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PART III - Homo Sapiens Loses Control

Can humans go on running the world and giving it meaning?

How do biotechnology and artificial intelligence threaten humanism?

Who might inherit humankind, and what new religion might replace humanism?

8 - The Time Bomb in the Laboratory

In 2016 the world is dominated by the liberal package of individualism, human rights, democracy and the free market. Yet twenty-first-century science is undermining the foundations of the liberal order. Because science does not deal with questions of value, it cannot determine whether liberals are right in valuing liberty more than equality, or in valuing the individual more than the collective. However, like every other religion, liberalism too is based on what it believes to be factual statements, in addition to abstract ethical judgements. And these factual statements just don’t stand up to rigorous scientific scrutiny.

Liberals value individual liberty so much because they believe that humans have free will. According to liberalism, the decisions of voters and customers are neither deterministic nor random. People are of course influenced by external forces and chance events, but at the end of the day each of us can wave the magic wand of freedom and decide things for ourselves. This is the reason liberalism gives so much importance to voters and customers, and instructs us to follow our heart and do what feels good. It is our free will that imbues the universe with meaning, and since no outsider can know how you really feel or predict your choices for sure, you shouldn’t trust any Big Brother to look after your interests and desires.

Attributing free will to humans is not an ethical judgement – it purports to be a factual description of the world. Although this so-called factual description might have made sense back in the days of Locke, Rousseau and Thomas Jefferson, it does not sit well with the latest findings of the life sciences. The contradiction between free will and contemporary science is the elephant in the laboratory, whom many prefer not to see as they peer into their microscopes and fMRI scanners.

In the eighteenth century Homo sapiens was like a mysterious black box, whose inner workings were beyond our grasp. Hence when scholars asked why a man drew a knife and stabbed another to death, an acceptable answer said: ‘Because he chose to. He used his free will to choose murder, which is why he is fully responsible for his crime.’ Over the last century, as scientists opened up the Sapiens black box, they discovered there neither soul, nor free will, nor ‘self’ – but only genes, hormones and neurons that obey the same physical and chemical laws governing the rest of reality. Today, when scholars ask why a man drew a knife and stabbed someone death, answering ‘Because he chose to’ doesn’t cut the mustard. Instead, geneticists and brain scientists provide a much more detailed answer: ‘He did it due to such-and-such electrochemical processes in the brain, which were shaped by a particular genetic make-up, which reflect ancient evolutionary pressures coupled with chance mutations.’ The electrochemical brain processes that result in murder are either deterministic or random or a combination of both – but they are never free. For example, when a neuron fires an electric charge, this may either be a deterministic reaction to external stimuli, or it might be the outcome of a random event such as the spontaneous decomposition of a radioactive atom. Neither option leaves any room for free will. Decisions reached through a chain reaction of biochemical events, each determined by a previous event, are certainly not free. Decisions resulting from random subatomic accidents aren’t free either. They are just random. And when random accidents combine with deterministic processes, we get probabilistic outcomes, but this too doesn’t amount to freedom.

Suppose we build a robot whose central processing unit is linked to a radioactive lump of uranium. When choosing between two options – say, press the right button or the left button – the robot counts the number of uranium atoms that decayed during the previous minute. If the number is even – it presses the right button. If the number is odd – the left button. We can never be certain about the actions of such a robot. But nobody would call this contraption ‘free’, and we wouldn’t dream of allowing it to vote in democratic elections or holding it legally responsible for its actions.

To the best of our scientific understanding, determinism and randomness have divided the entire cake between them, leaving not even a crumb for ‘freedom’. The sacred word ‘freedom’ turns out to be, just like ‘soul’, an empty term that carries no discernible meaning. Free will exists only in the imaginary stories we humans have invented.

