How many of us have origin stories like this? Ones where some combination of nature and nurture that was completely out of our control helped define who we are today. I watched the BBC documentary Human Planet last week and saw all kinds of things I didn't know humans could know - like how to train a fig tree to grow roots across a river so they'll form a bridge for our descendants in a few hundred years, or how you can cook a tarantula to perfection because they're done when their leg joints start to hiss while roasting over the fire. I've never remotely considered actions like these because we can't learn from things we haven't experienced. But if a brain scanner could see all the synaptic connections that have been made from what I've experienced and place that information in the context of my genetic strengths and weaknesses, could a sufficiently intelligent computer program figure out how I'm likely to react to the next stimulus that comes along? Isn't that what we already do when we know ahead of time how loved ones will react to certain events? And what does all this mean for this week's thought experiment?
For the seventy-third series of Big Brother, the producers had introduced a fiendish new toy: Pierre. The show's consultant psychologist explained how it would work.
'As you know, the brain is the engine of thought and action, and the brain is entirely physical. Our understanding of the laws of physics is such that we can now accurately predict how people's brains will react - and thus how people will think - in response to events in their environment.
'On entering the Big Brother space station, a brain scanner maps the brain states of all the participants. Our supercomputer, Pierre, monitors the various stimuli the contestants are exposed to and is able then to predict what their future behaviour will be.
'Of course, all this is so fiendishly complicated that there are severe limits. That is why the technology works best in a controlled, enclosed environment such as the Big Brother space station, and also why predictions can only be made for a few moments ahead, since tiny errors in predictions soon compound themselves into large ones. But viewers will enjoy seeing the computer predict how the contestants are about to react. In a sense, we will know their minds better than they do themselves.'
Baggini, J., The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten, 2005, p. 25.
First, let me pick at two items from this scenario. 1) If anyone should know that the laws of physics aren't enough to predict the behaviour of a human being, it should be a show's psychologist. Wherever emotions are involved, every action is not met with an equal and opposite reaction. Psychological needs are capable of outweighing physical ones, to the point that even in an extreme event like being shot at by someone with a gun, we can imagine responses ranging from diving out of the way to leaning into the bullet. And both of those responses could change based on who else was in the room with us or whether we had spent the last several hours focusing on depressing events in our lives, heroic actions of martyrs, or how much we longed to see a loved one in another country. This leads to my second point about this thought experiment, that 2) "enclosed environments" like space stations aren't really controlled environments after all. With memory, imagination, and focus of attention, we can provide any stimulus we want.
Now, given all of this super-complexity of genetic makeups, lifetimes of experience to draw upon, and ever-changing body chemistry reacting to physical and mental processes, could behavioural outcomes still be predicted with any real certainty? As I said, we already do this to some extent. How often do people we know truly surprise us? It may happen from time to time, but those surprises can usually be explained once more facts are known. However, if we were to add the element of a computer (or a person) claiming to be able to perfectly predict our responses, then that fact alone would provide an additional stimulus to the actors in this scenario, which would probably change their responses. To me, this is similar to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle (at least the observer effect portion of his idea) where the act of measuring is so intrusive that it actually changes the state of affairs. We social animals often need to be unpredictable. To defeat scheming rivals or cheaters, or even just to choose long-term gains over short-term pleasures, we need to be able to override any of the emotional tugs that pull is in many different and often contradictory directions. This is why we would rebel against Pierre's predictions, perhaps even acting randomly just to prove we weren't so transparent. To a compatibilist like myself in the free will vs. determinism debate, this is the kind of freedom we have that is important for our concepts of self-determination, moral responsibility, and social justice, even if we should have sympathy for others because not everything that influences us is under our control.
The argument to find the fine line between determinism and free will is an old one one that is likely to continue for centuries more, so I don't want to rehash that all here. I'll finish instead with my favourite literary example of how the theoretical actors in this version of Bigger Brother might respond to Pierre's observations. This comes from a passage by Doesteyevsky written way back in 1864 in his short novella Notes from Underground.
"…you say, science itself will teach man that he never had any caprice or will of his own, and that he himself is something of the nature of a piano key or the stop of an organ, and that there are, besides, things called the laws of nature; so that everything he does is not done by his willing it, but is done of itself, by the laws of nature. Consequently we have only to discover these laws of nature, and man will no longer have to answer for his actions and life will become exceedingly easy for him. All human actions will then, of course, be tabulated according to these laws, mathematically, like tables of logarithms up to 180,000, and entered in an index; or better still, there would be published certain edifying works of the nature of encyclopaedic lexicons, in which everything will be so clearly calculated and explained that there will be no more incidents or adventures in the world.
Then - this is all what you say - new economic relations will be established, all ready made and worked out with mathematical exactitude, so that every possible question will vanish in the twinkling of an eye, simply because every possible answer to it will be provided. Then the "Palace of Crystal" will be built. Then...in fact, those will be halcyon days. Of course there is no guaranteeing (this is my comment) that it will not be, for instance, frightfully dull (for what will one have to do when everything will be calculated and tabulated), but on the other hand everything will be extraordinarily rational. Of course boredom may lead you to anything. It is boredom that sets one sticking golden pins into people, but that would not matter. What is bad (this is my comment again) is that I dare say people will be thankful for the golden pins in them. Man is stupid, you know, phenomenally stupid; or rather he is not at all stupid, but he is so ungrateful that you could not find another like him in all creation. I, for instance, would not be in the least surprised if all of a sudden, a propos of nothing, in the midst of general prosperity a gentleman with ignoble, or rather with a reactionary and ironical countenance were to arise and, putting his arms akimbo, say to us all: "I say, gentlemen, hadn't we better kick over the whole show and scatter rationalism to the winds, simply to send these logarithms to the devil, and to enable us to live once more at our own sweet foolish will!" That again would not matter, but what is annoying is that he would be sure to find followers - such is the nature of man. And all of that for the most foolish reason, which, one would think, was hardly worth mentioning: that is, that man everywhere and at all times, whoever he may be, has preferred to act as he chose and not in the least as his reason and advantage dictated. And one may choose what is contrary to one's own interest, and sometimes one positively ought (that is my idea). One's own free unfettered choice, one's own caprice, however wild it may be, one's own fancy worked up at times to frenzy - is that very "most advantageous advantage" which we have overlooked, which comes under no classification and against which all systems and theories are continuously being shattered to atoms. And how do these wiseacres know that man wants a normal, a virtuous choice? What has made them conceive that man must want a rationally advantageous choice? What man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead. And choice, of course, the devil only knows what choice."
What do you think? Is that pretty much what you thought I'd say about this experiment? Am I becoming too predictable?