Tag Archives: free will

The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis

My grandpa only ever gave me one piece of advice (well, besides “keep your eyes on the damn road!”). He said, “They can take your land, they can take your property, they can even take your family, but,” pointing to his head, “they can’t take what is in here. They can’t take what you know. So, learn as much as you can.”

Well, what if they sort of could? Or at least, take away your ability to think for yourself?

That is sort of the premise of Ian Tregillis’ The Mechanical. The Mechanical is set in a world where, sometime after Europeans stumbled across the Americas, the Dutch find a way to make sentient machines, through some alchemical process discovered by famous Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens (what?!? You’ve never heard of him? He discovered a moon of Saturn, invented the pendulum clock, and was a major authority on optics). This gives the Dutch a leg up in the world, and allows them to conquer pretty much all of Europe. Seemingly only the French remain to resist, and they must do this from a small enclave in exile on the North American continent. This is the backdrop for an amazing story of court intrigue, international politics, and a different approach to the discussion of slavery.

This is, because, we quickly come to learn that the machines the Dutch build their empire on not only think, but have some sort of free will, a free will that is subdued by whatever process creates them. Whenever they try to do anything that is not in direct fulfillment of their masters’ wishes, they experience extreme pain, a pain that grows until it is completely intolerable and the machine is forced to act to subdue the pain. “The head faded as he [one of the machines] abandoned his own wishes in favor of his masters’ whims.” Thus, the machines are slaves, forced to subvert their own will to that of their human masters’. Tregillis does a great job of describing the torment the machines feel whenever they try to do something on their own.

With this backdrop, Tregillis discusses free will, slavery, and equality, in a way that advances the plot of his story. One of the main characters, Jax, is one of these machines. But, there are several human characters that represent various views of the treatment of these machines. Not all humans are blind to the suffering of these machines, but even some that are against the Dutch would rather use the machines for their own purposes. “The prosperity achieved through slavery had a way of blinding men’s hearts to the evil of their own hands.”

Thus, along the way, Tregillis, while telling an immensely satisfying story, does get into some pretty deep thoughts about the nature of free will itself. Do the machines have free will? Maybe they don’t, by some definition, but then, maybe humans don’t either. For the machines, “Free Will was a vacuum, a negative space. It was the absence of coercion, the absence of compulsion, the absence of agony.” But, what does that mean for humans? “How did they order their daily existence without somebody to tell them what to do? Or was that the purpose of God?” Or are humans “Some squishy biological machine whose structure imbues it with a complex functioning and a delusional belief in its capability to determine its own course, but which all along follows a path predetermined by its own nature or maker?”

It is always nice to find a book that both provides a very interesting plot as well as thought-provoking material. The discussions about free will flow naturally through the course of the book, they are not force fed or heavy handed. Rather, they are integral to the relationship between the machines and the humans. They drive the plot forward. Tregillis does a great job of pulling these themes forward but in service of his story. I think my ony quibble is that, at the end of the story, some of the actions of some of the characters seem less than reasonable. One can chalk this up to the trauma some of them have endured up to that point, but it still seemed a little forced, like Tregillis needed a way to get to a certain point in the plot and this was the best he could come up with.

However, in spite of this, I am greatly looking forward to reading the next books in the series.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

the-golem-and-the-jinniA jinni and a golem meet in New York… almost sounds like the set up for a bad joke. But, Helene Wecker’s novel The Golem and the Jinni is certainly no joke. It is an exciting story about two mythological creatures who happen to find themselves in the same part of New York City during the lateĀ 1800s. These two creatures have very different dispositions: the jinni is a fiery hothead while the golem struggles to keep her emotions buried deep within.

Neither creature is fully in control of their fate. Golems, by nature, are created to serve a master while the jinni, as is often the case, has been imprisoned against his will to serve others. By using these two creatures and how they interact both with one another and with the humans around them, Wecker touches on themes of free will and purpose in life that, because of the combined historical/fantastical setting, occurs organically. The story focuses on the fate of these two magical creatures and the people they interact with, but the messages of the novel are much deeper than a fantasy story implies.

What is Your Dangerous Idea? edited by John Brockman

what-is-your-dangerous-idea-book-by-john-brockman1After reading This Explains Everything, I’m now a bit addicted to the Edge.org series of books, in which John Brockman poses a question to some of the leading minds in the world. I quickly went through the second and am now on the third of these books.

The second, What is Your Dangerous Idea?, asks exactly that question: what idea do you have or do you think is dangerous? The meaning of dangerous is in the eye of the beholder, with some contributors discussing ideas that might be coming from science that might be taken in the wrong way by politicians or those who would repress others (such as innate differences in people in terms of abilities of various sorts) to ideas that would shatter the status quo (such as the discovery of alien life or the idea that we may soon be able to control our own evolution). Most of the ideas are very interesting and, as with the previous volume I read, thought provoking. Worth a read if for nothing else than to stir the mental juices and get one thinking about ideas that might not normally cross one’s mind. However, there is one set of ideas that I found particularly striking.

The first relates to free will. In back-to-back essays, first Eric Kandel and then Clay Shirky touch on this. Kandel describes experiments in which the subconscious mind is measured to register activity before the conscious mind is aware it is about to do something. That is, if one were asked to move their finger, there is subconscious activity before the person has actually made the decision to move their finger (or, better said, is consciously aware of the decision). Shirky discusses how this has important consequences on how we interact with and are manipulated by advertisers and politicians, amongst others. In particular, he states “everyone from advertisers to political consultants increasingly understands, in voluminous biological detail, how to manipulate consciousness in ways that weaken our notion of free will.” (In a super-cool aside, it seems that Helmholtz, the famous physicist who was instrumental in the development of thermodynamics, was the discoverer of this subconscious activity.) The implication, really, is that advertisers and politicians know us better than we know ourselves, and know how to target messages to our subconscious, which is much more important for our decision making and behavior than we are ever aware. It is only through recognizing this and knowing how our subconscious responds to such stimuli that we have any hope of not being manipulated. Mahzarin Banaji sums this up nicely with a quote from Richard Dawkins: “Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have a chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do.”

Other essays touch on this theme. Richard Nisbett points out how “When our behavior is insufficiently justified, we move our beliefs into line with the behavior, so as to avoid the cognitive dissonance we would otherwise experience.” The bottom line: we really don’t know how we think, why we think what we think, or where our thoughts come from. Those that do and are willing to use that understanding can manipulate us without us even being aware.