Free will

I’ve been having a back and forth recently with somebody on the subject of free will. It’s a tricky and extremely deep topic, and nothing I say here is likely to make a fundamental contribution to that topic, free will or not.

Yet I am intrigued by the peripheral questions that pop up around this discussion. For example, even if you posit that we each possess individual free will, and then you look closely at the various decisions we make over the course of a day, a year, a lifetime, it’s pretty clear most of the choices we make in our lives are not really examples of free will.

Rather, those “choices” are usually determined by the forcing functions of culture, psychology, biology and circumstance. If there is true free will, it’s going to be found in the small interstices between those forcing functions.

This pattern reminds me a bit of discussions around DNA. Genetically, we are all 99.9% the same. The entire difference between your DNA and mine comes down to only about one tenth of one percent of our total respective genetic coding, no matter who we are.

So to be “human” is to be extremely similar to all other humans. It’s just that we, as the humans in question, are exquisitely attuned to those tiny differences. We forget that we are all nearly identical in the scheme of things, and therefore we focus on the subtle ways that we are different.

In fact, the stuff of our darkest fears often comes down to the spectre of genetic variation outside the norm, like the tragically mutating hero of David Cronenberg’s “The Fly”, or the horrifying creature in John Carpenter’s “The Thing”. Both are vividly gruesome nightmares, right out of Freud’s theory of the uncanny.

Maybe there is something similar at work with free will. Yes, 99.9% of what we say and do is culturally, psychologically or biologically determined. Yet within the tiny bit of remaining wiggle room is where we might find the creation of art, novels, poetry, wondrous new technologies.

But to step too far out of that small range of variation is to begin to drift away from the social contract that connects us. If you wander too far from the tribal campfire, you might enter a place of madness and wild violence, a place where you begin to lose your essential humanity.

So maybe “free will” is a misnomer. Nothing is really free. What we call free will is necessarily limited by our own conscience, by our fundamental need to remain connected to our fellow humans. And maybe that’s a very good thing.

Oliver Sacks

I first read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat while traveling around Europe in my younger days. It had a profound effect on me for several reasons.

For one thing, I became aware for the first time how fragile is this thing called reality, this thing we take for granted. Our brains are constantly creating the reality we perceive. It’s a very active and complex process, and a lot of things can go wrong.

Oliver Sacks, who died today, was the first person who truly made me see what wondrous and astonishing creatures we really are.

For another thing, he showed me a different way of thinking about science. Rather than a cold, clinical “search for facts”, he showed that it can be a compassionate, human centered enterprise, suffused at its core with ethical values and respect for the humanity and dignity of others.

Through the years, this was my go-to book for giving to students and young people. Every once in a while, I would meet one of these people, perhaps ten or twelve years later, and they would invariably tell me what a profound effect the book had had on their own life.

Much later, I had the pleasure and privilege of becoming friends with Dr. Sacks. In person he turned out to be just as warm and insightful as I had imagined.

But in addition, for all his unfailing graciousness, he was surprisingly unsentimental. He did not seem to suffer fools or egotists gladly, and he was quite willing to speak his mind when he saw hypocrisy.

I’ve always thought that in a truly fair world, a few exceptional people should get a free pass, a “get out of jail free” card that lets them live forever, continuing to bless our world with their genius and insight.

I put William Shakespeare on this list, and maybe Jane Austen, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and a few others. Oliver Sacks is definitely on it.

Book stores in train stations

Sometime in the last year or so, New York’s Grand Central Station lost its one and only book store. I didn’t think much of this at the time, because when I use public transportation out of the city, I generally go from Penn Station or the Port Authority.

But yesterday I saw that the two book stores at Port Authority (both owned by the same people), had gone out of business. Their entrances were boarded up, with signs telling the names of the stores that would soon be opening in their place.

At first I took this as a very dark omen. “Alas,” I said to myself, “Americans no longer read!” We are all so focused on movies, TV shows, computer games and social networking, that reading is becoming a vanishing art.

But on reflection, I’m not so sure. Reading isn’t going away, and commuters are still reading on the go. It’s just that reading is increasingly being done on other media. The electronic economy of literature is push aside the atoms-based one, as eReaders, iPads, and SmartPhones replace paper and ink.

After all, it costs a lot to rent a store at the New York Port Authority. As physical books become progressively less dominant as the reading platform of choice, selling physical books to commuters becomes a less viable value proposition. This year just happens to be the year when the economies of this transition have reached a crucial tipping point.

For a while now, the writing has been on the wall. Or, should I say, on the screen.

In the key of Monday

This morning I was having trouble remembering a sequence of days of the week, so I tried substituting an octave of musical notes (Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do). My theory was that, unlike days of the week, I generally find it easy to remember musical chords, since they are associated with particular sounds.

Since I grew up playing the piano, I thought of the white keys, where an octave of the major diatonic scale is CDEFGABC. So I tried using C for Sunday, D for Monday, all the way up to B for Saturday.

But that just didn’t feel right. And it took me a while to figure out why.

Then I realized that practically speaking, my week starts on Monday, not Sunday. So, for example, if a meeting or class is scheduled for three times a week, it’s going to be Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A meeting or class held twice a week is liable to be on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Suddenly it all clicked into place: The major chord CEG for Monday, Wednesday and Friday, the minor third interval DF for Tuesday and Thursday, with A for Saturday or B for Sunday added to make a sixth or seventh chord.

When I think of a sequence of days in this way, it becomes easy to remember it, as a chord or a melody — the music of my week.

Somebody else’s body

I got a little pushback from someone whose opinion I respect, about yesterday’s post. The specific objection was to my implication that it could be possible to separate one’s physical body from one’s individual identity.