The last nail in freedom’s coffin is provided by the theory of evolution. Just as evolution cannot be squared with eternal souls, neither can it swallow the idea of free will. For if humans are free, how could natural selection have shaped them? According to the theory of evolution, all the choices animals make – whether of residence, food or mates – reflect their genetic code. If, thanks to its fit genes, an animal chooses to eat a nutritious mushroom and copulate with healthy and fertile mates, these genes pass on to the next generation. If, because of unfit genes, an animal chooses poisonous mushrooms and anaemic mates, these genes become extinct. However, if an animal ‘freely’ chooses what to eat and with whom to mate, then natural selection is left with nothing to work on.

When confronted with such scientific explanations, people often brush them aside, pointing out that they feel free, and that they act according to their own wishes and decisions. This is true. Humans act according to their desires. If by ‘free will’ you mean the ability to act according to your desires – then yes, humans have free will, and so do chimpanzees, dogs and parrots. When Polly wants a cracker, Polly eats a cracker. But the million-dollar question is not whether parrots and humans can act out their inner desires – the question is whether they can choose their desires in the first place. Why does Polly want a cracker rather than a cucumber? Why do I decide to kill my annoying neighbour instead of turning the other cheek? Why do I want to buy the red car rather than the black? Why do I prefer voting for the Conservatives rather than the Labour Party? I don’t choose any of these wishes. I feel a particular wish welling up within me because this is the feeling created by the biochemical processes in my brain. These processes might be deterministic or random, but not free.

You might reply that at least in the case of major decisions such as murdering a neighbour or electing a government, my choice does not reflect a momentary feeling, but a long and reasoned contemplation of weighty arguments. However, there are many possible trains of arguments I could follow, some of which will cause me to vote Conservative, others to vote Labour, and still others to vote UKIP or just stay at home. What makes me board one train of reasoning rather than another? In the Paddington of my brain, I may be compelled to get on a particular train of reasoning by deterministic processes, or I may embark at random. But I don’t ‘freely’ choose to think those thoughts that will make me vote Conservative.

These are not just hypotheses or philosophical speculations. Today we can use brain scanners to predict people’s desires and decisions well before they are aware of them. In one kind of experiment, people are placed within a huge brain scanner, holding a switch in each hand. They are asked to press one of the two switches whenever they feel like it. Scientists observing neural activity in the brain can predict which switch the person will press well before the person actually does so, and even before the person is aware of their own intention. Neural events in the brain indicating the person’s decision begin from a few hundred milliseconds to a few seconds before the person is aware of this choice.2 The decision to press either the right or left switch certainly reflected the person’s choice. Yet it wasn’t a free choice. In fact, our belief in free will results from faulty logic. When a biochemical chain reaction makes me desire to press the right switch, I feel that I really want to press the right switch. And this is true. I really want to press it. Yet people erroneously jump to the conclusion that if I want to press it, I choose to want to. This is of course false. I don’t choose my desires. I only feel them, and act accordingly.

People nevertheless go on arguing about free will because even scientists all too often continue to use outdated theological concepts. Christian, Muslim and Jewish theologians debated for centuries the relations between the soul and the will. They assumed that every human has an internal inner essence – called the soul – which is my true self. They further maintained that this self possesses various desires, just as it possesses clothes, vehicles and houses. I allegedly choose my desires in the same way I choose my clothes, and my fate is determined according to these choices. If I choose good desires, I go to heaven. If I choose bad desires, I am sent to hell. The question then arose, how exactly do I choose my desires? Why, for example, did Eve desire to eat the forbidden fruit the snake offered her? Was this desire forced upon her? Did this desire just pop up within her by pure chance? Or did she choose it ‘freely’? If she didn’t choose it freely, why punish her for it?

However, once we accept that there is no soul, and that humans have no inner essence called ‘the self’, it no longer makes sense to ask, ‘How does the self choose its desires?’ It’s like asking a bachelor, ‘How does your wife choose her clothes?’ In reality, there is only a stream of consciousness, and desires arise and pass within this stream, but there is no permanent self who owns the desires, hence it is meaningless to ask whether I choose my desires deterministically, randomly or freely.

