Most of our political disagreements are, in reality, about a secret fear that we all share but almost never acknowledge directly. It’s not the fear of death - we talk about that one all the time - but the fear that we were never really alive at all. This is going to get weird, but I promise it will make sense if you bear with me.
First, I want you to imagine one of those wind-up monkey toys. You know, the creepy ones, with the cymbals? Look, here’s one now:
Got it? All right, here we go…
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1. To understand modern society, you must first understand machines
If you’ve ever seen one of those monkey toys, it was probably in a horror movie. In real life, it’s a pretty simple device: You wind it up, tension is stored in a spring, that spring turns some gears and makes the monkey bang its cymbals together. In a movie, of course, the scare comes when the monkey starts banging all on its own. Even though it doesn’t seem to pose a physical threat (just punt its haunted ass out a window!) it’s chilling when something that clearly is not alive suddenly acts like it is.
“So?” asks the impatient reader. “What could this possibly have to do with politics? Is the monkey a metaphor for Trump? Is the monkey... taxes? The economy?”
No, it’s weirder than that. Here, let’s take our monkey toy and up the complexity a bit:
That’s a Roomba, a robotic vacuum cleaner. It’s ultimately the same principle - energy is added to the machine and stored (in a battery, instead of a spring), then that energy is released into a series of gears and switches that animates the mechanism. However, the Roomba is sophisticated enough that, if you glued some fur onto it, you could probably convince a tribe of hunter-gatherers that it’s alive. Not only does the Roomba move, but it seems to make decisions: If it encounters the edge of a cliff, it will turn around.
Of course, that behavior is no more mysterious to us than the clanging of the wind-up toy. The Roomba isn’t “deciding” to do anything; it has a sensor and a set of written instructions that say, “If you encounter X, then you will do Y.” Just as with the monkey, we can take the mechanism apart and examine it, see exactly how energy traveled from point A to point B along a clear, physical path. With the right tools, you could even look inside its microprocessors and observe the individual switches/transistors flipping on or off based on instructions from the code.
If, one day, the Roomba were to toss itself off that cliff, no educated person would posit that it had “decided” to kill itself. A repairman could examine the mechanism and determine the exact point of failure. There’s no mystery, just machinery.
Some of you already have guessed where this is going.
So, let’s take the Roomba and up the complexity a bit:
Pop culture is full of stories of robots gaining sentience and free will, not through magic, but via technology. If you make the system complicated enough, sci-fi writers insist, you’ll have created a living being who can make moral decisions. But if Data, C3PO or any other self-aware robot were brought into our world, we could do the same analysis on any of their actions that we did with the Roomba above.
So when Data says in an episode of Star Trek TNG, “I am hopeful that one day I will discover my own humanity,” we could take him apart and find the exact lines of code, electrical impulses and physical switches that made him say that phrase. To suggest that he “chose” to say that is as unscientific as saying the Roomba chose to go over the cliff. To insist that he made a moral decision that was counter to his programming is to assert that, under a microscope, some transistor in his brain was prompted by electrical impulses to flip one way, but spontaneously flipped the other way instead, in defiance of the laws of physics. It would be no different than our possessed monkey spontaneously playing in the middle of the night, or just straight up levitating across the room.
As with the Roomba, a robot like Data (or Wall-E, or the Iron Giant) could fool an uneducated person into thinking they’re living, self-aware beings. But ultimately, they are just very complicated versions of the cymbal monkey: Stored energy triggering actions dictated by the design of physical parts.
Here in the real world, our most sophisticated AI can “learn” and program new behaviors based on input from the environment, seeming to grow and change on their own, to be “alive.” And yet, the creators can still go into the system and trace the exact cause and effect behind each “choice” and, in the process, observe that it literally could not have happened any other way. That design, plus this input, equals that outcome. It’s still just a spring turning a gear that clangs the cymbals.
To imply anything else, to say that system is now independently “alive”, is to suggest the intervention of a force acting outside of the physical laws of nature - something literally “supernatural.”
