What’s Expected of Us

It’s a tough choice…

This is a warning. Please read carefully.

By now you’ve probably seen a Predictor; millions of them have been sold by the time you’re reading this. For those who haven’t seen one, it’s a small device, like a remote for opening your car door. Its only features are a button and a big green LED. The light flashes if you press the button. Specifically, the light flashes one second before you press the button.

This is how Ted Chiang‘s short story begins. The idea of the story starts with a piece of irrefutable evidence that a device called Predictor can predict exactly when you will press the big button on the Predictor. The consequences of this are shattering. Our worldview where we are the ultimate agents of our actions disappears once it becomes obvious that whatever choice you take regarding when to press the button is already determined. The assumption here being that since it was already determined even before you knew it, you have had no agency in the decision to press the button. We have certain assumptions about our the timed nature of our experiences.

a) It is sequential and one-directional

b) We are the agents of our actions (i.e. our actions are determined by us)

c) Agency implies awareness of and sense of responsibility before every action we take

The predictor breaks assumptions B and C and it raises the possibility that we are not fully aware of all our decisions and finally, that rather than being agents of our actions, we simply rationalise those actions so that they are consistent with our previous actions. The end result is a storyline that unites all the actions of an individual in a timed context.


And yet I know that, because free will is an illusion, it’s all predetermined who will descend into akinetic mutism and who won’t. There’s nothing anyone can do about it — you can’t choose the effect the Predictor has on you. Some of you will succumb and some of you won’t, and my sending this warning won’t alter those proportions. So why did I do it?

Because I had no choice.