It may sound extremely complicated, but it is surprisingly easy to test this idea. Next time a thought pops up in your mind, stop and ask yourself: ‘Why did I think this particular thought? Did I decide a minute ago to think this thought, and only then did I think it? Or did it just arise in my mind, without my permission or instruction? If I am indeed the master of my thoughts and decisions, can I decide not to think about anything at all for the next sixty seconds?’ Just try, and see what happens.

Doubting free will is not just a philosophical exercise. It has practical implications. If organisms indeed lack free will, it implies we could manipulate and even control their desires using drugs, genetic engineering or direct brain stimulation.

If you want to see philosophy in action, pay a visit to a robo-rat laboratory. A robo-rat is a run-of-the-mill rat with a twist: scientists have implanted electrodes into the sensory and reward areas in the rat’s brain. This enables the scientists to manoeuvre the rat by remote control. After short training sessions, researchers have managed not only to make the rats turn left or right, but also to climb ladders, sniff around garbage piles, and do things that rats normally dislike, such as jumping from great heights. Armies and corporations show keen interest in the robo-rats, hoping they could prove useful in many tasks and situations. For example, robo-rats could help detect survivors trapped under collapsed buildings, locate bombs and booby traps, and map underground tunnels and caves.

Animal-welfare activists have voiced concern about the suffering such experiments inflict on the rats. Professor Sanjiv Talwar of the State University of New York, one of the leading robo-rat researchers, has dismissed these concerns, arguing that the rats actually enjoy the experiments. After all, explains Talwar, the rats ‘work for pleasure’ and when the electrodes stimulate the reward centre in their brain, ‘the rat feels Nirvana’.3

To the best of our understanding, the rat doesn’t feel that somebody else controls her, and she doesn’t feel that she is being coerced to do something against her will. When Professor Talwar presses the remote control, the rat wants to move to the left, which is why she moves to the left. When the professor presses another switch, the rat wants to climb a ladder, which is why she climbs the ladder. After all, the rat’s desires are nothing but a pattern of firing neurons. What does it matter whether the neurons are firing because they are stimulated by other neurons, or because they are stimulated by transplanted electrodes connected to Professor Talwar’s remote control? If you asked the rat about it, she might well have told you, ‘Sure I have free will! Look, I want to turn left – and I turn left. I want to climb a ladder – and I climb a ladder. Doesn’t that prove that I have free will?’ Experiments performed on Homo sapiens indicate that like rats humans too can be manipulated, and that it is possible to create or annihilate even complex feelings such as love, anger, fear and depression by stimulating the right spots in the human brain. The US military has recently initiated experiments on implanting computer chips in people’s brains, hoping to use this method to treat soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.4 In Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, doctors have pioneered a novel treatment for patients suffering from acute depression. They implant electrodes into the patient’s brain, and wire the electrodes to a minuscule computer implanted into the patient’s breast. On receiving a command from the computer, the electrodes use weak electric currents to paralyse the brain area responsible for the depression. The treatment does not always succeed, but in some cases patients reported that the feeling of dark emptiness that tormented them throughout their lives disappeared as if by magic.

One patient complained that several months after the operation, he had a relapse, and was overcome by severe depression. Upon inspection, the doctors found the source of the problem: the computer’s battery had run out of power. Once they changed the battery, the depression quickly melted away.

Due to obvious ethical restrictions, researchers implant electrodes into human brains only under special circumstances. Hence most relevant experiments on humans are conducted using non-intrusive helmet-like devices (technically known as ‘transcranial direct current stimulators’). The helmet is fitted with electrodes that attach to the scalp from outside. It produces weak electromagnetic fields and directs them towards specific brain areas, thereby stimulating or inhibiting select brain activities.

