Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Plasticity of Sovereignty

Throughout reading Wilson’s On Human Nature, I have been persistently bothered by the implications that such reductionist approaches have upon, among other things, our concept of free will. This debate, of course, is philosophically ancient, but nevertheless extremely relevant. Many contemporary cultures, as well as many notions of patriotism, are based around the concept of freedom (which admittedly is a bit murkier and more political than ‘free will’), and perceived threats to such freedom have led to great social change: hundreds of revolutions and rebellions that have shaped the way our earth is today. On a less political level, ideas of free-will are fairly pervasive within first-world populations and serious debates regarding the actual existence of destiny and fate are typically reserved for the pious or academically inclined. Or at the very least, it is generally accepted by most that we are able, to an extent, to make our choices.
Octavia Butler challenges these perceptions extensively in Lilith’s Brood. Her text represents a highly fictionalized account of sociobiologist E. O. Wilson’s theories as interpreted by the general public, as well as the public’s subsequent reaction to such policies. The Oankali are the ultimate sociobiologists: they are better anthropologists than humans could ever aspire to be; they study us from outside of our cultural framework, a feat any human could never achieve. Not only are they experts on human culture, but they have also studied human beings on the molecular level up on through histology and physiology. Not to mention their apparent depth of insight with the human psyche. They believe that they can make improvements to the human species, and they do, altering genetic code without consent. The humans in the text are largely reactionary towards the structure and plans of the Oankali and serve as a counterpoint to the Oankalian (sociobiological) ideology. The main clashes between the two groups happen within the context of free will.
Which boils down to roughly this: the Oankali do not recognize human value for free will, or the perception thereof. Instead, they recognize that allowing humans to cling to some shred of free-will is ultimately beneficial for the Oankali. I myself do not know whether or not I operate within free-will or my actions are determined by large (or small) unknown forces. What I am completely sure of is that I operate under the complete perception of free-will and, to me, that works just as well. In his chapter on Emergence in On Human Nature, E. O. Wilson argues that it is probable, although not within the current constraints of human intelligence, to predict the future of a human being “with an accuracy exceeding pure chance” (Wilson, pg. 73, actually referring to honeybees, but he makes the humanoid comparison in the very next paragraph). His concept is that the honey bee, within the constraints of its particular CNS, has the perception of free-will, although it is possible for humans, whom arguable have a larger, more aware and intuitive CNS, to see that the honey bee is simply responding to external stimuli in an extremely predictable manner. Wilson then postulates that what humans are able to do to honey bees could theoretically be done to us “[b]ut only [with] techniques beyond our present imagining could [we] hope to achieve even the short-term prediction of the detailed behavior of an individual human being, and such an accomplishment might be beyond the capacity of any conceivable intelligence” (Wilson, 73). Octavia Butler has conceived, at least figuratively, of such intelligence within the Oankali. She is less concerned with the allegorical human study of the honey bee than she is with what the honey bee feels when we present it with our prescient data (it also may be worthwhile to mention that to do this, we would have to figure out a way to make the data digestible to a honey bee, which cannot read scientific papers or graphs, and this may be even more difficult than the initial prediction). For free-will and the perception of free will are functionally identical. The Oankali can be quite insensitive with regards to this, however. This is probably best illustrated within the abstract alien sex between Joseph and Nikanj, when Nikanj is seducing Joseph:

               “He pulled his arm free ‘You said I could choose. I’ve made my choice!’
               “You have, yes…you see. Your body has made a different choice” (Butler 189).