Now let’s take our robot/AI and up the complexity a bit:
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2. Yeah, human free will appears to be physically impossible
“Now stop right there,” you say. “Are you saying humans are just mindless machines?”
Actually, you secretly suspect that already. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
A human brain cell is every bit as much a physical object as a transistor in a microchip. 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. It’s true that we’ll likely never have that perfect knowledge because brains are influenced by too many chaotic variables in the environment (you can totally change a human’s behavior just by raising the room temperature by a few degrees). But just because we can’t see where the train tracks go doesn’t change the fact that the train runs on tracks.
“Bullshit, humans aren’t machines, they’re living creatures!” Well, sure, but so are trees. They grow and eat and move and reproduce, but nobody thinks a tree is able to think or make moral decisions. Its cells can be examined under a microscope and we could, with enough study, identify the exact strands of DNA that instruct its cells to multiply, seek out sunlight and do all of the other daily tree business. No one thinks a magical force is driving it; the physical process is no more mysterious than, “Wind the spring, toy makes noise.”
Likewise, no one thinks an ant or a bird has free will or a sense of morality. When you get into creatures that are more “human” in their behavior, like dogs, we start to talk like they do, even becoming disappointed when they make the wrong choices (“Bad dog!”). But if we have an aggressive canine euthanized for mauling a child, we don’t view it as a punishment, the dog is not put on trial. We do it for the same reason we would throw away a defective Roomba - it has a fatal malfunction and cannot be repaired.
“But humans aren’t dogs!”
No, but in lots of cases, you attribute to them an equal, or even lesser, amount of free will. No one thinks a human infant is making a moral choice when it cries, or that a toddler is truly accountable for hitting his sister with a Wiffle ball bat. Even a fully-grown adult is considered to have lost their ability to freely make moral choices when they’re under the influence of certain substances or suffering from a mental illness. Brain damage, sleep deprivation, extreme emotion - any of it can turn us into the moral equivalent of dogs.
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. Literally nothing triggers as much anxiety as this creepy elephant in the room, our unspoken understanding that the only thing weirder than not having free will, is having it.
3. This is secretly lurking behind every political argument you’ve ever had
“That headline is ridiculous! I’ve been following politics for years and have never heard a single debate on free will or any of this other bullshit.” I promise that you have. They just use different words.
First of all, most Americans are totally unconcerned with the monkey thought experiment above because they specifically do believe that the human machinery is being operated by a poltergeist: They call it the “soul.” In fact, they believe in the soul specifically because it’s the only way free will makes sense. And everyone believes in free will, even if they say they don’t - how else would you even live your life? I once had a professor in a philosophy class insist that believing in free will is like believing in the Tooth Fairy, then at the end of the period reminded us that there was a 25-point penalty for being late to class. You know, as if we had the power to make choices and he had the power to influence them.
The same goes for me. I wrote all that stuff about the monkey, but why would I have bothered if I didn’t think I had the power to influence your mind? Can’t I feel myself making the “choice” to type these words? I couldn’t even bring myself to refer to Data as anything other than “him” and he doesn’t even exist.
But that just brings us to another contradiction, the one that secretly drives us nuts:
Everyone behaves as if they personally have free will, but that no one else does.
This, for example, is at the heart of the debate over censorship and the “deplatforming” of dangerous expression. Those who demand Netflix pull a certain piece of programming or that Twitter ban a certain account believe that they personally cannot be brainwashed by offensive words, but that the rest of the public absolutely can. No one who is in favor of censorship would themselves ever dream of harming someone just because they heard a joke mocking that person’s demographic group... but they believe the world is full of people who would.
In fact, the only way censorship makes sense is if you don’t believe the audience has free will, that they can be programmed to do harm as easily as a toy can be wound up to play the cymbals.
4. We only believe in free will when it’s convenient
“So are you saying they’re wrong? That humans aren’t influenced by propaganda or that toxic ideas can’t spread across populations like a virus?” Of course not, I’m familiar with the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, aka The Only Historical Event That Has Ever Happened. I’m saying that the whole problem is that nobody really thinks that they personally are susceptible to propaganda, or peer influence, or anything else.
