Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

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Summer Memories

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

As a kid in the upper Midwest, I used to revel in summer. I looked forward to the last bell of school and the opportunity to wend my way through my days with minimal structure for the next three months.

Sure, I engaged in some team sports and took swimming lessons, but the bulk of my time was spent playing outside with kids in the neighborhood, most of whom were like me. We played ditch and tag and other games too, I’m sure, though I think we mostly explored.

Living in a suburb near land that had not yet been developed, we had a large area to wander and study. One of our neighbors was a farm boy named Paul who knew a great deal about nature and who wasn’t shy about explaining it to us. He was a couple years older too, so he had a natural authority about him.

We’d climb trees and collect wildlife, looking for new creatures. At one point, we became intrigued by tiger salamanders. Paul told us they sometimes fell into window wells on their way to the pond, so we went from house to house, rescuing them from their prisons, collecting perhaps as many as 200.

If only the story had stopped there. Unfortunately, however, we piled them into a discarded bathtub, leaving them overnight, intending to play with them the next day. The following morning we discovered that a lot of them had died, crushed by their comrades.

We guiltily released the others, but the damage was done. For years afterwards, we rarely saw salamanders in the neighborhood. We did learn, however, from our mistakes. We never took another salamander. We still collected butterflies, fireflies, frogs and even garter snakes, but always in reasonable numbers, and we began letting them go at the end of our day.

Curiosity compelled our actions. We bore our captives no malice. On the contrary, we found them fascinating. We wanted to study them, to see how they navigated their world. If we killed them, it was accidentally. Yet in our enthusiasm, being ignorant children, we harmed many of our subjects.

Perhaps that’s why I never became a hunter, or much of a fisherman, for that matter. I feel like I’ve already committed my share of damage to the world. I look still, but I no longer touch.

I grow milkweed and other insect-friendly plants. I refuse to fertilize my lawn. I lower my thermostat in the winter and use only a small window air conditioner in my bedroom in the summer, just so I can sleep.

Guilt runs deep, even if it doesn’t run all day.

I still live in the neighborhood where I grew up. The ravine where we spent the bulk of our summers is now a freeway, a concrete divider between my home and the Mississippi River, where the only wildlife I can discern are the crazy motorists who talk and text instead of focusing on what they’re supposed to be doing.

And I have two window wells that I check every so often, looking for the elusive tiger salamander, hoping to find one that I can free from its prison and set on the path toward the pond behind my house.


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The Garden Seal

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

I got a garden seal the other day. I’d been looking forward to it for quite some time, having ordered it months ago, and it finally came, shipped by FedEx and left on my front stoop, blocking the door.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but when I opened the crate, sure enough, there it was: a garden seal. What, you may ask, is a garden seal? Well, as I’ve since learned, it’s kind of like a Hawaiian Monk Seal or a Mediterranean Monk Seal. It’s a subspecies of earless seal genetically engineered specifically for gardens, or more precisely, for fountains in gardens.

My fountain had previously contained just a few sculptures, and I thought it a bit boring. Yes, the statue of Donald Trump peeing on Russian prostitutes brought lots of laughs from visitors, but I wanted to class up the place a little so I ordered the garden seal.

What I didn’t realize when I ordered it was that it was going to be alive. I thought it was just another statue. I guess that’s why it looked so realistic. And I didn’t read the fine print. When I went back and checked, sure enough, there it was – practically impossible to find – a disclaimer that the seal was both a living creature and nonrefundable.

So I have a garden seal now. It took me a while to warm up to it. First of all, you wouldn’t believe how much fish it eats. Secondly, it barks at all hours, for reasons that are often indecipherable. And third, it doesn’t seem to care for me very much. It tolerates me, of course, because I feed it, but it mostly stays away from me, looking out at the street, searching for pedestrians.

It’s become a bit of a nuisance frankly, begging for treats from everyone who wanders by. So I’ve taken to selling pieces of fish like some street vendor, letting my neighbors fund part of the expense. And why not, since they’re the ones benefitting the most from its presence.

It wouldn’t be so bad if the seal would just stay in the damn fountain, but lately it’s been in the habit of exploring the neighborhood at night, flippering from house to house in search of better grub.

