I read this story about a device that lights up or buzzes or does something moments before it you press a button or something, effectively killing the notion of free will. I read the recently, online, but it could have been floating around for a longer time.

You couldn't outwit the device no matter how hard you tried. You could pretend you are going to press and not press but it won't light up/buzz. You accidentally press it and it would buzz/light up just before. The story was more like an essay, like how a news article would read. I don't remember the ending. I found it while browsing through a few Hugo-award winning writers' short stories, though not sure who.

I also remember a part where people go mad trying to outwit the device into not knowing what they will do. But no matter how random they are, it always knows because there is no such thing as free will.

I remembered one more piece of information. Someone reaches out to the present from the future — not sure why. It end's with a line something like "because I had to."

I have searched for stories of free will and it shows a lot of things, but not this story. I have tried device and free will in the same search to no avail.

  • James Hogan wrote a novel titled The Two Faces of Tomorrow that had a vague similarity to this, but lacked the simple future-triggered device.
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Commented Aug 17, 2018 at 11:50
  • Hello there, and welcome to Science Fiction & Fantasy. If you want to, stop by in chat, you should have enough reputation to do so.
    – SQB
    Commented Aug 17, 2018 at 12:05
  • vsauce did this experiment in his "Mind Field" YouTube series.
    – tkausl
    Commented Aug 18, 2018 at 11:53
  • 3
    Although there may be a short story with this premise, there was a real scientific experiment which tested this using state-of-the-art functional brain imaging and managed to predict which button a person would press before they were consciously aware of it themselves a remarkable percentage of the time.
    – forest
    Commented Aug 19, 2018 at 3:50
  • 1
    Silly scientists, confusing the thought (decision of which button to press) with its expression (internally verbalized words expressing the thought.)
    – JRE
    Commented Aug 19, 2018 at 22:56

3 Answers 3


This sounds to me like Ted Chiang's "What's expected of us", posted online here. It matches the description of effect preceding cause, and ends with the line:

So why did I do it?

Because I had no choice.

  • 1
    Perhaps put the ending in spoilers?
    – Carl
    Commented Aug 17, 2018 at 16:20
  • 8
    It was already mentioned in the question. Commented Aug 17, 2018 at 16:49
  • @Carl, I originally did, but TheLethalCarrot's edit removed them, likely because he believed they weren't required Commented Aug 17, 2018 at 17:06
  • @Carl I just read the “article” and I didn’t feel like having read the final two sentences first made it less enjoyable. Also, after reading the question (which states that the story involves the absence of free will), these two sentences are a logical consequence.
    – 11684
    Commented Aug 17, 2018 at 19:01
  • Recently collected in Exhalation.
    – SQB
    Commented May 6, 2019 at 17:40

As a short story, this appears to be (or be based on) "The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline", by Isaac Asimov (published 1948).

Thiotimoline was extracted from rose hips, as I recall, and was so impossibly soluble in water that it dissolved some 1.12 seconds before the water was added. This, with photoelectric detection of dissolution of the powder triggering adding water to another sample, was the basis of the "thiotimoline battery" which would signal an arbitrary length of time before it was triggered -- no matter what the triggering event (if you firmly decided, after the battery signaled, that you were not going to trigger it, an event -- disaster -- as big as necessary would cause triggering).

  • 1
    I thought of this while reading the question as well. As usual for Asimov, there was a lot of thought put into it. I especially liked his idea of chaining them to lengthen the duration of the pre-saturation, as well as its application as a hurricane bomb. Commented Aug 17, 2018 at 18:02

I found the answer to my own question. The Story is "Whats expected of us" by Ted Chiang and it appears here.

  • 20
    You should be able to accept your own answer 48 hours after posting the question (as your accounts are now merged). However, another user posted the same answer at around the same time you wrote this so you could also accept that one.
    – TheLethalCarrot
    Commented Aug 17, 2018 at 12:00

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