Your Way

Chapter 3
Free Will

It is the year 2222. M.I.T. Scientists (Moon Institute of Technology Professors) have at last succeeded in building a robot brain. Tonight they are going to give the first demonstration. They're going to unveil the thinking machine.

Here on the moon's surface sits the great Earthdome, built from the moon's own resources. Kennedy Auditorium is filled with an eager crowd, as the tall and dignified Project Director begins his remarks:

"This is the moment in history, Ladies and Gentlemen, when the human brain has been bested by a machine. The Robot Brain can do anything the human brain can do, and more. The human brain, for example, has unlimited storage capacity. Thanks to Atomic Memory, so does our machine. The human brain has an unlimited power of simultaneous processing. Thanks to the new Hyper-L processor, so does our machine. But most of all, the human brain has unlimited power to train itself—by which self-training it becomes a collection of skills and mental habits unique unto itself. Ladies and Gentlemen, so does the Robot Brain. Each separate machine, like each separate mind, will become, through adaptation and self-teaching, a unique resource with unlimited possibilities.

"But enough of suspense, Ladies and Gentlemen. We will now prove to you one and all that there is nothing the actual human mind can do that this machine cannot do. Professor Figby! If you please! Turn the machine on!"

In the breathless silence that follows, a voice is heard from the rear of the auditorium: "But a human mind can turn itself on."

Man is equipped with a self-regulating consciousness. That's free will, the capacity to think or not; the ability to take mental action or refrain from taking mental action.

Free will is demonstrated by the act of trying to disprove it. Whenever you get your mind in gear for the purpose of refuting free will, then that was free will. The answer to any claim against free will is simple: "What makes you say that?" If we lack free will, then nothing we say has any significance, including a refutation of free will.

In thinking about social influence, free will is the basic fact. A mind turns on only when it turns itself on. There is no kind of magic, no kind of force, no kind of manipulation that can make a mind consider what you want it to consider unless it chooses to.

Have you ever explained a fact of reality with such clarity that it had to be undeniable—to someone whose reply was, "Unh-huh, so what's your point?" People who have that happen to them enough can give up on explanation entirely and assume that influence comes only by some kind of emotional trickery or subtle force. Then they find that those things only work on people who choose to let them work—on people who deny their own free will. If I really do lose the ability to decide what I will and will not be influenced by, then you don't say that I have lost my will. You say that I have lost my sanity. Unless I myself control it, I have lost my mind. No wonder mind control is never defined. It is a contradiction in terms.

The fact is that even as we pretend to ignore free will, we always take account of it. We call it volition, and treat it as something to be circumvented. We say, "How do I get people to listen when they don't want to?"

One answer to that question is: you find out the reason why people choose not to listen, and remove it. You take into account that not listening is not the absence of a choice. Not listening is a choice. Free will means that there is always a choice.

One who has chosen to control others says compulsively, "You have no choice." You have no choice but to agree. You have no choice but to yield the point. You have no choice but to buy. Your Honor has no choice but to rule for the defense. Your workers have no choice but to do things your way. Nobody really makes choices; they do what they must.

That's the problem with saying, "You have no choice." As soon as I say it, it applies to me. When we are talking about the mind, then either it is self-regulating, or it is not. Either everybody has a choice, or nobody has a choice. If nobody, then discussion is fatuous and human society is ant society.

So I back away. "Don't take things literally! I meant that mine is the only reasonable choice." Now I'm worse off, not better. I am openly trying to substitute my decision for yours. I am calling disagreement unreasonable. So you frown. His Honor bristles. How can it be his decision if it has already been made? I'd better be fast in saying, "It's only a figure of speech!" Or maybe I'd better go all the way. "I was only kidding!"

It makes for a nervous life, this fashionable denial of free will. If I can deny volition, then I don't have any either, which is downright insulting and obviously wrong. But if I cannot deny volition, then all my bravado about manipulation and concealed persuasion and secret methods of control—it's all self delusion. I'm trying to conceal from myself the observed fact that everybody has a choice, and it could go against me.

The chimera of mind control is based on the idea that a brain is, in some vague, complicated way, a kind of machine. Only then could it be susceptible to control from outside. Only then could it be "worked on" or "taken over" or "washed." Even if this were true of a brain, it would still not be true of a mind. The mind is a collection of mental skills and habits; it is composed not of parts but of actions. To speak of controlling it from outside has all the deep significance of claiming that my piano controls my playing. Mind control has to mean skill control, if it means anything—like "Juggling Control," or "Macramé Control."

Let's assume for a moment that all of the following popular superstitions are real: mind control, brain washing, conditioning, subliminal persuasion, unconscious learning. Since they are real, they have consequence—they enact a cause and produce a result. They have in common that they produce an intended result in the mind. An operation is arranged which takes a mind and modifies it in some predictable manner.


What is it about a particular mind that makes it worthwhile to go to the trouble of controlling it, washing it, conditioning it, modifying it? Why not just find another mind that already does what's wanted? Minds are interchangeable, aren't they?

Well, they must be. If minds are not interchangeable, then each one is unique. If each one is unique, then modifying it would destroy that uniqueness — the mind would not be controlled, but destroyed. Either the mind of your loved one is unique and irreplaceable, or it is not. If it is irreplaceable, then that would be a reason to modify it rather than destroy it—but if it is unique, then modifying it is destroying it.

Parents make this discovery every day. They bully and browbeat rebellious children into submission, because that is the only way to save the precious individuality that they love with all their hearts. Then they discover that their child has become a stranger. What they tried to modify, they destroyed.

The uniqueness of each human mind follows from free will. The mind regulates itself. It modifies itself as it learns. It becomes a collection of skills and convictions as individual as the whorls on a finger. If controlling this mind means anything at all, it means reducing that individuality. To attempt control is to attempt destruction. A mind is worth controlling because it is one of a kind, and controls itself. The very people who advertise their genius at controlling minds count on the value of uniqueness to convince us that a mind is worth controlling.

If you were suddenly endowed with hypnotic powers to control all minds, you might think that finally, at last, you would be able to have things your way. Then you would notice that the same effect could be produced by building robots and getting rid of people. A mind controlled by you would not be human because it would not be self-regulating. The instant that mind control ceased being metaphorical and became real, it would be pointless.

Getting your way means nothing unless it means influencing the independent decisions of self-regulating humans. Mind control is not only a chimera, it is a demon—a myth good only for frightening the proud and fooling the gullible.

It is because each mind is one of a kind that conversation is such a delight—and such a frustration. Your perfectly clear explanation of a simple idea turns out to mean something quite different in the context of a different mind starting from different assumptions. Words can bring such different pictures to different minds that you sometimes wonder if you speak the same language. This one's joke is that one's insult. What makes him say, "How funny," makes her say, "How rude." The words that persuade these folks of your good intentions persuade those folks of your guilt. Here, the word "liberal" gets politicians elected. There, it gets them defeated. A manufacturer knows that when he puts "NEW!" on his package, some people will avoid it. He hopes that more people will buy it.

All the various choice-denying phrases so beloved of the manipulators are the least effective influences possible, because in order not to offend, they must be carefully ambiguous, which assures that they will be widely misinterpreted. Each mind is unique. You can't count on any trick working. If you think a smart con man can do it to anybody, you haven't noticed how carefully he chooses his victims.

Because of the immutable fact of individual self-regulation, mind control advocates who start with subtle tricks end up using brute force. They try desperately to find some kind of force that works. Let's see if they can succeed.

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