The woman across the street told me it invaded her backyard the other day while she was trying to enjoy a picnic with her family. The seal somehow opened the back gate, barked at their dog to scare it away, then plopped its head down into the chocolate cake, snuffling and grunting happily as it devoured every last morsel. She generously refrained from calling the cops because her children found the experience delightful, but she warned me not to let the beast loose again.

Yet every time I try to chain it up, it attacks me, baring its fangs and charging me. I tried everything I could to get rid of it. The company that sold it to me went out of business. The zoo said they’re full up of seals and then reported me to the humane society.

Other people have called the police multiple times the past few weeks, and they threaten to arrest me every time they show up. They probably would have if they could have found someone to care for the creature. Instead they’ve ignored my entreaties to take the animal with them and issued me several citations for harboring a nuisance.

That said, I sort of like having the seal now. After all, it’s a friggin’ seal! In my yard! In my fountain! I wanted something that made a statement and I got it. So I really can’t complain. Seals are awesome! Everyone should think about getting one.

Oh, by the way, if anyone out there is interested in a garden seal, I’m sure I could find one for you cheap.


Here is the link to the Amazon page: ==>

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The Dandelion Yard

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

People put a lot of attention into their yards, using them as a way of defining themselves and a way of presenting themselves to the world. Yards aren’t just yards for most people; they’re statements.

They plant shrubs and flowers, trees and pools, boulders and sculptures – but mostly they plant grass. Fescue and rye, bentgrass and kikuyu, zoysia and bluegrass. Different shades of green that they water and fertilize, nurturing the sod and obliterating the weeds that dare show themselves.

Infestations of dandelions and creeping Charlie, crabgrass and quackgrass, clover and broadleaf plantain: all these must be destroyed so as to display the most perfect lawn for the world (or at least the neighborhood) to see.

This conception of a beautiful lawn arises from the lawns we’ve seen of European gardens, like Versaille and Buckingham Palace, where tremendous effort has produced amazing vistas and lush growth, grounds truly worthy of the royalty who reside therein.

But a few people see their yards differently; these people like dandelions and creeping Charlie. They see the proliferation of color – yellow and purple and green – and wonder why anyone wants to settle for a lawn that’s only green, only grass, regimented and fertilized and groomed to within an inch of its life.

They’re willing to incur the wrath of their neighbors over the windblown seeds of destruction that emanate from their tiny but oh so numerous weapons.

Another group concedes that green lawns look prettier to our conditioned eyes, but they refuse to put chemicals on their lawns, not wishing to contribute to increased algae growth in lakes and streams. The fancy word for the problem is eutrophication – excessive richness of nutrients in a body of water that can cause dense growth of plant life and the death of animal life due to a lack of oxygen.

According to NOAA, 65 percent of US estuaries and coastal water bodies are moderately to severely degraded by excessive nutrient inputs, which lead to algal blooms and low-oxygen (hypoxic) waters that can kill fish and seagrass and reduce essential fish habitats.

Most of the problem seems to be nitrogen and phosphorus, which often comes from fertilizer runoff, septic system effluent and atmospheric fallout from burning fossil fuels. These nutrients cause increased algae growth, which blocks sunlight, eventually killing plants, which are then eaten by bacteria, which use up the remaining oxygen and give off carbon dioxide.

I live on a small lake (more of a pond) that gets covered in algae by early June, essentially becoming a swamp. I watch my neighbors fertilize their yards, preserving their precious grass, criticizing my dandelion and creeping Charlie-covered lawn as an eyesore while they bemoan the sorry state of the lake, wondering why someone doesn’t do something about it.

I no longer engage in futile arguments with them over the proper way to maintain one’s property. I just smile and walk away.


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Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

I’ve been looking into sleep lately and relearned a few things I thought I’d pass on. First, circadian rhythms are our bodies’ biological clocks, which work with light and darkness to naturally put us to sleep and wake us up. Second, melatonin is a sleep hormone, while cortisol is a hormone that helps us wake up. And third, artificial light of all kinds affects our circadian rhythms, which control the timing of many physiological processes.

