Thursday, September 11, 2014

Free Will

We like to think of our free will, but what if we're under threat? I.e., "They'll detonate the bomb if you don't bring the umbrella to Vito's on 23rd by 8:00PM." Okay, so we bring the umbrella, but that's not really our free will, because we were forced.

All right, then, torture. We don't want to confess--probably because didn't do it--but if we're tortured, we give in to the pain and confess that we did do it. Free will or no free will? Easy: not your free will. Not really "your" act, in some sense of grand moral fairness, because we were forced.

Then you're hungry, through no fault of the person to whom you lie. You crawl through the Sahara Desert, come to an oasis, and meet a guy who's eating a Subway six-inch with a small drink. You're weakened from extended malnutrition and dehydration, so you can't beat him up and take his sandwich, and in desperation, you promise him a million dollars and the lifelong use of your body if he'll give you that one sandwich and small soda. And you eat the sandwich, drink the soda, and you're forever in his debt.

Free will? Sure, yeah, but extenuating circumstances.

That's all really easy, but those things are really old and trite. Let's go farther. Much farther. In all of the examples above, we're assuming that we have some level of mental control, but are forced--maybe literally at gunpoint, or upon threat of death--to do something. "Butter my toast," warns Obama, "or I press the red button and everyone on Earth is consumed in thousands of simultaneous thermonuclear explosions." It's your free will to butter Obama's toast, but it's not quite the same variety of free will as if you genuinely liked him and wanted to save him the effort of buttering his own toast (for dramatic effect, assume he was busy signing kill-orders, and so you saved his fingers the additional labor of buttering his toast). It's still "free will," but we all know what it means to do something under threat of coercion, from small to noble. "Butter my toast, or I will knock your toast on the floor." Or, "Butter my toast, or I keep threatening Putin until WW3 begins." In either case, we butter the toast. We hate doing it, we preserve our mental independence, we make an educated choice, and we act upon it. We all know the difference, later on, in reviewing the act of toast-buttering; we all understand what it means that we were forced to butter the toast, rather than did it because we enjoyed it. Obligation sex v. lust sex. Obligation sex v. rape. Lust sex v. drunken sex. Drunken sex v. unconscious sex. All sorts of little variables in there.

The future holds penultimate variations on these things, naturally. Once the nanobots are implanted, they make us butter the toast. Trapped inside our bodies, we know that, at any moment, executive training programs will take over, and we will see our hands move. Our body will rise, we will get in our car, we will drive to the White House, we will pass through security, and then we will butter Obama's toast. Not because we wanted to (by now, our own breakfast is rotting and covered in maggots, several States away, and we're quite hungry), but because the nanobots take actions necessary for national security. These are easy variations to address; being motivated by the chip, the program, the projective stem-cell thought module network: all these things are no different, philosophically speaking, than if a larger person simply manipulates your body into completing the act. So if Schwarzaneggar's steely hand closes over yours, and he forces you to butter his toast, it's not your fault.

It's such a relief, considering such easy examples of free will. The mind, throughout the unwanted act, realizes that the act is unwanted. Later on, whatever you did is known to you to not have been your will--you know that you didn't want to butter the toast or suck the cock or press the button, but that you were forced to do it. Your mental integrity is retained, even in the face of the government's new projective thought network.

Or, go a step further--the said psialtin network completely replaces your mind. Now, your body is a drone operating under remote control. Easy solution for free will: it wasn't you. You weren't even there anymore. You were sleepwalking; you were dead; your soul was a million miles away while the body that bears your Earthly name committed Acts X, Y, and even Z. Not your responsibility.

Easy, easy, easy. So easy. The real challenge to ourselves comes in the form--today, at least--of drugs. Of the inducement in the subject to make a decision with his or her free will. Let's say, for example, that the CIA uses their fear drugs on you. They inject you with raw, unfiltered, 100% pure fear. Then they walk out of the room. The room is empty. The room is safe, comfortable, air-conditioned, and your lawyer is standing by to be sure that you don't do anything under duress.

