“Do you believe that you have free will?”
It was a typical question from an atypical friend. Steve (a name that will suit our purposes) was an always interesting guy. Fascinated by a range of esoteric pursuits, with the mental acuity to digest them, he came that night bearing this odd query. And given that every other man present at this shindig was screaming at the recalcitrant pixels on a tele-vision, I was happy for his company.
“Well sure. At least I am pretty sure,” I qualified.
“Do you believe in God?”
An even odder question in context of both its predecessor as well as his previously stated position as an agnostic leaning toward atheism.
“What does one have to do with the other?” I asked.
“Alright. Let’s hear it.”
He went on to opine that if there was no God, no Ghost in the Machine, that every thought I was having at that moment, had had up to that moment throughout my entire life, was nothing more than the results of chemical reactions and sequences of firing neurons. Reactions and sequences that were perfectly predictable given the previously predictable inputs of my own chemical creation and environment. Not predictable by any means we have at our disposal, but with a perfect computer, every thought and action by every living creature could be accurately modeled and thus foreseen as nothing more than the results of atoms and molecules behaving according to known physical laws. Our sense of autonomous and unique self being an illusion created by innumerable inputs and reactions that we are only able to perceive (given the obvious limitations in our capacity to do otherwise) as “free will.” “Does a dog have free will? A fish? An ant? A bacterium? It’s simply a difference in operational complexity.”
“That look you’re giving me is the predictable reaction to this novel input,” he chuckled.
He went on to report the source of this theory, though (as he should have perhaps accurately modeled) I did not retain it. He concluded with the position that only through God (whatever God that may be), offering a tincture of the devine, could living creatures be imbued with an actual will that operated outside the input/output paradigm of physical laws. That only through the possession of a soul, and not merely a biological shell, could a perfect computer sequence every chemical reaction that had ever predated this very moment–and still not accurately calculate exactly what you would think.
Of course discussion of every facet related to this angel-on-pin-head question can be found in many Internet venues. And whether it exists in actuality or not, sane society is obliged to treat free will as an immutable certainty, for reasons I presume are wholly apparent.
Though what triggered these thoughts (aside perhaps from the chemical reaction to the carbohydrates in my chicken strip lunch), was the medical condition of another acquaintance. One that suffered a brain injury and barely survived. Talking to him is a sobering experience from the perspective of unique self. His recovery was arduous and painful. For himself and loved ones, as he described an almost oscillating rotation of emerging and then submerging personalities during his convalescence. One day he was a bawdy comedian winking at nurses, the next a lachrymose poet, a hyper-rational machine another. His brain was forging new pathways in its efforts to recover from those lost. Now fully healed, he seems none-the-worse to a casual observer. Though speaking privately he describes another reality. He says he is different now. A literally different person. Not dramatically different, not even noticeably so to any but himself. But by his own assessment, he is not the same. He does not think the same, does not prioritize the same, does not laugh or cry the same. He said he can remember his old self precisely, but it is no longer him.
And so if his self-reporting can be taken at face value, and perhaps it should not, what does this say about who we are? Are we each unique expressions of individuality? Or are we each simply manifestations of the physical structures and neural pathways of a brain? Structures and pathways that are unappealingly subject to alteration–and prediction.
More importantly, what on Earth do these questions have to do with our Kakistocracy?