Escape from Hell Mountain.

By Martin Young

             Once upon a time there was a place called "Hell Mountain." Hell Mountain was an abode of ultimate evil with very poor security. Many people were taken there against their will for nefarious purposes, but they usually escaped fairly easily. Those who didn't escape usually stayed because they liked the ambiance One of the most popular escape routes was called the "Tunnel of Doom." The Tunnel of Doom was a perilous escape route, because if you took a wrong turn you could find yourself falling into such deadly places as The Pit of a Million Carnivorous Hamsters, the Giant Drawer of Carelessly Stored Sharp Objects, the Place Where Large Heavy Objects Fall on You for No Apparent Reason or the Gift Shop of Eternal Despair. Fortunately, a guidebook is available at the start of the tunnel, so it is easy to avoid making a wrong turn. The tunnel is slightly downhill all the way to freedom, and there is a shallow gutter running down the middle of both the main tunnel and into all of the side branches. Every so often the denizens of Hell Mountain will roll a large but still easily avoided stone ball into the Tunnel of Doom, where it will roll down the gutter to provide a moderate degree of menace to anyone who is escaping at a leisurely enough pace to be caught by the very slowly moving ball. The gutters in the tunnel are set up so that, if left to itself, the ball will slowly roll the right way down the tunnel, so any escapee who steps aside to let the ball pass will be able to follow it to the end of the tunnel, which happens to be in Goat Hill, California. However, if an escapee happens to be standing by the gutter at the junction of the main tunnel with one of the deadly side passages, he will find that giving the stone ball a moderately hefty shove at exactly the right moment will divert it down the deadly side passage, with results that will be extremely inconvenient to anyone who happens to be living in that deadly side passage. The origins of Hell Mountain are shrouded in mystery, although most scholars believe it to be an ill-conceived theme park.
             There are four Very Important Characters in our story. First is Destiny Determined. Destiny's brain works just the way yours does. It is completely deterministic, in that its vast number of neurons connected in incredibly complicated ways all operate exactly according to the laws of physics as they govern such macroscopic objects. Destiny is a cheerful and spontaneous person, a compassionate individual, an extremely careful and subtle thinker and all this cheer, spontaneity, compassion, care and subtlety is accomplished by an incredibly complicated deterministic mechanism, which we call Destiny's brain. Our second Very Important Character is Randy Random. Randy's brain is just like yours and Destiny's, except an evil genius has introduced indeterminism into Randy's brain by secretly installing microscopic randomizing devices in each of Randy's neurons. Each of these randomizing devices is based on a very small amount of radioactive material, so it delivers the true randomness of quantum indeterminacy, and not the fake "randomness" of slot machines and roulette wheels. These randomizing devices occasionally manage to make Randy do things that make no sense to him or anyone else. Randy does not know that he has been randomized. He and the people who have to live with him just think he is impulsive. Insanely impulsive.
             Our other two Very Important Characters are both spherical rocks of the kind occasionally rolled down the Tunnel of Doom by the denizens of Hell Mountain. Indy Rock is an interesting rock. Indy Rock named itself to express its love for alternative music, and it's admiration for the boulder that once almost crushed Indiana Jones, but that's not why it's interesting. Indy Rock contains a randomizing device based on a very small amount of radioactive material. Whenever this radioactive material emits a particle, an internal mechanism moves a large weight so as to give Indy Rock a hefty nudge in the same direction that the particle was emitted. If Indy Rock is sitting on an absolutely flat surface and a particle happens to be emitted to the left, the internal device will give Indy Rock a nudge so that it will start rolling to the left. There is enough radioactive material in this device for Indy Rock to be given a random nudge every few seconds.
             Our other rock character, Necessary Rock, is just a rock.
             Now let us imagine that we roll Necessary Rock down the gutter that runs along the center of all the branches of the Tunnel of Doom. Given that the gutters are set up to guide rocks all the way through the tunnel, Necessary Rock rolls safely all the way to Burbank. If we repeat this experiment one thousand times, making sure that the conditions are absolutely identical every time, Necessary Rock will reach Burbank every time. The same is not necessarily true of Indy Rock. Indy Rock moves randomly at randomly chosen instants. One of those random movements could come at exactly the right time to send Indy Rock down the wrong branch and into a side tunnel. So if Indy Rock is rolled down the tunnel one thousand times under absolutely identical conditions the chances are it will go down a side tunnel at least once.
             Indy Rock and Necessary Rock illustrate two different senses of the phrase "could do otherwise." When Necessary Rock rolls past a side passage, it could do otherwise in the sense that, if some internal mechanism had made Necessary Rock move towards the side passage, nothing would have stopped it from rolling down that passage. However, there is another sense of the phrase "could do otherwise" in which it is fair to say that Necessary Rock could not do otherwise. Necessary Rock is entirely governed by the deterministic laws of physics. When Necessary Rock rolls past a side passage, there is nothing in Necessary Rock that could possibly make Necessary Rock turn towards the side passage, so no matter how many times we repeat the experiment, Necessary Rock will never roll into the side passage.
