Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Perceiving Free-Will in Lilith's Brood

Perhaps one of the most frustrating and long-debated philosophical inquiries is the notion of whether or not humans have free-will. The more science progresses, it seems the more that our notion of free-will is threatened; with every biological advance, we can liken ourselves more and more to machines, rather than some separate, special and mysterious force within nature. This puts science in a very interesting position: simultaneously demystifying the human, while at the same time continuing to spawn several questions through its answering of just one, in a Hydra-regenerative process, leading thinkers to consider just how we became so complex in the first place. There seems to be little room for free-will in almost any scientific discipline. Yet, its complete absence can be a frightening concept. I submit that, while we cannot – and may never – definitively prove either the absence or presence of free-will within a human being, we can be sure of a human’s perception of free-will, which serves an identical purpose as free-will itself. Through a close reading of several philosophical works, as well as Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood, the differences and similarities between free-will and the perception thereof will hopefully be made somewhat more clear.

I am completely sure that I operate under the absolute perception of free-will and, to me, that works just as well. In On Human Nature, sociobiologist Edward 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 arguably 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, in terms of fatalist reductionism, 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, pg 73). Octavia Butler has conceived, at least figuratively, of such intelligence within the Oankali in Lilith’s Brood. 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 understand graphs, and, unless we can learn to relay abstract concepts with waggle dances, this may be even more difficult than the initial prediction). 

Here, it should be pointed out, Wilson is operating erroneously, attributing human-specific entities (the notion of free-will) to non-human beings (a honeybee). We cannot, with any certainty, say that a honeybee experiences free-will any more than we can say that it experiences happiness or depression (we can barely even say it experiences a flower in the same way we do). This is especially dangerous because the notion can be extrapolated (and Wilson certainly does this) further and folded back to pertain to humans again, providing false insight and thereby justifying human actions. These human actions are vindicated in such a way that they completely beg the question: many of Wilson’s acumens then become completely circular arguments, succumbing to massive logical fallacy. R. C. Lewontin has already acknowledged that Wilson conflates homology and analogy (Lewontin, 95). This is his first error. Wilson’s second error is that he uses these perceived analogies to animal behavior to justify human behavior: clearly, our behavior, however distasteful as it may be, has evolved from millions upon millions of years of selection and is evident in primordial form in lower taxonomies, therefore it is just human nature and we should perhaps be less hell-bent on trying to improve or change it. So, to review, Wilson takes a human behavior, exclaims “Hey, look! Bears do something like that!” and then rushes towards “It must be OK that we do it,” which is based purely and exclusively on the fact that we do it.

And so, it goes without saying that Wilson’s treatment of the perception of free-will is subject to the same error. He assumes that honeybees experience their own version of free-will, based on the fact that humans do. He operates under the assumption that honeybees can only experience either free-will, or the absence of free-will. It does not seem to occur to Wilson that none of this might even cross a honeybee’s mind. I.e. there is a fundamental difference between “Oh, it’s time to gather honey” and “I think I’ll go gather some honey now.”(A serious precursor for the perception of free-will is probably being sentient.) However factually erroneous, Wilson’s honeybee example at the very least serves as an excellent analogy for human perceptions of free-will. One of my favorite science-related quotes is Emerson Pugh’s[1] “if the human mind were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we wouldn’t” (Pugh, 154). Wilson is pretty much[2] advocating the same idea: No, we probably don’t have free-will. In fact, the whole idea of free-will is pretty silly when you consider how we are just bundles of neurons or rather, just electricity.
But, on the other hand, we are conscious, as we define it. However, we are conscious only to a certain extent. Meaning that, on the whole, the majority of actions and reactions humans perform are subconscious and on a molecular level and are impossible for us, or anything we build, to compute in either retrospect or real-time. In the same way, you can perceive a wave crashing, the computation of which is nearly impossible and would involve mind-numbing physics, and still know that the way in which the wave crashes depends only on a few simple rules: the interaction of partially charged water molecules with one another and the salts and minerals in the ocean, the topography of the ocean floor, the gravitational pull of both the moon and the earth, and so on. The wave fits into none of our definitions of free-will. Yet such computations are reserved for chaos theory, and involve the physical computational cop-out called “turbulence.” Our own myriad stimuli and their corresponding responses compose a matrix which we call free-will. ‘Free-will’ is very much a way for us to deal with our own turbulence and it becomes increasingly mollifying towards our psyche in the face of mounting scientific evidence that we are no more than mind-blowingly complex computing machines (but just not complex enough to compute ourselves). Thus, free-will becomes something of a coping mechanism for the crushing recognition that the concept of human ‘specialness’ is itself a coping mechanism. At least for Wilson, we cannot transcend our perception of free-will: we just aren’t equipped for it. 

