Blog Archives

Meditations on the Sorcery of Free Will

In one of my Expository Writing sections, my students and I have been discussing free will a fair amount. We began with Freud’s take on the matter (it’s all mother’s fault), moved on to Nietzsche (free will is an invention of religions to determine guilt and wrongdoing), and we’ve also been reading a fair amount of current neuro-psychological articles dealing with the actual science behind whether we are or are not capable of free will.

The general consensus seems to be “yes and no”, in that it all depends on what your definition of “free will” is. Roy Baumeister, in this article on Slate, insists that much of the hoopla surrounding the “end of free will” in the scientific community is because the idea of free will is so often poorly defined or misunderstood. The people Nietzsche was yelling at insisted that free will was a manifestation of a soul – an entity apart from your physical body (and brain) able to make decisions independently of physical and emotional stimuli. This kind of free will is effectively unverifiable – there is no evidence to suggest its existence, at least not scientifically. That, cautions Baumeister, is no reason to doubt the existence of free will. Rather than some kind of spiritual or metaphysical process, he insists that there is some really good, strong physical evidence of human beings making free decisions. We are, evolutionarily speaking, the most advanced organisms we know of in the categories of self-control and rational choice which, he claims, is the true basis of what we consider to be free will. Baumeister writes:

To be a member of a group with culture, people must be able to understand the culture’s rules for actions, including moral principles and formal laws. They need to be able to talk about their choices with others, participate in group decisions, and carry out their assigned role. Culture can bring immense benefits, from cooked rice to the iPhone, but it only works if people cooperate and obey the rules.

He goes on to say that “free will” doesn’t really mean the capacity to do whatever you want, whenever you want to; rather it is his belief that free will is the capacity to use rational choice and self-control to follow rules and, thereby, benefit. I’ve read other articles that say similar things, too. Interesting stuff.

See not the future of the man, but his heart's desire, instead.

See not the future of the man, but his heart’s desire, instead.

Here Comes the Wizards…

Now, this wouldn’t be much of a post from me if I left it at that, would it? Naturally, this train of thought has led me to consider how augury (or ‘divination’, if you like) might work in a fantastic setting like, say, Alandar. In that world, sorcery is used regularly as a means to predict and prepare for the future. There are many variations of it and all are very complex, but the most powerful kind of augury is scrying. The magi (and therefore the Defenders) have used scrying to see what will happen or is happening in a particular place (assuming they know the place) or to a particular person (assuming they know the person). In the sequel to my debut novel (The Oldest Trick, part 1 out February!), my hero finds himself locked into a particular course of action. He wonders whether he truly has the freedom to cease to walk that path. You see, his enemies have set things up so that the most apparently advantageous course of action is the one he is taking now. He knows this. The thing is, Tyvian has no evidence to tell him what a better course of action would be, so what real choice does he have to stop doing what he’s doing?

Part of the trick with scrying is that it isn’t perfect. Yes, a sorcerer can see the future, but only one possible future. It takes many, many scrys of the same situation to reliably predict what the most likely outcome is, much like the predictive models used by meteorologists. Given that anybody is capable of making many different decisions in may different situations, the precise path one plots through life is intensely variable. Situations that are unpredictable by nature and require a good deal of split-second decision making (such as accidents, battles, and the like) require that much more work to gain a useful prediction and, therefore, the magi of Alandar often can’t predict things more than a few minutes to a few hours ahead of time.

But untangling the tapestry of fate is not the only way to know what someone will do. There is another way: know who they are. Yes, scrying what might happen to a man will reveal all the choices that are possible, but this really isn’t much different than being the man himself, in that moment. If you know somebody well enough, you can determine what course of action they will take more often than not, anyway, so long as you know what options are open to them. Somebody who knows me would know that I would never harm a child or allow a child to come to harm if I could possibly prevent it, and so if I’m in a situation where a little kid is in a burning house and I can help, it isn’t much of a leap to know that I would run into that burning building. This is part of what Baumeister means when he discusses ‘self control and rational choice’ as an evolutionary model that has enabled our species to thrive. That, though, might not be really the same thing as free will. After all, if I will always choose the same path when presented with the same choices in the same circumstances, how free am I, really? Aren’t I just some kind of particularly advanced algorithm? Aren’t we all?

Do we need to see the future to really know what we’ll do in the future? If not, how can that be called ‘free will,’ exactly?

The Real Hero

This semester in my lit survey course, I decided to focus the theme of our readings around the idea of heroism, the hero’s journey, and the various and complicated ways heroics are played out in prose, poetry, and on screen. As it’s the first time I’m teaching the course in this way, there will be some wrinkles to iron out for the next time around, but thus far it has been fairly effective. My students have a working understanding of Campbell’s Monomyth and we’ve finally moved away from the stereotypical image of the hero as he (note the gender) who protects the weak and innocent from the wicked and powerful. There’s a lot more to it than that, as a cursory investigation into heroic figures will quickly show.

