The Devil Made Me Do It

A few weeks ago, I attended Fencon, a science fiction convention in Dallas. I was hoping to get some pictures of it and do a post about the ethos of Science Fiction cons (as opposed to the Athos of Science Fiction cons, which involves swords and quantities of wine.)

However, for various reasons, I ended up not taking pictures. (Okay, okay, it started with a white shirt and a cup of starbucks coffee. I should know better than wearing white and having coffee. I washed the shirt in the bathroom, but that left it semi-transparent. I really didn't feel equal to playing photographer while walking around in a peek-a-boob shirt. But also, I was feeling a bit under the weather, so I only went for my appearances and didn't hang around.

All the same, one of my panels made me uneasy. One of my co-panelists was Robert Sawyer, author of Flashforward and he was pushing, rather hard as in "Scientists think that...." the idea that animated the novel (which was made, I understand, into a now-cancelled TV show.) The central idea of his book is that the future is as hard set as the past and individual will is an illusion.

So why did this bother me? Not because it's one of the most evil ideas I could conceive of. Not that I mean by that he shouldn't write it. Evil ideas should be explored, if you can stomach it. A good imagination is one of the best ways to tell good from evil. You don't have to actually do evil to feel it. Now, Sawyer didn't seem to realize it was evil, but that didn't really bother me either. And the fact that it is evil is not what bothered me about it... precisely. The novel is fiction and I don't try to block off avenues of expression.

It was more that it gave me a sense of deja vu. And that sense of deja vu I disliked. I remembered having this idea pushed at me in countless venues in the last couple of years or so.

It seems that lately it has become bien-pensant and fashionable to claim that we have no free will at all and everything is scripted for us. I've read this from psychologists, geneticists and, recently, via instapundit, the idea of memories of the future, all of it to indicate that "it's all set in stone and we're mere meat puppets."

Now, I have on occasion been afflicted with flashes of premonition/premonitory dreams, (I think most of us have) and the idea of fate is a very old one in every culture. That is not what I'm ranting about. Most systems of belief involving fate (not all, most) and most premonitions, my few examples included, fall into two categories: one, the warning, where you're warned away from a series of actions that will lead to this; two, irrelevant bits that could belong to any number of future scenarios, like someone wearing pink shoes with a wedding dress, say. It's nothing important, and it could be true no matter who the person was marrying. (To be honest, the link from instapundit about remembering the future referred to short term memory and might be much the same thing.)

This is not what I'm talking about. What I'm talking about is the idea that, to modify the quintessential stalker song, "Every breath you take, every move you make, has already been forced on you." Forever and ever, world without end.

We hear about all sorts of traits being a function of your genes, from the way you think to whom you'll fall in love with. We hear of people being "programmed" to do this or that by three. Our schools confuse culture with race and assume culture is scripted in your genes. (If one more person asks me why I don't teach the boys Portuguese so they know "their culture" I'm going to do something that person WILL regret.) We hear that tomboys inevitably become lesbian women (I resent that, that's all I'd have needed as a kid, would be my mom buying into that.) And over and over and over I hear "I couldn't help it. It was all written. It had to happen."

Now, I refuse to believe there is a kind of jorno-list circulating this sort of idea, but it has appeared everywhere, perhaps pushed by the zeitgeist. And it makes me foam at the mouth.

In its "best" aspect, it presumes cultures and people are incapable of being grown ups and assuming responsibility for what and who they are. And in its WORST form, it presupposes the existence of a god, but of a god (note small g) who fits Heinlein's description "Most people are unable to imagine a divinity that's superior to themselves, which is why most gods have the morals and manners of a spoiled two year old."

What do I mean by that? Well, think about it, we're not living exactly as we did at the dawn of humanity, therefore SOMEONE must have invented innovations. So, there must be an intelligence outside this scripted universe, who can influence events. So, there is a god. BUT he created this whole intricate thing and all he does is walk his dolls across the stage and "make them say" stuff. And then he picks up the next doll....

(And before you say "or an author" let me disabuse you. even the tightest plotters experience changes as their characters develop and grow on the page. At least if they're any good. We don't often talk about it, because it feels a little nutty, but most of us will confess it to writer buddies. I'll give you that this god could be a REALLY bad author. A bad, spoiled two year old author. While I do believe in G-d, to echo M. Simon, my G-d is better than that. He is a GOOD author, whose characters can grow and change things.)

