THE PIRATE RIDE
Imagine yourself on an amusement park attraction—a ride such as Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean—where you are moving slowly through a landscape of natural-looking machinery. Nearly everything you see is fake: the plants, animals, the pirates and even the ride is nothing more than a contrived landscape and circumstance of amusement. Now, imagine that there is no contrivance. Imagine no plan. Imagine no planner. Just picture the landscape "alive" with activity and seeming direction and purpose. Next, consider that you too are just part of the scenery, just another automaton, simply a cog in the great machinery of this vast, unfolding reality. Now, imagine how all the parts of our own reality must interact and work with one another...no "cog" or "gear" truly ever alone in the machinations of the universal "machine"...each acting upon and influencing all the rest...across great expanses of time and distance...from the very moment it all came into existence from a point of outward expanding matter and energy, until the whole "scheme" unwinds into universal heat death a trillion years hence. And then ask yourself if your own mind and seeming will can truly hold even the slightest sway over such a grand, mindless orchestration? Ask yourself if your smallest decision could ever be made in absence of a thousand billion tugs and pushes from all reality everywhere?
Could you truly ever decide anything alone? And then, when you see that you are just another bit of matter and energy, a chemical unfolding with no real ghost in the machine, winding down the indifferent path of entropy; and when you put aside your feign illusion of control, and then sit back into your mind to watch your seemingly willful life unfold as you willlessly will it to go...then, —and maybe only for the briefest of moments—will you truly experience the living knowledge—and utter disconnect—of no free will.
It sounds scary. But it is not... As it is better always to know the truth—to know, that we too, are simply pirates on the ride.
The illusion of free will
I think I have made up my mind regarding free will... I do not think we have it. I think free will is an illusion formed of our apparent ability to choose.
Could I ever choose differently than I actually do? Would I ever make the same decision differently if all other factors were identical? I don't think so. This is because our choices are not made in a vacuum of circumstance, but are instead decided within a symphony of events, wants, memories, biases, and predispositions, which each collectively always weight the scale in some particular direction. It is the fact of who we already are, and the circumstances of our lives which gives credit to certain decisions ahead of all others—and these are the decisions which we will always make. And if our mind and reason are not sound, then this unsoundness also biases us towards a particular choice which we would not otherwise make. In short, our decisions are made as a consequence of the universe we know and live in and are the natural result our considerations within this setting and circumstance. And if the universe were to unwind and wind back in the exact same way then we would make the same decisions again. Our free will is simply an illusion borne of our narrow view of decisions as mere reactions to the simple question at hand - when in fact the larger universe has already made up our mind for us by the fact and nature of its very existence and our particular place and time within it.
The only exception I can think to this is the fact of quantum uncertainty, as this variable would seem to ensure the universe could never again unfold in exactly the same way; and a replay of events would always be different in slight and subtle ways which would only compound over time, leading to wildly different replays of the universe. So, my thought experiment is obviously flawed... Though I think the principle at least holds that if the universe could indeed replicate itself such that we are always delivered to the same decision in the same way then the outcome would always be the same.
Free will then, would appear - at least on paper - to be an illusion. And I will henceforth operate my life as though this observation is true. I may even add a new principle to The Good Life to remind myself of this seeming fact.
The Pirate Ride
There is no good reason to imagine we are anything but atoms and molecules, and compounds and organs, and muscles and limbs, and brain and mind—instantiated through energy borrowed of the sun and the internal heat of the earth. That’s it. In a sense—a very crude sense—we are complex chemical reactions: natural processes unwinding through brief years, months, and days towards some conclusion which a sufficiently powerful computer algorithm might one day plot and predict. In a sense, our destiny was always set, with our deliberations and decisions being just some distinct moments of seeming agency along our chemical unwinding from conception to death—a pathway we could hardly avoid or choose otherwise; a route decided not by us, but instead by the complex orchestrations of a universe which delivered us into life, and mindlessly conspires during every moment we live to nudge and jostle us into every decision and action we vainly think our own. We live, we experience, we think, we decide, and we move—but never truly of our own volition, and always on the path of our law-bound chemical unwinding. Life, therefore, is like a theme park pirate ride: an unintentional horror, joy, and amusement in which the robot pirates and the living riders are one. We live our lives then along seemingly invisible tracks we can never jump or escape, for we lack utterly the will to do anything but stay our course.
