Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Dilemma of Free Will

The October-November issue of the MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION includes a story called "The Star to Every Wandering Barque," by James Stoddard. It begins, "The age of conscience arrived on a Thursday evening in June." Some unknown force (God? benevolent aliens? we aren't told) instantaneously transforms the minds and emotions of every person on Earth. People experience a quiet joy in the beauties of the universe. They feel kind and forgiving toward everyone. In the following weeks and months, all military forces are disbanded, individuals and nations with abundant resources eagerly share with the less fortunate, and money eventually becomes unnecessary because people's needs are fulfilled by willing, rational cooperation. Representatives from all countries work together to address the remaining problems such as disease and natural disasters. Politicians and media outlets tell the truth. (Now, that sounds like a real miracle.) In theological terms, we might say that the effects of Original Sin are obliterated, making everyone perfectly unselfish. Reading through this warm, moving story, I kept waiting for the punch line. What's the catch, I wondered? Surprise, there isn't one. The story ends with the launch of Earth's first starship: "Now. . . we're ready."

And yet this tale raises an unsettling question: Does every individual on the planet spontaneously respond in the same positive way to the mystical experience that begins the story? Or has a powerful entity actually rewired their brains? If the latter, isn't that a violation of human free will? Or would it more closely resemble providing medication to a person suffering from mental illness, thereby restoring the patient to normal and effectively setting him or her free to find his or her true self?

Aldous Huxley's classic BRAVE NEW WORLD portrays a society of perfect happiness brought about by conditioning individuals from birth to be content in their assigned roles and harmoniously related to everyone around them. As you'll remember if you've read the book, a few characters begin to question this ideal world. One of them asks why everyone isn't designed as an Alpha (the group with the highest intelligence). The World Controller replies that an experiment along that line has been tried. A group of Alphas were settled on a deserted island to form their own community. They were far from content, fighting constantly among themselves. The novel inquires whether it's preferable to be perfectly happy as a scientifically designed unit in a planned society or to have free will even at the cost of potential unhappiness.

Behaviorist psychologist B. F. Skinner seemed to think free will was overrated, if not an illusion to begin with, as illustrated by the provocative title of his book BEYOND FREEDOM AND DIGNITY. The fictional counterpart to this treatise is his utopian novel WALDEN TWO, which presents an experimental community of perfectly conditioned people as a thoroughly positive thing.

Venturing into theology, we've all read explanations of the world's miseries in terms that attribute them, at least in part, to human free will. The Deity presumably considers sin and unhappiness a rational price to pay for giving our species the dignity of free choice. Mark Twain, in one of the essays in his posthumous collection LETTERS FROM THE EARTH, seems to think free will is overrated, too. He sardonically asks why anyone would prefer a watch that's sure to go wrong over one that can never go wrong. Would the Creator—or a group of super-powerful, benevolent aliens—be justified in overriding our freedom of choice in order to make (as an old hymn says) “all men good and wise” and presumably happy? Or does the freedom to make our own mistakes constitute an essential part of being human?


  1. The story sounds to me like "rapture" on earth.

    Kinda wish you left the god-bit out of the discussion, though. The "benevolence" is usually portrayed as a three-year-old having temper tantrums right and left.

  2. Margaret:

    Actually, the way you've described the story (I haven't read it yet) it portrays (in a naive way) the Kabbalistic vision of what will happen when the Massiah comes.

    The theory is that the laws of the universe will change in such a way as to cause human free will to interact with the universe in just about the way described (though not exactly).

    The theory is that these changes will occur through the natural operation of normal processes in the world and society (not suddenly, by intervention, as portrayed in the story).

    The problem with writing a story like this is that it's to be read by people in our condition -- who can't conceptualize or comprehend the people in "that" condition.

    Free Will isn't taken away by this -- to the contrary, Free Will is unleashed into productivity and increasing joy.

    Theory has it that we'll all be there to find out how it all plays out.

    We'll see!

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  3. Actually, the Rapture (which many Christian denominations don't subscribe to, as it relies on only one or two brief passages in the entire New Testament, and those may be intended symbolically for all we know) would leave the Earth in something of a mess, since everyone whose heart is in the right place will have been snatched away. As in the multi-volume "Left Behind" series (which I haven't read; although it's a provocative story premise, my impression from watching the one movie that's been made so far is that the idea is better than the execution).