The American military experiments with such helmets in the hope of sharpening the focus and enhancing the performance of soldiers both in training sessions and on the battlefield. The main experiments are conducted in the Human Effectiveness Directorate, which is located in an Ohio air force base. Though the results are far from conclusive, and though the hype around transcranial stimulators currently runs far ahead of actual achievements, several studies have indicated that the method may indeed enhance the cognitive abilities of drone operators, air-traffic controllers, snipers and other personnel whose duties require them to remain highly attentive for extended periods.6 Sally Adee, a journalist for the New Scientist, was allowed to visit a training facility for snipers and test the effects herself. At first, she entered a battlefield simulator without wearing the transcranial helmet. Sally describes how fear swept over her as she saw twenty masked men, strapped with suicide bombs and armed with rifles, charge straight towards her. ‘For every one I manage to shoot dead,’ writes Sally, ‘three new assailants pop up from nowhere. I’m clearly not shooting fast enough, and panic and incompetence are making me continually jam my rifle.’ Luckily for her, the assailants were just video images, projected on huge screens all around her. Still, she was so disappointed with her poor performance that she felt like putting down the rifle and leaving the simulator.

Then they wired her up to the helmet. She reports feeling nothing unusual, except a slight tingle and a strange metallic taste in her mouth. Yet she began picking off the terrorists one by one, as coolly and methodically as if she were Rambo or Clint Eastwood. ‘As twenty of them run at me brandishing their guns, I calmly line up my rifle, take a moment to breathe deeply, and pick off the closest one, before tranquilly assessing my next target. In what seems like next to no time, I hear a voice call out, “Okay, that’s it.” The lights come up in the simulation room . . . In the sudden quiet amid the bodies around me, I was really expecting more assailants, and I’m a bit disappointed when the team begins to remove my electrodes. I look up and wonder if someone wound the clocks forward. Inexplicably, twenty minutes have just passed. “How many did I get?” I ask the assistant. She looks at me quizzically. “All of them.”’ The experiment changed Sally’s life. In the following days she realised she has been through a ‘near-spiritual experience . . . what defined the experience was not feeling smarter or learning faster: the thing that made the earth drop out from under my feet was that for the first time in my life, everything in my head finally shut up . . . My brain without self-doubt was a revelation. There was suddenly this incredible silence in my head . . . I hope you can sympathise with me when I tell you that the thing I wanted most acutely for the weeks following my experience was to go back and strap on those electrodes. I also started to have a lot of questions. Who was I apart from the angry bitter gnomes that populate my mind and drive me to failure because I’m too scared to try? And where did those voices come from?’7 Some of those voices repeat society’s prejudices, some echo our personal history, and some articulate our genetic legacy. All of them together, says Sally, create an invisible story that shapes our conscious decisions in ways we seldom grasp. What would happen if we could rewrite our inner monologues, or even silence them completely on occasion?8

As of 2016, transcranial stimulators are still in their infancy, and it is unclear if and when they will become a mature technology. So far they provide enhanced capabilities for only short durations, and even Sally Adee’s twenty-minute experience may be quite exceptional (or perhaps even the outcome of the notorious placebo effect). Most published studies of transcranial stimulators are based on very small samples of people operating under special circumstances, and the long-term effects and hazards are completely unknown. However, if the technology does mature, or if some other method is found to manipulate the brain’s electric patterns, what would it do to human societies and to human beings?

People may well manipulate their brain’s electric circuits not just in order to shoot terrorists, but also to achieve more mundane liberal goals. Namely, to study and work more efficiently, immerse ourselves in games and hobbies, and be able to focus on what interests us at any particular moment, be it maths or football. However, if and when such manipulations become routine, the supposedly free will of customers will become just another product we can buy. You want to master the piano but whenever practice time comes you actually prefer to watch television? No problem: just put on the helmet, install the right software, and you will be downright aching to play the piano.

