Dr. Manhattan: Time, causality, and freedom

“Everything is preordained. Even my responses.”

“And you just go through the motions, acting them out? Is that what you are? The most powerful thing in the universe and you’re just a puppet following a script?”

“We’re all puppets, Laurie. I’m just a puppet who can see the strings.”


Dr. ManhattanThe graphic novel Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons is rightly considered a masterpiece. It explores the question of what it would really be like if there were “superheroes”, and does this as well as many other things with thought-provoking depth.

One of the characters in Watchmen is Dr. Jonathan Osterman, who becomes the only “superhero” to gain actual superpowers — the ability to manipulate matter at will and observe its microscopic structure as well as to see the future — and whose new identity is called “Dr. Manhattan”. The comic explores his alienation from humanity as his powers and altered perception of reality move him away from the world as seen by everyone else.

In this article, I want to look at some of the philosophical questions around Dr. Manhattan in more detail. I will focus on questions posed by his non-linear experience of time and its implications for freedom of the will. I will write a second post about his view of physics and life as a phenomenon later.

There will be some spoilers here, but not huge ones. I recommend everyone to read the original comic anyway. (The movie, while being a surprisingly close adaptation, is not as good and definitely not as deep and detailed, and I don’t recommend spoiling the comic by seeing the movie first.)

Non-linear perspective on time

Dr. Manhattan does not experience time as we do, one moment at a time in a fixed order. Instead, he seems to have a simultaneous view of every moment at once. At the very least, he can see the future and recall the past as if he were there. So, if he and you were sitting together around a table, you might recall memories or speculate about the future, but for you, the present moment would be the only one that is concretely present. He, on the other hand, would feel himself equally much sitting there at that moment as leaving the table a few minutes later, or in the past seeing atoms for the first time, or even repairing a watch back when he was still an ordinary human.

(Parenthetically, it does not always seem like this: At one point, he stops seeing the future clearly because of a then unknown cause of static. This sounds much more like precognition than timelessness. Also, chapter IV has him experiencing different moments in time simultaneously, but they seem to be simultaneous with specifically the linear order of time “now”. This last could be just a matter of perspective, I suppose. Anyway, this won’t really be relevant for the rest of the article.)

Needless to say, this makes things complicated when you’re used to existing in only one moment at a time. It’s also intuitively hard to understand, much less relate to. There is a scene early on where Dr. Manhattan’s girlfriend Laurie Juspeczyk gets angry when she discovers that, at the same time as he was making love with her, he was in another body making experiments in the next room. While this shows that he doesn’t understand her, since he doesn’t seem to understand this would upset her, it also suggests that she doesn’t understand him. Presumably to him doing it later would be just the same as doing it at the same time, since all moments are one.

Before I really go on to analyse Dr. Manhattan’s non-linear relationship with time, I can’t resist looking at another very different comic by Alan Moore that also features non-linear time. It works differently from Dr. Manhattan’s case, but it may get some thoughts going.

The following is a strip from Moore’s Maxwell the Magic Cat:

Dr Manhattan MaxwelltMCIn comics it is, of course, usual to represent the same character at different moments of time by different drawings of the same character in different panels. Here, the cat (I don’t know the strip, but I’ll assume it’s Maxwell) exists both as a partly continuous entity from panel to panel, and as separate cats in each panel. You can see how the cat in panel 1 treats the cat in panel 5 as separate from himself, but the cat in panels 2 and 3 is still a continuation of the cat in panel 1. The double nature of the character in different panels gets confusing: there’s a clear continuity in panels 1-3, and likewise 4-5; also a weak continuity between 3 and 4, since 4 makes sense coming after 3. But there is no continuity, in terms of Maxwell being one character, between 1-2 and 4-5. The cat in the first panels and the one in the last panels talk to each other as two different characters, and the one in the last panels doesn’t seem to remember shouting to himself from the first.

