May 02, 2007

Hard Wired, Soft Wared, Free Willed - or - Free Will, But I Won't

I watched the film Stranger Than Fiction with Will Farrell playing Harold Crick, an IRS auditor who realizes he's simply a character in somebody's unfinished novel.... He consults with a psychologist and then with a literature professor. He desperately tries to determine whether his story is a tragedy or a comedy.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before I get to Harold's problem let me throw you a number:


Fifty-Seven is the answer most of the time, if you ask the right question.

Ahh. The right question. But for a society with all the right answers, it is disturbing how often we are unacquainted with the right questions.

As is taught in sales and marketing courses from universities to corporate training rooms throughout the land, to get the answer you desire, you need to simply come up with the right question.

Is this due to the nature of our brains, or the universe?

If I stand before one thousand people, get them to clear their minds by asking a series of simple calculations, and then ask them all to "think of an odd number between 40 and 60", the vast majority of them - let's say, about nine hundred and seventy of them - will automatically think of the number "57".

Why would far more than 90% of people think of this one number, among ten choices?

If I ask them to think of a colored vegetable, most will envision a carrot.

A colored tool... a red hammer.

How is it we can all see ourselves as autonomous individuals, yet we all come up with exactly the same answers to questions which seem to offer us a myriad of choices? If our brains all react the same, like preprogrammed automatons, what does this say of Free Will? Creativity? Cooperation? Tax reform?

Well, I don't know. It says red hammer, it says carrot, it says 57.

But also, it points to some sort of universal strategy or pathway for problem-solving or memory-retrieval, perhaps part instinct, part learned behavior.

Our similar wiring makes us think in a manner that is most predictable when we control for a few points of input.

It's how magicians get away with everything.

Does this mean we are forever doomed to act as all others before us, and all others after?

Well, did you ever notice we've never stopped warring? Procreating? Organizing? Dreaming?

We are to a degree controlled by our wiring. When somebody acts just a little out of the norm, he's nuts. His behavior is not what is expected, even if we don't know what explicitly we should expect, or why.

I watched the film Stranger Than Fiction with Will Farrell playing Harold Crick, an IRS auditor who realizes he's simply a character in somebody's unfinished novel.

The film very cleverly plays with our sense of fate, predetermination, and particularly the forces that compell us to act the way we do. The film was far more sophisticated than I expected going in. At it's core it asks who writes the rules? Can the rules be broken? If we discover what fate awaits us, do we have the will to change it? Should we? What are the consequences?

Harold Crick follows self-imposed rules of behavior to the point of obsessive compulsion but the question for us is, is it because he is written this way? Are we all written similarly?

The author is following rules of literature in creating and running Harold's story. But she herself is compelled to follow certain self-imposed rules regarding how she deals with the protagonists in all her novels (she kills them).

When Harold suddenly begins to hear her narrative voice as he goes about his day, he is given an insight into where his actions are leading. Suddenly, he is thrown off of his original path. And so is his author.

In trying to discover his future, is he changing it? He consults with a psychologist and then with a literature professor. He desperately tries to determine whether his story is a tragedy or a comedy.

In the process, he transforms. He lives. He does things he never thought of doing. Is he suddenly freed from only his own constraints, or also from the unseen but more tangible forces moving him about? This still is as the author is writing it, no? He is still moving inexorably toward the carefully crafted climax of the story. Right?

The author, for her part, is completely unaware of Harold's recognition of her existence. As far as she is concerned she is writing another story of fate - "Death and Taxes" - and she struggles mightily to develop the plot device for the story's climax, while Harold seeks her out in an effort to avoid what he understands is his untimely end.

The whole story is about breaking rules - rules of conduct, rules of writing, of traffic, of love, of the universe. It shows us there are rules we know about, and rules we don't.

We may be purposely defying the constraints we see laid upon us, as does the subject of Crick's audit when she refuses to pay a portion of her taxes; as does Crick himself when he falls in love with her and gets involved. Or we may be breaking rules we don't even know exist, laws written in our DNA or pathways paved in our brains over time, or passages written by the fates in a larger narrative intertwined with the threads of others' stories.

We all die. This is the explanation given to Harold by the lit professor when he so vainly tries to avoid his pivotal role in a story almost finished. What we do and how we conduct ourselves up to that point, however, allow us the ability to co-author this story. Harold does things, effects people, and truly lives, knowing that he needs to do it now, before the story ends.

Kurt Vonnegut's novels almost all used the story-within-a-story device to explore fate, playing with time travel and predetermination and authorship. Billy Pilgrim became "unstuck in time" and a couple of the times he keeps dropping into are where he is telling his own story after the fact. And, before the fact. Many of Woody Allen's short stories deal with stories within stories with the characters discovering their authors' existence, and the authors themselves finding they too are characters, and everything becomes a circus of discovery of fate's trifles. Mighty Aphrodite plays with the gods playing with the fates of mortals, and themselves being characters, in a play of course, on an ancient Greek stage.

Douglas Adams's entire five books of the trilogy "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" is nothing if not a whimsical pummeling of our ideas of who authors whose existence, and how little control we have over any of it.

My favorite literature all struggles with these relationships, existentialism, time, fate, ethos, recognition, and the struggle between choice and acceptance, and the dignity of our own place in the bigger picture.

John Irving, William Shakespear... I suppose it would be easier to list the authors who do NOT work with these constructs.

... So, if we think we know our fate, and we walk willingly into it because we understand the purpose it serves, is this now free will? Are we, in this act, writing our own story if we already perceive it to be written?

Perhaps for the moment all I can say to that is "Green Screwdriver".

Although it has little to do with what I've just actually written, I include for you here a link to the article which spun me off into this direction. You may have to register though because it's been a while since I read it at NY Times online:
Free Will: Now You Have It, Now You Don’t - New York Times


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