Free will, the writer’s muse and other balls.

Photo by Adam N.Ward

The origin of artistic inspiration has been a subject of fascination since the ancient Greeks, who wrote of nine goddesses or muses without whose benevolent gifts of insight, aspiring writers and other artists would presumably have been left creatively bereft.

Before I started writing my first novel, I’d heard authors talk of how their books sometimes seemed to write themselves, but I never really believed it. Instead I assumed it was just a false show of modesty following the laboured completion of what must actually have been a far more complex and arduous process of creation. This made the experience, when it first occurred to me, all the more remarkable.
A decade ago, with little more than a vague idea having rattled around in my head for the best part of twenty years, I finally summoned the temerity to put fingers to keyboard and, in the space of a week or so, had tapped out what would eventually become the first three chapters of Connected. Having been taught at school that this was entirely the wrong approach to serious writing, I then put this aside, and tried to draw up a proper plan for the rest of the story. For the next seven years, as my day job in IT marketing consumed most of my time and energy, another chapter and half sputtered from the tips of my weary digits before finally, I realised that the only way this book would get written would be for me to sit down, start writing and once again let the story unfold by itself. While I know that what came next originated from no other source than my own mind, the illusion of certain passages having written themselves was nevertheless an extremely potent one.

This experience, together with what I have come to understand from recent developments in neuroscience, has led me to the disturbing conclusion that “free will” – the idea that we are the conscious authors of our every thought and action – must also be an illusion. Rather than try to lay out all the arguments for this position here, I will instead direct you to Sam Harris’ short book, Free Will, which does so in the most concise and compelling way I have so far found, and to the Self Illusion, by Bruce Hood for a more thorough and comprehensive examination of the subject.
Another thing I’ve noticed which seems related to this strange illusion is the clarity of thought which can come simply from writing about something. For example, the ideas expressed in this blog post have been fermenting in my brain for a quite while now, but no matter how long I lie awake in the early hours of the morning (when I happen to do my best thinking) trying to put shape to them, it is only upon writing such things down that they assume any coherent structure. I struggled for some time searching for an apt analogy for what this feels like and the best I can come up with is the metaphor of a pool table.

The conscious focus of my mind seems to me like the path of a cue-ball on a vast frictionless pool table with a near infinite number of other balls all in motion.

The balls are analogous to my memories, preferences and predispositions, and the cue-ball’s direction at any given time is my goal or intent at that moment. Like the mediocre pool player that I am, I’m able to corral my thoughts and predict where they’ll be a few seconds into the future, but five minutes from now, there’s no telling where they might end up.

However, by committing my thoughts to paper (or PC screen) I can freeze-frame the motion of the balls just long enough for an approximate path to be mapped and charted. I can then replay the various trajectories, cutting and splicing them into a more logical sequence, finally adding that all-important narrative. This, I believe, is what provides that clarity of thought found in essay-writing.

Of course it also follows that given an infinitely powerful computer and the relative positions and velocities of all the balls of my hypothetical pool table to an infinite degree of accuracy, my cue-ball’s future trajectory could be fully determined for eternity. In reality however, as with the human mind, the complexity of such systems creates a sensitivity to initial conditions that results in chaotic behaviour defying prediction (the so-called butterfly effect).
However, like the strangely beautiful fractal graphics produced by the plotting of Mandlebrot sets, I believe it is the relative “chaos” of the inter-neuronal firings within our brains from which the illusion of the muse and its less artistic sibling, Free Will, emerges. This is where the pool table analogy collapses into a heap of baize, slate and wood on the bar-room floor, for the human mind, unlike the balls on a pool table is not constrained by side-cushions. Instead we interact with other minds and with our epigenetic environments, thereby adding orders of magnitude more complexity.

Like most people I’ve met who have come to the disconcerting conclusion that free will is an illusion, I was initially horrified by the apparent nihilistic implications, then perplexed by the mind-bending difficulty of understanding what it meant for how we live our lives, before finally coming to accept it. Although this acceptance has fundamentally changed the way I now view many things such as achievement, entitlement, culpability and retribution, I believe that in most cases it serves us well to continue acting as though we humans do in fact possess freedom of will.