Here the Oankali are clearly reading humans much in way that we might ‘read’ a honey bee.
But a question – if Octavia Butler is writing purely within E. O. Wilson’s theoretical world, or at least in response to it, how could we say that humans evolve something such as the perception of free will? Wilson attempts to answer this by stating – roughly – that every being most likely harbors some illusion of free will – an illusion that higher forms of intelligence could trump and disprove, if they gave enough attention to it (Wilson, 73). But what is impressive about the modern human condition, is not that we are able to completely give ourselves over to the existence of free will nor that we find it so undeniably comforting. What is truly fascinating about the human species, keeping within Wilson’s theory of sociobiology, is that we are able to manipulate the extent of our belief in our own free will to better suit our situations or at least our response to them. In Wilsonian terms, this would probably be schematized as something like this: first humans (or their precursors) evolved the perception of free-will, then they evolved the value of their perception of their free-will (or the ability to objectify it), and then, finally, we evolved an ability to manipulate, either consciously or sub-, the extent to which we believed in free-will at any given time. This would work out to be a level of autonomy beyond the simple execution of free-will by an individual. Whether the individual is actually exercising free-will or is simply operating beneath the assumption of free-will is almost moot at this juncture, for a switch in intensity of belief in the concept is far more interesting and important.
The obvious consequences of this implication are that 1) an individual’s intensity of free-will perception – exactly how much they believe in it – is dependent upon, among other things, the temporal situation that they find themselves in and 2) that the intensity of this individual’s belief in free-will is liable to change, either increase or decrease, in the future in order to allow for manipulations of either guilt or responsibility. If we find ourselves in a particularly undesirable situation as partially a result of the choices we have made, we may internally rationalize our arrival at the situation by emphasizing and augmenting factors that are beyond our control in getting us there, thereby diminishing our own responsibility for our current dismal position. This can of course work in a converse fashion. When the humans in Lilith’s Brood are told of their fate, of what the Oankali have planned for them, their perception of free-will is arguably augmented as it is threatened; they feel as though they are able to alter their situation, take responsibility, revolt, take charge, etc. However, this perception of free-will is in turn diminished whenever they are seduced by an ooloi (Butler, 189). As this is somewhat primally revolting to the humans (á la Wilson), the humans rationalize that they are perhaps less in control of themselves than they think. They did not choose to sleep with an alien. However, they do indeed choose to resist and form resister colonies. Without an individual’s ability to temporally alter his/her own perception of free-will, these two claims would be somewhat contradictory. In many ways, this is Butler arguing for the plasticity of human free-will perception; our perception is heavily dependent on our ability to cope with intense feelings of responsibility and guilt towards our choices and behavior. As perception of free-will increases in an individual, notions of responsibility increase linearly; as fatalistic beliefs increase in an individual, notions of responsibility and therefore guilt decrease.
A Wilsonian argument, in response, could be that we have evolved a response to our perception of free-will, one that allows for some wiggle room with regards to our own influence and power within our own narrative in order to avoid the crushing responsibility that would be inherent within complete autonomy. Indeed, religion, as well as the discipline of sociobiology itself may be a manifestation of the ability to choose exactly how much free-will we would like to perceive. Should we feel completely responsible for injuring another human being in a physical altercation if we are aware of Wilson’s claim that human beings are innately aggressive and would, within certain constructs, react in an identical fashion if placed in the same situation 100 times? Should we have felt guilty about taking land and resources from Native Americans when God had told us that it was within our destiny to do so? As much as this is a blatant threat to our perception of free-will, it is comforting in some regards; that uppercut we employed that fractured another’s jaw was more of a reflex than anything and is no more within the fighter’s control than sweating or shivering.
You don’t have to be completely religious or even aware of sociobiology to rationalize against free-will. In the 1960’s, philosopher Richard Taylor famously provided an argument (since extensively contested and arguably disproven) for the absence of free-will within a logical structure, which I will paraphrase, although most likely poorly (the following based on Taylor’s 1962 essay titled Fatalism):
(1) The Law of the Excluded Middle (LEM) says that either A or B can be true. That is, if A is false, then B. Conversely, if B is false, then A.
(2) If A, then A* follows and if B, then B* follows. So if I hit the “3” key on my keyboard (A), then my word processor will type the character “3” (A*). If I don’t hit it (B), then there will be no “3” character displayed (B*). I cannot both hit the key and not hit the key. Just as well, the computer cannot both display and not display the character “3” (as illustrated in (1)’s LEM).
(3) So, if I am sitting at my computer and the character “3” is showing up on my word processor, then this is A*, which in turn means that A occurred. However, according to (1), if A, then not B. Which means that if A* is, then B never was, which means that, because of A*’s presence, A always was and therefore B never was. In short, I had no choice but to hit the “3” key because B (not hitting the key) never existed (Taylor, 1962).