I had an experience recently that suggests my friend might very well be right. At the ACM/SIGGRAPH conference the other week I tried out the “Real Virtuality” demo, which was great fun, extremely well done, and highly thought provoking.

It’s a shared virtual reality experience for two people. You each put on a VR rig consisting of a backpack, a headset, and markers for your wrists and ankles. Then you walk around together in a virtual room, where you each “see” the other as a computer graphic character.

One of the characters is male, the other female. I went into the experience with another guy, and when asked, I immediately volunteered to be the female. After all, if you’re going to be virtual, why not be as virtual as possible?

After donning the rig, I looked down to discover that I had very impressive breasts — a personal first for me. And to my surprise, the female hips and thighs on my avatar were significantly more narrow than my own male thighs. Perhaps, for a female user, this avatar was meant to be aspirational.

But here’s the thing: At no time did it feel as though I was anything other than myself. I always felt like I was just me, a man wearing a woman costume.

So maybe my friend is right. We continue to carry our true bodies around with us in our minds, even when we happen to find ourselves in somebody else’s body.

There you are

This evening, taking the subway back from a trip to see someone off at JFK airport, I was very aware of the energies of the people around me. Not so much their appearance, but their energies.

Most people were simply tired, trying to pull deep into their psychic casings, just wanting the ride to be over so they could move on to something they might find more pleasant and meaningful.

Some people — particularly young people — were thrumming with wild crazy energy, an overflowing sense of music and pounding beat and euphoric party time fever. This second group of people was clearly freaking out the first group.

And then there were the loners with strange energy. Maybe down on their luck, maybe schizophrenic, or maybe just endlessly exploring some private planet of their own. There was no need to look at them to feel it. You knew what was going on the moment they entered the subway car.

As I think of the possibilities of future reality — of some new technology or other enabling us to project our personalities into the world and into the air between us with a sense of visceral presence — I think of this subway ride.

We may one day free ourselves from the tyranny of our physical selves, but that’s the least important part of it all, isn’t it?

You can ditch your appearance, your physique, hell, even your body, but you cannot ditch yourself. Because, as old BB memorably said: “No matter where you go, there you are.”

Toni Colette is God

Yes, I know, I’m not supposed to write things like that in public. Unless I’m doing the whole YouTube anonymous trolling thing, and then apparently it’s ok.

But please, let me explain myself.

I have just watched the 1994 indie Australian film “Muriel’s Wedding” on Netflix. This movie breaks many rules. In fact, I think it breaks all the rules. Yet it all works, in a way that Hollywood films, with their rigid layers of studio oversight, never could.

Whatever genius drug writer/director P.J. Hogan was on when he made this film, I hope that somewhere there is a factory full of it, because we really need more of this stuff.

And Toni Colette, who was unknown at the time, is breathtaking. I can’t really think of any other cinematic performance to compare it to.

Just the ending alone, which I love to death, would get the movie nixed by any Hollywood studio executive. In my more ambitious moments, I like to think that one day I could make a film this completely brave and pitch perfect and insane.

That’s probably not going to happen. But what probably is going to happen is that a few of you will read this post, watch this film, and know exactly what I’m talking about.

Future shoes

Recently I have found it convenient, when saying why I like the term “Future Reality” to describe our research focus, to talk about shoes. Specifically, future shoes.

Imagine you could travel back in time to, say, the year 1863. As PhilH points out, you can’t actually do this, for very sound relativistic reasons. After all, if you were to attempt such a foolish thing, Novikov consistency dictates that our entire timeline would immediately collapse down to a zero probability event, and *poof*, we’d all be toast.

Fortunately we are just doing a thought experiment here, so you’re not actually putting yourself, all your loved ones, and the entire Universe itself at risk by reading this.

Anyway, where was I?

Oh right, shoes. In our hypothetical thought experiment, you set your Wayback Machine to 152 years ago, because you’d like to discuss some finer points of the Emancipation Proclamation with Abraham Lincoln. To your surprise, as soon as he meets you the 16th president of the United States looks down at your feet and says “Hey, where did you get those shoes?”

At this point you realize that the shoes on your feet are impossible objects. They rely on materials, methods of manufacture and assembly, and global shipping practices that will not exist for a very long time. So to Lincoln, they’re going to look like future shoes — because they are.

But to you, they’re just shoes. And that’s the point.

In our research we are not interested in studying fantasy worlds where you sit in your chair holding a game controller and pretend to travel at warp speed to far off galaxies while shooting mutant space zombies out of the sky. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Rather, we are interested in experiences that at some point in the future will be so ordinary that nobody will even think about them — as ordinary as the shoes on your feet.

What Abraham Lincoln might once have called future shoes, we now just call shoes.

Likewise, future reality may seem exotic now. But one day, we will just call it reality.

Chrysalis, part 6

Daniel looked at the sign on the door. “For use by Entomology faculty and students”. That seemed about right. After all, he was here at the university to study a particular species of insect. Although it was not yet clear what that species was.

He opened up the laptop computer, plugged into the power socket, and got down to work. There were so many possibilities. It should be possible to determine species within Lepidoptera, just from larval markings. There was tremendous variety, but the patterns were pretty clear. He already knew Brock and Kaufman practically by heart, and having a live specimen to work from should make everything much easier.

He was so immersed that he didn’t hear the door open.

“What are you doing here?” The woman looked more bemused than anything else.

“I’m researching butterflies.”

“Of course you are,” she said with a kind smile. “I’m afraid this room is for faculty and students.”

“I’m a student,” he said. Daniel thought that should be obvious. Every kid he knew was a student.

“I see,” she frowned thoughtfully for a moment, and then left. Which was just as well. The woman had seemed nice, but he had a lot of work to do.