Ward’s Fool

A memo on the ruins

Julian Charrière , Polygon XXVIII, 2014, medium format black and white photograph, double exposure through thermonuclear strata, on Photo Rag. © Julian Charrière, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

I dreamed last night that I crossed the river and visited the tall ruins. In waking life I’ve only ever admired them from this side of the water. The quiet over there must be impressive; the only thing to hear would be the wind, and maybe now and then an ache or creak from one of the structures as they continue to settle.

A part of me has always wanted to go — are there raccoons? — but I never have, in part because of the first memo I ever wrote for you. You may not remember it, but it has come back to me, as a sense-memory almost more than as an intellectual one, every time I have sat down at this desk, because it was the first thing I wrote with a manufactured pen after coming to Drayton — an amenity that brought home to me what being at Drayton meant. The memo established — fluidly, blotlessly established — that there was every reason to believe that the rumors weren’t true and that the levels across the water were indeed as high as the holding authority then said they were, and subsiding no more quickly than the authority maintained. I never went, too, because such a visit would have been against the law, and I have always been deterred by respect for the law, or at any rate by fear of fines or detention should any boatman I approach for a ride turn out to be an undercover police officer. And in part, finally, it has to be said, I didn’t cross the water because for the past twenty years I have been in your service and conscious of your investment in me, financial and human. I used to go so far as to think that if I ever wanted to run a risk that large, I would owe it to you to ask first — which would mean, of course, that I would never run the risk, because for my sake you would say no.

By now you have probably guessed why I introduced this memo with my dream. My long-standing wish to visit the ruins and the long-standing obstruction of my wish rather neatly illustrate the most common questions about free will, the topic you have asked me to explore. If I know better than to visit the ruins, can it be said that I am not free to visit them? If an instrument of governance forestalls a visit that almost any rational and informed observer would consider misguided, is my freedom impaired in a way that I ought to mind? And if my contractual and (we might as well call them) emotional obligations are incompatible with a visit, and if it is never, at any time in the course of my life, in my interest to repudiate these obligations or otherwise divest myself of them, is it the case that I have been kept by them from visiting? In this matter, do I have a will of my own? A delicate question for someone in service to be asked to investigate, but the delicacy is not irrelevant, and you have always allowed full license and expected complete candor in the course of research. I suspect, moreover, that one need not be in service to be troubled by the question, or by its fellows. After all, although the motive behind your request twenty years ago for a memo on the ruins, at the time still fairly raw, may have been mere curiosity, the philosophy of your system of memos is by and large pragmatic — a memo aims to present the best pertinent counsel obtainable by a proportionate effort within an appropriate time span, according to the formula that I repeat at least once a week to one or another of the younger members of the staff — and so perhaps I may infer that on your part, too, there is a wish to visit, or at least once upon a time there was. Twenty years ago. For you, too, such a wish, if it did once exist, will have been obstructed, if not stopped, by prudence, law, and a sense of responsibilities owed elsewhere.

I’m making a speculation about you personally only in order to suggest the universality of the issues. But no doubt these sentences are so irremediably orotund and cautious that you will over

There is a further challenge to free will to consider, one that is a little theoretical and therefore somewhat harder to see. Suppose that tomorrow morning the appeal of a visit to the ruins strikes you as worth the price, at last. Is going to strike you as worth the price. And suppose, too, that a scientist of the old days watches your brain, overnight, as your valuations of the alternatives are shifting. We can imagine him using one of the real-time scanners that doctors used to be able to call upon, plugged into the best of our generators here at Drayton, which, we can further imagine, is by a miracle giving us the steady voltage, within narrow tolerances, that the fine devices of the old days seem to have preferred. Since we’re in the realm of the hypothetical, why not also suppose that the images produced by the scanner are sharper than anything the scanners of the old days were able to achieve, and that we have somehow found a computer with unmelted circuits as well, and that we are tasking the computer with keeping an inventory of the locations and directions of all the electrons in your brain as they tumble along your neurons, so as to extrapolate their future paths. If, at two-thirty in the morning, the computer tallies that when you wake up at nine you will choose to cross the water despite penalties and losses, is it correct to say that you will choose freely upon waking? The computer will have predicted your choice more than six hours before.

A quibble of this kind was the challenge to free will of most concern to philosophers explicitly so called in the decades leading up to the final presidency. It is hard to take seriously now, but progress in instrumentation and artificial intelligence was so rapid in those days that perhaps the prospect of a complete monitoring of the biological substrate of a person’s interiority did not then seem entirely theoretical. There is some reason to think, after all, that the nature of people’s concerns about free will varies with the epoch. In the nineteenth century, as the flames of religion were apparently being extinguished in the superior dawn of science, the great worry was how to reconcile free will, imagined as spontaneous, with morality, imagined as immutable and absolute. Was a person who understood the nature and worth of virtue ever really free to choose something else? By the time the twentieth century was yielding to the twenty-first, the worry had been replaced by one strangely analogous: Was a rational agent ever really free to choose a course of action that failed to maximize his economic self-interest? It was to politics that people generally went for an answer for the latter question, in those years. The philosophers were, as I say, then preoccupied by the problem of the hypothetically powerful computer. They feared that once the computer was armed with a perfect knowledge (equally hypothetical) of the world as it existed at a particular moment, there would be nothing it couldn’t predict — no decision it couldn’t undermine by knowing of it in advance — by simple calculation of that moment’s consequences. Even in the library we have assembled here at Drayton, discussions of the threat are so extensive that I find myself worried about falling — almost against my will, as it were — into the error of awarding the topic an amount of attention proportional to the attention awarded to it by earlier writers, rather than the amount I myself think it deserves.

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