             To make the difference a bit more clear, imagine that a super villain (called Lucifer de Morte) and a heroine (Viola Virtuous) are watching Necessary Rock roll down the Tunnel of Doom on closed-circuit TV.
             The first time it happens, Viola asks "could Necessary Rock roll down a side passage?"
             Lucifer de Morte replies "well, nothing would stop it if it headed that way."
             "That's not what I meant," says Viola. "I meant, could it happen that Necessary Rock rolls down a side passage?"
             Lucifer de Morte thinks for a moment, and then replies "well, if I built this thing right, that won't happen."
             They watch Necessary Rock roll all the way to Burbank, and wait for everything to be reset to exactly the way it was before.
             Viola asks "so, could Necessary Rock roll down a side passage this time?"
             "No," replies Lucifer de Morte, "it's a deterministic system, its behavior is known, everything is exactly as it was before, so everything will come out exactly as it did before."
             There are two senses of the word "could" that are relevant here. The first "could if it wanted to" or "could if it went that direction" sense of "could" refers to external constraints on movement. There is nothing there that would stop Necessary Rock from rolling down a side passage if Necessary Rock went in that direction, so Necessary Rock could roll down a side passage in this sense. The second sense of "could" refers to internal processes of generating actions. Because Necessary Rock is a deterministic system controlled entirely by deterministic laws, and the situation is such that at every turn the conditions existing at that point will determine that Necessary Rock will go down the main tunnel, there is no part of the ensemble of causal conditions controlling Necessary Rock's behavior that will ever make Necessary Rock turn towards a side passage. Necessary Rock could turn down the side passage in the conditional sense of "could if it went that way" but not in the unconditional sense of "it could happen that it went that way."
             After an extremely boring morning of watching Necessary Rock do absolutely the same thing one thousand times, Lucifer de Morte and Viola have lunch. Then they watch the experiment repeated with Indy Rock.
             Lucifer de Morte points out that not only is it still true that Indy Rock could go down a side passage because there is still nothing to stop it doing so, but it is also true that Indy Rock could go down a side passage in the sense that it could happen that the randomizing device inside Indy Rock moves in the wrong direction at the right moment. And indeed, the first time they do the experiment, Indy Rock wobbles at the wrong moment, and ends up falling into the Giant Drawer Of Carelessly Stored Sharp Objects, making a most unpleasant noise.
             "Ouch," says Lucifer de Morte.
             "Oh dear," says Viola.
             Behind them, the villain's henchmen begin making bets on what Indy Rock will do next time.
             After a while, villain and Viola leave the henchmen to their increasingly boisterous gambling, and go for a walk. After a very nice dinner, dessert, a movie and two bottles of wine they have an awkward bedtime conversation and retire to separate rooms. The next morning, their excellent breakfast on the terrace is interrupted by a handsome man with a jet pack who announces that he is Lance Liberty, here to rescue Viola.
             "Well don't," says Viola. "I'm on a date."
             "A date?" exclaims Lance, sitting down to nibble on some toast.
             "Yes, a date," replies Viola. "It's not as interesting as I thought it would be, but I'm not ready to pull the plug yet."
             "That reminds me," says the villain. "It's time to continue our experiments.............. with human subjects!"
             A henchman at a nearby organ plays an ominous chord, and they all go down to the closed-circuit TV room.
             After showing Lance Liberty edited highlights of the previous day's events, they began the experiment again with Destiny Determined. The villain explains that this is not the real Destiny Determined, who unfortunately escaped while they were having breakfast, but one of one thousand exact copies of her who were made in the villain's super laboratory.
             After ignoring the ethical implications of this statement, the three of them watch the first Destiny being activated. The first Destiny Determined finds herself at the mouth of the Tunnel of Doom and starts creeping quietly in the direction of freedom. Then she notices the stand with the guidebooks and goes back to get one. While she is flipping through the guidebooks looking for a map, a henchman arrives with a coffee stall, and begins setting up. Destiny feels like a latte, so she waits. (The real Destiny escaped too early to get coffee, so she was somewhat lethargic when she finally reached Burbank.) After exchanging a few pleasant words with the henchbarista, Destiny starts down the Tunnel of Doom. Sipping her latte as she consults her map, Destiny easily avoids all the wrong turns, dodges the two rocks sent after her, and arrives in Burbank in time for lunch at the Buchanan.
             At that point, Lucifer de Morte sets everything in the Tunnel of Doom back to exactly where it was before, sets up the second identical Destiny Determined, and starts off the whole thing again exactly as before. The second Destiny starts down the tunnel, notices the guidebooks, goes back and gets one, sees the henchmen arriving with the coffee stall, waits for her latte, chats with the henchbarista, dodges the two rocks, and escapes in exactly the same way as the first Destiny, except that when she gets to the Buchanan, the bartender says "weren't you just in here?"
             After six identical Destiny Determineds have all escaped in exactly the same way, Lance asks Lucifer de Morte what is going on. The villain explains that Destiny's brain is deterministic so, given that she and the whole situation are exactly the same every time, she will do exactly the same things absolutely every time.
