FREE WILL: A morality play disguised as bad science fiction
“The filasofs were a race of practical jokers, according to the historian Martinique,” the Persephone (or more accurately, her AI) was explaining. “They never passed up a chance to make someone look stupid. It is why they are not around any more. They made too many enemies.”
“So why are we looking for their artifacts? The Director wants a few gags he can play on the committee, in case they vote down the budget increase?” asked Captain Reader.
“The filasofs were famous for more than their twisted sense of humor,” the ship replied. “Their computers were the best in the universe. Their science was very advanced, and their biology and psychology were far more developed than that of any other civilization. That is why we are here in the middle of empty space, looking for a filasof space station that the records indicate is near here. We are to learn what we can of their science and technology. The potential rewards for human civilization are enormous.”
“Only if something more than space dust remains of their works,” Eckles scoffed. “Apparently their science was not advanced enough to keep the Klarns from annihilating them.”
“Well, they did not focus on weapons technology,” the Persephone replied. “They were more interested in psychology—both their own and that of other intelligent life. That may be why their artificial intelligence was so advanced. Their computers could crunch numbers as ours do, only much faster, yet they could also think creatively and flexibly using processes modeled after those of living brains. At least, that is the analysis of several researchers of other species who engaged in commerce with the filasofs.
“As for defense, they preferred to maneuver their opponents against each other, or create divisions within a threatening force. Their favorite trick, allegedly, was to create religious schisms. The Lukens and Imukens are considered to be the classic example.”
“I know about them,” Eckles said, “they’re both Hellcats, right? Big-eyed, saber-toothed, mean-looking suckers, yet harmless to anyone but each other. I talked to an Imuken once and she tried to explain what the fight was about. I nodded politely – I wouldn’t want to get one of those things mad at me – but I couldn’t understand the difference between the two religions.”
“Actually,” the ships AI countered, “believers include many species other than the Hellcats – or as they call themselves, the Emic. However, the religions did originate on Emie, and were once a single religion, Uke. According to filasof history, and many other sources, the Uken religion directed its followers to spread the word by force. And they were quite successful in doing so, until filasof “inquiries” and “requests for enlightenment and clarification” raised a question of interpretation of the Uken holy book. The question received multiple answers, and the Lukens (who answer it one way) and the Imukens (who answer it another way) have been battling each other ever since. Most historians believe that the filasofs intended to achieve precisely this result.”
Eckles smiled appreciatively at this account, but Torres was less impressed. “If the filasofs were such clever manipulators, how come they couldn’t get the Klarns to fight each other instead of attacking the filasofs?” he asked.
“That’s easy,” answered Eckles. “The Klarns have no religion except for a kind of group pride. Once insulted, nothing could stop them from expressing their displeasure. They’re not likely to be persuaded by words, and that is how the filasofs manipulated people, as I understand it: with words, not force. It is not as if they used telepathy to make enemies target each others ships.”
“Yes, that is basically the way historians see it,” the Persephone agreed. “Actually, the filasofs could make enemies fire on each other, by manipulating computers and viewscreens, but only at close range. The filasofs typically faced weapons of much greater range, and did not get much chance to use such technologies. The filasofs could even fool eyes and brains into seeing things where they were not, but that was at even shorter range. Ultimately, their superior technology – they actually had a slight edge in weapons technology -- failed to compensate for their inferior numbers, and, some say, inferior morale.”
“Inferior morale – you mean they ran from battle?” asked Reader. “I would be skeptical about that; winners of wars usually claim that the losers were cowards.”
“I mean that they just sat there waiting to be destroyed,” answered the ship. “However, your suspicions have merit. Given how most races felt about the filasofs, the historical accounts may be biased. The same accounts claim that the filasofs predicted their own demise. They paint a picture of the filasofs in despair, and remember, most of our galactic community views despair as being on a par with cowardice, if not worse.”
“Those weirdoes from other planets!” Eckles commented.
“Those intelligent beings from other planets,” Torres countered.
“Any more questions?” Reader asked. There were none; the briefing was over. “Okay, Eckles, I’m ready for a rematch in racquetball. Only try not to gloat so much after this game, OK?”
The next morning, before Reader could finish reviewing the long-range sensor data, Eckles was on the comm demanding a meeting. Reader slurped the rest of her lukewarm coffee, and climbed up to the bridge.
“How do you explain all these safety bulletins we had to read if the filasofs were not aggressive?” demanded Eckles. He waved his personal display unit. “X-ray radiation, quantum dislocation waves, radio pulses … it sounds like they try to give people cancer!”
“We think that’s how filasof autonomous stations gather data on incoming ships,” Reader explained. “It’s not hostile in intent; the stations broadcast warnings and suggest protective measures.”
“Some protective measures! We are supposed to reduce radiation shielding in planes parallel to our direction of travel?!”
“That’s because the scanners automatically adjust the intensity of the X-rays” said Reader, “to compensate for any interfering masses, such as shielding. Were going to take their suggestions, gentlemen. It can’t hurt us to make gestures of trust and good will. This station could easily destroy us anyway, if it is still active.”
