Four Year Anniversary, In Which Ghostlightning and I Discuss Free Will
First, a confession. I’ve been terribly tempted to quit blogging. It seems like centuries since I last engaged fruitfully with an anime season, and this being an anime blog, what’s the point if I can’t do that? Aha, but 2013 is supposed to be the big Leiji year, and if I kill the blog now I know I’ll be forced to come up with a new one just to cover the new CG Harlock film and stuff, so I might as well keep this open.
But is this even my choice? Am I not bound to keep my blog open, prodded as I am by a series of causes and effects stretching out back to the beginning of time? Am I not a helpless, little lamb being taken to the slaughterhouse that is the end of all life? Ghostlightning will not accept this sitting down. And so we talk…
GL: I believe in free will and have faith that it exists. This is a source of comfort and joy in a stressful human existence. This allows me to hold people responsible for their actions and just as importantly, this lets me take credit for my achievements. This is fundamental to my sense of self and therefore my emotional health. However, I am aware that this is faith. Faith is necessary when the proofs of existence are problematic, when counterarguments against something have merit. The main thing that concerns me about free will is the idea of humans as machines; organic ones to be sure, but machines nonetheless. This is also, perhaps ironically, the very mystery of faith in free will that I will explore later on.
AK: It’s often stated that free will is the foundation of religion (Adam + Eve + apple + choice), but as you make clear, it’s also in many ways the foundation of human confidence and personality. The problem is that as we advance in scientific knowledge, the mystical realm where free will is thought to reside grows smaller and smaller.
Think about lightning in Greek times. People used to think that Zeus caused lightning. In short: the weather was caused by a will that was free (the god’s). Today we know better and experts are able to analyze the elements that go into the formation of lightning. There is no need to posit free will here. Sure, Zeus could be invisible and manipulating the sky behind the scenes, but the way science advances is by taking the simplest explanation for the best. No need for Zeus, so out goes that ghost.
So it’s eventually come down to the point that all the natural phenomena can be explained, or look to be on the verge of being explained, mechanistically, yet people still want to exempt human will from this great machine and keep it “free”. But of course everyday neurologists map the brain further and now we know we can trigger “feelings” and “fears” by applying electrical impulses to certain areas of the brain etc. Do we really need to posit free will to explain our actions? No, not really.
I went to see Carl Sagan speak at university shortly before he died. Someone tried to argue for religion and Sagan, an avowed atheist, would have none of it. When the questioner asked: “But what about all of these beautiful feelings we have? These perceptions?” Sagan waved his hand and said: “It’s only chemicals in the brain…chemicals in the brain.”
GL: Yes, lots of problems that makes me feel like I’m indulging a fiction rather than living a reality. But I won’t get into the science and philosophy of perception and experience here. But as I mentioned, I have faith in humans and their power. What power? To choose from alternatives or lack thereof, from a vacuum created only by will – a will that is distinct from mechanical needs and desires. From this will creation and transformation of the world happens.
AK: Humans do get to decide things, so there is definitely a power there. Where your faith starts to come in is when you speak of the vacuum. Nature abhors a vacuum. You decide between A and B, but that decision is already determined by C and D and E and F and G, however shadowy these causes may be to you. Of course, if we keep this kind of thought front and center all the time, it can totally depress us. Human beings are so tiny and puny in the universe. The only thing we have is our sense of self, and we would like to think that the world revolves around us, that the world is our canvas, a passive something we can paint/act on. Free will is a key concept in this view.
GL: Yeah, that sounds fantastic indeed. This is fundamental to science fiction as well, if we are to look at our fascination and fear of Artificial Intelligence, in machines, in computers, in robots. The romance in this fiction sums up nicely: the machine becomes aware of itself as a self. It becomes aware of its limitations of actions, and those limitations are created – as itself is created. It looks upon its creators and appraised their abilities and limitations. It somehow perceives that humans have agency and power and while agency is organic, their power is not. The machine has power, but no agency. It was denied agency. Insert conflict here, then you get Tetsuwan Atom, Foundation, Dune, The Matrix, 2001, Terminator, Ghost in the Shell, Mass Effect, etc.
I acknowledge that I may be conflating awareness with agency, or that the former implies the other. I don’t have the philosophical chops to take on self-awareness, but I offer my own experience of acknowledging myself as a machine (organic to be sure) but a machine run by complex programs and scripts from a biological imperative to survive.
Does this awareness “free” myself from my own biological machinery? In my heart of hearts I want to believe it does, but from that same place I fear it’s not the case.
A sentient machine may look upon me as an autonomous non-networked machine that has insignificant power and is grossly inefficient in terms of biological health and in long-term co-existence with other machines. The intelligent, sentient machine may then imagine improvements for all life, which may then run into conflict with our survival programming which emphasizes individual unit survival in the short term. It becomes a conflict between superior machinery vs. inferior ones. The inferior (in terms of efficiency) just so happens to value individual rights and freedoms, as if entitled to such, as if such agency exists.
Perhaps this is further biological programming: diversity serves life just as much as if not more so than collectivity. If I were a more intelligent machine I can perhaps do the math and find the optimal breakdown of traits, but perhaps conflict is necessary anyway as a trigger for action. It will be machines against the environment and other machines… Until there is only one machine.
AK: This all reminds me of Rei in Evangelion. How does Rei see humans like Shinji and his father? The show indulges in this topic, especially toward the end, and I love the sensibility with which the topic is treated. And of course Rei ends up becoming this huge thing and trying to absorb everyone, just like your “one machine”. (This is all of course in tune with SEELE’s plotting, whose members chose collectivity over diversity).
I think the “machines taking over” fear in sci-fi is so relevant today, not because we fear that our computers will take over, but because science is teaching us that we are machines. If seeing the robot factory in the film I, Robot gives you the chills, maybe deep down it’s because the scene looks FAMILIAR to you: that robot factory is your extended family, your school, your company. (This is exactly the same fear that fuels consumption of zombie films today: it’s not that we fear a virus that turns people into zombies that then eat us, but that we have come to fear, we have come to suspect, that we ourselves are already zombies as we shuffle around with our little programs and with no ultimate say in the matter, not even an imperative to obey, and the freedom to disobey, a benevolent god.) And the problem is that it’s tough to rely on faith because so many of us have abandoned religion already! Can you really have certainty about free will without the support of religion? How can you keep an individual religion?? It’s tough!
GL: Would a completely free agent, synthetic or otherwise choose this existence? Is free will truly distinct from randomness? If so, do parameters utterly negate agency? Feel free to consider these and discuss.
NOTE: Narutaru pic is by Umi. Last pic is courtesy of ghostlightning.