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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 07/14/2003
20030714 Vol. 2, #85

God and Free Will, in your morning papers this week!

In a recent NY Times article, the reporter, John Horgan, seems absolutely shaken. As he says, he's one of these guys who "can live with the idea of killing off God. But free will? That's going too far. And yet a couple of books I've been reading lately have left me brooding over the possibility that free will is as much a myth as divine justice.

"When I woke this morning, I stared at the ceiling above my bed and wondered: to what extent will my rising really be an exercise of my free will? Let's say I got up right . . . now. Would my subjective decision be the cause? Or would computations unfolding in a subconscious neural netherworld actually set off the muscular twitches that slide me out of the bed, quietly, so as not to wake my wife, and propel me toward the door?

"Free will is something I cherish. I can live with the idea of science killing off God. But free will? That's going too far. And yet a couple of books I've been reading lately have left me brooding over the possibility that free will is as much a myth as divine justice."

Mr Horgan then explains that there's this Harvard psychologist, Dr Daniel M Wegner who just blithely cuts away free will without any help from philosophy, relying instead on recent research in cognitive science and neurology. In his book, Wegner says it's all just a feeling because we think something and then, because we proceed to do it, we give the feeling credit for the doing. Even when electrical zapping of the brain makes arms jerk, patients get the feeling that they actually meant to move that arm. He says we invent our intentions after our actions take place. In a whole series of experiments, brain wave studies reveal that the action was usually generated before ÷by as much as .03 of a second ÷the decision to act was even conscious.

"That's some pumpkins" as my old egg farmer's grandmother used to say. Anyway, the doc goes on, Horgan says, and shows hundreds of such experiments. Myself, (I mean me, Alvin) I think maybe he's measuring awareness of the intention which is always a later step, than the intention itself. But, hey, not having free will, if this guy's right, explains a lot of thngs. Like why, for two days I had the intention, the desire, even the determination to read the Sunday funnies from yesterday's paper and I still haven't done it. Even though I've loved Sunday funnies all my life, and they eventually steered me into writing comics, I now understand that I haven't read them yet because my free will is just a fairy tale. I'm a bundle of impulses. I'm like George Bush, in fact. Shoot first, think later. And here I've been blaming Bush for that when he no more has free will than I have, because obviously when Condi and Karl are telling you what to do, you don't even need free will. At least George doesn't. Now maybe the professor has it wrong too. Maybe some of us have free will, and some use other people's free will. Is that a possibility?

Getting a little more serious for a moment (as if the Bush business isn't serious enough), I think it much more likely that free will isn't out there on the firing line working all the time. Mostly, we're a bundle of automatic responses, of self-organizing free systems that act for us in the ordinary course of the day. But, occasionally, when those systems aren't firing in a way that suits the situation, we then have to step in with a free will move that changes the direction. Get it? Most of the time, we're on automatic pilot. But then, something big happens, you jump into your mental phone booth and switch to Superman, and do something you weren't programmed for. I think that's the way it really happens.

But Horgan goes on with a lot of other possibilities as a result of not having free will, like when you use a ouija board, stuff like that. But there's a simpler answer than that.

The problem is the term itself, Free Will. Does it mean doing anything you want whenever you feel like it? Does it mean it only jumps in in emergencies? Nobody really gets a good fix on what they're talking about when they refer to free will. Funny, has anybody ever wondered whether superheroes have free will when they're so driven by good impulses, are they free to choose not to do good? Come on, man.

Free Will is a meaningless term like Ego, Identity, Self... None of these things exist in isolation except in conjunction with an image of the way the universe works.

Or let me put it this way. Think of yourself as a finite system far from equilibrium in Prigoginian terms. Energy comes in and goes out and we're always seeking a kind of homeostasis, but being ourselves dissipative structures, we reach a state where there is a radical shift in a new direction. No rules for this. Most of the time, we run on automatic pilot. But when the moment for a leap comes, this is free will. What leaps? The will, my friend. Your own free will. And you branch off in another direction. Leaving, of course, various probable selves in your wake, continuing along the same line of momentum you were just on, but now, willingly choosing the path not taken. The path you willed not to take. The you that you are has just shifted gears. Leaving behind a wake of alternate universes--as some very serious physicists have claimed.

Besides, think of the absurdity of asserting there's no free will. What's making the assertion? Does the assertion have meaning unless there's a free will to assert it? That is, in this case, a free will to be wrong? So take it from me, this guy's got a cushy grant, and maybe if I could dream up a few ideas like that, such as investigating that self that continued on the old path, and I even have a way of doing that which I'll tell you about sometime, if you ask. But you have to ask first.

Now, in the meantime, I came across something else in the Times. That paper is full of strange things these days. Maybe because the whole country is getting stranger and stranger, like seeing WMDs where there aren't any; and so many people believing WMDs have been found because they no longer know how to pay attention to what's going on around them. So now, there's this guy, Daniel C. Dennett, a man with a big reputation in science, especially in the field of Artificial Intelligence.

Well, right there in the NY Times, Daniel offers his manifesto, coming right out of the closet, as he says, by announcing "The time has come for us brights to come out of the closet. What is a bright? A bright is a person with a naturalist as opposed to a supernaturalist world view. We brights don't believe in ghosts or elves or the Easter Bunny , or God. We disagree about many things, and hold a variety of views about morality, politics and the meaning of life, but we share a disbelief in black magic , and life after death."

Bam, that's putting it all out there forthrightly. It's time a lot of people who have doubts about God and the after-life stop pussy-footing around about it, especially when they're so much brighter than anybody else. since they draw their mental sustenance, avowedly, from The Enlightenment, you know back when Voltaire and Diderot and Montesquieu, all threw aside the theological yoke and came out and called a spade a spade. If you can't touch it, taste it or eat it, it isn't there.

Now I want everybody to know that I support this manifesto and that people who don't have any theological or after-life convictions ought to be respected for their opinions and respected for coming out and dealing with them. Myself, I think they're a little bit old fashioned, like their Enlightenment forebears, who if they couldn't touch, see, taste and maneuver things, they had no reason to believe those things existed. Besides, if they say they don't believe in God, they're only acknowledging the fact that there are so many ways of believing in God that don't fit together, nobody seems to know what they're talking about when they use the word. So you've got to acknowledge that these "brights" are bright enough to be starting with a clean slate. I'll tell you a little secret of my own. I don't like the word "God", because the way it's used, it's like an old worn-out flag that's had its lines and designs completely blurred by too much washing.

So I want to be sure Daniel Dennett and company get a hearing and a respectful one. Myself, for example, I never use the word God because I don't know what it might mean in any given context. A big pasha sitting on a cloud in heaven giving orders? And laying down laws that don't apply in the universe the way he's shaped it these days? A Protector? A Punisher? An "us against them" kind of guy? Male, of course? Maybe someone who's built this special joyful hangout for all of us when we're ready to come up and join him? Nice thought. I notice recently some people tried to join him in a spaceship and got themselves all killed. Or is he maybe the guy who wants us to go out and knock off every son-of-a-bitch who doesn't believe in him, so only the right people get to enter the pearly gates? Yeah, a gated community! Just what we all want, to keep out the other guy.

So what do I believe? Lots of stuff. Fantastic stuff. Stuff I've been writing about for years and years. Stuff you're all going to love. So tune in next week when I intend to tell you all about it.

In the meantime, make sure that Daniel C. Dennett and his friends get a hearing. Believe me, he's got a lot to complain about. And God bless the New York Times.


<< 07/07/2003 | 07/14/2003 | 07/21/2003 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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