Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Trap of Prophecy

Frank Herbert's Dune books are one of my favorite science fiction series of all time. Every two or three years, I try to re-read the entire thing (ditto Lord of the Rings, I should add). I realize it's not to everyone's taste, but it most certainly is to mine. I am also a huge fan of Avalon Hill's game (perversely, it was a love of the game that led me to read the books in the first place), but have never had the chance to read the role-playing game. I understand the latter goes for astronomical prices on eBay. The less said about the attempts of his son to continue and expand the series, the better.

One of the many themes of the series is the notion that Prescience (the ability to accurately see the future, granted by a combination of both the Spice and the genetic engineering of the Bene Gesserit over countless generations; a variation of the same is used by the Guild Navigators to predict safe flight paths for their enormous Highliners as they travel through space) "locks in" the future. Without a Prescient observer, the future is open and in flux, and thus subject to human Free Will.

However, once Prescience is used to observe the future, much like Schrödinger's cat, its unknown state becomes known and the future becomes locked into place. This becomes a central theme of Children of Dune and God Emperor of Dune, where Leto's "Golden Path" is seen as a path of liberation from the Prescient trap that his father, Muad'dib, has inadvertently laid by seeing too much of the future. Leto is attempting to free humanity of the future that has been locked into place, and does so ultimately at the cost of his own life*.

In RPG terms, the same effect can be said to take hold, when it comes to divination. Spells that predict future events place the game master in something of a bind, but it should always be remembered that it is a bind of the spell caster's own making. In Adventures Dark and Deep, this is brought out explicitly in spells like "Luck", which states "This spell allows the caster to know when someone is going to have a “lucky streak." The spell is not, in and of itself, creating the streak of good luck, but rather is simply observing it, and having done so, the lucky streak is becoming ingrained into the fabric of reality, granting the creature observed certain bonuses.

In real terms, however, those aren't bonuses. They're simply nudges of probability in game terms to make random outcomes align more closely to the predicted "lucky streak". And once that predicted lucky streak has been predicted, the laws of the universe (i.e., the behind-the-scenes rules of the game) are altered to accommodate the prediction.

This same principle can be used for any sort of future-prediction, and neatly answers the question of free will. There's free will, all right, but once the outcome of the choices are observed (i.e., divined), those choices have become, in effect, already made.
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* No, you don't get spoiler warnings for a book that was published in 1981. Hey! Cujo has rabies! Surprise!