It’s pretty widely known that we’re not getting enough sleep. Less well known is that one of the major causes is the blue light emanating from our electronic devices, which has been shown to trigger sleeplessness. Blue light suppresses melatonin production for more than twice as long as other light wavelengths and alters circadian rhythms by twice the degree. It can also increase the frequency of waking during the night.

Further, blue light prevents body temperature from dropping at night. Part of how we settle into sleep is by gradually lowering our body temperature. When that process gets disrupted, we don’t sleep as well. And since we sleep fewer hours than we should anyway, anything that diminishes our quality of sleep is dangerous.

So how do we overcome this disruption to our sleep patterns?

What I find helpful is to read in bed on an old-fashioned, information-dispensing device – not an iPad or phone. I’m talking about paper and ink, getting away from my electronics as a way of preparing my brain for slumber. Yes, there are blue-light-blocking glasses that help, and I could set my lights to gradually turn off at a certain time too, though I would still need the blue-light filters if I wanted to read off a screen.

So, a book, huh? Or a magazine? How quaint. And yet, very effective at inducing slumber for me. I find the best kind of reading before bed is nonfiction or poetry, something interesting enough that I’m willing or even eager to get back to it every night, but not so captivating that I’ll stay up late to find out what happens next.

Less helpful is reading a novel. With most fiction, I have to remember who all the characters are and what they did last and who’s trying to destroy whom and who’s in love with whom. By the time I recall all that, I’m too tired to read.

I particularly enjoy nonfiction – short pieces/essays I can read in a few minutes. That way, if I’m not tired after finishing one, I can move on to a second or even third piece. However, even longer books will work since I can read a few pages and put the volume down without worrying about whether I’m going to remember what I read last night.

I like reading about the world, and recent research bears out that we retain information better if we sleep shortly after learning something new. Sleep apparently helps consolidate memory. So you not only learn something, but you retain it better than you otherwise would.

That said, there are certain things you might not want to read unless you like having nightmares. Like, for example, political material. Sweet dreams.


Here’s the link to the Amazon page: ==>

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The Inertia of Life

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We wait.

We keep expecting something to happen, something better than what we’re experiencing in the present, a change in fortune or circumstance, an idea perhaps that we can pursue to a satisfactory conclusion.

After all, this can’t be all there is to life. Getting up in the morning, going to work, eating, sleeping, playing, loving, navigating the same old neighborhoods with the same circle of companions, doing things pretty much the same way year in and year out until retirement, at which point we sit in a chair and wait to die.

There ought to be something greater, something that will make a difference to the world, but what? If we just leave our homes and begin walking, what will we find? Maybe we’ll encounter someone who can tell us what we should be doing with our lives. On the other hand, it’s possible we’ll just walk until we lay down by the side of the road and get picked up by the police for loitering.

We think we might be at an important crossroad, where we can either continue on as we’re going or change direction, and yet despite the impulse to change, to go in a more fulfilling direction, we keep to our path. We think about doing something greater, something altruistic, but we don’t actually do it.

We consider how wonderful it would be to fight ignorance or save the whales or donate our time to tutor inner city kids, but we just write a check or maybe we only think about writing a check. We don’t go to the trouble of changing our behavior.

We linger in our present, enduring our ennui, expecting or at least hoping for some sign that now is the time to make the changes we suspect we ought to be making. We’re afraid to set off on our own, without guidance, without confirming that there’s enough support out there to get us through the journey.

All we need is a push, and then we’ll do it. But if we change and no one else does, if we stop fertilizing our grass and using our power lawnmowers and no one else sacrifices for the sake of the greater good, then we’re suckers. If we donate a portion of our savings to help fight illiteracy and no one else does, then haven’t we thrown away our money? Because after all, how much help can our donation provide?

We want to do more, we really do, but we don’t want to engage in pointless gestures. If we give our money away to help the poor, won’t we then be poor? If we quit our jobs and join Greenpeace to try to save the whales when other countries continue to hunt them, have we thrown away our careers?

Inertia is a powerful force.

We admire those who make the sacrifice, who pursue the noble cause. We wish we had that kind of courage, but we accept that we don’t. Instead we applaud their efforts and say that we will join them one day soon. Not today, but sometime.

And in the meantime, we wait.