Sometimes, there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there.

Sometimes, there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there.

To wrap up the semester, we’re taking a look at two deconstructionist approaches to the heroic myth. First is Watchmen, the iconic graphic novel by Moore and Gibson. The second is The Big Lebowski by the Cohen brothers. Both stories feature ‘heroic’ characters in a certain sense – they solve the mystery, they save the world, they do justice to the unjust. However, there is an issue of intent and nature at play in both stories that holds the heroic acts (the external heroism, if you will) as suspect and hollow when taken in context of the personal intent of the heroes (the internal heroism of the characters). I don’t wish to ruin the ending of either tale, but it is hard to say that either the Dude or Rorschach are internally heroic or intend to do what is ‘right’ for the sake of it. If good comes of their behavior, it is primarily accidental or derivative.

So, that begs the question: Does a hero need intent? If you go out one morning and, purely by accident, foil a bank robbery by slipping on a banana peel and save the lives of seven people, are you a hero? Most of us would say no. Let me provide a different example: if you are forced, at gunpoint, to save a child from a burning house, are you a hero? The answer becomes less clear. Final example: If you are compelled by a psychological or social disorder to run around each evening beating up muggers and dragging them to jail, does that make you heroic? This last instance is where we so commonly come down on the side of ‘yes’, though we seldom have the question put to us so succinctly. Batman (and Rorschach) are compelled by trauma to do what they do in order to feel sane or whole. It can be convincingly argued that they don’t do it because of philosophical ideals any moreso than the guy who slips on the banana peel. If the outcome of the behavior in question is negative (the ‘hero’ does not run around bringing crooks to justice but rather assaults women in an attempt to steal their underwear), the insanity defense will readily and often successfully be deployed in their trial: “They are not responsible for their actions, your honor – this man is out of his freaking mind and needs intense psychiatric care.”

The issue of intent pivots around the long-standing debate over the existence of free will. Not to delve too deeply into philosophy and neuroscience, but in brief it goes like this: It is debatable that you make decisions based upon some concept of independent will. It can be argued that all of us are amalgams of environmental influence and genetic predisposition that dictates our behavior and that, outside of additional outside influence, we cannot change ourselves. Yes, yes – I know a lot of you disagree, and the argument in favor of free will is also robust, so this matter is very far from settled. The question, though, has a significant impact on how we identify heroism. Can you be a bad person but do good things and then be considered good? If I grudgingly agree to save the world, complaining about it the entire time, do I deserve the accolades of the masses for their salvation?

Furnishing answers to this question is far from easy. It is a concept I explore with my character, Tyvian Reldamar, in The Iron Ring. Like me, Tyvian doesn’t know either. Part of telling a story, though, is the exploration of our world, no matter of you set your tale in Alandar or alternate 1985 New York City or even in the City of Angels in the early 90s.

Sweaty Cogs in the Flesh Machine

Just read a really interesting, potentially terrifying article in the Boston Globe. The gist of it is this: Social Sciences (Psychology, Sociology, etc.) may, at some point, become active, hard, engineerable sciences. That is to say, you could conceivably engineer a person or society, through some mechanism, to behave predictably and controllably.

Perhaps no gene, but probably a quantifiable equation. We just haven’t isolated it yet.

Though I can hear all the civil libertarians out there freaking out collectively as they read the above, this revelation should not, ultimately, come as much of a surprise to us. Not only is it not new to science fiction (Asimov’s psychohistory is essentially a version of applicable social sciences, and Heinlein’s stuff trafficks in the like, as well), but it also isn’t new to our own, real world. Take, by way of example, how Target figured out a teen girl was pregnant before her parents did, or any of the myriad other targeted web-ad campaigns that operate, essentially, on predicting human behavior in mechanistic ways. It’s crude at the moment, yes, but it will get better and better as our lives progress, no doubt.

All of us with any degree of EQ or empathy are able to finesse our fellow humans into behaving in predictable patterns. The reason for this is, essentially, that we humans aren’t all that spontaneous, on average. True spontaneity isn’t actual randomness – humans aren’t really capable of that or, at least, not functional ones – so much as it is the observation of an individual operating along unfamiliar personality parameters. If you can refine your equations and perfect your methods, you can account for the one girl in the office who will occasionally show up riding a unicycle or give presents made out of moose dung.

Is this difficult? Gods, yes! Is it impossible? Probably not. Is it depressing? Maybe.