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.
Do you see the paradox? If I say [insert group you find most loathsome] is just a product of their environment, you’ll say no, they’re freely making a bad moral choice. If I say fine, we should try to persuade them by appealing to that morality, you’ll say they can’t be persuaded, that they’re monsters, inhuman. They have free will when it’s time for us to blame them, but not when it’s time to engage.
This paradox - seeing humans simultaneously as pure moral spirits floating separate from physical influences and also as mindless marionettes - is the root of every disagreement about how to run society. Go read the news and count how often we brush up against the question of free will, only to nervously dance around it. 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.
Likewise, terrorists don’t choose to be terrorists, they’re “radicalized” into it. Conspiracy types don’t choose to believe nonsense, they’re the victims of cognitive biases that stem from physical structures in the brain. Scandalized celebrities don’t choose to harass their subordinates, they’re acting on behalf of some kind of compulsion, or addiction. Even powerful, highly-intelligent people will insist they didn’t choose to do crimes, but were manipulated into it by someone else.
But my personal favorite has to be the, “This is not who I am inside!” public apology. It’s so common that it’s clearly a template at this point:
That’s the whole, ridiculous contradiction in a nutshell. “I did this bad thing, but my true self, the moral spirit that dwells within me, wouldn’t have chosen to do that thing. I was a victim of my own irrational impulses, my haunted past, an unfair system. I was confused, I was upset, I was desperate. I was powerless.”
You can argue among yourselves about which of the above examples are valid explanations and which are lame excuses; I’m only pointing out our tendency to cling to the idea of free will right up until it gets us into trouble. That angry fit I threw yesterday wasn’t me, that was due to my stress and anxiety! I’m sorry, it’ll never happen again, I promise, because in the future I… won’t be influenced by stress and anxiety? How can I guarantee that? Hell, how can I guarantee that tomorrow I won’t insist that some other external factor caused me to apologize today? “That apology is not who I am. As a true rage monster I’m disappointed by my groveling…”
5. This leaves us stuck between two equally bizarre, impossible choices
With each passing day, the culture moves further and further away from the idea of free will. The more we know about the brain, the more power of choice we lose. It turns out your moods and actions can be influenced by everything from gut bacteria to leaded gasoline. A strikingly high percentage of serial killers suffered brain injuries in childhood. And that’s beyond the stuff we’ve already internalized and accepted, that our power of choice fades in the face of addiction (hell, I’ve blamed egregious errors at work on a lack of morning caffeine) and inherited traits (“He has his father’s temper!”). Even those who reject the science will just substitute something else (“Of course he lied, he’s a Scorpio!”).
At every stage, the other side tries to hold their ground. Whenever scientists talk about the link between genes and behavior, everyone freaks the fuck out and calls them Nazis. The single biggest reason we can’t cure obesity is our refusal to believe it’s anything but a moral failure on the part of the obese. “Why can’t they just choose to stop eating?!?”
But when boiled down, every political argument secretly amounts to, “Why can’t they just choose to _____?” Why can’t the poor just choose to get jobs? Why can’t racists just choose to let go of their hate? Why can’t criminals just choose to go legit? Why can’t conspiracy weirdos just choose to join us in the real world? Why can’t audiences just choose to reject misinformation?
And hiding behind all of that is the implied idea that there has to be some way to, you know, make people do those things. To make them clean up after themselves, to play by the rules, to pay their taxes, to work honest jobs. If we just pass the right laws, provide the right incentives, carefully filter the bad media, we’ll be able to make people behave as easily as we can, well, wind up a cymbal monkey.
But of course, no one is winding you up. You, the individual reading this, don’t need to be controlled, you don’t need strict rules or harsh punishments to do the right thing. After all, you’re a human being, with free will, and the ability to make moral choices. You have to be, because if you weren’t, you’d be able to tell. Right?
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