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What is Choice?

Jason Pargin (a.k.a. David Wong), an author I admire greatly, wrote an article about free will recently. He’s known for pushing the envelope of what you can do in a story, toeing the line of bizarro fiction and bestseller. He’s great at boiling down heavy philosophical arguments into entertaining digestible meals. He’s had some great ones recently: How ‘Good Vs Evil’ Narratives Are Breaking Your Brain, Stop Telling Me Humanity Is Doomed, If You’re Scared of Competition, the World Will Eat You Alive.

His latest is Every Argument We’re Having Is Secretly About One Thing. Basically it’s an age-old question: do we have free will or are our actions mindlessly based on genetics + environment.

He starts by using a mechanical cymbal monkey as an example. Just a simple machine that performs a mechanical action based on applied energy. You flick a switch. The cranks and springs provide power. The monkey claps. You could take it apart and see what happens to get this result.

Same with a Roomba. It’s sophisticated enough that it could fool primitive man into thinking it’s alive. But if you take the time to study it, you could track the electrical pulses, the sensors, the gears, so that you could make an audit trail of why it made the decisions it did. And if you introduce the power at the right spots, you could get it to do it again.

Then he brings up androids, like Data from Star Trek, Ava from Ex Machina, Robocop, and Johnny 5. It’s fantasy, but the point of these movies is to question what is life? Is there a line between artificially-created life and natural? If we build something good enough, could we tell the difference? Is there one?

Pargin argues that there is no difference. If you had a sophisticated enough system, you could track down the audit trail of how every stimuli triggered electrical impulses through the neurons and ganglions in your brain that led to you picking a hamburger instead of a cheeseburger. And the experiment could be repeated. Therefore there is no such thing as a soul and you are a product of your actions and nothing more.

“The body stores energy, it turns that energy into movement based on instructions and signals that, if we had perfect knowledge of the workings, could be predicted with 100% accuracy… But just because we can’t see where the train tracks go doesn’t change the fact that the train runs on tracks.”

Hold up a minute.

What’s in that tunnel? I think that’s is important. I agree that there is a certain inevitability to human decisions, but don’t discount that tunnel.

The human mind is not a single “train on track” like a kid’s toy. It’s a hundred trillion tracks going into that tunnel and a hundred trillion tracks going out. And I think that tunnel is where the soul lives. It’s where the spark that makes life sentient comes from. That dark tunnel is what makes us different from dogs, monkeys, and dolphins. That tunnel is free will.

I think there’s a mistake being made in thinking consciousness is just a matter of complexity. Just as you go from a cymbal monkey to a Roomba to an android, you can go from tree to dog to human. It’s not just orders of magnitude.

Nature is not purely mathematical. Scientists have proven this–you cannot simply add a proton to lead and make gold. They’ve tried–it didn’t work. Something else has to happen. Something we don’t know what yet.

I don’t believe that, if you get a big enough blackboard, you can predict someone’s actions every time. Humans don’t operate in terms of algorithms. The brain might use electricity for power, but that doesn’t mean its components operate the same every time. They are faulty. There are glitches. (Maybe that’s what the tunnel is?)

Further, I believe we will always see a difference in value between natural and synthetic life. Would we always be able to tell? Maybe not, but I think we would event ways (i.e., the Voight-Kampff test). Superficially, yes, you could make a Data. He could act indistinguishably from a human. You open up his positronic brain and figure out why he can’t use contractions. You could make a hundred Datas and know why each one behaves the way it does and replicate the results each time. But the fact that you can’t do that with a human makes the difference in value.

Simple way to tell? We have lab-grown diamonds and cultured pearls. They are barely distinguishable from their naturally made equivalents. Which one would you consider more valuable?

Another example, you could get an education from a diploma mill, somewhere that guarantees you a Master’s Degree in 10 months. Or you could get one from a regular university, where there are no shortcuts, where they force you to put in the time and effort. If you got two resumes, each with no difference except for that education credit, which one would you put more stock in?

As long as you can’t replicate what’s in that tunnel, people will put more value on the naturally occurring over the synthetically grown. There’s just something about that slow growth, that investment of time, that increases the value. Maybe it’s because time is a finite resource. You can’t get it back.

That means we might innovate ourselves out of superiority, but not value. Evolution is slow and largely based on random chance. A matter of flinging mutations at the wall and seeing what sticks. The lottery has better odds.

But what is life if not perseverance? Sentients have only occupied a fraction of a fraction of Earth’s lifespan. There’s still plenty of time.

Do I think people will eventually define what that tunnel is? Yes, but not until the far far future. By then our moral and philosophical problems will be unrecognizable to us today. But in today’s philosophy, it boils down to political arguments.

“Figuring out exactly when and under what circumstances humans can actually be blamed for what they do is such a tangled, fraught subject that we do everything we can to avoid confronting the question directly… Rural conservatives believe that if they’d been born in the projects, they wouldn’t get wrapped up in gang violence or the drug trade. They’d use their moral compass to make the right choices and lift themselves up by their bootstraps, damn it. Urban liberals believe that if they had been born in rural Alabama, they wouldn’t get poisoned by racism and xenophobia – their own inner goodness would allow them to see the shared humanity in all races.”

So it’s easier to blame the environment when it comes to their moral failings, to claim that they didn’t have free will, they were just a product of their nature + nurture. But isn’t that all of us?

“Politicians will say violent crime is due to destructive media like video games while the media will say it’s due to violent rhetoric from politicians, or pandemic-induced anxiety. But they all quietly agree that, to some degree, the people doing the violence didn’t freely choose.”

But I’m getting off topic.

The question is not “do humans have free will or are we just really complex?” The question is “what is choice?” Define what a choice is, what defines the ability to choose. Is it something that can be audited? Or does it have to be behind a curtain? When we can define what a “choice” is, we will be closer to determining what “free will” is.

Eric Juneau is a software engineer and novelist on his lunch breaks. In 2016, his first novel, Merm-8, was published by eTreasures. He lives in, was born in, and refuses to leave, Minnesota. You can find him talking about movies, video games, and Disney princesses at http://www.ericjuneaubooks.com where he details his journey to become a capital A Author.

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