What’s perhaps more relevant here is the direction of causality in the comic. One line of causality goes from panel 1 (Maxwell shouts ahead) through panel 4 (Maxwell hears himself shouting something) to panel 5 (Maxwell responds) and then back to panel 2 (Maxwell hears the response, and waves) and then again to panel 5 (Maxwell sees himself waving in panel 2). This is an important part of what it means for time not to be linear: events don’t travel forward in a neat line. Causality can go from later panels (moments) to earlier ones.

Dr. Manhattan has a shaky relationship with this concept, however. He sees himself as preordained in spite of being affected by the future as well as the past, and hence as having no real free will.

The puppet who can see the strings

Dr. Manhattan repeatedly presents himself as having no choice about what he does. This is supposed to explain why he will not take action to change the future that he has seen coming (such as Kennedy’s assassination), and why he acts and reacts as if he does not know things until he is told them. For the first, there is no changing the future already foreseen. It is the future, and clearly there is only one. Seeing it is like seeing something in the same room for us: if you see it, already there, there’s no changing the fact that it is there now. We might change it given time to take action, but when you are seeing all of time like Dr. Manhattan, there is no time (to do anything like that), there is just the equivalent of one big present.

As for why Dr. Manhattan sometimes reacts as if he does not know something that he knows by seeing the future, this gets really inconsistent. It is as if causality only runs in one direction for him — but it doesn’t, since he can see and report the future. Since he does that, he does sometimes react based on what he has seen in the future, so the way he insists he won’t at other times doesn’t really make sense.

In any case, since Dr. Manhattan cannot make decisions based on what he might want to do given what he knows, he seems to have no free will. Further, his way of seeing what other people will do seems to call their free will into question. We’re shown on two occasions (page 16 of chapter IV and page 5 of chapter IX) that he predicts what people will do and they end up doing it even though they first assert they will not.

Looking at those examples, it’s easy to feel they are too facile. It would be easy to imagine another character resisting more competently. So let’s do that.

Non-linear causality and multiple futures

If we look at the Maxwell the Magic Cat comic again, we can perhaps imagine what an unchangeable future might look like. The past affects the future and the future affects the past, but it all forms a single, timeless whole. (Comics are are good for showing this, since they are static even as they represent time passing.)

But let’s try to break this pattern instead. Consider the last three panels from page 5 of chapter IX from Watchmen — I haven’t got a picture, so here’s a summary (with the exaggerated comic book emphasis on every other word retained):

Panel 1:

Dr. Manhattan: “We’re all puppets, Laurie. I’m just a puppet who can see the strings. We shall go up to the balcony. You can see the Nodus Gordii mountains from there.”

Laurie: “Well, what if I don’t?”

Panel 2:

(Laurie remains on the first floor while Dr. Manhattan ascends the stairs, ignoring her.)

Laurie: “Huh? What happens if I just stay down here and screw all your predictions, huh? What happens then?”

Panel 3:

(Laurie follows Dr. Manhattan up the stairs.)

Laurie: “Jon? I said ‘What happens then?'”

We can follow the causality again: a thread of causality goes from panel 3, where Laurie goes up the stairs; to panel 1, where Dr. Manhattan predicts that she will; to panel 2, where she asks what happens if she doesn’t and he is already climbing and doesn’t answer; to panel 3, where she goes after him because he doesn’t answer.

The causality is circular, then. But this makes possible the equivalent of the paradoxes of time-travel. Suppose things happened like this instead: In panel 3 (note that normally I would be saying something like “at time t“, but this is much nicer), Laurie ascends the stairs; this causes Dr. Manhattan to report that she will in panel 1; this causes her to ask what happens if she doesn’t in panel 2, and to test it, not to ascend the stairs in panel 3.

There is no inconsistency in this thread of causality followed in this order. There is an inconsistency in the fact that there are multiple versions of what happens in panel 3 (at that moment in time), and that the “original” events in panel 3 that started the chain of causality no longer happen at the end of the chain (so what starts it?)

