Monday, April 18, 2011

Autism diaries XXV: Fate vs. Free Will

Why does he always ask his most interesting questions at 10:30 at night in the bathroom? Here I am, standing next to the toilet, ready to oversee his toothbrushing. He enters the room, walks over to the sink, takes his toothbrush, and then pauses, staring into the middle distance. Laying down his toothbrush he crouches down to the tile floor, turned away from me. Here we go. I close the toilet bowl and sit on the lid.


"Maybe, after I die, I will start a new life in a new universe." (Ever the skeptic, he's a big believer in Multiverse Theory). He turns his head back towards me.

"Maybe you've already died many times in many universes."

He turns away excitedly. "Maybe when I start a new life in another universe, my memory resets."

Actually, one of our most interesting conversations about the universe took place not in the upstairs bathroom, but in front of an exhibit at the New Haven Eli Whitney Museum last December: a complex, pinball machine-like structure of shoots, ramps, and drops, with various levers and pendula directing marbles one way or another depending on which direction they happen to be sloping or swinging in the moment.

"How many different ways can the marble go?" I asked him.

Lifting his finger he traced a dozen or so paths.

"Are the marbles' paths random?"

"No. They're not random." His answer was decisive.

"But do we know which way the marble will go when we drop it down the top shoot?"

"No." He paused. "It's random to us but it's not random."

"So it's ransom to us, but it's actually determined." I knew he knew the concept of determined; I seized on the chance to introduce its label.

He liked it. "It's determined."

"What about the weather? Is it random or determined?"

"It's determined."

"What about the universe?"

"Determined."

"But if it's determined, how can you have choices? How can you have free will?"

His solution to this age-old problem was instantaneous. "My brain is part of the universe."

I trotted out another one. "Are you the same as your brain?"

"Yes!"

Cut back to the upstairs bathroom, one spring evening a few days ago.

"What happens if you go past the edge of the universe?" he asks, putting down the toothpaste.

"Maybe by going past the edge of the universe you make it bigger." (I can play at this game, too).

"Maybe the universe is expanding in all four dimensions. The past is already there, but the future is not yet written." He puts down his toothbrush. "Maybe the universe is like a cone." And he demonstrates a cone expanding in multiple directions from a single point.

I shift my weight on the toilet seat, thinking of Minkowskian space time.

"Is the future determined?" I ask.

"Yes. All of the living things write the future together."

"What about nonliving things?"

"Nonliving things are determined by the big bang." he replies.

"And by living things."

"So the future hasn't been written. Your future is what you make it," he replies, switching gears from Hermann Minkowski to John Calvin by way of Back to the Future III. "I need to prove that I'm in a good universe by behaving myself. And looking carefully when I cross the street."

"Yes!"

1 comment:

Lsquared said...

Congratulations mom! (behaving myself and looking both ways--truly excellent).

My kids deep thoughts always seem to happen at bed time too. It's probably just because that's when they slow down enough to think, but it always seems like a clever plan to evade bed time.