The Human Machine
What compelled you to read this paper? Did it somehow interest you or catch your eye, and you decided to read it? Was it simply the next paper in a towering pile? These are valid reasons, and perhaps what comes to mind when you think of this question. Yet consider this: was this your own conscious decision to read this now, or was it fate, destiny? Can your every action, such as your decision to read this paper, or your reaction to the proposed question be explained, predicted, foretold? Free will and conscious decisions are oft mulled over by the American population – this is reflected in our popular culture, with movies such as The Adjustment Bureau, and television programmes like LOST. The concept of free will – or the lack thereof – is a fundamental piece of a person’s world view; this is a topic to be treated delicately. Do humans possess free will, or are we controlled by fate, destiny, and predestination? Are we able to make conscious decisions, or are we just human machines? Some people will say we are most certainly free beings; others will argue that we cannot possibly know the answer.
But what if I were to tell you that, logically, there cannot be free will, that there is a force controlling our actions below the level we typically discern? This concept would usually be debated with merely human reason in our arsenals – with philosophy, or, as logical empiricists such as Ludwig Wittgenstein viewed it, “a study of language,” a mere “clarification of thoughts” (Buckler, Hill, and McKay 925). Yet there is vast depth to the matter of free will, with religion, culture, education, and – perhaps most importantly to proving something in our modern experimentally-minded society – science. These influences coalesce to prove the concept of fate, destiny; they form the basis of philosophy today. The concept of free will is quite simple; as defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “‘Free Will’ is a philosophical term of art for a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives.”(O’Conner) Put simply, we retain conscious control over our mind, thoughts, and actions. Our future, our path in life is determined by us and our intersections with others, where each of our individual, independent paths cross.
Our “destinies” are not forged by some outer power, force, or being; it is ourself who is the blacksmith of our own fate. Philosophers such as John Locke, an Englishman whose works continue to influence our modern culture, argue this concept of free will. In his book, Essay on Human Understanding, he argues that humans are born with no innate personality or conscious; we are formed by our experiences, forging our own self, our own life (Buckler, Hill, and McKay 607). Yet are humans truly born a blank slate, or are we born with an impression, an engraving of who we will become? One counterexample to the Lockean belief of the tabula rasa is Steven P. Jobs, CEO of Apple.
Adopted as a baby and raised to be a free-thinking hippie, Jobs believed in Locke’s theories, calling himself an “environmentalist,” believing that who one becomes and their success in live is governed by by upbringing, circumstance, timing and luck. However, his world view was shattered upon meeting his biological sister, Mona Simpson. She had grown under entirely different circumstances, and yet the two were eerily similar, in traits down to being vegan and in wild intensity. This lead to his belief that, to some degree, life’s outcomes are merely “wired in the genes” (Lohr 11). This idea would most certainly have been enough to give Locke pause: who we become is formed without our actions, thoughts, or experiences, rather it is formed “in the genes” with a predetermined plan.
John Locke and the tabula rasa are not the only viewpoints on man’s freedom: the views of existentialist Jean Paul Sartre also exemplify the concept of free will. Existentialism was and is a search for meaning in an increasingly harsh and dark world; Nietzsche had already declared “God is dead,” that there was no controlling force in the universe but ourselves – and thus, no path that we could follow but what we forge on our own. Our decisions are all that brings meaning to an otherwise bleak, meaningless world. In Sartre’s own worlds, “man is condemned to be free” (Buckler, Hill, and McKay 925). His view was that there was no force controlling man, no one planning our lives, merely our own actions, reasons and choices in life; absolute free will.