Certainly, rather than crediting my muse for any future acts of literary creation, I will continue to immodestly attribute any such achievement to the chaos which is my embodied, interconnected brain.

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Author, musician, science nut, & IT marketing pro. My first novel, CONNECTED, is a mystery thriller with a touch of speculative science & philosophy.

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  1. Hi. Great blog and enjoyed the comments, I am hugely interested and absorbed by this subject and can often lose hours watching TED videos and reading articles. Thanks for getting in touch on my blog and glad to be connected. One thing that caught my attention was your comment on thinking how what you were doing was wrong because of what you were taught at school….on how many subjects can we say that about! It fascinates me how as kids we trust adults so much (even if we somehow instinctively know they are talking rubbish) that even when older and (perhaps) wiser and more knowledgable we still look back to our early days as reference points, I think we don’t learn early enough that people in power or positions of authority don’t always know best! Look forward to keeping in touch. Regards, Rob.

  2. I have found that I must think about what I’am going to write when I sit down to my computer. My first novel was published by Black Rose Writing. That being The Audubon Caper – a true crime, creative non-fiction. Now I’m writing The Three Wives of Don Quixote Smith – a fictional book. I’m writing the second the same as the first – I write without thinking of grammar, spelling, and any form. I just write the story and the characters. If I have a muse helping me, I don’t know. I just keep on going until my thought is over.

  3. @Brian – Yes, I wondered whether to include something about quantum uncertainty, but most of the scientists writing about consciousness and free will at the moment seem to think it unlikely that quantum effects could play a role at the scale of synaptic junctions, let alone neurons.
    Personally, I would find it a little more comforting if they could, since although it would be no more allowing of free will, it would at least negate the implication that every decision we have ever made since birth could have had no other outcome.

  4. Before the quantum physics revolution, scientists believed that everything was predictable – you just had to know enough about the thing being predicted and its conditions. Under this theory, if you knew the precise status of someone’s brain at an instant in time, and you knew about every last neuron and particle contained within in, you knew the exact make-up of all its connections, and you had full knowledge of its present and future stimuli, (i.e. what is going on around it in the real world) then it should be possible to predict everything it’s going to do! Of course, in practice this example is completely unrealistic – it would be impossible to know enough about every single detail of an object as complex as the brain at any precise instant in time. But in theory, if you *could* know enough about the brain, scientists thought prediction was possible. From this, they concluded that any apparent “random” behaviour only *looked* random because the observer is ignorant of some part of the object being considered. Randomness, was an illusion.
    I rather like looking at the universe in that way, but it seems that quantum physics is going to challenge that view – nature appears to be, at a fundamental level, based on completely random events! And somehow, from those random fundamentals, we are gifted with the order we see all around us. It’s completely bizarre.

    When you think about it, if the human mind is operating on principles of random action at a fundamental (quantum) level, that could explain why the thoughts that come to us appear to have no actual author! The overall tendency is towards order, but perhaps the fundamental actions of the brain simply cannot be predicted. Your next thought is probably going to be relevant to your environment, but its exact details could be the result of a superposition of probabilities. For example, I could take a decision here to tell you how to make banana and custard dessert (who decided on the banana and custard? Me??), but the actual sequence of words that will come out of my mouth, or be written down on paper, could be to a large extent unpredictable.

    When I just thought of banana and custard dessert, I was trying to think of something randomly. I haven’t been thinking about banana and custard recently, I haven’t had it since I was a kid, and so it’s rather bizarre that I came to think of it now. Where did it come from? Who was the author of it? Who is the author of these words as they flow from my brain right now and onto the keypad?

    It’s totally bizarre. I wonder if we ever will understand consciousness. If we do, I hope we make the discovery within my lifetime because this is one of the top questions (perhaps THE top question) I would like to see answered.

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