A ripple upon the sea
A single ripple
Upon the face of the deep
Owes its every form and character
To the universe at large
Picture an enormous expanse of ocean. A vast sea stretching from horizon to horizon in every direction—with many horizons more of empty waters beyond in every direction still—the true middle of the sea. Sun and wind and rain and night, and the coldness of the depths play upon the waters of the deep, churning these and forming currents and eddies and rolling mid-ocean swells. Upon this vast surface of rising and falling motion, and churning colliding energies, there appears a small dollop of a ripple; a tiny fragment of a wave; a mere dimple in the waters - which rises for a moment into a small peak before fading just as fast back into the depths where evidence of such brief appearance is wiped forever from the remembrance of the sea. Such energy waves of every size are appearing even now everywhere upon all the seas the world over, and across every sea that might exist on every planet in our galaxy, and again within every galaxy in the cosmos. Such purely anonymous phenomena takes place constantly, without notice or care, or much seeming consequence. Now, imagine the circumstance which led up to the moment of our little ripple's rise from the waves? What caused it? Was it a raging storm far off in some distant corner of the ocean? Or a warm breeze blowing over the face of a tropical sea? Perhaps an agile seabird splash-landing to rest a few minutes upon the water caused the ripple to form, or a predatory shark moving silently below the surface? Was there maybe a small earthquake thousands of feet below which sent up a shock-wave to dimple the waters below the azure sky? Or maybe a child splashing and playing happily in the shallows of a peaceful beach a thousand-miles hence? In fact, it was all of these things...along with everything else... It was all events within the sea, on the earth, in our solar system, and our galaxy and even throughout the universe and back to the start of time which caused the little water ripple to rise. The ripple could have no say in the matter of its event or timing, and not just because it has no brain, but because the universe would have it no other way than it did. The ripple was a mere consequence of the reality of all that was and is. And a will-less consequence at that.
Likewise, you and me...
We—like the ripple upon the sea—have no real say in our circumstance or lives, despite the fact that we do have brains, and we do have what seems to be a will to choose, and we do experience the seeming fact of exercising such choice. But this will is an illusion, as we'd have made—and will always make—exactly the choices we do within the context of the universe which is. Though I cannot prove this supposition correct (and this fact does give me concern) I'm nevertheless convinced that an exact replay of our universe would always deliver us to exactly the same choices and decisions every time. We could never bend the script. We can never experience, say, decide or act otherwise that we did and do now. Our paths are, in a sense, freely-locked; free, insofar as the universe at large directs our circumstance—like the vast and innumerable surrounding forces which cause the water ripple to rise just when it does - yet locked, in that the ripple could do nothing other than rise exactly when and how it did...just as we must live exactly when and how we do.
We are then; each a momentary rising dimple upon the face of the universal deep, the result of a vast and almost mindless conspiracy of matter and energy and time and chance. We rise in the moment the universe will-lessly demands, and then fall just the same. And we have no choice in the matter despite our apparent capacity to choose, for every choice is always exactly the choice we must make under each particular circumstance. Our dimple upon the universal deep always rising and falling in consequence only to the universe's apparent mindless will.
Acquiring a position of faith
I've become one of the faithful. Yup. It happened yesterday, about an hour after sending that last letter to you. It happened at the moment when I suddenly realized I'd convinced myself that free will is indeed an illusion—understanding that belief is more fact than choice—and when I then reflected I've no sound reason to accept that free will isn't real...I've no evidence to prove that we've no true volition...and yet I believe we do not. I BELIEVE we have no free will. I have acquired a position of faith.
And now, I am one of the faithful...