You may counter-argue that the ability to silence or enhance the voices in your head will actually strengthen rather than undermine your free will. Presently, you often fail to realise your most cherished and authentic desires due to external distractions. With the help of the attention helmet and similar devices, you could more easily silence the alien voices of priests, spin doctors, advertisers and neighbours, and focus on what you want. However, as we will shortly see, the notion that you have a single self and that you could therefore distinguish your authentic desires from alien voices is just another liberal myth, debunked by the latest scientific research.

Who Are I?

Science undermines not only the liberal belief in free will, but also the belief in individualism. Liberals believe that we have a single and indivisible self. To be an individual means that I am in-dividual. Yes, my body is made up of approximately 37 trillion cells,9 and each day both my body and my mind go through countless permutations and transformations. Yet if I really pay attention and strive to get in touch with myself, I am bound to discover deep inside a single clear and authentic voice, which is my true self, and which is the source of all meaning and authority in the universe. For liberalism to make sense, I must have one – and only one – true self, for if I had more than one authentic voice, how would I know which voice to heed in the polling station, in the supermarket and in the marriage market?

However, over the last few decades the life sciences have reached the conclusion that this liberal story is pure mythology. The single authentic self is as real as the eternal Christian soul, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. If you look really deep within yourself, the seeming unity that we take for granted dissolves into a cacophony of conflicting voices, none of which is ‘my true self’. Humans aren’t individuals. They are ‘dividuals’.

The human brain is composed of two hemispheres, connected to each other through a thick neural cable. Each hemisphere controls the opposite side of the body. The right hemisphere controls the left side of the body, receives data from the left-hand field of vision and is responsible for moving the left arm and leg, and vice versa. This is why people who have had a stroke in their right hemisphere sometimes ignore the left side of their body (combing only the right side of their hair, or eating only the food placed on the right side of their plate).10 There are also emotional and cognitive differences between the two hemispheres, though the division is far from clear-cut. Most cognitive activities involve both hemispheres, but not to the same degree. For example, in most cases the left hemisphere plays a more important role in speech and in logical reasoning, whereas the right hemisphere is more dominant in processing spatial information.

Many breakthroughs in understanding the relations between the two hemispheres were based on the study of epilepsy patients. In severe cases of epilepsy, electrical storms begin in one part of the brain but quickly spread to other parts, causing a very acute seizure. During such seizures patients lose control of their body, and frequent seizures consequently prevent patients from holding a job or leading a normal lifestyle. In the mid-twentieth century, when all other treatments failed, doctors alleviated the problem by cutting the thick neural cable connecting the two hemispheres, so that electrical storms beginning in one hemisphere could not spill over to the other. For brain scientists these patients were a gold-mine of astounding data.

Some of the most notable studies on these split-brain patients were conducted by Professor Roger Wolcott Sperry, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his groundbreaking discoveries, and by his student, Professor Michael S. Gazzaniga. One study was conducted on a teenaged boy. The boy was asked what he would like to do when he grew up. The boy answered that he wanted to be a draughtsman. This answer was provided by the left hemisphere, which plays a crucial part in logical reasoning as well as in speech. Yet the boy had another active speech centre in his right hemisphere, which could not control vocal language, but could spell words using Scrabble tiles. The researchers were keen to know what the right hemisphere would say. So they spread Scrabble tiles on the table, and then took a piece of paper and wrote on it: ‘What would you like to do when you grow up?’ They placed the paper at the edge of the boy’s left visual field. Data from the left visual field is processed in the right hemisphere. Since the right hemisphere could not use vocal language, the boy said nothing. But his left hand began moving rapidly across the table, collecting tiles from here and there. It spelled out: ‘automobile race’. Spooky.11 Equally eerie behaviour was displayed by patient WJ, a Second World War veteran. WJ’s hands were each controlled by a different hemisphere. Since the two hemispheres were out of touch with one another, it sometimes happened that his right hand would reach out to open a door, and then his left hand would intervene and try to slam the door shut.

