Are we just sacks of meat?

Shirley asked:

Is “free will” just a comfort for those who want to believe, or are we electrified sacks of meat tenderized with hormones, memory, and survival instincts?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I’ll start with a picky point. The question you posed isn’t an alternative, as it first appears to be. What you are asking is whether we are just ‘sacks of meat’, in which case what we term ‘free will’ is merely a ‘comforting belief’.

My answer is, No.

You could start by reading my answer, Free will and creative reverie where I explain why a free will worth having requires that determinism be false. This is a point on which I have changed my mind, as I once held that it made no difference whether determinism holds or not. My bad!

This time, rather than going through the same argument, I will illustrate my answer with an actual example, which explains what I mean by ‘creative reverie’.

Recently, I started writing songs. This is something no-one who knew me could have predicted, and indeed if I’d been given a glimpse into the future just two months ago, I would have been astonished. However, as a self-termed ‘philosophizer’, it now seems to me perfectly reasonable to express and communicate my philosophizing using the medium of songwriting.

This is how it came about. One of the things I do when I am bored is browse the listings on eBay. One day, around two months ago, the idea came into my head (from I don’t know where, although I’m sure there is an explanation) to look at the listings for electric guitars. Suddenly I knew that I wanted one. I already have steel string and nylon string acoustic guitars, and even went so far as to buy an electric pickup and amplifier for one of my acoustics. But now I knew, absolutely and without a shadow of a doubt, that I wouldn’t be happy until I had an electric guitar to add to my collection.

I found one, a Washburn modelled the much more expensive Gibson Les Paul. It was a nice price, looked good. I made an offer which was accepted. And that was it.

As I experimented with the different luscious sounds from the twin humbucker pickups, I found myself playing a chord progression, and I thought, ‘This could be a song.’ A short while later, the song was composed, recorded, and posted on YouTube. Three more followed. And now I’m working on a fifth.

And my question: Is it really credible that these songs have existed for all time, that they were ‘determined’ by the way the BIg Bang banged? Or are they genuine novelties, new additions to the universe, that it took a chain of seemingly unlikely circumstances to bring into being?

I think the latter. But now, an extra finesse. My song, the one I can’t quite finish, is about zombies. And your question gave me the prefect chorus, for which I am extremely grateful. All I need now is a melody with a ‘hook’. So here goes:

    Zombie Dream

    You cannot kill me
    The creature said
    Because I am
    Already dead
    I aimed my gun
    At the creature’s head
    I pulled the trigger
    The monster bled

    It aint so sweet
    We’re only bags of meat
    It’s a bitter pill
    To have no will
    As we shuffle
    Down the street

    I rose this morning
    From a dream
    Fighting zombies
    With axe and gun
    Outside were bodies
    Crashed cars and fires
    The zombie apocalypse
    Had begun

    It aint so sweet (etc.)

    The plane took off
    In the nick of time
    But there was something
    No-one knew
    A bitten hostess
    Hiding in the john
    Her hands and face
    Are turning blue

    It aint so sweet (etc.)

    An empty mens room
    On the motorway
    A cracked mirror
    Your bloodied face
    You stare into
    A deep abyss
    It’s all over
    For the human race

    It aint so sweet (etc.)

    You true believers
    You’re all safe
    And all you
    AI boffins too
    Why? because
    You’re dead already
    There’s nothing they
    Can do to you

    It aint so sweet (etc.)

    Now hungry zombies
    Are everywhere
    In the basement
    In the hall
    Play target practice
    For a while
    You know you can’t
    Destroy them all

    It aint so sweet (etc.)

    Woke on the sidewalk
    Feeling strange
    Something was missing
    Deep inside
    I couldn’t recall
    Just what it was
    Then I realized
    I had died

    It aint so sweet (etc.)

You notice that I substituted ‘bags of meat’ for ‘sacks of meat’. It’s only a small change but ‘bags’ just sounds better to me than ‘sacks’. In the process of songwriting you make myriad decisions like this, and each decision is an ‘act of will’. It’s a creative process.

Of course, all sorts of ‘influences’ come into play. There’s a pop song from the 50s which goes, ‘Aint that sweet, see her walking down the street…’. The cracked mirror wasn’t just my invention, it’s a familiar movie trope. That was kind-of the point. And so on.

To sum up: It is extraordinarily difficult to explain, in theory, what we want in wanting ‘free will’. But when you look at actual examples of human decision making, it’s simply obvious. Every moment of every day I am adding something new to the universe, to reality. How that is possible may seem a mystery, but then so is the fact that anything exists at all.

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