             After seeing the seventh Destiny being set up in exactly the same way as the previous six, Lance asks "could Destiny Seven go down one of the wrong passages."
             "Well, nothing would stop her if she tried."
             "That's not quite what I asked." Lance says carefully. "I asked, could it happen that she goes down one of the wrong passages?"
             "No," replies Lucifer de Morte. "Not if she and everything else are set up in exactly the same way they were before."
             "Then she does not have free will," says Lance. "She does not have free will because she can not do otherwise than she does to. And the first Destiny did not have free will either, because she could not have done other than she did."
             "I just told you that she could," the villain put in smoothly. "If she had decided to go down one of the perilous side passages, nothing would have stopped her."
             "That's a big 'if'," Lance replies triumphantly. "You know that she would not go down a side passage, so it can't be true that she could have gone down a side passage."
             "If....... "
             "No ifs!"
             "Look," says Lucifer de Morte irritably, "I don't think 'would not' means the same as 'could not.'"
             "Doesn't matter," replies Lance. "If it could not happen that Destiny Seven takes a wrong turn, then it follows that she could not take a wrong turn, and if she could not take a wrong turn, then she doesn't take the right turns of her own free will."
             "I think there's a difference between 'it could not happen' and 'she could not.'" Lucifer de Morte tried to look menacing, but failed.
             "Look, look, look!" Viola interjects suddenly. "I work in a bank. When a bank robber pointed a death ray at me and I handed over the money, the courts said that I was not an accomplice to the robbery because the threat of death meant that I could not do otherwise."
             "Right," says Lance. "Hey, is that how you two met?"
             "But when my coworker Laura Larcenous smuggled money out in her handbag, the court said she acted of her own free will because she could have done otherwise if she had wanted to do so."
             "Well the court was wrong," replies Lance. "They ought to have asked if she could have done otherwise whether she had wanted to or not."
             Ignoring issues of time and space and seating capacity in the Buchanan, this conversation took long enough for all one thousand Destiny Determineds to escape in exactly the same way. And so it was time to start again with Randy Random.
             The original Randy Random had of course escaped already. For dramaturgical reasons, he found his way to the closed-circuit TV room. They made room for him, and sent out for lunch.
             Again ignoring ethical issues, they watched the first Randy Random being set up. While they were doing so, the original Randy jerked spasmodically and spilled coffee on Lance.
             The escape of the first copy of Randy Random did not go well. At a crucial juncture, he had a random impulse that sent him up the side passage leading to the carnivorous hamsters. This would not have mattered, except that when he got to the safety railing around the hamster pit, he had another random impulse and did a swan dive into the pit. The result was not pretty.
             The original Randy was very sad to see a copy of himself die in such a ridiculously horrible fashion, and moodily ate a cucumber sandwich, pausing only to spit a half-chewed wad of sandwich up at the ceiling.
             The escapes of the other Randys generally went better. There were an awful lot of random impulses of course, but most of them were harmless, resulting in nothing more dangerous than bumping into the wall. Sometimes an impulse would send Randy up the wrong passage, but usually, once the impulse had passed, the Randy would realize he had gone wrong, and backtrack. Still, some of the impulses, like doing a little dance instead of trying to dodge a rock, were dangerous, and enough copies of Randy Random died to make the original Randy extremely unhappy.
             "I don't know why I'm so impulsive!" He complained, dropping a sugar cookie down the back of Viola's blouse. "It ruins my life."
             "Oh," said Lucifer de Morte. "I know why. My colleague Dr. Annoying fitted all your neurons with randomizing devices. I thought you knew."
             "No," replied Randy Random, carefully and deliberately inserting a cheese straw in Lucifer de Morte's nose. "I didn't know."
             "Well," replied Lucifer de Morte, "let me inject you with these nanobots programmed to remove the radioactive material from the randomizing devices, thus rendering your neurons deterministic again."
             "Will there be any side effects?"
             "Well, your urine will glow in the dark for a couple of days, but that's about it."
             "Don't let him do it!" Cried Lance Liberty. "It will take away your free will! Look at that copy of you being set up down there. That copy could go into the Place Where Large Heavy Objects Fall on You for No Apparent Reason or into the Gift Shop of Ultimate Despair, so if he makes it to Burbank, it will be true that he could have done otherwise than he did, so every decision he did make will have been of his own free will."
             "You know Lance," said our Viola thoughtfully, "this Indeterminism Detector that I have here tells me that your brain, Lance, is completely deterministic. There is no indeterminism in your brain. So, if you want free will, we can take the randomizing devices out of Randy's neurons and put them in yours. Would you like us to do that?"
             "Um, let me think about it."

What do you think Lance should do?

If you're interested, I noodle about with a different slant on free will in The Tale of Bubbles McKenzie

Copyright © 2011 by Martin C. Young

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