In another experiment, Gazzaniga and his team flashed a picture of a chicken claw to the left-half brain – the side responsible for speech – and simultaneously flashed a picture of a snowy landscape to the right brain. When asked what they saw, patients invariably answered ‘a chicken claw’. Gazzaniga then presented one patient, PS, with a series of picture cards and asked him to point to the one that best matched what he had seen. The patient’s right hand (controlled by his left brain) pointed to a picture of a chicken, but simultaneously his left hand shot out and pointed to a snow shovel. Gazzaniga then asked PS the million-dollar question: ‘Why did you point both to the chicken and to the shovel?’ PS replied, ‘Oh, the chicken claw goes with the chicken, and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.’12 What happened here? The left brain, which controls speech, had no data about the snow scene, and therefore did not really know why the left hand pointed to the shovel. So it just invented something credible. After repeating this experiment many times, Gazzaniga concluded that the left hemisphere of the brain is the seat not only of our verbal abilities, but also of an internal interpreter that constantly tries to make sense of our life, using partial clues in order to concoct plausible stories.

In another experiment, the non-verbal right hemisphere was shown a @@@ographic image. The patient reacted by blushing and giggling. ‘What did you see?’ asked the mischievous researchers. ‘Nothing, just a flash of light,’ said the left hemisphere, and the patient immediately giggled again, covering her mouth with her hand. ‘Why are you laughing then?’ they insisted. The bewildered left-hemisphere interpreter – struggling for some rational explanation – replied that one of the machines in the room looked very funny.13

It’s as if the CIA conducts a drone strike in Pakistan, unbeknown to the US State Department. When a journalist grills State Department officials about it, they make up some plausible explanation. In reality, the spin doctors don’t have a clue why the strike was ordered, so they just invent something. A similar mechanism is employed by all human beings, not just by split-brain patients. Again and again my own private CIA does things without the approval or knowledge of my State Department, and then my State Department cooks up a story that presents me in the best possible light. Often enough, the State Department itself becomes convinced of the pure fantasies it has invented.14 Similar conclusions have been reached by behavioural economists, who want to know how people take economic decisions. Or more accurately, who takes these decisions. Who decides to buy a Toyota rather than a Mercedes, to go on holiday to Paris rather than Thailand, and to invest in South Korean treasury bonds rather than in the Shanghai stock exchange? Most experiments have indicated that there is no single self making any of these decisions. Rather, they result from a tug of war between different and often conflicting inner entities.

One groundbreaking experiment was conducted by Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics. Kahneman asked a group of volunteers to join a three-part experiment. In the ‘short’ part of the experiment, the volunteers inserted one hand into a container filled with water at 14°C for one minute, which is unpleasant, bordering on painful. After sixty seconds, they were told to take their hand out. In the ‘long’ part of the experiment, volunteers placed their other hand in another water container. The temperature there was also 14°C, but after sixty seconds, hot water was secretly added into the container, bringing the temperature up to 15°C. Thirty seconds later, they were told to pull out their hand. Some volunteers did the ‘short’ part first, while others began with the ‘long’ part. In either case, exactly seven minutes after both parts were over came the third and most important part of the experiment. The volunteers were told they must repeat one of the two parts, and it was up to them to choose which; 80 per cent preferred to repeat the ‘long’ experiment, remembering it as less painful.

The cold-water experiment is so simple, yet its implications shake the core of the liberal world view. It exposes the existence of at least two different selves within us: the experiencing self and the narrating self. The experiencing self is our moment-to-moment consciousness. For the experiencing self, it’s obvious that the ‘long’ part of the cold-water experiment was worse. First you experience water at 14°C for sixty seconds, which is every bit as bad as what you experience in the ‘short’ part, and then you must endure another thirty seconds of water at 15°C, which is not quite as bad, but still far from pleasant. For the experiencing self, it is impossible that adding a slightly unpleasant experience to a very unpleasant experience will make the entire episode more appealing.