When I first became aware of this unexpected conviction, I thought the budding belief would immediately wither—like a desert bloom (or weed) failing under a scorching sun after a cloudburst brings the seed to life—wither, beneath the realization that I've no sound rationale for what I now think is true. But no, it hung on, and I believe yet, almost twenty-four hours hence. This belief seems here to stay, at least for a while—at least until I can muster sound argument enough to squash it down, or better still, remind myself that the fact of no good argument to believe is reason enough to not accept a tenet as true.
This experience is like discovering an unsightly piece of lint stuck to your clothes and body which you cannot easily brush-off, and which sticks to fabric and finger alike no matter how hard you attempt to shake it away. So, now, I'm seemingly stuck with this unsightly belief. A belief held on FAITH of all things. A belief I can currently neither advance nor defeat. Something unsupported which I simply hold as true.
I have become one of the faithful. I have full faith that free will is not real.
Agent in a vacuum
How much vacuum—if any—is necessary to discover free will? How much of the "substrate" of the universe must first be removed before we can truly be free to choose? And does this even make any sense?
Freedom within a vacuum
Provides no substrate for action
While a substrate for action
Interferes with freedom
A problem with the idea of free will is the apparent fact that an agent (someone who acts upon the universe) attempting to execute their freedom will always be subject to the influences of the greater universe around them. The agent can never escape such "outside" influence—which always mindlessly guides and directs their every choice. It's almost like the universe is participating in the agent's choice by virtue of the universe's very existence. To overcome this, I imagine an agent in a vacuum...
Agent in a vacuum
Picture yourself (a quite worthy agent) floating freely in deep space—setting aside for a moment the fact that you'd immediately die there for a whole host of reasons. You're way out there between galaxy clusters, so far from any stars that there is no visible light whatsoever. Cold and silence surround you. No sense of up or down. You are utterly alone. In such a circumstance...are you now free to choose? While alone, way out in space, can you then truly exercise free will, given that there is no "substrate" of the universe to influence your decisions? I think not. The problem is you. YOU still exist. Not just the stuff of you, but the trajectory of the universe implicit within you, the orientation and bias of your person before we made the universe essentially disappear behind the veil of deep void, the inertia of your very being brought on by virtue of your childhood, life and living. You simply can't escape the influence of the universe unless you were raised in absence of the universe. And that's silly...
No agent in a vacuum
Next, let's remove the agent from the picture (as ridiculous as this also sounds). Let's take you out of our deep space scenario and leave ourselves with just the deep space. Well, now we have neither substrate (forgetting for a moment that empty space isn't really empty) nor agent. The previous problem being that the agent attempting to exercise free will was itself made up of universe substrate which exercises bias in the influence of the agent's decisions. And the only way to escape this dilemma is to remove the agent. Well, now what? Where can we find free will if we have no universe substrate and no agent to attempt to execute free will?
A soul in a vacuum
With no universal substrate to worry about, and no agent to get in the way, exactly what are we left with which can then exercise free will? The only "thing" I can imagine is the something people sometimes call a soul a spirit. If agents—like humans—indeed have a soul, then perhaps this soul is alone capable of exercising free will? But must a soul first disconnect from its body—and the universe at large—before it is free to choose, as demonstrated in the previous examples? That, I'm afraid, is more question than I can attempt to answer. This is mainly because I have no reason to think that anything like a soul really exists. And if a soul or spirit does exist, then I know nothing about the characteristics of such a thing. I simply cannot speak to this question.
So, for now—and in absence of any evidence of a soul—I'm going to reinforce my conclusion that free will is indeed not a thing. As such a thing would require both an absence of any universe as well as an absence of any agent before the nothing that is left can truly be free. And what the hell does that mean? And if someone wants to suggest that free will is indeed exercised by a soul or spirit, then I'm more than willing to review their evidence that a soul or spirit actually exists.
My faithful conviction then—that free will is an illusion—is growing stronger day by day.