According to this treatment of free-will, I submit that the free-will and the perception of free-will are functionally identical. Whether I actually choose to do something or I simply (/complexly) react in a ‘conceivably’ predictable manner to either short- or long-term stimuli is trivial if I believe that I have chosen it. Given two otherwise identical beings, one with true free-will and another with only a perception of free-will, the two should react identically to a given subset of stimuli.

Octavia Butler seems intrigued by these concepts. In Lilith’s Brood, humans have their perception of free-will threatened.  They are put on a simulation of Earth, and blatantly told and reminded that it is only a simulation of Earth. However, they nearly immediately begin to question whether or not the simulation is the real Earth: they begin to seek to restore their perception of free will. Within the novel, this reaction is perpetuated by the fact that the simulation is completely undetectable as a simulation: it resembles Earth in every way possible. Being hereto captive, the humans revert to thinking that perhaps they are being lied to, and in fact they are on the actual Earth. This is completely separate from their actual free-will, because they are told from the beginning that it is not real Earth and that they are aboard a spaceship. However, they seek the edges of the simulation, presumably operating under the assumption that if they cannot find an edge or an end – anything slightly artificial – their perception of free-will will be restored. 

Like most things, Lilith’s Brood is in engaging with many of Martin Heidegger’s ideas. The humans in the spaceship are indeed ‘thrown’ into a new world, one in which they must build truth purely and only upon history. Their truth can only come to them through a thorough understanding of what happened: how did they get there, what are these things, should they feel weird about having sex with them? The sexual relationships seemed particularly pertinent to Hedegger’s idea of authenticity: having sex with aliens was simply not something one did, yet the very ability to either choose or not choose to do it (even if the choice went along with the they), was still exercising autonomy and therefore free-will. Except, in a very interesting point in Lilith’s Brood, Butler tests these preceptions: 

                 “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).

Butler is drawing a very subtle line here – she is approaching the very threshold that exists between conscious reactions and subconscious reactions. Through this exposure, the Oankali hope to enlighten humans as to how calculating they really are, to rid them of their perception of free-will, in hope that it will liberate them from their ‘conflicts.’ 

Heidegger would probably not view this as a possibility. Heidegger’s entire philosophy in Being and Time seems based upon a notion of freedom – no matter how he tried to define it – the central concept of fallen Dasein, authenticity and resoluteness all stem from the perception of choosing – all actions come from making (or believing to make) a choice and how we then choose to deal with our choice once we have made it (itself its own choice). Even choosing to do what “they” do, to follow flock, is itself an authentic choice, as Dasein chooses to be one thing and not another. In this way, Heidegger would find serious error with Wilson’s treatment of free-will. Heidegger believes that the very act of asking whether or not we bother considering our free will is evidence that we, in fact, have and employ it, as the very inquiry is an example of “anxiety [which] makes manifest in Dasein its Being towards its ownmost potentiality-for-Being – that is, its Being-free for the freedom of choosing itself and taking hold of itself. Anxiety brings Dasein face to face with its Being-free for” (Heidegger, 188). Through Heidegger’s philosophy, the human’s in Lilith’s Brood are showing autonomy and free-will purely by questioning the Oankali’s notions and beliefs – and even being anxious about what their own bodies “choose” for them. If they have lost anything, perhaps they have lost only their perception of free-will, and not, as Heidegger sees it, their free-will itself.

