2017-06-21

A Feeling. Mostly.

Freedom, part 1

On the subject of freedom, and speaking of fathers . . . I was seven years old when, at dinner one night, my father off-handedly mentioned that there’s an idea that everything you do is known in advance. He probably used the word "predestination," but that was not a word that stuck in my seven-year-old brain. What stuck was the idea that my every action might be known before I even did it. Santa Claus only knew of my naughty and nice actions as I committed them. This was much more alarming than that.

"How?" I asked.

"According to the hypothesis, it just is known," said Dad.

I am not sure if I recommend introducing seven-year-olds to this idea or not. Maybe. It was for me, a mindworm. It got me thinking about freedom. Because Dad had said "hypothesis," I understood that it might or might not be true. But I wanted to know. Was it true? Was there a way to find out?

In the weeks and months that followed, as I turned this notion over, I would sometimes stand in front of a mirror, staring at myself. OK. What am I going to do next? I didn’t know myself – but maybe “they” knew. (Somehow in my interpretation of the hypothesis, it was “they.” Somewhere there was – or might be -- some invisible audience of watchers, who watched the world like a movie they had seen before, knowing everything that was going to happen.) What could I do that would surprise them, that they wouldn’t know I was going to do? Suddenly, I would jerk my hand to the right – ah, ha! This would be immediately followed by the disappointing thought, “Oh. They could have known I was going to do that.” Then I’d try jerking my other hand in a different direction. Nope. They might have known I would do that, too. It seemed unlikely. But I couldn’t disprove that it was possible.

I returned to that mirror several times over the next couple years or so. I always approached without any premeditation about what I was going to do – because if I was carrying out a plan, that would be easier to predict, right? Well that’s what I assumed. I would try various sudden spontaneous movements – and each time immediately realize: it's conceivable that they knew I was going to do that.

I tried flipping a coin. "Tails! . . . Oh, they could have known it would be tails. I don’t know how, but maybe they just did. Rats."

Eventually I figured out what you have probably been thinking. It’s a weird thing to be fixated on. It doesn’t matter if it COULD have been known. What WOULD matter would be evidence that that somehow some entity DID know what everyone did. It’s hard to imagine what such evidence could be, but that would be interesting. Or if an actual human person of your acquaintance told you one evening that you were very predictable, and proceeded say that yesterday she wrote predictions of what you would do today, took out an envelope, opened it, and read to you a surprisingly accurate description of what you in fact had done all day, then THAT would be something. You might examine whether you were in a bit of a rut, and you might want to get out of it. But the abstract theoretical possibility that some invisible entity COULD have known what you were going to do is meaningless. It has nothing to do with real freedom -- as I eventually concluded.

Or did I?

Many years later, I was graduate student in philosophy having lunch in a sandwich shop next to the grounds (I went to a school where the cherished tradition was to say “grounds,” instead of “campus”). I was munching a hummus and sprouts on cracked wheat, and was there with two fellow grad students. Into our conversation, I raised the possibility of a super- duper-duper computer that could assimilate all the input of the whole universe and could then predict everything that would happen in the world. You will recognize that as but a slight tweak of the conundrum that had been with me for twenty-one of my then-twenty-eight years. One of my lunch mates then said something that has proved to be another mindworm for me. He said: a computer that incorporated and played out EVERY event in the world would just BE the world. That was kind of a liberating insight.

In between that seven-year-old in front of a mirror, and that 28-year-old at the sandwich shop, there was a 17-year-old me, riding in the car somewhere with my Dad, when I just came out with it. I said, “Dad, what is freedom?”

He said, “It’s a feeling. Mostly.”

It’s a feeling. Mostly.

So what gives you the feeling of freedom?

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