However, the experiencing self remembers nothing. It tells no stories, and is seldom consulted when it comes to big decisions. Retrieving memories, telling stories and making big decisions are all the monopoly of a very different entity inside us: the narrating self. The narrating self is akin to Gazzaniga’s left-brain interpreter. It is forever busy spinning yarns about the past and making plans for the future. Like every journalist, poet and politician, the narrating self takes many short cuts. It doesn’t narrate everything, and usually weaves the story only from peak moments and end results. The value of the whole experience is determined by averaging peaks with ends. For example, in the short part of the cold-water experiment, the narrating self finds the average between the worst part (the water was very cold) and the last moment (the water was still very cold) and concludes that ‘the water was very cold’. The narrating self does the same thing with the long part of the experiment. It finds the average between the worst part (the water was very cold) and the last moment (the water was not so cold) and concludes that ‘the water was somewhat warmer’. Crucially, the narrating self is duration-blind, giving no importance to the differing lengths of the two parts. So when it has a choice between the two, it prefers to repeat the long part, the one in which ‘the water was somewhat warmer’.

Every time the narrating self evaluates our experiences, it discounts their duration, and adopts the ‘peak-end rule’ – it remembers only the peak moment and the end moment, and evaluates the whole experience according to their average. This has far-reaching impact on all our practical decisions. Kahneman began investigating the experiencing self and the narrating self in the early 1990s when, together with Donald Redelmeier of the University of Toronto, he studied colonoscopy patients. In colonoscopy tests, a tiny camera is inserted into the guts through the anus, in order to diagnose various bowel diseases. It is not a pleasant experience. Doctors want to know how to perform the test in the least painful way. Should they speed up the colonoscopy and cause patients more severe pain for a shorter duration, or should they work more slowly and carefully?

To answer this query, Kahneman and Redelmeier asked 154 patients to report the pain during the colonoscopy at one-minute intervals. They used a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 meant no pain at all, and 10 meant intolerable pain. After the colonoscopy was over, patients were asked to rank the test’s ‘overall pain level’, also on a scale of 0 to 10. We might have expected the overall rank to reflect the accumulation of minute-by-minute reports. The longer the colonoscopy lasted, and the more pain the patient experienced, the higher the overall pain level. But the actual results were different.

Just as in the cold-water experiment, the overall pain level neglected duration and instead reflected only the peak-end rule. One colonoscopy lasted eight minutes, at the worst moment the patient reported a level 8 pain, and in the last minute he reported a level 7 pain. After the test was over, this patient ranked his overall pain level at 7.5. Another colonoscopy lasted twenty-four minutes. This time too peak pain was level 8, but in the very last minute of the test, the patient reported a level 1 pain. This patient ranked his overall pain level only at 4.5. The fact that his colonoscopy lasted three times as long, and that he consequently suffered far more pain on aggregate, did not affect his memory at all. The narrating self doesn’t aggregate experiences – it averages them.

So what do the patients prefer: to have a short and sharp colonoscopy, or a long and careful one? There isn’t a single answer to this question, because the patient has at least two different selves, and they have different interests. If you ask the experiencing self, it will probably prefer a short colonoscopy. But if you ask the narrating self, it will vote for a long colonoscopy because it remembers only the average between the worst moment and the last moment. Indeed, from the viewpoint of the narrating self, the doctor should add a few completely superfluous minutes of dull aches at the very end of the test, because it will make the entire memory far less traumatic.15 Paediatricians know this trick well. So do vets. Many keep in their clinics jars full of treats, and hand a few to the kids (or dogs) after giving them a painful injection or an unpleasant medical examination. When the narrating self remembers the visit to the doctor, ten seconds of pleasure at the end of the visit will erase many minutes of anxiety and pain.

Evolution discovered this trick aeons before the paediatricians. Given the unbearable torments women undergo at childbirth, you might think that after going through it once, no sane woman would ever agree to do it again. However, at the end of labour and in the following days the hormonal system secretes cortisol and beta-endorphins, which reduce the pain and create a feeling of relief and sometimes even of elation. Moreover, the growing love towards the baby, and the acclaim from friends, family members, religious dogmas and nationalist propaganda, conspire to turn childbirth from a terrible trauma into a positive memory.