“Thanks captain, that is so reassuring,” Eckles replied.
The discussion was rudely interrupted by the harsh chatter of Western Galactic Trade dialect, accompanied by a colorful video of a filasof on the comm screen, and of course, the ever helpful computer flashing the “incoming message” signal. “Simultaneous translation!” barked the captain. She reflected on how nice it would be to upgrade the ship’s AI.
The filasof on screen was just finishing the obligatory preamble of every Western Galactic Trade conversation when the translation kicked in. The preamble finished, the filasof (or more likely, thought Reader, a recording) paused for effect.
“You come here seeking knowledge?” the image demanded. (Duh, thought Reader, everyone came to the filasofs to get computers that would expand their research capabilities!) “You come here seeking truth?” the image continued. “I deride your truth-handling abilities! I challenge you to face the truth about yourselves! Come see your utter predictability definitively demonstrated. Come see your “free will” exposed as a sham. Come see the lie given to your deepest beliefs about yourselves!
“Here is the wager: If you can do a single thing that my computer can not predict in advance, I will give you a model 4096 computer free of charge. But if you fail, you owe one half of your fuel. Whether or not you accept the wager, as a condition of approaching within 64 WDUs of this station, you agree to undergo the scans described in the accompanying data file. If you accept the wager, signal –“
“Torres!” Reader yelled, momentarily drowning out the broadcast.
“Already on it, Captain” Torres answered.
“…If you refuse the wager,” the station continued, “you are still welcome to come and trade. Credit will be extended in emergencies only.”
The comm screen went dark; the computer fell silent.
“The data file lists scans just like those at the other filasof stations, except with a greater variety of dislocation waves,” Torres reported shortly after the incoming message ended. “Should be reasonably safe. We will get worse from the background radiation before we leave this region.”
“We got lucky with that background radiation,” replied Reader. “It’s probably the only thing that kept this station from being discovered and blasted by the genocidal Klarns. Now we have the chance of a lifetime to advance Earth science and technology.”
“Speaking of technology, I say we take the stations wager,” Eckles interjected. “Did you hear the prize?! A model 4096! The best computer in the known galaxy is a filasof model 64!”
“So what, they stick a bigger number on it and that means its better?” quipped Torres.
“Actually, it does,” the ships AI replied. “The numbering system is based on the processing power of their computers at the time the Western Galactic Trade League was formed. A computer with twice that power would be called a model 2; with quadruple the power would be called a model 4; and so on.”
Captain Reader pondered that a moment. A model 4096 would be quite a nice prize – “But what makes you think we can win it?” she asked Eckles.
“All we have to do is do something it can’t predict. How could it possibly predict everything we do? Nobody is that predictable!”
At that moment, alarms blared, and readouts flashed wildly all over the cabin. A moment later, all was quiet again. “Radiation was within promised levels,” said Torres. “Likewise for radio frequency, and for dislocation waves. Looks like we’ve been scanned.”
“Maybe that’s how it can make predictions: using the data it just gathered on us,” Reader speculated. “Filasof sensor technology is legendary. It could have a clear picture of each cell in our bodies. And look at the size of that station! It’s the size of a moon, and probably crammed full of computer hardware. If there is anything that can simulate something as complex as human behavior, it’s located right here.”
“But there’s a big difference between simulating and predicting,” Eckles objected. “A random process can be simulated, but only a fool would take the outcome of the simulation for a prediction. Same with human action, only there it’s free will instead of randomness that makes multiple outcomes possible. And since multiple outcomes are possible, free will makes prediction impossible. The only way this computer could predict our actions is if we were mere automatons ourselves.”
“Regarding this wager,” the ship warned, “the record indicates that the filasofs usually won any wagers and contests that they voluntarily undertook. They could be honest traders, but when they phrased something as a challenge rather than an exchange, they usually took advantage of someone, made the challenged look foolish, or both.”
“Eckles,” Reader replied, “it’s bad enough that we would have to buck the historical odds to win against the filasofs. But worse, you say we will win because we have free will - which sounds like just the kind of religious idea the filasofs loved to make trouble with. I don’t like it at all.”
“Okay, look at it this way,” Eckles argued. “If all our actions really are predictable and we don’t have free will, then whatever we do is inevitable. So if we take the challenge and lose, we have no cause for regret, and we can not be blamed, because our action was inevitable. But if we have free will and win, we can be proud of the accomplishment.”
The “incoming message” light lit briefly, but Reader ignored it. “I’m not concerned about regret or blame or pride, it’s the fuel that worries me. There is no way we can afford half our fuel. We are not accepting the challenge, and that’s final. Now, Torres, what did that new message say?”
“Its in English!” Torres exclaimed, looking dazed. “It says: I am sorry you will decline our wager. However, you are welcome to come and investigate our science and technology. Standard docking fees will apply.”
“How the … ?” was all that Reader could say.
No one talked much for the rest of the trip in.