I could not do otherwise now than to type these words. My desire, opportunity and motive all drive me to do so. This pecking at the keyboard now is precisely what I must do now, though I believe this action was my choice. But now that I know I am not truly free, that the universe mindlessly requires my every decision and action exactly as I make it, I can therefore choose to exercise my motive will in the direction of improved and better actions, which strangely, I had no other real option to pursue. This game of feign control–of deciding, and then doing, and then deciding and doing again, until I am dead–is the illusion I call my free life, and the false thing I call my independence. It is only that I cannot see very far past my seeming immediate self-management that I gain the false sense that I have some real control. I do not. I am just a result and consequence of thirteen-billion years of action and reaction and action again...on and on through time, like waves crossing a vast sea in every direction and lifting water here and there for brief moments at a time. A leaf floating upon such a sea is never free of the sea which supports and maintains it, and the consequent energies which come together to push and pull and animate its existence. And I too am never free of the great sea of everything from which I came, and now am, and will soon no longer be.
I was, am and never will be free. None of us is free. We are all leaves upon a tossing sea.
It sounds scary. But it is not... It is better always to know the truth.
"Weather this danger and you are safe, for the rest of the way is down hill. With unrelaxed nerves, with morning vigor, sail by it, looking another way, tied to the mast like Ulysses."
-Henry David Thoreau
It is so easy to get caught-up in the illusion that our lives are our own, self-guided affairs. That we have much or anything at all to say about the course of living we take, or the decisions we make, or the end we one day must become. Our only seeming will is the turning of the rudder of this frail ship of being. Yet, the dear irony is that every movement we make to the right or the left was the only movement we could have ever made in that very moment of choice. I cannot prove this. Yet, I know it is true. I hold our lack of free will as a despicable matter and point of faith. The larger fact of universal machinations beyond our will suggests we are merely action and reaction within the context of all that exists. And yet, we tell ourselves that we have some choice and say in our lives. And we do...only the choices we make are the only decisions we could have ever made.
An interesting example of this phenomenon of seeming will is when we "decide" to break our current life in favor of a new life. When we quit our job, sell our house, say goodbye to friends and pack our things. We then load up the car and embark away from the routines we know; towards new routines we must find and somehow make our own. This is a scary thing to do. A very frightening thing, indeed. That is why most never do it...and instead go on through life convinced the living they know now–and have seemingly mastered, so well–is also a life which they have some real power over. They do not. We do not. We only make decisions: decisions we could never not make. Our every choice through life is exactly the only choice we could have made in that place, moment, and circumstance. Free will is only a very convincing illusion.
And so, we go then into our new life... There is some fear perhaps as we make this change. Maybe a lot of fear. And for a few weeks or a month or more we fumble with our new place at work, and our new home, and all the new names we should learn and remember and the new ways of the people and the new living we have assumed as our own. This experience feels like travel. Like a sailing journey upon the sea. Yet, our hands can hardly hold the tiller at times for the tossing new waters. The still, quiet, and seemingly deep waters of our old and well-known life are now just a near–and possibly dear–memory. Now, the waters in the new place churn. Now, the new life becomes like a storm and–at times–a maelstrom of confused and demanded decision. Yet, even these decisions always hold just one answer...the answer and choice we do–and must–then make.
Who tied the captain to the mast?
And how does he thence guide the ship?
I would never suggest we let go of the rudder in any weather. For, some steering is needed if we are to survive and thrive. Yet, in a sense, our guidance through these new waters hardly matters. We will survive or we will sink. For, we are each then Ulysses tied to the mast: giant waves rising before us and a Siren song beckoning from sharp rocks. Sunlight bursts then with promise through cloud-break, lighting distant, saving still waters. Or the sea grows dark with nightfall, and cold with the approach of some awful end. Or dawn appears just now and warms our stubble cheek with another promised day. Through it all, our bodies are bound to the ship's solid mast. Through it all, our good and guiding hand holds the steering tiller. We are secured to our fate while seeming to own our path and way. Yet, we can only turn the tiller where we will. We can only guide the ship from where we have been to where we will go. We can never be what we will never be. We are Ulysses tied to his mast. Hearing fated calls and watching the storm of our choice. Making through to clear waters or going down now smothered in the sea. I'll ride like Ulysses today and again if tomorrow may come. I'll hold tight the tiller while the ropes bind me hard to the mast. I'll make the turns I will...knowing they are the only turns I ever would or could.
