Fiction and Drama
A memo on the ruins
I dreamed last night that I crossed the river and visited the tall ruins. In waking life I’ve only ever admired them from this side of the water. The quiet over there must be impressive; the only thing to hear would be the wind, and maybe now and then an ache or creak from one of the structures as they continue to settle.
A part of me has always wanted to go — are there raccoons? — but I never have, in part because of the first memo I ever wrote for you. You may not remember it, but it has come back to me, as a sense-memory almost more than as an intellectual one, every time I have sat down at this desk, because it was the first thing I wrote with a manufactured pen after coming to Drayton — an amenity that brought home to me what being at Drayton meant. The memo established — fluidly, blotlessly established — that there was every reason to believe that the rumors weren’t true and that the levels across the water were indeed as high as the holding authority then said they were, and subsiding no more quickly than the authority maintained. I never went, too, because such a visit would have been against the law, and I have always been deterred by respect for the law, or at any rate by fear of fines or detention should any boatman I approach for a ride turn out to be an undercover police officer. And in part, finally, it has to be said, I didn’t cross the water because for the past twenty years I have been in your service and conscious of your investment in me, financial and human. I used to go so far as to think that if I ever wanted to run a risk that large, I would owe it to you to ask first — which would mean, of course, that I would never run the risk, because for my sake you would say no.
By now you have probably guessed why I introduced this memo with my dream. My long-standing wish to visit the ruins and the long-standing obstruction of my wish rather neatly illustrate the most common questions about free will, the topic you have asked me to explore. If I know better than to visit the ruins, can it be said that I am not free to visit them? If an instrument of governance forestalls a visit that almost any rational and informed observer would consider misguided, is my freedom impaired in a way that I ought to mind? And if my contractual and (we might as well call them) emotional obligations are incompatible with a visit, and if it is never, at any time in the course of my life, in my interest to repudiate these obligations or otherwise divest myself of them, is it the case that I have been kept by them from visiting? In this matter, do I have a will of my own? A delicate question for someone in service to be asked to investigate, but the delicacy is not irrelevant, and you have always allowed full license and expected complete candor in the course of research. I suspect, moreover, that one need not be in service to be troubled by the question, or by its fellows. After all, although the motive behind your request twenty years ago for a memo on the ruins, at the time still fairly raw, may have been mere curiosity, the philosophy of your system of memos is by and large pragmatic — a memo aims to present the best pertinent counsel obtainable by a proportionate effort within an appropriate time span, according to the formula that I repeat at least once a week to one or another of the younger members of the staff — and so perhaps I may infer that on your part, too, there is a wish to visit, or at least once upon a time there was. Twenty years ago. For you, too, such a wish, if it did once exist, will have been obstructed, if not stopped, by prudence, law, and a sense of responsibilities owed elsewhere.
I’m making a speculation about you personally only in order to suggest the universality of the issues.
But no doubt these sentences are so irremediably orotund and cautious that you will over
There is a further challenge to free will to consider, one that is a little theoretical and therefore somewhat harder to see. Suppose that tomorrow morning the appeal of a visit to the ruins strikes you as worth the price, at last. Is going to strike you as worth the price. And suppose, too, that a scientist of the old days watches your brain, overnight, as your valuations of the alternatives are shifting. We can imagine him using one of the real-time scanners that doctors used to be able to call upon, plugged into the best of our generators here at Drayton, which, we can further imagine, is by a miracle giving us the steady voltage, within narrow tolerances, that the fine devices of the old days seem to have preferred. Since we’re in the realm of the hypothetical, why not also suppose that the images produced by the scanner are sharper than anything the scanners of the old days were able to achieve, and that we have somehow found a computer with unmelted circuits as well, and that we are tasking the computer with keeping an inventory of the locations and directions of all the electrons in your brain as they tumble along your neurons, so as to extrapolate their future paths. If, at two-thirty in the morning, the computer tallies that when you wake up at nine you will choose to cross the water despite penalties and losses, is it correct to say that you will choose freely upon waking? The computer will have predicted your choice more than six hours before.
