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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?

Sword Vs Gun

When it comes to duels, two weapons rule them all: the sword and the gun. For all Legolas did for the bow, for as much stick-fighting as there was in Pacific Rim, and no matter how many fireballs Goku conjures from his hands, nothing will ever beat these two weapons in terms of ‘cool.’ Also, interestingly enough, they seem to be somehow opposed to one another. Guns and swords do not mix, nor do their aficionados. Nowhere is this more clear than in the contest for Luke’s affections in Star Wars. Obi Wan decries blasters (guns) as clumsy and random; Han points out that “hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” It is as though these two means of dispensing death were somehow at odds with one another, at least thematically. Why is that?

Your Weapon: Control of Yourself

Your Weapon: Control of Yourself

We can perhaps take some of our cues from Star Wars itself. The sword is the weapon of the Jedi – an “elegant weapon from a more civilized age.” It is used by the forces of good to defeat evil and for the forces of wisdom and order to impose peace in realms of chaos and madness. It is metaphorically significant that the Jedi reflect back the blaster bolts of their foes: they turn the violence of their enemies back upon them. Their defense is sufficient to destroy their enemies, since it is their enemies’ aggression (the Dark Side) that ultimately consumes itself. The sword is a symbol of control over oneself, of a kind of spiritual unity between the body and the physical world that combines to become a perfect weapon.

This metaphor is borne through a lot of heroic movies and literature. It can be seen that Inigo Montoya cannot defeat Count Rugen until and unless he can control his rage and focus on his swordsmanship – his initial chase of Rugen and frantic attempts to catch him almost kill him. It is only when he achieves a kind of spiritual peace in the form of resignation (“I am sorry, Father. I failed you.”), that he again regains control. Likewise, the blade of Isildur, Narsil, is not re-forged until the race of Men is once again ready to take control of themselves (in the form of Aragorn) and restore order to their fractured kingdoms. In the reverse, we see Conan bound by his obsession to regain his father’s sword and learn the riddle of steel. It is only when he realizes that the sword is no more important than the spirit that wields it (i.e. when he gains control of himself and marshals his rage to serve his purposes) that he can use the Atlantean blade to defeat Thulsa Doom.

The sword is an implement of separation, in a certain literal sense. In this vein, it is the tool by which the hero chooses and categorizes the world around him. It is power, but the power to control both oneself and others. It is defense and offense balanced and necessarily shackled to the will of the wielder. It is personal. This is even recognized in cultures as ancient as that of Japan, where the concepts of zanshin and kokoro paint a picture of a way of combat and swordsmanship that center less on the sword and more on one’s ability to control and be aware of the world and themselves in it.

Your Weapon: Raw Power

Your Weapon: Raw Power

The gun, meanwhile, is something different. The gun represents not control but power, raw and unfiltered. It is, furthermore, power that is not tied to the wielder, but to forces outside the wielder’s scope of influence. In literal fact, guns harness the powers of physics and chemistry – the forces of nature itself – to destroy the enemy. To be sure, physical skill is required to use the gun well, but not to the level of the sword. Guns are loud, destructive, indiscriminate, and volatile. They are not defensive in nature – they do not protect except if used preemptively to destroy. If the sword symbolizes civilization and order, the gun symbolizes chaos and barbarism. This is not to say the gun is morally inferior – I’m not necessarily ascribing to Obi Wan’s distaste for firearms – but it is an indication of their symbolic purpose. The gun is nature – a forest fire, a storm, the raging sea. All that chaos and destructive disorder is harnessed so that it may be used by humanity to destroy its enemies. The gun is black sorcery; it is the ultimate power trip.

Again, such a use for the gun can be clearly witnessed in so many stories and, indeed, in historical attitudes towards them. In westerns, for example, the gun is a fearful tool. It takes skill to wield, but the true challenge is not so much in the wielding as it is in how fast one may choose to deploy it. In this sense, the gun is only the tool and the real conflict is a moral one – to destroy or not to destroy, and how soon. It is not accidental that the Matrix films used guns to destroy the nobodies yet opted for martial arts to face the true foes. There is no moral challenge in gunning down the unnamed cogs of a soulless machine network, but to face Ultimate Evil, one must master themselves and therefore hand-t0-hand combat (the realm of the sword) is more dramatically appropriate.