***If you are a logistician, then note that throughout this argument A is sufficient and necessary for A*; reciprocally the presence of A* is sufficient and necessary for the initial occurrence of A. The same clearly holds true for the relationship between B and B*. (That is also to say, for the sake of Taylor’s argument, that we are eschewing the possibility that someone/thing other than me could have hit the “3” key or that the computer could have had a glitch and produced the character “3” without the key being hit) (Taylor 1962). ***
If you can point out the circularity in Taylor’s argument, or how he trickily treats the past and the future as identical entities, then you are in good company; Taylor’s initial 1962 essay was a topic of much controversy and debate for a couple decades until it was put to rest as more or less an issue with language usage in the late 1980s. I do not mean to argue, however, for or against the presence of free will. What is more important to my discussion than Taylor’s since-disproven proof of fatalism is the example he uses in his essay to illustrate his point. Instead of speaking of hitting or not hitting keys, Taylor uses the analogy of a naval commander giving orders for battle. In essence, his A is that of an order for battle being given by a commander and his A* is that, on the following day, battle occurs. His B and B* are the obvious negatives of these (Taylor, 1962). This choice of example is important here because it is inherently involved with guilt and the deference thereof. I.e. if people are injured or die as a result of a naval battle, then the naval commander is, at least by one abstraction, exonerated of the blame and guilt, as he did not actually have the power to choose not to give an order for battle (If A*, then B is false). If this seems ridiculous (it should), we can at least say that as the battle is occurring, the commander certainly no longer has the power not to give an order for battle, as he already has performed the opposite, and that perhaps if he was fully aware of the consequences of A and B at the moment of distinction between the two, he may have chosen differently. The point is, though, that he cannot and the fact that he cannot will either increase or decrease his level of perceived responsibility and therefore guilt based on whether or not he accepts Taylor’s submitted logical argument above as valid.
Whether Taylor’s argument is true or not doesn’t quite matter. What is important is that it may be, or at the very least resemble in a Wilsonian sense, the logical algorithm that humans subconsciously use in order to apply plasticity to their perception of free-will. We’ve probably all heard from consoling friends and family that “What happens, happens” and “What’s done is done,” in other words “If A*, then B is false.” These statements are usually meant to alleviate feelings of guilt and burden, reassuring the autonomous individual that what happened was at least in some very unalterable sense, out of their control, thereby diminishing, at that very point and time, the individual’s perceived degree of free-will.
But the human plasticity of free-will perception also plays an integral part in Lilith’s Brood. As the Oankali are hyperaware of the way in which humans function - their predictable responses to external stimuli - they are able to see ‘past’ choice. What is interesting about Butler’s text however, is the moment when the honey bee/human relationship between Oankali and humans breaks down, when the informatics the Oankali have gathered and applied to humans fails them in unanticipated ways: when Joseph is murdered. Nikanj admits, when referring to the murder, that “what happened was … totally unplanned” (Butler, 224). This murder symbolizes the hope that human behavior cannot actually be reduced into any sort of computational statistics and is perhaps the strongest moment within the text (thus far) in which Butler seems to disagree with sociobiology. However, it also suggests what may happen when a human being is completely rigid within their perception of free-will. Curt is arguably the individual in the text most offended by the Oankali’s intrusion. His act is completely autonomous, such that no Oankali had anticipated it and there was no preparation for his action. Fundamentally, his action was not within the Oankali’s corresponding set of responses. Furthermore, it is important to note what the Oankali do with Curt, whom surprised them by being wholly unpredictable: they return him back to suspended animation, and remove him from the ‘experiment,’ (Butler, 236) which is much akin to scientists occluding negative results when presenting their findings. What happens to Curt may be a warning to those stubborn with regards to the level in which they perceive free will. If an individual is unable to alter the extent in which they perceive free will – able to choosily differentiate between things they do and things that are done to them – then surely they will crumble under the sheer (/lack of) responsibility and guilt of their predicament, whether as Camus’ nihilistic Meursault, or Dostoevsky’s compunctious Raskolnikov.
Within this context, then, what sociobiologists strive for, and what the Oankali do, is to redefine exactly what Taylor’s original A and B are. Or rather, they get rid of A and B all together and replace them with variables which would look something like A – ZZZZ100, which would likely represent an individual’s combined genetic predisposition and collected experience. But the one-to-one relationship between X and X* still exists here, i.e. there is a corresponding set of A* - ZZZZ100* for any given situation. Ostensibly, the Oankali have access to and can process all of this information and are therefore able to predict which X* will arise from each individual, much as we could do with honey bees, yet they are careful to do so without either threatening our perception or plasticity of free-will. It can be assumed that they, mostly, respect our perception of free-will based on an extrapolation of the Heisenberg principle of uncertainty, which Wilson sums up as “the more deeply the observer probes the behavior, the more the behavior is altered by the act of probing and the more it’s very meaning depends on the kinds of measurements chosen” (73). In other words, the more the Oankali would openly threaten human’s perception of choice, the more difficult it would be for the Oankali to predict X*. Therefore, the maintenance of an illusion of free-will perception is an important variable in the Oankali’s calculations of human reactions and very much in the human psyche itself.