A quibble of this kind was the challenge to free will of most concern to philosophers explicitly so called in the decades leading up to the final presidency. It is hard to take seriously now, but progress in instrumentation and artificial intelligence was so rapid in those days that perhaps the prospect of a complete monitoring of the biological substrate of a person’s interiority did not then seem entirely theoretical. There is some reason to think, after all, that the nature of people’s concerns about free will varies with the epoch. In the nineteenth century, as the flames of religion were apparently being extinguished in the superior dawn of science, the great worry was how to reconcile free will, imagined as spontaneous, with morality, imagined as immutable and absolute. Was a person who understood the nature and worth of virtue ever really free to choose something else? By the time the twentieth century was yielding to the twenty-first, the worry had been replaced by one strangely analogous: Was a rational agent ever really free to choose a course of action that failed to maximize his economic self-interest? It was to politics that people generally went for an answer for the latter question, in those years. The philosophers were, as I say, then preoccupied by the problem of the hypothetically powerful computer. They feared that once the computer was armed with a perfect knowledge (equally hypothetical) of the world as it existed at a particular moment, there would be nothing it couldn’t predict — no decision it couldn’t undermine by knowing of it in advance — by simple calculation of that moment’s consequences. Even in the library we have assembled here at Drayton, discussions of the threat are so extensive that I find myself worried about falling — almost against my will, as it were — into the error of awarding the topic an amount of attention proportional to the attention awarded to it by earlier writers, rather than the amount I myself think it deserves.
A shortcut, perhaps: Do you remember Alan Burns? While he was in service here as your chauffeur, almost fifteen years ago, he let a number of people know that he thought there was still a place in the continent for a republic and that he was going to fight for it. He wasn’t shy about it; a report of his intentions must have reached you. He was resourceful, as a chauffeur has to be, about foraging and bargaining for parts as well as about making repairs, and I think he was so sure of his value to you that he didn’t care if you heard. You probably remember that I came and told you that I wanted to follow him, without telling you (but without much disguising from you) where I thought he was going and why.
I had never taken much interest in politics before. You told me that you believed I wouldn’t go.
I think you understood that I was in love. You acted, in other words, a bit like the hypothetically powerful computer. And in fact, by the time Alan was ready to leave, I had decided to stay. Out of my wages I bought him provisions from our storehouse — a smoked gigot, jars of preserved plums, a wheel of cheddar — left them next to his pack on a side table in the front hallway, and went for a walk around the fields on the north side of the refectory, which had then just recently been put under tillage. I had chosen items that I thought wouldn’t go bad quickly. When I came back in from the walk and saw them still sitting on the side table, my heart leaped into my mouth. (Odd turn of phrase. Like a little frog that I wasn’t then able to swallow again.) I asked Sidney, at that time already our head steward, if perhaps Alan hadn’t left yet. He said there hadn’t been enough room in Alan’s pack.
It would be unfair and a little delusional if I were to claim that you deprived me of the freedom to follow Alan merely by happening to know me better than I knew myself. (“So ask him for the money for your kit” is what Alan had said to me when I told him about your prediction. “He’ll probably give it to you if he doesn’t think you’ll go.” But I didn’t think that would be right.) This anecdote doesn’t feel personal to me, by the way, and I trust that it doesn’t to you. The past, after enough time goes by, resurfaces and becomes available for an almost objective re-examination, as if it belonged to someone else. Of course it doesn’t ever belong to anyone else; one is the only custodian.
A body brought in at Pembroke last February is thought to have been Alan’s, by the way. I sent for details and received a letter last week from the runner who made the
I’m tempted to declare my shortcut by anecdote a sufficient refutation — I expect you’ll agree that it would be unfair of me to claim that your prediction fettered me — and I might even end the memo here if it weren’t that one of the threads running through the tangles around the hypothetically powerful computer seems to be attached to, of all things, your system of memos. I wouldn’t be looking out for your interests, in other words, if I didn’t go at least a little further into the matter. (The risk that you run that I might not look out for your interests, by the way, is also bound up in the tangle, as I’ll explain shortly.)
In the greater philosophical tradition, the original form of the theoretically omniscient computer was, of course, the mind of God. A god’s powers are magical and exempt from scrutiny; one doesn’t ask how a god would come to know the events of the future. But a computer, even an imaginary one, must have technical specifications, and it’s evident by inspection that the computing power necessary in this thought experiment isn’t trivial. In the limiting case, the map probably has to be as large as the territory: the only computer capable of predicting every action in the universe throughout all time is the universe itself, acting over the course of all time. And even if the scope of prediction is narrowed to your decision, Mr. Ward, to cross or not to cross the waters tomorrow morning, the tasks of monitoring the electrons that constitute your decision-making process and forecasting their paths inside your brain likely exceed even the total computer power available at the time of the final presidency. Philosophers of that era who tried to poke holes in the imaginary computer objected not to its size, however — it was too easy to imagine a larger one — but to its speed. Would it be able to finish calculating your decision before you yourself had made it? Or they doubted the resolving power of its attendant microscopes, or rather, doubted that any resolution would be of use. Since ancient Greece, in fact, there had been an idea that some of the smallest particles of matter were unpredictable and therefore, somehow, a refuge for free will. If, at a deep, invisible level, the elements of matter were fuzzy and chaotic, then perhaps among them one could escape observation and tracking? So went the hope.