In instances where the gun is used as the final arbiter of the conflict, there is a fatalism and suddenness to the exchange. When William Munny faces down Little Bill in Unforgiven, the true action is in the dialogue preceding the end, not in the series of explosions that follow. Why? Well, the gun lacks the physical language of the sword to express the combatants’ experience of the conflict, for lack of a better description. When in a gunfight, it is not so much the fight itself that matters, as the weapons employed are not extensions of themselves but rather representations of elemental forces.

It is part of this that once tarnished the gun when it first became common in any given society. The sword was a weapon of honor, requiring devotion and control to master, wheras the gun was (and is) a kind of power that could be distributed evenly to everyone, controlled or otherwise. The democratization of deadly power was resisted by those who wished to maintain control (if any fool with money could equip the peasantry with firearms, what would become of the Samurai or Knight or Cavalier?), as they saw in the gun an opposing viewpoint to their understanding of warfare. It was no longer one-on-one, skill against skill alone. It was a free-for-all, decided by fate as often as skill. The wisdom of the gun is not how to fight, but whether to do so at all and when. Violence was no longer a gentleman’s game.

Now, as to which I prefer, I am torn. I feel both have great symbolic weight, and I find myself drifting between the two. In the end, it is important also to remember another kind of metaphor they both symbolize: that of the male phallus, and the corresponding ‘male’ desire to dominate his surroundings. Whether shooting or stabbing, Dr. Freud still has the last word, I’m afraid.

In Dreams Born

Like a lot of writers, I’m really good at doing lots of work on projects that have nothing to do with the project I’m supposed to be working on. It’s a kind of constructive procrastination, I guess, and it has its uses. Lately, while my short story projects are a bit stalled and the novel I’m working on plods along at a moderate pace, I’ve been spending entirely too much time fleshing out the land of Nyxos, a setting for future stories, novels, etc..

WG-2010-Birth-of-DreamsThe primary, operative element of information about Nyxos is that all the power in this world, all the sorcerous might and arcane ability, finds its genesis in dreams. Dreamstuff can be made into physical objects; dreams can be spied upon, invaded, and even taxed. Some species live more in dreams than they do in ‘reality’ and, indeed, the line between the two is often held into question. A lot of this is really rough, mind you, but that’s the gist of it.

The primary villain in the world is the Oneirarch, the Dream Tyrant, who ‘taxes’ the dreams of his subjects to both keep them in line and to build his own power. He is something out of a nightmare – not seen, but glimpsed in the corners of nightmares. He is a presence felt, but not known. His priests maintain a fleet of dreamships – powerful vessels of pure dreamstuff that sail the skies of Nyxos, imposing the Onierarch’s will through the terrifying violence of nightmares-made-real.

But as I develop these concepts, I’m left with the question: Of what shape should the dreamworld take? The closest analog in fantasy literature I know of is Tel’aran’rhiod, which is from Jordan’s Wheel of Time – a world of dreams that is unified into a coherent, if malleable, landscape that loosely mirrors the real world. This is a kind of ‘universalist’ approach to dreams (i.e. we all visit the same dreamworld while we dream, we just lack the skills to navigate it). On the other end of the spectrum we have the world of dreams as set out by Inception, wherein the dreamworld is not a universal landscape but rather an idiosyncratic construction of an individual’s subconscious. Each dreamer is unique, each dream has its own unique foibles, and each is a reflection of individual will rather than collective belief.

To some extent, this seems to find us floating between the poles of none other than Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. These two giants of psychoanalysis explored the importance of dreams in our psychological landscape, and while they share many of the same ideas, there are key differences. The most significant, perhaps, is the fact that Jung sees dreams as plugged into a kind of collective subconscious – an amalgam of myth and religious folklore that permeated the subconscious of all people and was shared between them. This, of course, is more in line with Tel’aran’rhiod than the dreamscapes of Inception. Freud, meanwhile, sees dreams as reflections of problems felt by the dreamer in the waking world (and these problems he saw as frequently sexual in nature). Jung agrees with his former teacher to a point (i.e. that dreams reflect waking problems), but takes it one step further to insist that the dream isn’t mere wish-fulfillment caused by some conscious issue in need of resolution, but is itself an entity worthy of independent consideration. To paraphrase this paper by Brlizg on the matter, whereas Freud might wonder what caused a dream and how to fix it, Jung wondered what the dream itself meant on its own terms.

This connection between dreams and the real world and the connection between one person’s dreams and another’s is something worthy of personal reflection as well as a direction for fantastic extrapolation. It’s something I’m going to need to study at greater length, at any rate, before Nyxos is ready to go.

Now, back to more pressing writing projects.