The Project

This is the first of three short stories featuring two new characters. The others in the series should be coming up later this month. Image below from skeeze at the wonderful pixabay CC0.

“Daddy… I need to ask you about something. Phoenix says there’s no such thing as free will, and that the scientists now all agree about that with the philosophers. But that doesn’t make sense, does it?”

The joys of unschooling a step-child! A group of us parents, mostly living here in Hawai’i, had been sponsoring a youthful version of ‘TED Talks’, presented by the astonishingly bright and curious group of youngsters we had agreed to set free from the ghastly institution of schooling. Just as each child in our collective group picked their own curriculum, each child selected and practiced their own 10-minute “talk” on a subject of their own research, which was broadcast and recorded for the group on Skype or Zoom. Nine-year-old Phoenix had just aired his “There is No Free Will” talk, and as part of the program we’d all agreed to discuss each subject with our kids, and to submit comments.

“Well, Sevi, if ‘all’ scientists and philosophers ever agree on anything I think we’re in trouble. There is absolutely no consensus on the subject, though it does seem like some new discoveries and theories in physics and biology are winning a few more over to the ‘no free will’ side.” I had been well-trained for what I said to her next: “What do you think?”

“When we decided that I’d be unschooled instead of going to a ‘teaching-school’, that was free will for sure. We had a choice. I’m glad we made that choice. The kids in the teaching-schools are mostly dumb; they don’t know how to think.”

“Suppose we look at that decision in a bit more detail, then. Your mother and I are both fortunate enough to have heard and learned about unschooling, and to have enough time to spend with you as sounding-boards, answering as best we can your very challenging questions. And we’re both curious, skeptical of institutions and independent-minded. And you’ve always been strong-willed and self-motivated; you’ve been reading almost since you were born. And you’re restless, always moving, walking and dancing and singing while you study. One could say it was absolutely inevitable given those biological and social circumstances that that we would ‘decide’ on unschooling.”

“But it was still a choice,” Seville insisted. “We talked about all the options, the plusses and minuses, and we didn’t even all agree at first.”

“Suppose there was a choice, some free will. What exactly was it that made the choice? Something in your brain? Something in your heart?”

“It was a collective decision. All my neurons, together, after sleeping on it and thinking and feeling and learning and trusting instincts. It was just ‘right’. At least for me.”

“So if we looked at all those neurons we’d see some communication among them, some assessment and consensus voting? Those would be very smart neurons.”

“All right, then. They delegated the decision to the brain. The feelings and intuitions weighed in and then the brain made the rational decision. I know Phoenix said that the brain doesn’t actually decide anything; it just rationalizes the decision that has already been made, but still that means a decision was made. And if it wasn’t made by ‘me’ and my brain, who decided it?”

“What if it was inevitable, and the brain just rationalized it so it would look smart and could act like it was in control? No free will, no decision, just what was inevitably going to be done by that lovely little watery bag of bones and organs you call ‘you’?”

Sevi thought for a moment, and then said: “Well let’s take a more difficult decision then, one that could go either way. When Devon came up to me and asked if he could kiss me, for example. A million things went through my head. He’s cute, but a little too full of himself. I liked that he asked, but I didn’t like that he stood so close to me and made me feel pressured. I ended up telling him ‘No, but you can ask me again another time’. That was a heavy decision. No way my genes and my culture could have determined that outcome in advance.”

My turn to think. “I don’t know,” I said finally. “I’d say your biology played a pretty big role in not punching him when he asked.” (I presumed she had not punched him, since I knew she liked him, in that ancient way females intuitively like, or dislike, males.) “And your culture told you not to be too quick to agree to anything, to be polite, and probably, sad to say, not to bruise his male ego. If he’d stood any closer you probably would have stepped back or pushed him away, but your elegant ‘decision-making’ really smacks of your unique biology and the way you’ve been enculturated, up to that exact moment.”

“I think Phoenix’s point,” I went on, as Sevi pondered this, “is that when you look inside for some ‘thing’ that is ‘you’, the thing making the decision, you can never find it. Not in the brain, not in the neural pathways or body chemistry or anywhere else.”

“Whoah… that’s heavy. Now you’re saying not only do I not have any free will, but there is no ‘me’ to have any free will. You think people are just zombies doing what they’re programmed to do?”

“Nope, not at all,” I replied. “Remember that Robert Sapolski article that you showed me last month? He wrote…” (I brought up the article on my laptop and read it to her:)

Ultimately, words like “punishment,” “justice,” “free will,” “evil,” “the soul,” are utterly irrelevant and scientifically obsolete in terms of understanding our behavior. It’s insanely difficult for people to accept the extent to which we are biological organisms without agency… The idea that we are more than our brains, that there’s something inside of us, a being that is in our brain but not of our brain, a “me” that is more than just biology. And that is as grounded in reality as alchemy or astrology… And our culture impacts the biology of our brains in enormous ways too.

I went on: “And then we bought his book and read the chapter where he recommended doing away with the criminal justice system because we have no choice about our behaviour. That doesn’t mean we’re zombies. It just means that, given our biology and our culture, how we will react, and what we’ll think and do each moment isn’t anything we have control over. But our biology and culture are constantly changing us. If Devon had asked to kiss you a year ago, or waited until a year from now, and stood just exactly in the same place and asked the same way, I bet you’d have reacted differently.”

