhelpful to regret the bad experiences we have had.

Someone makes a decision that turns out to be a bad one, and you can say well if you made a better decision of course the universe would have unfolded differently and you would have had a better experience, a better life, but is that true? Is it possible to argue that whatever has happened, good or bad, had to happen because it actually did happen, and that’s all the proof you need. It doesn’t matter if the Determinists or Libertarians are right or wrong, it has nothing to do with a belief in fate, something happened in the past therefore it had to happen. The world wars happened, now we can look back with hindsight and see how they could have been avoided, but when you take into account all of the many and varied factors at the time that contributed to them isn’t it possible to say that they had to happen, how couldn’t they?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Let me recommend to you first, that you stop your indiscriminate jumbling of ‘the universe’ and ‘someone’. These things are not compatible. The universe is a big place and ‘someone’ a pretty puny speck of dust in the middle of nowhere. So let’s leave the universe alone, as none of us specks of dust genuinely know what is the case with it, and stick to what we can reasonably know in the context of your question.

Then the first item to be considered is a differentiation between things or events that are necessary, and those that are contingent. Now as you are speaking of humans, you are speaking of contingent things. Every act of every person is contingent, as ultimately only death removes choice (I’m not speaking of ethical or survival choices here). Therefore your claim that ‘it could not have happened any other way’ is false. If you had not written your question, I would not have written this reply. If you wish to claim that you were forced to write it, I don’t believe you. You weren’t dead when you wrote. QED.

Although this is ‘the short answer’, I don’t feel the necessity for a longer one, since only death terminates the process of learning. I believe you are confusing the unwillingness of humans to learn ‘better decisions’ with something else — maybe with our instinctual estate which frequently dominates our decisions and clouds our judgement. So the fact that something happened in the past is no argument for or against either determinism nor libertarianism. It is simply the contingent outcome of contingent occurrences; and each of these was a choice or a clutch of choices at the time.

For example, once you are in possession of certain facts, you would not fall for the easy trap you laid for yourself concerning the World Wars. Thus on the day before the outbreak of World War I, the Austrian High Command received three conflicting instructions from three government instrumentalities, two of which supported them in their intention of going to war, while one refused the support. The Austrians chose (repeat: chose) the supportive advice, whereupon they left the German government with egg on their collective faces. And now, in this contingency, the Germans felt they could not back out of supporting the Austrians who were already mobilising, without looking like idiots. So you can see in this example plenty of choices on both sides that were certainly not forced on anyone without a door standing open to retreat!

But I also want to give an example of choices which overturned the legal murder of hundreds of women in our civilisation, not all that long ago. These women were called ‘witches’ and supposed to be consorting with the devil. But when Descartes’ mechanistic philosophy gained its dominant standing in the latter half of the 17th century, it was gradually recognised that the commonly believed practises of witches (i.e. riding on a broomstick through the air) were physically impossible. In the outcome, by the choice of relevant authorities, witch burning was phased out quickly, after it had reached its unsalutary peak in Descartes’ own lifetime.

I hope you can see now that hammering away at the contingent facts of history as if they were pre-determined, is not a conclusion, but a fallacy.


One thought on “Is it pointless to have regrets about the past?

  1. I think Mike has asked a very interesting question. Tolstoy wrestled with just such personal and philosophical questions in his novel “War and Peace.” I understand, without deep research I admit, that Tolstoy was particularly influenced by the philosophers Schopenhauer and Leibniz. Now “influenced by” does not necessarily mean that one follows a philosopher slavishly. One could indeed deeply study and then react against a particular philosopher and so develop a very different system of thought.

    I use the phrase “personal and philosophical” because personal regret about the past links through to the wider issue of general historical inevitability and whether such an idea is valid or not. The question seems to fall into two parts. The first relates to determinism or indeterminism. The second part relates to something I might call “determinism after the fact”. Even if other choices were possible, are they meaningful after the fact? Tolstoy wrestled with this paradox.

    If we assume the position of complete determinism, that the world is material and fully mechanistic, as in Classical Science from Newton on, then the question is easy to answer. A mechanistic, deterministic world can only unfold in one way. Each event which happens is the only event which could have happened. However, complete determinism does not square with the idea of choice or free will. These ideas are incompatible and one or the other must be jettisoned.

    The only view, in the above dichotomy, which rescues choice or free will is indeterminism. If outcomes are potentially indeterminate then free will is possible but still not proven as actually existent. This distinction is important.

    (A) If determinism applies then no free will exists as there are no alternatives and no choices.

    (B) If indeterminism applies then free will is theoretically possible but not yet proven and a mechanism would still need to be proposed (and tested if possible).