If it were possible to act on information from the future like this, Dr. Manhattan would have no excuse not to do it. Given that he only sees the one future that will happen, he cannot change anything in this manner… but the very fact that he can see the future makes for a causal effect from the future into the past, and that should make changing the future as described here possible.

Notice that while this seems to allow free choice, and it’s a free choice to act against the prediction that causes it to go awry, this is not about some mysterious, un-causal property of free will. It’s about causality, and it could all be perfectly deterministic. Any kind of causality from the future to the past could lead to further causal effects from the past to the future that would “alter” the future. In other words, they could cause there to be a different state of affairs at a given time than there is in the version of that moment that affects the past. Recall the old “What if you go back and shoot your grandfather before he has children?” paradox.

Now, what the heck would different versions of the same moment mean? I used to think there could be no such things because there could be no such thing as “changing the past”. The past has already happened, so whatever way the future affected it, that would be something that had already happened in that future. Then it would all have to fit together some way as in that page above or the cat strip.

Since then, I have turned this idea around. Instead of thinking that the future cannot change the past because the past is what has already happened, I now think the future changing the past and the past then changing the future would make sense because in some sense, the direction of time as we understand it is just the direction of causality. So if the future affected the past, the past would not in all ways be the past as I thought about it — it wouldn’t be unalterable. A future sending causal influences back into the past would also be (like) the past for that past. There would no longer be a single privileged arrow of time that would say what came before what else.

That all said, I don’t know what the heck it would mean for there to be multiple futures affecting the past and being affected by it and by themselves. Such sending information into the past is purely fictional, so I cannot say that it would “really” work in some particular way. It kind of makes sense the way I explained it above, but even if you just imagine it, it leaves an odd sense that we don’t know “where” those alternatives timelines exist. The only really satisfying explanation for this that I’ve ever seen was the speculative one presented by David Deutsch in The Fabric of Reality, and that unfortunately relied on the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, which seems to be speculative fantasy.

But let’s accept that causality from the future to the past would perhaps make it necessary for there to be multiple (possible?) futures, however those would exist. Now, what about free will?

Free will and alternatives

There is no free will if you cannot choose between alternatives. People in general seem to know this intuitively, but it also leads to the biggest confusion about free will, which I will need to address briefly. The confusion is the idea that all determinism contradicts free will, since determinism means that what happens is determined absolutely by previous events and thus can happen only one way. Dr. Manhattan’s line about puppets surely has to do with this, though it wouldn’t absolutely have to be interpreted as saying that we are not free. We can still be puppets that pull our own strings in some sense.

I can’t do the whole determinism–indeterminism–free will thing here, as it would take an article longer than this one. That’s my Bachelor’s thesis, and likely a book I will write one day. I’ll just explain part of my own view and why it’s not indeterministic. What’s the role of alternatives, and why are we unfree if we don’t have them? Well, consider a situation where you are making a free choice. Let’s say you have thought of different alternatives, and now you weigh them to decide which one to take. Say you know Kennedy is going to be shot if you don’t do anything, and you have to choose whether to intervene.

For Dr. Manhattan, there is only one alternative: He’s already seen that it happens and that he doesn’t stop it. So there is no choice. This is why he would have to see multiple futures, even if only multiple possible futures, in order to have a choice. It’s not about determinism: I don’t think he would be unfree if he saw the multiple options and then chose one of them for his own reasons. (Would it be better if he chose randomly, without his reasons being able to affect this, or only partly able to?) To be free, you must first see all the options open before you make your choice between them, however determined (by your own motives) that choice may then be.

In free decisions, causality is needed to bring in information. That is to say, when you are making a choice between alternatives, you’ll generally want to know what the alternatives are, and what you can do to affect things in what way, and you need to get this information from somewhere. On the other hand, once you have the information, you can use it to make your choices. Dr. Manhattan shows this ability when he reports the future, but lacks it when he reacts as if he did not have some information already, because he is “predetermined”. As I said before, this doesn’t really make sense. Why is he sometimes determined only by the past? Perhaps the authors thought causality must only go in one direction and didn’t realise they were also depicting the opposite.