In the stratum where humans live, however, we interact with subatomic particles only when they are massed together in such numbers that the laws of probability make their coordinated motions as regular as those of billiard balls, the ivory toys that you must remember since I still do, so smooth and symmetrical that even a novice student of Newtonian physics could predict their neat collisions. A freedom to be chaotic, moreover, isn’t the kind of freedom anyone wants, as the pleasure given to one’s ear by the orderly click of one billiard ball against another used to suggest.
Is freedom no more than a matter of scale? While I write this, leaves of mint are drifting in my white porcelain cup as if at liberty, but the cup is sitting on this grand desk, which used to be yours, beside quires of paper that you have also provided. A generous
The whole problem of foreknowledge seems to me factitious. I wonder if it’s a residual cognitive artifact of the percept formerly known as God, which hasn’t really been superseded, after all, if philosophers continue to believe in the capacity to see time the way God was supposed to have seen it — on a long, unrolled parchment, the past next to the present next to the future.
What if that’s not possible? What if time is real? What if the future doesn’t exist yet, and the past no longer does? Almost immediately, from the moment I saw the provisions still sitting on the side table and realized, at the same moment, that I desperately wanted to hear that Alan was still on the grounds somewhere and knew, also at the same moment, that I was wanting it too late, that I was wanting it because it was too late — almost immediately I made a conscious effort to become the sort of person who would have gone with Alan instead of the person who didn’t. This person, the person I wasn’t, would be freer than I had been, and happier, even if he would never have Alan again any more than I would. What I felt was that even if I never had Alan again I would be freer and happier if I didn’t make any consolidation of my personality around the decision that I happened to have made to stay. I had made a mistake. I don’t mean that I pretended not to have made the mistake. Having stayed, it made sense to continue to stay. But I was going to make a different choice the next time. I made calculations about what the person who would have gone would have felt if he had stayed. I decided he would sometimes become sad about the error but wouldn’t let himself become embittered or cynical about it, and so I tried to keep a kind of openness in my sorrow.
If any of the philosophers of the old days were still alive today to read this memo, they would probably ask why I was so confident that the future doesn’t exist in a way so different — so much more multiple — than the way the past doesn’t exist. And if billiard balls were the only structures of interest in the universe, I would probably have to concede that I am sentimentalizing — that steeling myself in later years was no more than a compensation for, or even just a reflex to, my earlier failure of nerve — that I am only pretending to be responsible for the alteration in myself, like the rider in the well-known thought experiment (or thought non-experiment, rather) who persuades himself that he wants to go in the direction that his horse is already headed. Maybe I am mistaken even in thinking that an alteration in myself has been made. I think, however, that the old philosophers suffered from too little faith (ironically, considering their attachment to a godlike conspectus). As I see it, every life is both an experience and a repetition of experience. Even the simplest organism rehearses the species memory written in its genome, and a human being has four additional kinds of memory: a limbic system, which associates arousals to situations; task memory, which acquires skills like driving or tennis; culture, including language, which pools wisdom in impersonal forms; and personal recollection of one’s individual history, which in time one almost stands apart from. I believe that human beings are unique because their memories rehearse the past but not fatally; during a repetition the mental representation of an experience may be altered by study, practice, correction, new associations, interpretation, comparison, and error.
Is it more implausible that information about the future could come into existence before the future itself does? Or that a being with the endowments that I have described might be capable of sometimes learning from mistakes?
Lacking such faith, the old philosophers had to square the circle. Through clever redescriptions, they tried to make free will seem compatible with an immutable future. Life, in their subtle but not commonsensical understanding, became an experience somewhat like that of reading this memo. By the time the memo reaches your hands, the choices made by me (and by you) that went into its formation have already been made. Any suspense you might feel while reading is an illusion, a side effect of its communication to you through words, which your mind, like all human minds, must understand in sequence. While you’re reading the words at the beginning you don’t yet know the ones at the end. But your ignorance of the words at the end does not mean they haven’t already been chosen. Even for me, in the experience of writing, I’m aware of constraints, especially if I choose to limit myself to telling you what I believe. I have no control over what I believe; no one does. All I can choose is whether to lie or whether to put a little more effort into thinking my thoughts through or into expressing them more clearly or more cogently. I seem, strangely enough, to have free will chiefly over the aspects of writing that might be labeled aesthetic.