Herbert Marcuse, a once-student of Heidegger’s, echoes Wilson’s recognition of transcendence, stating that “[a]ll liberation depends on the consciousness of servitude, and the emergence of this consciousness is always hampered by the predominance of needs and satisfactions which, to a great extent, have become the individual’s own” (Marcuse, 7). Marcuse’s entire critique of modern civilization calls for modern society to transcend methods of control that are currently inescapable: to see their surroundings as ‘oppressive’ no matter what view may be intuitive, and transcend beyond the dichotomy of capitalism and communism. As both focus on some sort of freedom, we can perhaps see parallels already between Wilson’s and Marcuse’s ideas. Marcuse would certainly argue that humans have free-will, but would state that we too often confuse free-will and the perception of free-will. Or, in other words, Marcuse would argue that society has the potentiality for free-will, which they can only achieve and exercise once they realize how atrophied it has become. Wilson thinks such transcendence is impossible: consider Pugh’s quote, altered to fit into a more Marcusean theory: “If our society were so simple that we were able to ameliorate it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.” Wilson would argue that such a transcendence as what Marcuse calls for is impossible: transcending our own society is impossible, as our society is bounded by itself and was never built nor meant to understand and systematically improve itself (only to understand and systematically improve individuals within the society: and even then, improve for whom). 

Again, Butler seems cognizant of her philosophical forbearers. In Lilith’s Brood, an alien race (the higher-intelligence that Wilson alluded to regarding our free-will perception) is trying to change our society – reboot it in such a way that we transcend our “human contradiction” and begin a society that is eerily close to Marcuse’s utopia: “society would be rational and free to the extent to which it is organized, sustained, and reproduced by an essentially new historical Subject,” (Marcuse, 252) one where “the productive apparatus [is] organized and directed toward the satisfaction of vital needs, its control might well be centralized; such control [does] not prevent individual autonomy, but render[s] it possible” (Marcuse, 2).

So, is there freedom within Lilith’s Brood? Heidegger would of course argue yes, as the humans question themselves and their surroundings, but Heidegger often blurs freedom of thought and freedom of choice a bit liberally. Wilson would say that it depends on whose point of view the question is being asked from. If the Oankali are to answer regarding humans, then of course, no. If the humans are to answer regarding themselves, then of course, yes, as they are operating beneath an inescapable perception of free-will, fundamentally and functionally identical to actual free-will. Marcuse would become irate at the very suggestion that they might be free.

The notion of free-will perception approaches Marcuse’s analysis of contemporary culture by creating problems within his diagnosis. Marcuse states that modern man is not free, and cannot be free (from advertising, capitalism, materialism, etc.) until he realizes that he is not free. This insinuates that modern man does not realize that he is not free. Even if he is indeed unfree, modern man (with, I suppose, Marcuse excluded) is operating under the perception of freedom. Is there a quantifiable difference in the functional quality of an individual’s life if he operates beneath a perception of freedom, rather than actual freedom? Is the difference purely immaterial and ideological? One cannot simply loose this perception of freedom and assume that he has also lost freedom itself, subsequently concluding that his fellow man must also be operating beneath similar assumptions. Which brings me to another question: can one have free-will but not the perception of free-will? Or, rather, can one have freedom and not the perception of freedom? I suspect that the distinction between the two is why Marcuse and Wilson clash so irrefutably.

Butler, Octavia E. Lilith’s Brood. New York City: Grand Central Publishing, 1989

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper Collins, 1962.

Lewontin, R.C. Biology as Ideology. Concord: Harper Perennial, 1991.

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964.

Pugh, George. The Biological Origin of Human Values. New York: Basic Books, 1977.

Wilson, Edward O. On Human Nature. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 2004

[1] N.B. Emerson Pugh is George Pugh’s, the book’s author, father. G.E. Pugh is fondly quoting his father at this point in the book.
[2] By “pretty much” I mean “nearly exactly.” Edward O. Wilson’s own endorsement appears on the cover of Pugh’s book: “I believe this book is exceptional, potentially even revolutionary in its approach to the study of ethics.” Somehow, some way, I failed to realize this until I was nearly done with the entire structure of this paper.

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