    Modern science (quantum mechanics) has indeed demonstrated that indeterminate phenomena or indeterminate outcomes exist. For example, the radioactive decay of an individual atom of radioactive material is indeterminate. The individual event is undetermined until it happens. Predictability and seemingly determined causation happen at the macro level, the everyday level we say, as a result of the probabilities of these indeterminate events. Thus a radioactive material, in sufficient quantity, has a predictable, determined half-life.

    But indeterminate quantum phenomena can, very arguably, intrude into the macro world. If one atom decays at a particular point in time and releases one “ray” of radiation which enters a person and creates the precise cellular mutation which leads to a cancer which eventually kills the person… Then many things will be changed thereafter in the macro world. All the people who knew this person will also be affected. Thus one quantum indeterminate event at the moment it occurs can change the course of history as it were. That history is not determined until that event happens.

    However, does quantum indeterminacy explain how free will (originating as choices made in the brain) could occur? The brain would have to be an “indeterminacy engine”. That is, the brain would somehow have to be able to harness indeterminate quantum events to generate what we call “choice” and “free will”. There is now some neuroscience research being undertaken looking at structures in brain cells which might be small enough to be influenced by qauntum effects and events. If they could be so influenced they could possibly “harness” these effects to some purpose.

    A first step in conceiving these issues would be to consider that the brain could be an “indeterminacy engine” in the following fashion. The brain could use quantum indeterminancy as a “random seed”. Computers use a random seed to generate so-called pseudo-random numbers. Because our current computers function at a level above quantum indeterminacy they are in fact deterministic machines (perhaps apart from malfunctions). A deterministic machine cannot generate a true random number. Thus a “random seed” is taken from a somewhat random or arbitrary source. The computer’s time and date clock is a prime example. The precise time of an operation, down to milliseconds, is somewhat random as it were. It depends on when you started the process of starting the computer and invoking the program that uses the random seed and so on. So the computer time is fed into an algorithm as a random seed (starting point) to get a (pseudo) random number.

    The brain to have choices must perceive choices and have the means of executing them. Thus if four drinks are placed in front of a person (water, beer, soft drink, fruit juice) then the person has choices and if his hands are free and he has social permission then he can reach out and take one. How might the person choose? Physiological and psychological studies suggest we have multiple, layered control systems in the brain and nervous system as a whole. There are lower automatic responses and higher conditioned and learned responses. Above these again are what we might call executive decision making. Lower level systems are more automatic, more deterministic.

    If we are thirsty, it is innate to desire water. It might be called a determined instinct to drink it. If we have learned the different tastes and effects of drinking beer and soft drink we now have other desires invoked including learned desires (the desire for psychoactive effects or excessive sweetness). Finally, our executive brain appears to make a decision based on advanced assessments. “I am overweight (or a diabetic) and I have to drive later so I should take the water.” We can understand basic desires as provoking automatic and perhaps even near-deterministic responses. We can understand the executive part of the brain as making at least “pseudo-choices”. Advanced understanding of our condition and needs (from learning) means conceptual executive choices (ones we can frame as internal monologue in our native language) become at least potentially as powerful as instinctual prompts. So that sometimes at least we can make concept-driven “pseudo-choices”.

    How would the brain do this? I can only surmise that the idea of potentials could come to our rescue here. These potentials will be actual chemical-electrical potentials in the brain. Once the brain has choices, how could the brain’s executive functions (those we most closely associate with free will) augment one potential while damping others? The only method I can see is for the brain to be an “indeterminacy engine” and to harness indeterminate quantum effects to develop what we could initially call “pseudo- free will”. I cannot at this stage envision how it could do this. Whether it generates “pseudo- free will” in the sense that a computer can generate a pseudo random number or whether it generates genuine free will (which in turn would need to be defined) I also cannot envisage or determine at this stage in my thinking.

    To sum up my rather discursive post. The world (or universe if you will) has been shown by science (as best as science can determine to date) to be indeterminate. That is to say the future is not determined and indeterminate events are not determined until they happen. Many futures are possible looking forward from the “present instant”. Once indeterminate events are determined then that event has happened. The near past and our present condition, at the macro level, present as now determined and apparently inevitable but essentially that is not the case. This current instant in all its particulars was not inevitable. By the same token, the past is somewhat paradoxical too. Because of information loss, or so-called information entropy, a proportion of information from the past is totally lost. Even if we could gather all the current information in the universe, including information pointing to past events, we could not determine the full condition of the universe in the past. Part of the past is profoundly lost. It is now non-existent and there is no way to distinguish that from “never existent”.

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