There's a paper on the floor, which you can sign to indicate that you were, indeed, responsible for whatever they want you to be responsible for. You're fully awake and cognizant of your actions. But that fear they injected you with--it's like nothing you've ever known. You are filled with absolute terror. All the chemicals in your brain that have evolved over millions of years to communicate fear are active, assaulting you every second. You can't breathe, you can't see, you can't think, except that you actually can do all these things, but the fear is so intense it feels like you can't. Earth 2014 doesn't have this as a hypothetical, but as a reality. Simple chemistry. Just a little injection of hell. So you sign the paper, and as promised, you're given an antidote, and able to calm down after half an hour or so.

Now, do we liken that to torture? The mental pain is equivalent to being kicked in the head until you signed the paper? But you really did sign the paper. And there were no blows exchanged. No blows threatened, even. In fact, if you'd been able to last out the hour, you would've been released and gotten a million dollars. It sounds like a joke if you don't know what condensed fear tastes like; if you don't know that there are relatively cheap ways to make you feel like that. The government chemists are out there, right now, spending billions of dollars to develop little spray bottles that can send you into a crying, shuddering shape on the floor, nonetheless completely conscious and able to access detailed short- and long-term memories and respond to questions. Your stress about an unpaid bill times a million-million-million; your worst youthful bad dream distilled of all its details and then pumped full of steroids, leaving behind nothing but that bodiless fear of fear of fear, attached to nothing tangible so that no alteration in setting can make it go away.

Take away the signed confession. Assume the fear was slipped into your coffee, and the only way to make it go away is to betray or kill the loved one the government wants you to take out. We're in Room 101 with Winston, and the rat is clawing toward his face, and it's time to betray Julia or else the rat gets you. But no rat, no O'Brien--just an imaginary, drug-induced specter of nothingness.

Go farther with it, and assume that you are completely aware of the drug and its effects. You're an organic chemistry researcher, you've had the drug forty-odd times, and you take it again as part of a new test. And as you renew your relationship with the fear, you realize that, if it came to it, you would sign the confession, or destroy your loved one, even though you knew that the drug had zero side effects and that the feeling would vanish in an hour.

It's all a joke or a scifi if you don't know what that kind of fear is like. Even "just" the natural stuff prepared in your brain, mixed around in the right proportions, making you so terrified that you would press the red button to make it go away. While simultaneously possessed of every once of "you." All the free will is there, and yet you make that decision. Is it still the same, when there's no pain? Still the same when it's merely a living nightmare, the circumstances of which you recognize, that prompts you to act? We hear stuff about "truth serums," occasionally, but we don't get much exposure to the real things; the things that can, by adjusting hormonal levels, cause free will to behave a certain way--cause individuals to themselves, freely, make the desired decision.

Sure, fear drugs count as "duress," but none of those old emotional safeguards are there. After having burning bamboo shoots shoved up your fingernails, you give away the location of the planned escape tunnel. Later, you tell yourself, "There was too much pain." Easy out; no doubt. But, scenario two: after that pill they gave you at breakfast, you give away the location of the planned escape tunnel.

Later, can you tell yourself the same thing you did after the bamboo shoots? Are the injected chemical invaders the equivalent of goons, beating the confession out of you inside your head?


  1. That's the plan. Direct violence is too expensive and difficult to maintain. well, so is a total propaganda blanked, but it is totally worth it given that it is so effective.

    And it is necessary: although most of the population would do things under threat, there are always the minority of people who are so internally free, that they can shrug off the worst torture in the name of the right thing, with a smile too, and set a very bad example. Now we can even get them, without them realizing it. Cha-ching!

  2. That's why behavioral economics and the "science" of nudging are so huge right now - no need to coerce anyone. Just redesign the universe so they make "the right" decisions all by themselves.

    Burn in hell, Cass Sunstein, Dan Ariely, and a bunch of other assorted azzholes.