Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Free Will and Charity

Past, Present, and Future

One of the baffling things about our existence is the one-dimensionality of time.

For all we see ourselves as having free will, souls, and consciousness, the past extends behind us in a single line. There are no multiple pasts. There is only one. I'm not talking about conflicting narratives of the past, or course. I am assuming that only one thing actually happened, even if we all view the event differently.

The same applies to our future. There may be multiple possible futures, but in actuality there is only one future. The possibility space extends like a cone into which our present travels as a bead on a wire. Someone with infinite knowledge of the present should be able to follow the path through to the future, assuming that infinite knowledge includes what leads people to choose their own actions. Our choices affect the path, but in the end, only one reality will exist, another point on the fading line of our history.

All of this assumes that one could, somehow, outside of time, view the present moment traveling along this path. Free will makes the choice. But there is knowledge that only one choice can eventually be made. That is our future.


Judaism sees the giver of charity as more blessed than the recipient. The logic is a little tortuous, I must say.

The recipient is already destined to receive or not receive the gift. What isn't destined is how the recipient will or won't get it. Each person is already destined to have or not have their money. What isn't destined is how they will be gaining or losing it.

A giver of charity is utilizing a precious moment to give away money that he was going to lose anyway to someone who was going to get it anyway. In essence, he simply makes the choice to be the vessel for the transaction. That makes the gift a blessing for the giver. The recipient was going to get the money anyway, and the giver was going to lose the money anyway. But the giver acquired an opportunity to gain a blessing in the process.

In this way, charity's ideals play with the strange concepts of both free-will and destination at the same time.

Levels of Charity

The Rambam speaks of eight levels of charity:

The highest level is to invest in a person so that they they are able to overcome poverty.

This level may require no giving at all on the part of the giver; all that may be required is a loan. In fact, it may even result in the giver gaining a profit as a result. (Note that it has to really be an investment, and not simply a loan with interest, which is forbidden.) The net result is an end to the need for charity and no one had to be embarrassed as a result.

The next level is where neither the giver nor recipient know each other.

The next level is where the giver knows the recipient, but the recipient does not know the giver. In this way, the recipient will not be embarrassed if he ever meets the giver.

The next level is where the recipient knows the giver, but the giver does not know the recipient. In this way, the giver will not be tempted to feel haughty if he ever meets the recipient.

For the remaining levels, all parties know each other.

The next level is when the giver gives before being asked.

The next level is when the giver gives as much as needed when he is asked.

The next level is when the giver gives less than is needed, but does so cheerfully.

The last level is giving less than is needed and resentfully. Which is still better than not giving at all.

I don't know how often one has the opportunity to do the highest level of charity, but I suspect that it is more often than it would appear.


P.S. I could probably relate all this to trading and negotiation in games, but I won't.


Anonymous said...

There is a fairly common theory which says that there are an infinite number of pasts, presents, and futures. All possible arrangements of whatever the (actual) smallest particles of matter and/or energy, according to the theory, exist as seperate universes.

The theory says that time actually does not travel, as we percieve it, but instead is like a series of arrangements, like a roll of film. Time, through causality, links each of these possible universes into a sequence. Someone viewing the universe from outside of time might see it as a tree; it branches infinitely, each intersection representing a choice or difference in the universe, and by following from the beginning and continuing outwards, you could follow any possible timeline.

The past, as it relates to the present, is of course a single line. If there are infinite universes, there are multiple pasts, but only one can lead to the present. There is no way to follow an alternate set of branches and still reach the same fork in the tree.

However, because all possible arrangements of the universe occur, it would seem that we make all possible choices. This brings up the question of whether we actually make a decision; if we make all choices, do we really make a choice at all?

Nobody really knows. We have no way of seeing other universes, or even of determining if any other universes exist at all. For all we know, nothing exists, or maybe there is one universe, or infinite universe, or fourty-two universes, or maybe we're just dreaming. Or maybe we are all part of someone else's dream. To quote a certain Magrathean, perhaps the "chances of finding out what really is going on are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is to say hang the sense of it and just keep yourself occupied."

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Jeb: Yes, I remember that from All the Myriad Ways by Larry Niven.

I consider that theory to be total nonsense. It is completely unverifiable and unfalsifiable. It also means that every single arrangement of every single molecule exists in every single state at all times, which is essentially meaningless.

Even if it was true, it would not affect in any way the same questions we have as for what we have to do in our own universe with our own choices.


Anonymous said...

As I understand it, according to quantum physics, some quantum processes are inherently random (with certain probabilities), so someone with infinite and perfect knowledge of the present might still not be able to follow the path through to the future, but I could be wrong, since my knowledge of quantum physics is superficial. There's also the whole issue of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which I'm sure interferes in strange ways with the idea of someone with perfect and infinite knowledge of the present trying to lay out exactly how the future will unfold.

As for the highest form of charity:

Yehuda Berlinger said...

If I'm not mistaken, Heisenberg's theory is based on a few ideas, among which are (grossly simplified):

- You can only know about something by bouncing a photon off of it. This would not necessarily apply to God.

- Items exist in multiple potential states that collapse to an actual state only upon observation. Another one which would not necessarily apply to God.

And lots of other stuff, which I'm too lazy to look at right now.


Anonymous said...

I didn't mean to make theological allusions. Obviously, for any thing, you could say that it doesn't necessarily apply to God. In any case, I think that the uncertainty principle is more basic that what you say, and doesn't have to do with bouncing photons off things. As I understand it, it is inherently impossible to know both the position and velocity (I believe it's those two properties) of a particle at the same time, because knowing one to a greater degree of accuracy increases the uncertainty on the other. Wikipedia says that it's a result from the mathematics of the quantum physics:

As for the rest of the Copenhagen interpretation, I don't know enough to get into it intelligently.