On Being Trapped in Physics

The other day, I did something I predicted wouldn’t work out well, but I felt compelled to. Many times, when I’ve been rolling around Berkeley I’ll see some folks with a pamphlet stand, usually in Ashby station. This day, I saw them out by the Berkeley Bowl, and their signboard said, “Will Suffering End?”.

If you know me, you know that ending suffering is kind of a big deal to me, and while I didn’t think our answers to the question would dovetail, I had a few minutes. I approached, and pointing to their board said, “Yes. Well, at least, I hope so. Making it happen is what I’m about. What’s your plan for fixing it?”

It was getting people to read the bible, as I’d predicted.

This is not an essay on religion and a lack thereof, though.

The conversation evolved through several steps of talking past each other. A refrain Rose kept returning to was free will, and how wonderful it was that God had equipped us with it. While I can see the intuitive appeal of the concept as having explanatory power, and in making one feel good both about one’s decisions, and doing things like maintaining prisons with poor conditions for those who break the social rules, it’s not a concept that I find useful in thinking about the world.

I think, as the title may have suggested, that we humans, along with all other life, all things in fact in this universe, are trapped in physics. We can do nothing other than what we do, and any claim otherwise that I’ve ever heard resolves to incoherency. A ball, released on an inclined plane, will roll to the bottom. Today we know that this is a result of gravity, and the conversion of potential to kinetic energy. We can take a few facts about the hill, the ball, and the local strength of gravity, and predict how fast the ball will roll, when it will reach any given point along the path it will follow, and how far it will go past the bottom of the hill. It makes no sense to postulate that this time, the ball will roll uphill and stay there, remaining smugly stationary at the top of the incline.

I can imagine a time earlier in history, when we didn’t understand anything about gravity, inclined planes, or conservation of energy, in which that might have been, if not a reasonable bet, at least one that a person couldn’t be sure wouldn’t happen this time. Such people might well have ascribed free will to the ball, and a strong desire to be at the bottom of hills to balls in general.

Nowadays, as mentioned, we do know better. Nobody with a modern education would bet on a ball to roll uphill, nor a slinky to climb stairs, nor even a virus to reconsider infecting a cell and injecting its dna for replication.

And yet somehow these people, who should be aware from school classes that the laws of nature are Laws, inviolate in every case we’ve ever checked them in, and that they are made of atoms, that form molecules, that form cells, that form organs, that form people, somehow think we can be free of that inevitability. After all, they can observe themselves debate their options, and they “could have” done other than they chose to.

I think a lot of this intuition comes from observing people make different choices in the “same” circumstances. Since you spent fifteen minutes not eating the marshmallow to get a second one, why couldn’t Billy in the next test room over? Everything in the room was the same, same table, same chair, same marshmallow.

Different Billy.

You had a stable home life, and parents who taught you some things about self-control, and a decent native temperament. Billy comes from a broken home, the parent he lived with working overtime to make ends meet and leaving him with the electric babysitter. His native temperament? Not so good for delaying gratification.

In our society we seem to regard this as something Billy should do something about, or at least feel bad about, but it’s not like he had any choice in any of those things, and given those as inputs, his choice to eat the marshmallow was in fact quite predictable. He could not have chosen other wise – he simply wasn’t equipped to, and it makes no sense to blame him for it.

I’ve had this perspective for a while, and I think it’s useful in dealing with other people – they all have their backstories, and knowing that helps me to be a kinder and more thoughtful version of myself when interacting with them. It suggests to me that we should be using very, very different methods to respond to people who break the law, and that our society should be structured fairly differently, although I don’t have an exact model of what it should look like. Certainly far more effort should be put into designing our incentives.

In reality, we’re no different from the ball and the incline, aside from having more complicated and harder to see ‘inclines’ driving us. Rose was spreading the word of the Lord because her backstory and decision process told her it was the right thing to be doing. She couldn’t have done otherwise than to smile and tell me about how wonderful free will was, and I’d be foolish to blame her for it.

Why write all this up? My hope is that other people catch some of this, and think a little more about what they want the shape of the world to take, and align their actions to driving other people’s towards better inclines than they might have, using their native reactions. Just because you can’t make a decision other than one you’re going to make, doesn’t mean I can’t try to shift what the outcome of that process is with my words, after all. You’re not the same person who started reading this, and I hope you’re a wiser one.

Think about it.