So, Dr. Manhattan could make free choices if he were to see multiple futures. Could he do it while seeing only one? Actually he does it even as it is — when he sometimes chooses to report the future. This is an intelligent choice based on all the alternatives, because he’s helping others understand his thinking at least a little and making use of information that the future is causing him to have. But it only happens sometimes, and of course he might say he was preordained to say these things as well, even though the causal link doesn’t go into the past.

Anyway, though this is an interesting thing to note, it’s missing the point. Could there be free choice in a frozen, Maxwell-the-Cat scenario with information coming from the future? Recall that if you gained information from a future that you would then change, there would be an inconsistency — there would need to be multiple versions of some later panel.

I can’t really answer the question yet. It’s too hard to imagine what it would be like to have free choice while seeing all moments of your existence at once, in only one version that was already set. (This scenario reminds me of some views of God.) I suspect it’s not really impossible, but you would not be making the choices at any moment. You would timelessly have made them already. This may sound unfree because you can imagine regretting some of them and having no option to change them, but why, if you could see things like this, would you have chosen something you would regret? Anyway, recall that there is no regretting later in this scenario, no more than there is the moment before a choice when you need the options open. There is no later or before.

Freedom and motivation

It might be Dr. Manhattan’s defining characteristic that he just doesn’t care. He’s detached from humanity and makes no effort to make the world a better place, even though he’s the most powerful being in the world. Indeed, he could surely dispel the shadow of nuclear destruction looming large over the whole Cold-War setting of the comic, by secretly disarming all the nuclear weapons on both sides. (Secretly because, in an obvious point of plot necessity, we’re told he couldn’t destroy all the Soviet nukes if they were launched at America at once, so clearly he’d need a bit of time to destroy all of them. But secrecy should be no problem with those powers.) But he doesn’t care. For the geeks out there, he’s the epitome of the True Neutral character alignment.

There are, perhaps, two related sides to this not caring. One is more straightforwardly not caring; he’s more interested in atoms than people. Upon hearing of a death early in the story, his response was “A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles. Structurally, there’s no discernible difference. Life and death are unquantifiable abstracts. Why should I be concerned?” Partly this may be because he has so little in common with everyone else and apparently so few emotions.

This can’t be the whole explanation, because he does say things such as that the only thing keeping him in touch with humanity is his relationship to his girlfriend — so it is possible for him to care, he just does so narrowly and frankly selfishly. The other side is where he really has an excuse: He sees things differently, and he can’t choose his own choices anyway.

If we take his notion of not being free at face value without considering the inconsistencies, and at a guess this is probably closer to the authors’ intentions, he has an excuse: He can’t do differently. But one wonders what he would do instead if he did care. He would probably see a different future then — even if he could not be persuaded to do things by information from the future, what would stop the forward causality in his self from making him do things like destroy the nuclear weapons? And maybe he would rage over the fact that he can’t stop Kennedy’s assassination, again illogically since he would then be reacting to information from the future already. Or would he try, knowing he would fail?

I guess what I’m getting at with this is that we can’t really know what freedom Dr. Manhattan would be capable of if he actually cared enough to try. His indifference and his lack of freedom are intertwined too closely, each potentially causing the other. Further, I could imagine this affecting his creators too. If they had been writing a character who wanted to be free, perhaps they would have come up with new ways for him to do it, perhaps even if it would have ultimately involved changing the mechanics of what he’s physically capable of.

The portrayal of such an alien being in Watchmen isn’t perfect, but it’s still quite deep, and it raises deep philosophical questions into view. Those questions are too difficult to answer in full — for me just now at any rate — but I have here been able to do quite a lot with them. As often happens with both science fiction and other genres, examining the alien tells us surprising things about the familiar.

The second part on “reductionism, life, and miracles” can be found here.


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