Butler, Octavia E. Lilith’s Brood. New York City: Grand Central Publishing, 1989
Taylor, Richard. Fatalism. 1962: The Philosophical Review 17:1 (1962): 56-66
Wilson, Edward O. On Human Nature. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 2004


  1. Good title.

    I'd actually say that "freedom" in the political sense is *less* murky than free will. For my part, I like Heidegger on this subject - understanding that choice is central to human life, but that our choices are radically bounded, seems to me a good approach. That might seem like an aside - but in the first paragraph, you manage to make a string of generalizations without ever doing anything with them, or making clear what your own position is - it's a murky and not very promising start.

    Your orientation to Lilith's Brood reads much better, although you still aren't orienting us to *your* approach, really.

    There's a lot going on in the next paragraph, about the honey bees, etc. I like it a lot in principle, although it could be better organized (including by splitting it into multiple paragraphs). I very much like how you present the Oankali as "such an intelligence"; it's a compact and perceptive reading.

    I think you're a little too easy on yourself when you simply assert it as an obvious fact that free will and the perception of it are functionally identical. I would argue (here following Heidegger, at least very loosely) that our freedom is, in fact, greatly enhanced when our perception of free will is lessened - understanding our restrictions can *enhance* our effective freedom. For what it's worth, Butler has stated a roughly analogous position in at least one interview, although I don't have a quote on the tip of my tongue.

  2. [Continued]

    That doesn't mean your approach is in any way ill conceived - it just means that it's not, in fact, obvious.

    Good discussion of Nikanj & Joseph.

    Your pointed question about why the perception of free will would evolve is great. Some might argue that the perception of freedom is linked to the perception of power (and hence dominance). Some might argue (in fact, that this is a mainstream view) that all consciousness, including such debates, is basically an accidental side effect of useful characteristics of the human mind. Regardless, I think it's a good, perceptive question, and a great way to structure a defense of freedom (whether restricted or unrestricted).

    The discussion of the plasticity of our perception of free will is excellent and compelling. Ideally, it should have been foregrounded - knowing that you were headed here could have helped produce a much better introduction.

    I feel that the Taylor discussion could have been greatly compacted. I see the relevance, but it didn't need to be so long.

    The discussion of Curt's unpredictability is very interesting, but also a little muddy, at least to me. Maybe it bothers me that you've left out the Oankali "reading" - that Curt acted mechanically, based on xenophobia, with the thing not anticipated being that he would apply xenophobia *to Joe*. My point is that Joe can signify both freedom and not-freedom at once (which, incidentally, is also *my* take on Raskolnikov, who makes his "free" choices amidst the disintegration of his family, poverty, etc. He is trying to assert freedom amidst all his powerfully felt restrictions).

    The ending of the essay is involveds an interesting shift. The application of Heisenberg is good - but one thing that troubles me here is that you don't really address the fact that the Oankali do, in fact, continually challenge at least the intellectual perception people have of freedom, even while also acknowledging the people will never get that point. Anyway, that seems relevant.

    Overall: Structurally, this is problematic. Taylor's presence should have been either reduced somewhat or introduced earlier. You take some time to find your footing, and I would like to see you more deeply engaged with details of the text than you are (Akin, at least, seems like he should make an articulate appearance here - after all, he actually moves from believing to disbelieving in free will, without changing his principles - it's complicated).

    Nonetheless, this is strong, interesting, nuanced work, and I'm very happy to have read it - the worst thing that I can say about it, really, is that it reads like a senior seminar paper (a good one) which just isn't done yet.