Predicting Free Will

by Philosophy

The election of 2012 is over, the billions of dollars spent have filled the coffers of the media conglomerates, and the finger-pointing and hand-wringing have only just now begun. Article after article declares the alarm and sheer confusion of many in the Republican party over why the American populace would vote for a black man rather than a business-man in the face of economic uncertainty, especially with unemployment above 8% (an incumbent president hadn’t won with such a figure since 1940). Who could have predicted that this would happen? Well, as a matter of fact, someone did and that person is Nate Silver, who called every state and noted the chances of Obama’s reelection weeks if not months ahead of time. Did he consult crystals or spirits? Did he conjure up his ancestors or pray to a deity? Did he fast and pray, roll the dice or consult the stars? Nope, none of those things. What he did was crunch the numbers. Yes, numbers. Through the science of statistics, he carefully calculated based on polling and demographics and behavioral history how populations would vote and came up with a probability chart. That’s right, the American hubris of possessing a laissez-faire free will, unencumbered by such seemingly ridiculous things as biology and social influence, was laid low by the reality of science on public display on an Internet blog and broadcast through Twitter for all to see.

Like all real science, it’s reproducible (he called 48 of 50 states in 2008), it’s falsifiable (i.e. he could have been proven wrong) and it’s based on reasoned principles. What is absurd about this is that the factors for an Obama win were there all along, it’s why his campaign through the brilliance of Plouffe and Axelrod did what they did, focusing on a state by state demographics and pinpointing just what exactly had to be done to persuade each particular group. Watching Axelrod being interviewed while results were coming in was like staring at a zen master, he already knew he’d won and was just waiting for everyone to catch up.

The fact was the numbers were there months ago but the narrative was shifted by media companies hell-bent on having a nail-biter of an election in order to drum up commercial sales. And they did so admirably, with this election cycle costing by some estimates over $6 billion (with a B). Had people taken the time to see things more objectively, they’d have seen the writing on the wall, rather than as someone I knew was lamenting the potential repeal of Obama-care while I, having noted the demographic polls weeks ago and telling everyone who asked that I wasn’t worried, was simply curious as to particular bills being passed in this here great state of Washington. This isn’t to point out my superiority, if anything the fact that I wasn’t worried is predicated upon an acknowledgment of the over-looked and deliberately unseen simplicity of human behavior, not on any achievement of my own.

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Here’s the thing, people don’t make “decisions” in a vacuum. We laud our phenomenological experience, this internal feeling of what “x” is and forget that the entirety of the experience would be impossible without it being embedded in a framework of socio-cultural ideological structures and that being further embraced in an encompassing biology and neurology of humanity and even greater systems beyond that.

I am reminded, as I often am when pondering human actions, of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” series, more particularly the book “God-Emperor of Dune,” one of the greatest if not the greatest sci-fi epics of all time. In it, the character Leto II presides over a universe of human colonies all of whom chafe under his despotic regime and the powers of his mental prescience. Leto’s “golden path” is, ironically, his own destruction, as he hopes to create a situation whereby humans finally get outside of their biological and therefore predictable behavior and do something truly free, in this case, the result being to overthrow him. While a discussion of whether this is possible is for another entry, the point here is that with enough knowledge the behavior of human beings can be, despite their feelings and protestations to the contrary, predicted. And that means we do not have the type of free will we all naively hope for and promote as the foundation of ethical decision-making.

The humor (at least it’s amusing to me anyway) here is that if we did in fact possess such a form of free will that was in no way predicated upon any natural laws we’d stare at it in horror, for behavior would have no order. We see this in how we look at the disparity in people’s behavior not as indications of free will but as hypocrisy. If such was the rule not the outlier we’d live in chaos and lament never knowing or trusting what anybody was going to do.

Indications like Silver’s work that we do not possess a-contextual free will should not be cause for a great gnashing of teeth however (though it’s definitely going to make political campaigns increasingly dull). Rather, by recognizing ourselves as being “nested” (to use Ken Wilber’s term) in greater levels of reality and all of it subject to scientific analysis, we can take an ever greater possession of ourselves and open up behavioral possibilities that, in a spirit of ignorance, were unavailable to us previously. Knowledge by the powerful can be used to control the ignorant masses, but knowledge by the masses can topple the powerful and create a freer world.

A vigorous democracy is built upon the education and rational faculties of its citizens, participating in this great social experiment of true discourse and the parsing of existence and human connection through scientific inquiry. Exploring the depths of our internal experience and creating an ever-increasing space for action will not occur if we ignore the physio-material existence in which we find ourselves, but rather in the continued exploration and delineation of it. As Thomas Jefferson noted: “Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”

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