These two angles of Locke and Sartre shed a better light on what exactly free will is: forging our own path. But what of those who deny free will? Those who believe that we find ourselves locked in a course of destiny, each day and event in our lives drawing us continually closer to our eventual fate. This concept is also spread widely throughout the world, manifesting itself in religion, culture, and philosophy. One person who blurs the boundaries of the two subjects is John Calvin, who argued the theory of predestination – that God knows from a time before our birth, before we are even a thought in any of human existence, whether we shall rise to heaven or be condemned to hell (Buckler, Hill, and McKay 470-471). This idea, that we are on a path, is the basic concept of destiny – that we are playing parts in an elaborate play, ant that the script is concealed behind the velvet curtain of the stage. There is a great deal more to destiny, however; the idea of prophecies are particularly interesting.
In the play Oedipus Rex, an oracle foretells of a boy killing his father and marrying his mother; this inspires fear within them, and they leave him to die, all part in a horrid chain of events culminating in the fulfillment of the prophecy. And yet when one observes this text, it is not perhaps that the Oracle knew what the future would be; merely that her prophecy was a catalyst which caused its fulfillment. Self-fulfilling prophecies are quite peculiar – the the movie The Matrix, when Neo is told by the Oracle “[not to] worry about the vase,” after which he turns around bewildered and brakes it by mistake, it is a strange moment for the viewer, as you ponder over the Oracle’s question, “would you still have broken it if I hadn’t said anything?” Are prophecies in fact all merely catalysts of themselves? The conclusion may cross your mind that these oracles are merely masters of reading human emotion as is Iago in the play Othello, manipulating people without their conscious realization of what is happening for a sort of sick pleasure. Yet if we analyze the themes of both The Matrix and Oedipus Rex, we realize that it is not that the prophecies fulfill themselves, rather that we cannot escape the role we are meant to play, no matter how much it may scare us to see behind this velvet curtain. But one may wonder who may write the script, and why they conceal themselves from our sight. For this we must diverge into the delicate, fragmented realm of religion.
Christianity, the largest religion in the world, with 33% of the population (Adherents), is an easy first category to divulge into. It is important to not how fragmented Christianity is: there are over 30,000 denominations. For simplicity, I’ll address the two most important umbrellas of Catholicism and Protestantism. Protestants more or less share the belief that Yahweh – the Jewish and Christian god – has a plan, “God’s will,” for us to follow into salvation. Some branches believe we can forge away from this plan, but they agree that a plan has been written.
There are many verses in the Bible to support this; for instance, “In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will” (KJV, Eph. 1.11). It is a clear conclusion that God had chosen his people long before they knew their calling, as with each of his profits, disciples, and all he called to perform his deeds. Not only who would perform his work, but also who would receive eternal salvation or damnation, in Calvin’s theory of Predestination.
In Catholicism, they countered the point of free will, saying that humans do indeed possess it; however, it is important to note that Catholicism tried to counter every Protestant idea to maintain its rigid monopoly through the wars of religion, so it’s interpretations of religious doctrine may be less valid. Another intriguing religion is Hinduism, the world’s third largest religion. It does not deal with free will in the most straight forward of manners; however, we can observe the well known idea of karma to gain a better understanding. With karma, we are judged for our actions, with good behavior rewarded with a better next life, and bad behavior resulting in an equal evil done to you. For there to be the ability to choose good or bad, there must be free will in Hinduism. Yet even with this religion’s belief of free will, we can see some sense of destiny: some outer force, a deity or part of a cosmic cycle, judges us, determining our next life – we have no input, therefor there is even some destiny in Hinduism’s belief in free will; there is an unseen force, as I believe there to be.
Some may argue with the conclusion I draw from philosophy: that we have a destiny, that there is an outer force influencing our actions. But when the evidence I have presented is examined together, it becomes harder to refute this force from behind the curtain. We have an impression of ourselves from when we are born, not a tabula rasa as John Locke believed, as a character in a play is seldom written without an initial burst of inspiration by a playwright. We are not providing meaning to lives by our own actions, but rather than by fulfilling those that have been planned for us, much as a leading role on broadway may be the highlight of an actors career. There is something or someone planning every moment in our lives, cleaning each plan to run side by side with all the others in our lives, as characters are balanced in a script. With self-fulfilling prophecies, no matter how much we may dislike the script, we are stuck to following it.
