[mild spoilers ahead] When I gotten from reading a copious amount of psychology and neuroscience research is that it is very debatable that human beings have free will at all, and that all of us are trapped in our own scripted loops unconsciously.
Of course, I am not the only person thinking about this. So I wasn’t very surprised when these themes are being investigated in this season of Westworld. In previous seasons I felt like the robots trapped in the actual Westworld was like a metaphor for how we as human beings are similarly trapped, but for this season it is no longer a metaphor. A machine can accurately predict the trajectory of every single human being through artificial intelligence and the acquisition of personal data, and in doing so it also makes those predictions come true by limiting the choices they are allowed to have. The reason for this is so that the world can have predictable order instead of chaos.
There is no such machine in today’s real world, but in its place there are a ton of mini-systems designed to fulfil a similar purpose, such as how something that seems so innocuous like Facebook can greatly influence political results. Our resumes are probably filtered by some algorithm and perhaps in some companies they will never get to see the light of the day if we don’t have an ivy league education.
Putting technology aside, our brain works the same way as A.I.s do, even though we would like to pretend otherwise. It takes inputs and they form the basis of patterned outputs. A huge amount of these inputs are determined by the place of our birth, our DNA, our ancestral history, and the external environment we grew up in. Perhaps these I can accept, but my world came crashing down when I read A General Theory of Love and made the inevitable conclusion that even love, something that seems so magical and soulful, is merely a patterned product of the brain too.
We can consciously break these loops, if we do become aware of it at all. There is therapy, meditation, cognitive exercises, etc. I guess for me the magic question is, is awareness itself also part of one’s predictable destiny?
I think I have broken my own loops by reading extensively, going for therapy, quitting a lifelong career and changing my way of life dramatically. But, was my so-called awakening moment a predictable consequence of my personal history? If someone else walked with my shoes, would they have come to this reckoning as well? It is like if you continually stress an animal, they too would exhibit a radical change in their behaviour as well right? Well, I could say perhaps some animals develop learned helplessness and they just accept their fate, but in my case I think there were a mix of inputs in my life that made me unwilling to continue life as before, and these inputs were not within my control and will.
I don’t believe for a single moment that my personal will is a result of my own making. I have to admit I have been dealt with a very kind hand among all the pain I have experienced.
So, is a person who decides to go for therapy primed by previous events to make that choice in the first place? Someone was famous for saying that we can’t change our circumstances sometimes but we can change the way we respond. But recent neuroscience research has shown that chronic stress makes people make bad choices. Can you fault a person for making a bad choice if they can’t control how their brains respond? Can you credit a person for making a good choice if they were blessed with a healthy psyche due to their circumstances?
The other morning I was doing my routine exercise, and I realised one of the reasons why i love exercise so much is that among the unpredictability of life, exercise is one of the rare things in life that has a predictable input/output system. The body is incredibly adaptable, and one can go from almost hyperventilating on a slow run to running a full marathon in a relatively short time.
It also allows me to at least contemplate the possibility that I can break some of my own patterned loops. Like I can be cycling six laps everyday for months, and one fine day, I decide that I will do one extra lap. Because of the circuit breaker I have been sitting for most of the day after my morning exercise, so one day in the evening I decided to go for a thirty minute walk. Nothing dramatic, nothing life changing, but it is a break in my patterns and thus it feels liberating, that there is still a small portion of my life under my control.
For me the magical part of it is: because of my obsession with self-quantifying data, everytime I introduce something novel to my exercise routine I get almost immediate feedback, like improvement in my cardiac data. I was very surprised to observe that though my first run in months stressed my body out, by my second run I was recovering above my baseline the very next day.
I have never imagined myself to be a fit person, and now I’m almost excited to see where the values of my cardiac data can go.
Yet the meta thing is, my exercise itself for the most part is a very routine loop. I cycle and run the same part of the park everyday, I walk the same few rounds with my partner around our estate every evening.
But I realised that my endurance for boredom has greatly increased. I mean, I was the person who cannot stop scrolling twitter. Because of my daily looped cycling, runs and walks, I’m used to moving in circles. And somehow through that voluntary conditioning, I have started to learn to observe, even within loops there can be unpredictable beauty and moments of wonder.
I thought I’ll be really claustrophobic because of the lockdown even by my introverted standards, but once I settled into my daily loops in them I have found a space for creativity and restoration, whereas previously I could always find something to distract myself from my feelings.
Maybe I can never find answers to the greater philosophical questions of freewill, but I think I agree with the dead philosophers that it is better to pretend that we have some locus of control, no matter how tiny it seems to be. Sometimes it can be as tiny as walking one extra step – I pretend that I’m giving the middle finger to the heavens above by demonstrating that I’m behaving out of my expected loop on that day.