If you don't find this idea intrinsically evil, imagine a world in which we all believed everything is scripted as it will happen. What is the point? Do we punish the murderer who was fated to murder? The rapist who was fated to rape? Do we bother working and striving? After all, our success or failure is already fated.

When I was young I read a lot of Reiner Kunze in German (my command of German is something of the past) and a line of one of his poems stuck with me. It was on some celebration of Lenin's something or other and his final line was "Even if he wanted to be remembered this way, it would be doing him an injustice."

This idea of a scripted future brings forth the same sort of response from me "even if it were true, it would behoove free men and women not to believe it."

But I do not believe it CAN be true. I do not live in a universe designed by a brat. I am a free woman and I will pick my fate and I will accept responsibility for my actions, good or bad. Let others live in a world full of sound and fury signifying nothing. I choose freedom.

posted by Sarah on 10.22.10 at 11:37 PM


You have to admit that designing animals to adapt to their environment (how ever that came about - whether by fiat or selection) is rather a novel concept if there is no free will.

M. Simon   ·  October 23, 2010 1:07 AM

The idea is garbage, as no one can predict the future.

Successfully guessing the future is not prediction.

Brett   ·  October 23, 2010 9:16 AM

Brett - there's a difference between the future's being determined, and that determination's being knowable. Even if it's absolutely impossible to predict the future, that doesn't mean that it's undetermined. That just means that it's not the sort of thing that can be known.

Now, that might make it *effectively* undetermined, in the sense that we don't have any reason to act as if it isn't undetermined. But again, that's not the same thing.

Michael E. Lopez   ·  October 23, 2010 1:44 PM

If the Copenhagen Interpretation is correct than the future is not pre-determined. Then you get into the Many Universe ideas of Kripke. The trouble with that of course is you can't tell in advance the fork in the road "you" will take.

Sarah is right though - for an orderly society the assumption of free will is the best.

M. Simon   ·  October 23, 2010 2:51 PM

M Simon,

Absolutely. Also, there's plenty of evidence (which isn't currently fashionable) to suggest that free will does exist and is exercised. We can choose not to do something our body is urging us to do.

Granted, it's bloody difficult to do, and not a lot of people will do it when the alternative isn't unpleasant. That doesn't invalidate free will, in my view. It makes free will all the more precious and all the more desirable.

Kate   ·  October 23, 2010 2:56 PM

I was in the audience at that panel. I too was uneasy about his defense of determinism. Like nihilism it seems only an excuse for evading personal responsibility.

Robert   ·  October 23, 2010 4:45 PM


It's not only Sawyer's defense (and a writer doesn't need to believe in something to write the book, but a lot of them think they need to pretend to, so I'll withhold judgement) but the fact that the idea of determinism pops up all over these days and that I don't like. It smells way too much of "cultural suicide."

And, oh, no, if you were in the panel you saw the soaked shirt. (blush.) Eh. I'll live it down yet.

Sarah   ·  October 23, 2010 10:48 PM

M. Simon,

Multiuniverse is my idea of choice, simply because it is the most fun to play with. (And then we can have all the fun of some part of us being a multidimmensional creature that experiences all these universes. Then again, as my favorite publisher tends to tell me, I like to complicate things.) I'm not alone in this preference -- Terry Pratchett refers to this sort of thing as different legs in the trousers of time (G)

Sarah   ·  October 23, 2010 10:51 PM

Defenders of free will really need to come up with a coherent explanation of how it could actually work. I've heard quantum randomness effects suggested, but they occur on scales too small to influence neural functioning, and I'm not sure how "free" randomness would be, anyway. Any other sort of actual free will would obviously violate causality.

And of course criminals should still be punished; the reason we punish criminals isn't (or at least shouldn't be) an irrational desire for revenge, but rather to deter others and to keep those criminals from committing additional crimes.

Kate: what is the "unfashionable" evidence you refer to? I've seen interesting studies suggesting that there's a sort of executive "veto" faculty in the brain, but that faculty is subject to the same causal laws as the rest of the brain (and besides, I'd hardly call that line of research unfashionable).

CaptBackslap   ·  October 24, 2010 9:51 AM

Capt Backslap,

Is this all you can manage? Dear me. And here I was hoping for some sensible discussion.