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How Is Humanity Doing?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Where are we going? We move through spacetime, consuming energy and dispensing it, growing from blastocysts to embryos to babies to children to adolescents to adults, learning as we proceed, but most of what we learn seems to be little better than what our ancestors learned.

Sure, we have different skillsets than our grandparents. Most of us can do things they never dreamed of, while they did things we can’t conceive of. But have we made progress?

Some of the problems we’re struggling with are different than the ones they encountered but that’s largely because we’ve discovered new information informing us of challenges people didn’t anticipate 50 or 60 years ago. For example, few of us understood the severity of global warming back then. A fair number of us don’t understand it still.

Many of the truths we uncover about ourselves are essentially the same truths espoused by Socrates and Aristotle. We fear the new and different. We hang onto our tribal affiliations. When we reach full adulthood, we achieve wisdom of a sort, but as a species, have we actually grown?

A new generation of celebrities writes books about how we can be our best selves, spouting off “knowledge” that has been passed down for generations and yet continually gets forgotten.

Humans today still engage in despicable acts: terrorism, mass shootings, murder, rape, robbery. Those are just a few radical individuals, you say. Most people are good. Yet we can’t stop those few radicals. They continue on, disrupting our society, while we offer thoughts and prayers for their victims as if those words will somehow magically prevent further violent actions.

We rail against the large companies that enrich the wealthy off the backs of the poor and the middle class even as we continue to buy goods from Walmart and Amazon. We decry the spoilage of nature as we dispose of trash that overflows our landfills. We castigate our elected officials and then re-elect those same people, hoping for change.

We don’t seem able to change the groups we belong to, and we can’t change the world if we can’t change those groups. So how are we better than we used to be? In what way have we progressed as a society?

The truth is that we haven’t. We’re not better than we used to be; we’re not smarter; we’re not more ethical. Yes, we’ve made strides. We no longer believe slavery is good (except for a few outliers who think religious texts justify it). We generally believe in gender equality, though that’s not universal.

But it’s disappointing that we’re still largely the specimens we were a decade ago, a century ago, a millennium ago. The rich and strong still decide the fate of the weak and the poor, who still struggle against the constraints placed upon them by the strong and the wealthy.

We don’t cooperate with each other as much as compete against one another. We work with our tribes to exert control over other tribes, always striving for advantage, never content to assist the whole of humanity unless we can accrue at least the promise of some benefit to ourselves.

We are no better, no more noble, than elephants or lions or chimpanzees. We just think we are. And that maybe makes us worse.

Disaster-FrontCover-230x335 (1)

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Pascal’s Wager

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Evangelicals of every religion insist they know God’s will and they’re determined to discuss it with you. They read their holy texts and listen to their preachers and feel compelled to go forth and spread the good word to others. They suffer from the delusion that they know what’s best for everyone, that they alone possess the truth and that we can never be our fullest selves unless we accept their truth as our own.

One of the most common arguments they make is some version of Pascal’s Wager, which delineates four possibilities:

1 – If you believe in God and accept his teachings, and if God exists, you will go to heaven and live in his glorious presence for all eternity.

2 – If you believe in God and he doesn’t exist, you haven’t lost anything. You will live a full life and be a good person, but there will be no downside to your belief.

3 – If you don’t believe in God and refuse his teachings, and if God does exist, you will be eternally damned, condemned to an eternity outside his presence.

4 – If God doesn’t exist and you don’t believe in him, you haven’t lost anything. You get to live whatever kind of life you want.

So of the four possibilities, one provides the possibility of eternal life and happiness, one provides the threat of eternal damnation, and two (the two where God doesn’t exist) provide no real consequences. Why not just give yourself to God? You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

But there’s a big flaw in their argument and that’s the assumption that you have nothing to lose by believing in God. That may not actually be true. For some people, believing in God means giving up everything you are. You might see the universe as ruled by physical laws, and now you’re being asked to surrender that belief and instead believe that an arbitrary being can change the rules as he sees fit.

Instead of being a self-actualized person, you must now be a sheep in God’s flock. You must become one of his many believers rather than the person you spent a lifetime becoming, overcoming numerous obstacles without any apparent assistance from a deity.

Now you have to believe that God is inserting himself into the world, influencing events and making magical things happen as part of his master plan for all of us. We think the world is going to be one way and then God intervenes and changes it in accordance with his will.