I will ride like Ulysses, bound and free to go where the sea must lead.
Explaining "The Pirate Ride"
Let me try to explain The Good Life principle I call "The Pirate Ride." Imagine yourself on an amusement park attraction–a ride such as Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean–where you are moving slowly through a landscape of natural-looking machinery. Nearly everything you see is fake: the plants, the animals, the pirates and even the ride is nothing more than a contrived landscape and circumstance of amusement. Now, imagine that there is no contrivance. Imagine no plan. Imagine no planner. Just picture the landscape "alive" with activity and seeming direction and purpose. Next, consider that you too are just part of the scenery, just another automaton, simply a cog in the great machinery of this vast, unfolding reality. Now, imagine how all the parts of our own reality must interact and work with one another...no "cog" or "gear" truly ever alone in the machinations of the universal "machine"...each acting upon and influencing all the rest...across great expanses of time and distance...from the very moment it all came into existence from a point of outward expanding matter and energy, until the whole "scheme" unwinds into universal heat death a trillion years hence. And then ask yourself if your own mind and seeming will can truly hold even the slightest sway way over such a grand, mindless orchestration? Ask yourself if your smallest decision could ever be made in absence of a thousand billion tugs and pushes from all reality everywhere?
Could you truly ever decide anything alone? And then when you see that you are just another bit of matter and energy, a chemical unfolding with no ghost in the machine, winding down the indifferent path of entropy; and when you put aside your feign illusion of control, and then sit back into your mind to watch your seemingly willful life unfold as you willlessly will it to go...then,–and maybe only for the briefest of moments–will you truly experience the living knowledge–and utter disconnect–of no free will.
It sounds scary. But it's not... It's better always to know the truth–to know, that we too, are simply pirates on the ride.
Giving in to fancy
My suspicion that free will is an illusion is a curious specimen of personal belief. I do not like resting my hat upon any idea which cannot be well demonstrated as true, and I can think of no way to prove that my suspicions regarding free will are indeed true, and yet I find myself sitting long with this thought...and even beginning to utilize it as a life principle. Heck, I even added it to The Good Life as a principle called "The Pirate Ride." It all comes down to one notion which I cannot convince myself isn't true: namely, the idea that were the universe to somehow wind backwards, and then wind forward again, then you and I would make every decision we've already made–or ever will make–exactly as we did the first time the universe played out. It is not that I think life is like a film strip which projects the same story every time, but more that life is–in fact–a complex chemical reaction which "unwinds" in the same way every time the universe "plays" due to the fundamental laws of nature and the interactions of chemical components. Of course I've no reason to think that there is any "ghost in the machine" –no soul which resides within us and somehow transcends nature–and for this reason I think we can safely reduce our lives to laws, chemicals and interactions borne of the infusion of energy. We only fool ourselves into thinking there is more due to the incredible complexity of the chemical reactions called us. Therefore, if the universe were to arise again in the same Big Bang, then all events should unfold in the same way, and lead to us making the same actions and choices again, no matter how many times the universe is replayed, assuming the universe has the same start each and every time. The only variable in this model which seems to muddy the waters is the seeming randomness of activity at the quantum level–the apparent popping into and out of existence of sub-atomic particles–which would introduce a real element of variability into my universe unfolding model. But–and this is a big butt (grin)–I expect that even this randomness is in some way ordered and governed by laws we simply have not yet discovered. You see my dilemma then? How I can rest my hat on a premise founded on so much speculation and so little fact or understanding. And yet I do. I like this idea of no free will very much. It has become my principle and toy held to me with the sweet dream of faith.