I'll play your little game: let's start with some basic biology. Subconscious pathways are faster than conscious reasoning because they're learned (imprinted) patterns. This does not mean that they're unchangeable. They can be overridden - and the evidence is there in the thousands of dentist visits every single day where people choose to endure discomfort and pain when every instinct is telling them to get the hell out of that chair and away from the source of the pain.

Free will does not and can not violate causality - here you're assuming that given knowledge of every single factor the outcome is known. This simply is not true. Radioactive decay is the most common violation of your assumption - at most a predictable pattern of radioactive decay is observable (half-life). There is no means of predicting when any specific atom of a radioactive substance will decay. Ergo, the view of absolute knowledge is violated at the most basic of levels, with cascading effects up the scale. Note also that once you move into indirect causality where the proximate cause is itself the result of two or more less direct events, causality becomes a very fuzzy concept indeed.

You say that criminals should still be punished, in part to deter others - if there is no free will, how can punishment be a deterrent? Logic dictates that sans free will no deterrent will prevent a person from committing a crime if that crime is in fact in that person's future - or fate, or causality, if you prefer.

To being with, an executive "veto" implies by its very existence the presence of free will. Once can choose or not choose to apply it. The mechanisms used to decide whether or not to apply the veto aren't relevant. I'm not going to go chasing the research on google right now (I read very widely, and generally don't remember the referencing terribly well) but googling the phrase "research free will" gets you some interesting results, including quite a lot of evidence to the effect that people whose belief in free will is eroded behave less ethically than those whose belief in free will is not eroded.

Now, remember that the mechanism by which a decision is made is not relevant. What distinguishes free will from deterministic decision is that identical circumstances will always produce identical results. Theoretically, near-identical circumstances should produce the same end decision in a binary choice (Yes/No, Do or do not, there is not try). This is evident all the time from computers. It does not happen with people. We build habits, and then we decide the hell with it and go do something different. We try new things. We examine evidence and make decisions based on the evidence. Oh, yes. And we create completely new things that have never existed before.

That CaptBackslap, is not deterministic behavior. It is free will.

Kate   ·  October 24, 2010 12:21 PM

And it would appear that the Great God of the Internets, Tae-Poh, has blessed my efforts.

"To being with" should be "To begin with".


Kate   ·  October 24, 2010 12:23 PM

Based on my last encounter with Robert Sawyer, he has a predilection for asserting as incontrovertible scientific fact things that are, to put it kindly, not exactly certain. But then, he displays the same arrogant universal knowledge about all kinds of things of which he knows something down to nothing.

pst314   ·  October 24, 2010 5:49 PM

We need free will. Our freedom is predicated on it and depends on it.

Eric Scheie   ·  October 24, 2010 8:29 PM

I'm sure that Robert Sawyer would be pleased to know he's reinvented the Baptist / Calvinist doctrine of predestination.

From a Christian perspective, the problem with eliminating free will is that it relieves one of the need to make moral choices and be responsible for the result. How can one actually be held accountable, when God ordained your sinning at the Creation? Indeed, to attempt to avoid sin is an act of impiety.

SDN   ·  October 24, 2010 10:05 PM

I saw Robert J. Sawyer a few weeks back at Conjecture, and he gave a very different message re Flash Forward. As I recall—imperfectly it's true—Robert mentioned incidents in the show where fate was thwarted, and one story line where a man did his best to insure destiny worked out as it should.

Sarah, are you giving us what Sawyer said, or what you remember Sawyer saying?

Alan Kellogg   ·  October 25, 2010 1:12 AM


He didn't really talk about the TV series in TX. He concentrated on his book and the science behind it, and he ABSOLUTELY defended the theory that the future is set in stone. Robert, above, who aparently attended the panel got the exact same idea of what he was saying.

At any rate, this is in no way an attack on Robert Sawyer. He's entitled to write what he wants and to believe what he wants. It's a one woman's protest against the cultural meme of "predestination" and "forces outside our control" that seems to be taking hold everywhere from psychology to physics.

Sarah   ·  October 25, 2010 1:50 PM

Post a comment

April 2011
Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
          1 2
3 4 5 6 7 8 9
10 11 12 13 14 15 16
17 18 19 20 21 22 23
24 25 26 27 28 29 30


Search the Site


Classics To Go

Classical Values PDA Link


Recent Entries


Site Credits