So the rules get changed in the middle of the game. You move through life under a certain set of guidelines, expecting consequences to follow from their causes. But according to these evangelicals, God can step in at any time and alter anything so that you can’t predict what’s going to happen even though you should be able to.

This doesn’t sound like you’re giving up nothing. It sounds to me like you’re giving up a lot. Self-respect, dignity, pride in accomplishment, freedom of thought and belief. All these things make up who you are, and you only have to give all of them away in order to accept religion into your life. What’s so hard about that?

Turn me into a sheep, please.

Of course, they don’t see it this way. They believe that they’ve found some divine meaning, some holy First Cause that created everything and everyone, and guides all of us if only we accept his leadership. They just want to help us be “better,” by which they mean they want us to be like them.

“We want you to join us in heaven. We’re only doing this for you.” Sorry, but what they really want is assurance that they’re right. If we just agree with them, if we all believe the same things, then we must be right. Right?

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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The Sacred Individual

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We Americans have come to value Thoreau over Jane Addams – individualism over social activism – preferring to elevate ourselves over our neighbors, convinced that selfishness is the correct approach to living life. Of course, we deny being selfish. Instead, we bandy about phrases like individual rights.

But individualism leads us to bad places. We all need each other to succeed in our society. Even the simple act of driving requires the assistance of our fellow travelers. We assume they will obey the rules of the road just as we obey them.

What if someone decides that the rules don’t matter to him? He’s special, so he ought to be able to drive wherever he wants, on the sidewalk or through a red light because he’s different, he’s following a calling we can’t hear.

You can see how that would devastate our society. So the needs of the many have to outweigh the needs of the few.

Not always, say the individualists. Sometimes we have to give individuals the freedom to succeed without burdensome regulation. Let the market handle all that. Let the meat producers inspect their own products; let Boeing inspect its own planes.

And don’t forget constitutional rights like freedom of religion. Who are you, government, to tell me that I have to vaccinate my children? My religious rights supersede your piddly social concerns. Or the right to bear arms. Who are you, government, to tell me what kind of weapons I can buy? I have rights granted me by the founding fathers that you can’t take away.

We love the story of the lone warrior who has endured tragedy and overcome it, elevating those around him in the process, and we imagine ourselves as fighters too, working to change society to align more closely with our view of what it ought to be. Never mind that we might be wrong or that we only fight when someone tries to make us do something we don’t want to do.

This belief in the power of the individual leads us to diminish the needs of the collective. What’s the harm in refusing to vaccinate my child? Or in buying a gas guzzler and driving it around the countryside for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon? Who am I really harming?

I go my own way. No one can tell me what to do. But this is where things break down. If no one can tell anyone else what to do, then attempts at collective effort will be difficult at best. If we all go our own way, we can’t arrive at a common destination.

So we form groups and try to bring others on board. Yet, if the groups pursue opposing goals (pro-choice vs. anti-abortion, e.g.), we get nowhere. And how do we take collective action when we can’t even agree on the underlying facts?

Ideally, we turn over decision-making on the big issues to a consortium of leaders who will, after careful deliberation and consultation with experts, dictate our actions. That’s what government is supposed to be. Unfortunately, our leaders have fallen victim to the same polarization that afflicts us all. Half want X, half want Y.

The individual reigns, society eventually falls.


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Our Post-Reality World

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We live in a post-reality world now, one that allows for truth to be whatever the loudest voice says it is. Obviously, this isn’t true for all of us, or even for the majority of us, but it’s true for a sizable minority.

A basketball star says that the earth is flat and because he has tens of thousands of fans and followers, some of whom aren’t that well grounded in reality, a few believe him. The president lies practically every time he opens his mouth and because he has millions of fans and followers, some of them believe him.

How did we get to this point? Mostly by virtue of disgust over the status quo.

A lot of people have become overwhelmed by the world, by current economic conditions and socio-political happenings. They see others getting ahead while they aren’t, or they witness strange events that appear inexplicable, like a single glacier in Greenland increasing in size as the vast majority around the world shrink.

