How predictable are we?
14 February 2008 (updated 25 April 2009)
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How predictable are we? When God or a neohuman (choose your favorite word) looks at a group of persons like us, how much does she see? Already, with our presumably-primitive technology, we are creating computer models to provide better intelligence for the military, enabling improved prediction of trends in (apparently) random terrorist strikes. Do these trends reveal learned preferences or even deeply-embedded anatomical preconditioning, reacting to environmental patterns such as weather and terrain? I imagine it’s at least that and more. And what does God see? How free are we?
I suspect our freedom, to the extent we have it, depends on our knowledge, both of ourselves and the world around us. Knowledge presents options. I also wonder whether it’s not an entirely contextual matter, or at least always practically contextual. I can behave with a degree of freedom in some empowering contexts, whereas other contexts would deprive me of movement, sensibility or life. I feel a degree of freedom relative to the knowledge I presume others to have of the world and my place in it.
How free are bacteria? What about your dog? Humans have not altogether transcended Pavlov’s bell, ringing us into our stereotypical roles. We’ve long recognized that persuasion and suggestion influence us, but we’re quickly expanding our understanding of how susceptible the human brain is to external influences, such as chemically-induced fear.
In the Mormon tradition, we sometimes hear a paradoxical set of ideas regarding free will. On the one hand, many of us believe we’ve always had free will - it is part of or emergent from that aspect of our being that was not and could not be created. On the other hand, many of us believe God voluntarily restrains himself from revoking or infringing upon our free will, despite his power to do so. This paradox seems increasingly to reflect the situation in which we find ourselves: competing senses of indeterminism and predictability.