Sevi blushed a bit and did a self-conscious spin. “How do you think I’d have reacted then?”

“A year ago you would have pushed him away and made a face at him. If he’d waited until next year you’d have smiled and said ’Since you asked nicely’ and then you’d have kissed him.”

She frowned a bit and then took us back on topic. “OK, maybe we don’t have free will and we should be nicer to criminals and not so nice to people who, like, self-sacrifice. But the whole ’no me’ thing is something else. That has major implications. Like, if we really accept that we’re not responsible, won’t we all misbehave and procrastinate and party like there’s no tomorrow?”

I smiled at the ‘no tomorrow’ suggestion but managed to restrain myself. Instead I said “If we believe we’re not responsible and if we really have no free will, we can’t make the choice to misbehave and party, any more than we can if we believe we are responsible.”

“But wouldn’t it change us, make us believe like nothing matters…” (she caught me smiling at these words) “… and that we have no control over anything and that life is pointless?” (She’s so smart she scares me sometimes.)

“If our biology and our culture have entrained us to believe nothing matters and life is pointless, that’s what we will believe. But what we do is what we would do anyway. A change in intellectual belief won’t change that. The scientists’ view now is that it’s our actions that determine our beliefs, not the other way around. What we ‘believe’ is just more rationalization, trying to make sense of what we do. Or appear to do, anyway, since there is, in this line of logic, no ‘we’ that does anything.”

“You’re making my head hurt. If I thought that nothing I did was my choice, my control, I’d be depressed all the time. I’d steal cars and race them down blind alleys. I’d kill myself!”

“No you wouldn’t. You have no choice about what you believe, any more than you have about what you do. You are by nature a curious, social, brilliantly-intelligent little optimist, and if you come to believe there is no free will and no choice you will find some way to rationalize and reconcile that belief with your inherent nature and your constantly amazing actions.”

Sevi scowled. “Not so sure…” she said. “So you really buy this shit, huh? If there’s no ‘me’, who is talking with you right now?”

“There is a lovely play apparently going on in which two characters are having an unusual conversation, saying what they have no choice but to say. No me, no you, and, more surprisingly, no tomorrow, and nothing that matters.”

“Then why do I have this overwhelming sense that there is a ‘me’ here talking with a nonsense-speaking ‘you’ here and now, and that it matters a lot?”

“Ah, that’s the mystery. My guess is that the sense of a separate self was an accident of evolution. Mother nature likes to try stuff out, and when our brains got big enough she must have evolved a sense of separate existence and the sense of passage of time as a means of making sense of all the stuff the brain was processing, to see if it would help the brainy creatures survive better. Unfortunately, while the big brain helped keep humans out of some short-term trouble, mostly by inventing stuff, it created all kinds of trouble with the trauma of believing we were separate from all-that-is, and the false belief we could control ourselves.”

“So you’re saying all this is an illusion, a trick of the brain, this sense of ‘me’ talking with ‘you’. Seems pretty far-fetched to me.”

“Yup. To the ‘me’, the idea that there is no ‘me’ is always going to be incredible. But when you think of it, it’s a pretty simple and elegant theory of everything. A lot less complicated than the scientific, philosophical and religious explanations, and impossible to disprove.”

“Hmmm. So what happens next, with all of these eight billion people believing they exist when they don’t?”

“Big brains are a very recent novelty in evolution, best as we know. The sense of separation has created all this suffering, so I don’t think it will last much longer. The lovely play will apparently continue, but without humans and others who think they are what they are not. It will be a better play without us; more ‘just beingness’ and less drama.”

“But if there is no one conscious, will there still be a play?”

“There is no one conscious. That’s all part of the play. So yes, without consciousness, the play will continue, apparently. It’s timeless, eternal, complete, it’s everything. Always has been and always will be.”

“And you really believe all this?”

“Makes more sense than anything else I’ve come across. So yes, for now.”

“And what about love. Does love still exist?”

“Yes of course. Beyond our imagining. Love is everything.”

“Seems pretty empty, this meaningless ‘everything’. So far I kind of like the messiness of the ‘me’ world. I like music, painting, cute boys, running in the rain, baby ducks. I don’t think I could give all that up for your ‘everything’. As Uncle Frederick says…” (she mimicked his deep voice) “… ‘It’s the particular that matters.’”

“Nope, ‘you’ couldn’t give any of that up if you wanted to. ‘You’ have no choice. And ‘I’ can’t either. So for now I’ll just have to love you, and the messiness and particular-ness of our life.”

“Works for me.” She paused for a moment. “What if my Zoom talk was about ‘There is no me’? Do you think people would like it? Would you help?”

“Not sure your heart would be in it, and I think it would be very unpopular. You might want to pick something more particular.”

“OK, then how about ‘Love is Everything’?

“Works for me.”


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1 Response to The Project



    Just wanna say ‘I’ enjoy the hell out of ‘your’ posts.

    Starting to see it like this: Each subjective experience is a movie ‘God’ is watching.

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