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Jun 7, 2010

Free Will

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What makes us tick?
Nanites are one of the important plot devices and an imagined future technology in The Start of Eternity. The Huaoshy are aliens who wield advanced technology and they make use of nanoscopic devices that can invade a human brain and alter the function of neural networks.

The Huaoshy have long been visitors to Earth. In the distant past they evolved a human-like intelligence on their distant home world. The Huaoshy first visited Earth millions of years ago. They performed artificial selection on primates and designed humanity so that we humans have brains and behaviors that are similar to those of the Huaoshy. In short, the Huaoshy created us in their image.

Dilbert
This might all sound like a recipe for some rather standard alien invasion story with evil aliens using their advanced technology to enslave humanity, but the Huaoshy follow a set of rules that govern how they interact with other life forms. One of those rules says: It should APPEAR to every type of sentient being that they have self-determination and are not being controlled by more technologically advanced life forms. While they do follow this rule, the Huaoshy only feel obliged to make sure that we humans believe that we have free will and self-determination. For example, if a human somehow learned of the existence of the Huaoshy, they would not hesitate to use their nanite technology to erase the human's memories and knowledge of the Huaoshy.

The skeptic might ask, assuming these circumstances, if we humans would actually have free will. Mikel G Roberts pondered the effects of allowing nanites into our bodies. "Would that make us lose our humanity? Lose our soul?"

In The Start of Eternity the Huaoshy are not interested in depriving humans of free will and self-determination. For the most part, the Huaoshy are content to have shaped our species...they are not interested in micro-managing our personal lives. Of course, given the advanced technological powers of the Huaoshy they sometimes can't resist shaping the behavior of individual humans. Such is the plight of Gohrlay, the main character in The Start of Eternity.

Gohrlay before the brain scan
Gohrlay comes dangerously close to discovering the fact that aliens shape and sculpt the course of human evolution. She finds evidence that the course of human evolution on Earth has not been natural, but she assumes that genetic alterations to Earthlings have been carried out by meddling humans who live on the Moon. Along the way, Gohrlay violates one of the central laws of her culture and she becomes a criminal. Having come too close to the truth, nanites are sent into her brain and many of her memories are suppressed. Gohrlay is aware that she has been punished and has lost important parts of her memories. She finds that she is no longer in complete command of her own behavior and that she can no longer discuss with her friends what has happened to her. She hates the fact that she has lost some memories and lost control of some of her thought processes.

Gohrlay's fate might be viewed as a violation of the Huaoshy rule requiring that humans believe they have free will and self-determination. However, she blames fellow humans for her plight, so the meddling Huaoshy get off on a technicality. The fact that Gohrlay has lost precious memories and is no longer in complete control of her own behavior pushes her towards a critical decision. She agrees to participate in a dangerous experiment that will destroy her brain. I've blogged previously about Gohrlay's decision to die. She would rather try to gain a chance at a second life through the experiment than continue living her mind-altered half-life as a punished criminal.

R. Gohrlay the robot
Even though Gohrlay has lost some of her memories and has been isolated from her friends, she still feels like she has free will. However, she wonders if along with her memories she lost some important part of herself that would not have allowed herself to volunteer for the experiment that will destroy her brain. She can't help wondering if she is deluding herself into believing that her mind's physical substrate will be scanned during the experiment and successfully converted into circuits that will produce a new synthetic copy of her mind.

Which is worse, losing your free will or fearing that you lost it?

Image Credits. The image at the top of this blog post was made using copyleft images by John A Beal, Nicolas Genin and Patrick J. Lynch and can be re-used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License

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