I have a theory that free will is largely an illusion – that 99.99% of the time, we are running on autopilot, and that our “choices” are really the result of millions of tiny factors beyond our control. Occasionally, though, we can break out of this deterministic schema by elevating our consciousness out of the here-and-now and seeing things as they really are. In this state – which may only last a thousandth of a second – we can make choices that are truly free, and that have the possibility of changing the world for the better.
If you’ve been involved in (or just a witness to) a political discussion on Facebook lately, you probably have a pretty good idea what I’m talking about. Even the more civil discussions tend to revolve around two or more competing sets of premises, so that that the participants are talking past each other. Often the discussion devolves into recitation of talking points. Quite frequently it degenerates into a barrage of personal insults. These are all mechanistic modes of action, requiring no genuine reflection or openness to another point of view. The participants reduce themselves and each other to robots, who spew predetermined output based on internal algorithms and the input they receive from the other robots.
The more I write, the more I’ve become aware of this idea lurking at the back of my consciousness – the idea that freedom is a fleeting, almost-impossible-to-achieve condition. Determinism manifests itself in in two very blatant forms in the Mercury books: on a personal level, it takes the form of dogmatism – the belief that “the big decisions have been made, and that I know the right answers to the important questions.” On an institutional level, it takes the form of bureaucracy – the belief in the moral authority of rules and procedures. In both of these forms, personal judgment is replaced with a predetermined schema. Freedom, always difficult to attain, becomes impossible. Dogma and bureaucracy turn people into machines – or, perhaps more accurately, part of The Machine.
Occasionally someone – a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King – will come along and point out The Machine and for a moment enough eyes will be opened that a shift in reality can occur. Sadly, although the change may be lasting, the moment of enlightenment is not. Jesus’ attempts to overthrow Jewish legalism give way to deterministic creeds and confessions and ultimately the persecution of heretics. Martin Luther King’s notion of a person being judged by the “content of their character” gives way to deterministic policies of “affirmative action.” The Machine never goes away; it just adapts to new circumstances. The policies of The Machine may be innocuous or even beneficial at times, but it is still The Machine. The Machine cannot think or feel; it cannot love or have pity. It can only provide output based on the input it receives and its internal algorithms. And it always resists having its programming changed, for better or worse. Sometimes, paradoxically, The Machine is used to safeguard freedom. Occasionally someone is ground up in the gears, but we accept that as an inevitability of keeping The Machine running. When The Machine has made everyone free, freedom starts looking like slavery. The Machine frees people from their slavery by killing them. Eventually The Machine will be destroyed and replaced with a Better Machine.
By this point, some of you have tuned me out completely, having concluded that I’m talking some crypto-Buddhist libertarian/anarchist bullshit. Others are pumping your fists in the air (metaphorically) and thinking, “Yeah! Down with The Machine!” Still others are completely unmoved.
Before you get too blasé, excited or comfortable, as the case may be, ask yourself whether your reaction is the result of careful consideration or whether it’s simply the result of some fresh input being run through predetermined algorithms in your brain. If it’s the latter, well, that’s The Machine talking. That doesn’t mean you’re wrong, of course. After all, The Machine became The Machine because it works pretty well most of the time. The Machine gets you out of bed in the morning. The Machine brushes your teeth and combs your hair. The Machine drives you to work and probably gets you through the whole work day. The Machine makes you dinner and puts you to bed. The Machine has produced Conservatives, Liberals and Libertarians; Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists; 49ers fans and Raiders fans. It has room for lots of different opinions, as long as those opinions were created by The Machine.
You might counter, “How do you know this whole post wasn’t written by The Machine?” In other words, how do I know that my own opinions on the matter aren’t the result of some complex algorithm in my brain working on input over which I have no control? The simple answer is that I don’t. I hope it’s not; but I have no way of knowing. I feel free as I’m writing it, but I suspect that mostly this post is The Machine talking.
I’ve lost most of you by now. A good percentage of the people who started reading this have moved on to more pressing tasks, as dictated by The Machine. Some of you are still reading in complete befuddlement, wondering what that hell this Machine is that I keep talking about. But maybe, somewhere, one of you, for a thousandth of a second, now thinks “Aha! The Machine! I see it!” And then you move on to something else, as dictated by The Machine.
Still, if that did happen, even for one of you, then this was worth writing. Welcome to The Machine.