Everybody knows the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor and the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Leonard Cohen, “Everybody Knows” (Sung by Don Henley, Â©1995)
Today I had an unexpected day off, and so in the late afternoon I rode to Ã”saka-jÃ´ kÃ´en (Ã”saka Castle Public Park). Sadly, I don’t have any photos of it to show, since I lost my phone this week and won’t get a new one until tomorrow afternoon. Of the few places I’ve visited on this planet, Ã”saka Castle is one of the most spectacular, and the views from it over the city, backed by sunset, are impressive.The grounds of Ã”saka Castle are also a good place to think, and think I did.
A little over a month ago, I had a powerful experience, of making the choice to quit NOVA with a single day’s notice, to leave Gunma, and to move to Osaka on the very good, but not certain, chance that I’d get a job with Berlitz. I did get the job, and I’m very happy now.
It seemed then that I stood at a crossroads in time: that depending on my choice, my life could go in two directions. Either I’d stay in Gunma, bored and miserable but with secure employment, or I’d move to Ã”saka, where I’d have an exciting time, but might not find a job and might end up having to fly home from, penniless. I considered my chances of employment (good), my feelings (that I’d respect myself more if I took the risk and moved), and my ideas that it’s important to take responsibility for one’s life and to make choices that move it in a pleasing direction. I thought, then, that my choice was free.
In the last year or so, I’ve been annoying people with talk about freedom and responsibility, having abandoned socialist ideas and letting myself be inspired anew by philosophies of individualism and strength, like Nietzsche’s and Ayn Rand’s. Thinking back, I feel foolish.
You see, I believe that the universe is mechanistic: that objects and events arise predictably from the present state of the universe, proceeding according to physical laws. And I believe that given sufficient information about the present state of the universe (or, theoretically, it’s initial state), we should be able to use our knowledge of physical laws to predict all future states.
This is a view that tends towards determinism, and if one holds it, one needs all sorts of metaphysical rubbish, like souls and such, to fit free will into the universe. Generally, I don’t allow myself such indulgences, but I still found it difficult to give up on the idea of free will. By “free will”Â, I mean a power to choose, that could have chosen otherwise than it did in the past. I mean the sort of power to choose that stands at crossroads in time and picks whether to stay in Gunma or leave for Ã”saka.
I used to think that the profound feeling of standing at crossroads in time indicated that free will did exist, and that being a determinist would contradict that experience. It would also contradict the impression that one gets from history that ideas are important, and that persuading people of one thing or another can have powerful consequences. But in a conversation I had with my friend Sasha on Sunday afternoon, he argued me into a position where I had to admit that consciousness (which includes the feeling that one stands at a crossroads in time), and the ability and power of persuasion, are not incompatible with determinism.
In a mechanistic universe, you see, physical laws can still produce brain-states that are conscious of making a conditioned decision based on the information available. And such brain-states can result in activity that involves attempting to persuade others: in which we emit information that causes another person to have share our ideas, which spur them to future action that steers history in a direction pleasing to us.
My objections to determinism thus shattered, I believe in the idea more than ever. I still think it’s important to act as though one could have chosen differently in the past, and as though one will choose “freely” in the future, because it’s obvious that people and cultures that abandon themselves to destiny fail to achieve their goals. But “free will” is an illusion. Our choices proceed from our conditioning and our present circumstances, as naturally as an object falls to the ground when we release it from our hand within Earth’s gravitational field. We could never have chosen other than we have, and our lives, and the entire history of the universe, could not have been otherwise than they are and have been. Our fate is predetermined, and nothing will change it, because there is nothing that can change it.
In some ways this epiphany is a let-down. I’m evidently not as powerful as I felt while riding the shinkansen to Ã”saka. But life is no less exciting knowing that the outcome is fixed. I don’t have perfect knowledge, so every day will still be a surprise, laid out for me through all of beginningless time. I now have a philosophical justification for my feelings of self-importance and of having lived a charmed life, as well as for my expectations of a grand destiny.
My biggest questions now are: “what will that destiny be?” and “how long will it last?”