Finally, we may not all agree upon who is writing the script, or if we have to follow it, but there is some outside, undetected force. In philosophy, we can do little to prove our words other than reasoning from our own observations, our own reasoning. With all of this information, it becomes difficult to deny our concept of destiny; indeed, one can go even further with philosophy. Philosophy is not something that can be proven with empirical data or evidence, but with observation and rational thought. And so I offer my observations: when people see ‘behind the curtain,’ they seldom like what they see, attempting to flee their destinies, wishing we had never known them, as observed in my discussion of self-fulfilling prophecies.
Across the worlds cultures, people typically believe – or would like to believe – that humans posses free will(Nichols 2). But their denial of free will only fuels my belief, that they are trying to hide from an inconvenient truth. There are many things affecting our perception of free will and what it means: philosophy and religion as we discussed, but also culture. Our cultures impact our world view in every way, from the disguised level with adverts informing us we are destined to be miserable until we buy a product to movies such as The Adjustment Bureau, bringing the topic to the front of the publics mind, albeit as a romantic adventure rather than a philosophical inquiry. But free will holds great implications for our culture as well, especially in ethics. In a set of studies performed by the University of Minnesota and California: Santa Barbara, researchers found that if subjects were given an article that sounded like it had a strong scientific base for free will being an illusion versus an article merely discussing the importance of studying the human conscience, followed by a simple test, in which they have the option to cheat on the questions if they so choose.
There was a strong correlation between those who had been told that there was no free will as opposed to the other article; the implication of free will, or a lack thereof, is enough to shatter world views, send people into a spiral, and cause terrible ethical problems (Nichols 1). If people believe that they are not conscientiously making decisions or choices in life, they may believe that “I couldn’t help it, it was destiny,” is a valid excuse, one that they themselves believe. Our free will holds us to our moral standard; without it, we feel no obligation to care how we act, as those actions weren’t made by ourselves, or so a poor interpretation goes. Indeed, another relevant study by philosopher Hagop Sarkissian from City University of NY had people from varying cultures – from Hong Kong, India, Colombia, and the U.S – taking a survey on determinism and moral responsibility. Given an article describing determinism in layman’s terms – the doctrine that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes external to the will, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary – all the cultures tended to answer that we live in a non-deterministic universe, and more interestingly, believed that if we were to live in a non-deterministic universe, we would bear no moral responsibility (Nichols 2).
Clearly, the illusion of free will is in place in our culture for a reason; to protect ourselves with morality. But why do we associate moral responsibility with free will? This is where our cultures truly impact our free will. One need only to look at the political arena of our modern world to see our emphasis on free will: we value and fight for democracy throughout our world, denouncing dictatorships and communism as ‘evil;’ we fight for our right to choose. This says a lot; that our democracies by their very nature tell us we have true, full ‘choice,’ – and advocation of free will, even if we are not consciously aware of this. In the 2011 State of the Union Address, Barack Obama said “Our destiny remains our choice;” it is in speeches like this we see the shrewdness of politicians in free will.
They are taking the two options and merging them, with the idea being that if you vote for them, you are choosing – with your free will – a better destiny than if you were to choose their opponent. These sagacious politicians blur the distinction between the two, instead using them for personal gain. Politicians are not the only ones exploiting free will; there is a constant stream of media to us, in advertisements, news, television, movies, many of which will contain information about – or more importantly using – free will. In advertisements, an insecurity of ourselves is identified, and we are told that we are destined to be miserable until we buy said product or service; trying to deny this only serves as a self fulfilling prophecy, making ourselves miserable trying to ignore it. Other adverts may tell us why we should choose their brand, appealing to free will; either way, advertising is fundamentally structured on the concept of either free will or destiny.
