“All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion that we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.”
Remember how Billy Pilgrim came unstuck in time? He could revisit his past, time and again, or peek into his future. The horrific firebombing of the beautiful city of Dresden and Pilgrim’s captivity in the planet Tralfamadore were two of many oft visited time destinations.
This last week, I had the opportunity to re-read the book as an assignment for my local book club. What struck me about it, and I had failed to appreciate the first time around, was the intricate relationship between the story and the neuroscience of free will.
Tralfamadorians don’t perceive time as an arrow, but as an all-encompassing experience of simultaneous past, present and future. Without before and after, there is no cause and effect. To ask yourself, “Why me?” in the face of tragedy makes no sense: there is no why.
Those of us Earthlings who perceive time linearly feel that we make most of our decisions freely. But is our experience of free will an illusion? That we make decisions is not questionable: we think about the consequences of our actions and weigh pros and cons hundreds of times a day. Just in the last few hours, I have made half a dozen decisions about what to eat and drink. As I’m writing this post, every word feels like an act of volition. The issue is whether any other courses of action were actually available to me, or instead were mere possibilities I could never act upon.
Billy Pilgrim, as an adoptive Tralfamadorian, did not believe in free will. It is less clear whether Kurt Vonnegut, who witnessed the destruction of Dresden as a POW, did.
Even if you’ve read Slaughterhouse 5 before, I encourage you to re-read it this weekend, now from a neuroscience perspective. In addition to free will, you may want to consider the nature of Billy Pilgrim’s time travel: Is he suffering from a delusion brought on by PTSD or head trauma? Can he literally travel in time? Or is he experiencing time-space synesthesia, visualizing time as a circle rather than a straight line? Let us know what you think in the Comments.
Farewell, hello, farewell, hello.