And even in the realm of the aesthetic, your patience, you might wish to remind me, is for me a limit. With your patience in mind, I want to assure you that I haven’t digressed as far as I may seem to have, because a coordinate strategy, among the old philosophers, was to turn the problem on its head and argue that in most cases, a rational person doesn’t want free will, anyway. One doesn’t really want a free choice between taking Maple Avenue or Hapgood Drive; one wants to take whichever route is faster. One doesn’t want a free choice between a hempen or a flaxen rope; one wants to be told which is stronger and lighter. Free will, in this understanding, is a last resort — not a boon but a crisis. If a person can afford to, say, hire a staff of researchers to map out all his paths ahead of time and write memos on every crux he faces, thereby allowing him to restrict his exercise of free will to as few decisions as possible, his life will be greatly improved.
But if a larger and larger proportion of people are induced to believe that the only meaningful choice is one that maximizes the economic benefit to them, and if they are encouraged to slot their desires into a smaller and smaller number of approved cubbyholes, and ignore any invitations by or tendencies in others to wish for anything outside these cubbyholes, it will be as if all the chaotic particles in the world were conjoined into billiard (mania a defense against loss)
It’s me, by this logic, who has been sapping your free will all these years — Ariel as the jailer of Prospero . . .
I seem to be saying good-bye.
But it’s a serious question, actually, whether the system is in your interest. Maybe not all that serious if what’s at stake is the selection of a rope, but suppose you ask the staff to read novels for you so that you will never have to waste time on one you don’t like. (A double hypothetical, since you prefer nonfiction.) How could we predict what you will like or not like? We might be able to find a certain type of novel that pleases you, but how could we find a type of novel that neither you nor we yet know you like, or a novel that breaks out of type altogether, other than by taking the risk of recommending one you might not like at all? In aesthetic matters it may not be possible to minimize free will. What if a crucial life decision is more like an aesthetic discovery than like the choice of a radio? That is, a decision that is also about the grounds of decision. Necessarily it runs the risk of complete failure.
If free will is only exercised in the absence of adequate information, then perhaps one is only really free if one leaves the world of facts for a world that is not-real. Not-real the way that the self that I decided to become, even while staying here, has been not-real. Acknowledged not to be real. Fiction being perhaps the highest form of repetition with alteration. I could have chosen to imagine, for example, that after Alan left, he decided to live in one of the empty structures across the river.
In the mornings, before you came down, he drank his coffee on the settle in the front hallway while he read your newspaper, folding and unfolding it with the care that is prudent when one is doing something for which one doesn’t have permission. “Here’s the man who’s going to solve the world,” was his line for me, whenever he saw me. I was very young and I liked it that a man with a beard was calling me a man. There’s a fear that people like me sometimes have that they’ll go from being a boy to being a little old ex-boy without ever having been a man in between. One day I got up the nerve to ask him to come look at a map with me. You were considering some property, I told him, and I wanted to ask about the roads to it. Of course what I really wanted was to see what we would say to each other when it was just the two of us. And when we were alone, after he told me about the roads, what I said, very stupidly (but in my own conceit, very boldly), was, “Why do you say I’m going to solve the world?”
“Do you mind?”
He seemed to know that I didn’t.
“Aren’t you going to?” he went on.
“Are you going to fight?” I asked. He was kind of an asshole, in a number of ways. I think that was a part of what I admired liked about him. The inconsideration.
“Once I’ve saved up for a kit.”
“How will you provide for yourself?” I asked.
“Listen to the way you talk,” he replied. And then he asked what I was doing that night and whether he could visit me, but those weren’t the words he used, and so the risk that I had taken in talking to him had been worth it — even beyond the exhilaration of the risk-taking itself — everything had succeeded — the next two months —
It was about a year later that I was invited into your bed, which didn’t last any longer.
Please don’t think that I don’t appreciate everything you’ve
Did you decide to assign me this question because you had heard about the kit that I put aside for myself last month? Maybe this memo should be understood not as an answer but as a bet between the two of us about the answer.