Our televisions programmes, like LOST, are constantly filled with ideas of free will; LOST brings it to the front line of the publics mind, with central conflict between the two protagonists, the man of science – believing that they must forge their path off of the island – and the man of faith – believing that the island had its own destiny for them. In movies like The Adjustment Bureau, we see people as having destinies, but that we should fight to have free will. In all of this cultural influence, how is there prove that we lack free will, that there is an outer force? It is when we look at it as a whole that it becomes more apparent. Across a variety of cultures, people deny the concept of determinism, believing that if we were to live in a deterministic universe we would not be responsible for our actions. Moreover, those who deny free will are more apt to have declining moral standards. The reason for this belief comes from our societies projections of free will.
In the political sphere, we are given the concept of free will and choice with democracy, yet we hear constantly of ‘destiny’ in speeches or even our ‘Manifest Destiny’ to stretch from coast to coast; the political viewpoint on free will is whatever will best manipulate the people to the states interest, and we are destined to follow. Finally, we are exposed everyday to popular culture and advertisements which tell us, consciously or unconsciously, of how we are destined to be unhappy until we buy a product or service, act a certain way, fit in with a certain clique. In the culture of our nations, we are given a facade of free will, but underneath it all, we are destined to follow. Those who are skeptics of the concept of destiny prior to reading this paper are not likely to have reconsidered as a result of my arguments. Much of my argument and data is based on the acceptance of age old philosophy and ancient religions; I have been using only Rene Descartes half of the scientific method – deductive reasoning – rather than Sir Francis Bacon’s empirical observations, those of clean, clear data.
Skeptics may presume that the reason for this absence is because science would merely disprove the concept of destiny, showing that we are in fact free; the results are quite to the contrary. We need only to look to the studies of scientists at UCLA and Harvard, based on a test designed by Benjamin Libet, a UCSF scientist devoted to the study of free will. In this test, patients look at a hand spinning around a clock-face, and press a button when they want, keeping not of the position of the hand when they decided to press the button. Measuring neuron activity, the data patients provide, and the time the button was pressed, researchers searched for correlated data. They found that neurons in the area of the brain dedicated to movement changed activity before patients said they felt an urge to press the button by as much as one-and-one-half seconds.
Through various patients, each with numerous run throughs, they found the same data with over eighty-percent accuracy. Here is an experiment that offers solid data that free will, to a greater or lesser extent, is fictitious. Some will try to deny that this data is meaningful; they will point to poor patient memory and misremembering of times, that it may be a gradual decision to press a button, or that pressing a button is no metric to judge whether we are able to make conscious decisions at the major crossroads of our lives. Yet there is plenty of data similar to what I have shared; others have conducted the same experiment and resulted in the same findings, indicating that this is no fluke, no coincidence; the data is accurate. The implications of this data is startling; as mentioned in my section on culture, the concept of a lack of free will would have a disastrous impact upon our modern world’s population.
Moreover, to those who see into this data, who see into the truth, it is impossible to go back to ignorance; as seen in The Matrix, all that Cypher wishes for is to be blissfully unaware of his slavery to the machines, as we wish to be blissfully unaware of our script. Through all of my reasoning, I have established five key concepts: first, we are without free will in this universe. Second, we are born with an impression of who we are, “in the genes” as some might phrase it. Third, there is some outer controlling force in this universe, whether we accept it as a god, many gods, or some unknowable force. Fourth, we are manipulated with the concept of free will every day, our understanding of it twisted to represent what society wishes it to. Finally, if the world were to accept that they lacked free will, we would be in shambles.
All this information is backed up as well as can be corroborated, and is hard to deny. Yet it is, as I have said, information that is best not shared with the world at large; as in the Enlightenment of the Eighteenth-Century, only a small collection of the educated elite could come to know and accept the truth, while the people remain lost, rooted in superstition (Buckler, Hill, and McKay 608). What lies behind the velvet curtain is scarce what we wish to see; we are but actors in a grand play, human machines processing lines of code. Only those who seek to see the masterful backstage of our world will become enlightened, and those enlightened may long for blissful ignorance. But all we can do from our reactions is continue our daily lives; to reassume our character and enter our grand stage.