It all depends on what is done with it. These mechanisms, by their very design, won’t be able to get us to behave against our nature. In that sense, we won’t be doing things we wouldn’t do otherwise in a similar situation, and so being ‘controlled’ is perhaps not the right word. Managed? Manipulated? Perhaps. I don’t know if this is good or bad, on the whole, but if we could manage to ‘manipulate’ the world into being nice and working together through feats of social engineering, is that so awful? I mean, presuming we could do it without burning/killing/oppressing anyone?

In any event, the science fiction potential of this kind of stuff is immense. I confess to already using theories similar to this spread throughout my writing in both the fantasy and scifi genres, and this article simply spurs me further in that direction. It terrifies as well as fascinates; it gives me hope and steals it away in the same breath. That right there, folks, is the place where great science fiction is born.

Or at least I hope so…

Laughing From the Mountaintop

My Technology in Literature class wrapped up discussion of HG Wells’ The Time Machine recently. Every time I read the work, the thing that most interests me is the simple explanation the Time Traveler gives at the very beginning regarding the feasibility of time travel. In essence, he suggest that we already do travel in time–when we remember something or dream of things past–but we cannot remain for any period of time. Thus, we are as constrained in travel in the fourth dimension just as primitive man was in the third (i.e. you can jump up and down or fall of a cliff, but you can’t remain or travel freely through the dimension of height without the assistance of technology).

Wells envisions the solution to this problem pretty simply–the Time Machine works rather like a railroad engine. It can go forward and in reverse, it has a throttle and brakes, and the ‘engineer’ manipulates the whole process with a pair of simple levers. On the whole, it seems even less complicated than driving a car.

Many have been the time-travel tales since then. However, we have envisioned the process differently. One does not

Some theories of time travel are more plausible than others...

travel through time in the same way as we walk down the street or fly to Atlanta; the devices involve some kind of sudden leap or jolting transference. The process is instantaneous, or nearly so. We go there in Deloreans or weird tubes (12 Monkeys) or telephone booths or even hot tubs. I sort of doubt, however, that time travel (assuming it’s possible) would work that way. I kinda think that Wells, for all his antiquity, had the better theory.

Consider this: How has all travel, thus far, functioned? Air, sea, space, or land, we move progressively across space. Now, granted, that’s space, and we’re talking time. Time, though, isn’t supremely different than space. We can’t define what makes up space anymore than we can time (ask a physicist sometime about ‘what space is made of’ and get ready for some weird, mostly theoretical stuff). The primary difference, though, is that we are better able to  perceive of space than we are time. Perhaps, for this reason, time travel is beyond us–we just aren’t smart enough to ‘see’ it as it is.

Not a Straight Line

The average person on the street sees time as an arrow–we proceed from point A to point B along the minutes and the hours and so on. This is why time-travel stories are so concerned about ‘altering the past to destroy the future’. We are, arrogantly, considering time to be a single path of causality and that, if we change something back then, then we will necessarily alter something right now. Time, though, isn’t a line or an arrow. It’s a dimension, like width, depth, and height. If you could travel through time, you could go sideways as well as back and forth. You could even, perhaps, look at time from a different direction.

The Mountaintop of Boethius

Oddly enough, much of my knowledge of theoretical physics has been supported by existential philosophy, and vice versa. I don’t claim to be an expert in either, but I can readily see the connections. Thus, my reading of The Consolation of Philosophy in my freshman-year western culture seminar fundamentally changed my perception of what time travel might consist of.

In this work, there is a part where Philosophy is trying to explain to Boethius how it is that God can be omniscient while, at the same time, mankind can be given free will. I don’t have the text in front of me right now, but in summation, Boethius asks how it could be that all of his actions and the results of these actions could be known to God and, yet, he might still have command over what he does. Couldn’t he then do something God didn’t expect and upset the whole divine apple-cart?

Philosophy’s answer goes like this: God is not part of the flow of time as Boethius or, indeed, as any mortal sees it. God looks upon the world from a mountaintop, and beneath Him is spread all that Was, Will Be, and Is, existing for Him as a kind of eternal Present. He is able to perceive of all time simultaneously. Thus, He can look down at what any one person is doing now, see how it relates to what they have done, and then see how it will lead to what they will do. Presumably, when taking quantum physics into account here, God would be able to see the outcomes of all possible outcomes of all possible actions, viewing them simultaneously, and thus be omniscient without really interfering with an individual’s decision-making process. This idea is echoed in Grendel’s discussion with the Dragon in Gardner’s Grendel, as well as the Architect of The Matrix: Reloaded.

How does this connect to time travel? Well, it makes the device needed to make it happen both monstrously more complex than any other we’ve seen, but also simpler in operation. All that is needed is to be able to see time as it is–as a kind of dimension across which we may travel in any direction–and then make the machine go there. It’s not an instantaneous jump or a lightning-bound explosion, it’s more like a stroll down from a mountain.

The thing is, though, it’s the kind of stroll only a God seems to be able to make.