They hear about ocean rise threatening Miami Beach, yet Miami Beach continues to survive. They’re inundated with talk of collusion with Russia and countervailing chants of hoaxes and witch hunts, and then the summary of the Mueller report glosses over the president’s active encouragement of the Russians’ interference in the election.

All these “truths” come at them 100 miles an hour, all these experts telling them something bad is going on, and they have to figure out who to believe because when they look at the world around them, it doesn’t seem that different. The rich and powerful still get preferential treatment; the poor still get shafted.

Not knowing whom to trust, a lot of folks have decided to get their news from extremist sources, usually on the internet, where the people dishing out the mass hysteria often don’t believe it themselves. They just want the ratings and the attention.

A few take action based on information they believe is real, like the idiot who shot up a pizza place because the psychotic Infowars conspiracy theorist Alex Jones convinced him there was a child abuse operation there run by Hillary Clinton. These deluded individuals are dangerous, but fortunately they’re relatively few.

On the converse side, a lot of politicians and other elites talk about how great everything is and how great it’s going to be. They praise themselves for all the wonderful things they’ve done to make people’s lives better. But the reality for most folks isn’t any different than it’s been for the past decade or so.

There’s a disconnect between what people are hearing and the reality on the ground. The result is that we question why we should believe these people in positions of authority. They tell us things that don’t track with our perceptions of the world. They appeal to our emotions to further their careers, ignoring reality because it’s messy and complicated.

It’s much easier to understand the simplistic assertion that doesn’t align with reality. If none of it is real, then why not accept the word of someone who is like us, someone who claims to believe what we want to believe? It’s comforting to latch onto people who seem sure of themselves, who are forceful in their opinions.

The problem, of course, is that most realities don’t care whether you believe in them. Most realities just exist. A few of them (subjective realities like the fact that money has value) exist only because we believe in them. If we all believed money didn’t have value, it wouldn’t.

But for objective reality, our beliefs matter not at all. So it’s discouraging that so many of us have conflated objective and subjective reality, deciding that we can choose whichever truth we want. We need to do a better job of educating ourselves as to what objective reality is.


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Time May Not Be Linear

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

One theory posits that time, as part of space-time, exists at every point, always, in conjunction with space, so that what we think of as the future and the past exist simultaneously with the present.

Your birth and death are already written into space-time; you just haven’t experienced the latter yet. Every decision you make, every action you take, is already plotted on a four-dimensional graph such that a being (say, God) could look at your life from outside that graph and see it all at once.

There’s your fifth birthday party, and that’s the time you had to go to the hospital. And there’s your wedding and the birth of your first child. This is when you lost your job, that over there is when you will suffer your first heart attack, and that other point is when you will enter a nursing home.

It’s just difficult for us to understand this concept because we perceive time in a linear fashion, passing from events we remember to those we can only imagine. For us, time appears to be flowing like a river, from the source to the sea.

If this theory is true, and there’s a good chance it is, then there may be no such thing as objective free will. Our lives may be preordained by whatever power created the universe, whether that be a deity or some unknown causative factor like a simple explosion.

But even if there really isn’t true free will, I would submit that there still is a kind of subjective free will, an individual free will that’s personal to each and every one of us. We have the ability to decide our lives and even if they’re already locked in, we don’t know that, so for us, it still seems like free will.

If you don’t know that you’re going to pick up that apple and eat it, then it still feels like a choice when you decide to do it. And in fact, it still is a choice. It may be one that “God” has already seen, but you yourself haven’t seen it. You don’t know, going in, that you will make that particular choice. So it’s still a choice freely made.

Only something outside the space-time continuum would be able to discern that the choice was inevitable. Everyone inside the continuum would have imperfect knowledge of your actions. We might guess that you would choose to eat the apple, but we can’t know.

For us then, not knowing the inevitability of the future, our will is essentially free. We perceive that we have free will just as we perceive that time flows from past to future. If we knew we were destined to make a specific choice, that would be different. But even if you know that you will make a choice between eating and not eating the apple (without knowing which you will choose at any given moment), that is not the same thing as knowing you will eat the apple.

Thus, our imperfect knowledge, our limited perception of the universe, makes our choices, for all intents and purposes, free from predestination. Our limited ability to understand the universe actually benefits us. Since we, trapped inside space-time, don’t know what we will do at any given point, we get to choose.


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