A thought experiment

April 10 2015

“The various cloud shapes and hues meant nothing, what they looked like at any given juncture was based on chance, so if there is anything the clouds suggested it was meaninglessness in its purest form.”

--Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book One


That thought you just had, or the one you’re having right now, or the one you’ll have in the next instant—how do each of these thoughts that float across your conscious mind come into existence? It’s instinctual to believe that we author our own thoughts; that each of us has “free will” and thus can choose to think whatever it is we want to think at any moment in time.

But what if this was not true?

What if free will was merely an illusion? What if the feeling that we were the conscious authors of the inner narrative of our minds, was only that: a feeling? And that instead, those things we interpret as conscious thoughts were in fact the result of biological, chemical and physical forces beyond our control and simply the product of the same laws of nature and probability that govern every other part of the universe? What then? How might we view our place in the world differently if that were the case?

First off, some might consider it a bleak truth. Where is the romance in relegating all human thought and creativity and action to cold unalterable probability functions collapsing around us at every instant, bringing possibility into reality without our say? Rather than bleak, I tend to think of this idea as staggeringly beautiful. To think of our minds as mere envelopes of the universe expressing itself through us is one way of conceiving of all of humanity, not to mention all of space and time, as irrevocably connected in a way that is deeply spiritual without needing to invoke the notion of god or religious doctrine or science fiction to get there.

Second, if all of the thoughts we have, both good and bad, are games of chance resolving themselves at every moment in time, then we might think twice about how we cast judgment on others. We might do well to reign in our deification of the individuals—the artists, the musicians, the inventors—who create and do good things (those who have "good" thoughts) and reconsider how we look down upon the fallen—the criminals, the troubled, the lazy—who fail to do good or actively do harm (those who have "bad" thoughts). We might choose to celebrate more communally the accomplishments of the few and to exercise more compassion towards the (apparent) errors of the many. Removing the illusion of free will deflates the primacy of the individual, which, in turn grants us the opportunity to inflate our regard for the other.

Finally, if our thoughts are ultimately outside our control, we might grow a deeper appreciation for the outsized role chance plays in determining the course of our lives from beginning to end. No one would question the fact that chance entirely dictates the parents to which we are born. Nor is it controversial to suggest that nature and nurture thenceforth determine the people we become, exactly to the extent they influence the choices we, as individuals, are free to make. But if (as we’re presuming here) we’re not actually truly free in making those choices, then nature and nurture alone, not ourselves, dictate—entirely!—our makeup, down to every conscious thought we ever have. Does this not humble? Just as Carl Sagan demonstrated with Pale Blue Dot (Voyager 1’s photo of Earth as a tiny, light-blue speck in the vast expanse of space) that our place in the universe, relative to its size, is utterly insignificant, so too are our conscious minds insignificant, when viewed as purely governed by the whimsies of probability—like the random, ever-changing, and ultimately meaningless patterns that clouds trace in the sky.

Mat Balez
bcc/ mom

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