One study conducted at the Rabin Medical Center in Tel Aviv showed that the memory of labour reflected mainly the peak and end points, while the overall duration had almost no impact at all.16 In another research project, 2,428 Swedish women were asked to recount their memories of labour two months after giving birth. Ninety per cent reported that the experience was either positive or very positive. They didn’t necessarily forget the pain – 28.5 per cent described it as the worst pain imaginable – yet it did not prevent them from evaluating the experience as positive. The narrating self goes over our experiences with a sharp pair of scissors and a thick black marker. It censors at least some moments of horror, and files in the archive a story with a happy ending.17 Most of our critical life choices – of partners, careers, residences and holidays – are taken by our narrating self. Suppose you can choose between two potential holidays. You can go to Jamestown, Virginia, and visit the historic colonial town where the first English settlement on mainland North America was founded in 1607. Alternatively, you can realise your number one dream vacation, whether it is trekking in Alaska, sunbathing in Florida or having an unbridled bacchanalia of s@x, drugs and gambling in Las Vegas. But there is a caveat: if you choose your dream vacation, then just before you board the plane home, you must take a pill which will wipe out all your memories of that vacation. What happened in Vegas will forever remain in Vegas. Which holiday would you choose? Most people would opt for colonial Jamestown, because most people give their credit card to the narrating self, which cares only about stories and has zero interest in even the most mind-blowing experiences if it cannot remember them.

Truth be told, the experiencing self and the narrating self are not completely separate entities but are closely intertwined. The narrating self uses our experiences as important (but not exclusive) raw materials for its stories. These stories, in turn, shape what the experiencing self actually feels. We experience hunger differently when we fast on Ramadan, when we fast in preparation for a medical examination, and when we don’t eat because we have no money. The different meanings ascribed to our hunger by the narrating self create very different actual experiences.

Furthermore, the experiencing self is often strong enough to sabotage the best-laid plans of the narrating self. For example, I can make a New Year resolution to start a diet and go to the gym every day. Such grand decisions are the monopoly of the narrating self. But the following week when it’s gym time, the experiencing self takes over. I don’t feel like going to the gym, and instead I order pizza, sit on the sofa and turn on the TV.

Nevertheless, most people identify with their narrating self. When they say ‘I’, they mean the story in their head, not the stream of experiences they undergo. We identify with the inner system that takes the crazy chaos of life and spins out of it seemingly logical and consistent yarns. It doesn’t matter that the plot is full of lies and lacunas, and that it is rewritten again and again, so that today’s story flatly contradicts yesterday’s; the important thing is that we always retain the feeling that we have a single unchanging identity from birth to death (and perhaps even beyond the grave). This gives rise to the questionable liberal belief that I am an individual, and that I possess a consistent and clear inner voice, which provides meaning for the entire universe.

The Meaning of Life

The narrating self is the star of Jorge Luis Borges’s story ‘A Problem’.19 The story deals with Don Quixote, the eponymous hero of Miguel Cervantes’s famous novel. Don Quixote creates for himself an imaginary world in which he is a legendary champion going forth to fight giants and save Lady Dulcinea del Toboso. In reality, Don Quixote is Alonso Quixano, an elderly country gentleman; the noble Dulcinea is an uncouth farm girl from a nearby village; and the giants are windmills. What would happen, wonders Borges, if out of his belief in these fantasies, Don Quixote attacks and kills a real person? Borges asks a fundamental question about the human condition: what happens when the yarns spun by our narrating self cause great harm to ourselves or those around us? There are three main possibilities, says Borges.

One option is that nothing much happens. Don Quixote will not be bothered at all by killing a real man. His delusions are so overpowering that he could not tell the difference between this incident and his imaginary duel with the windmill giants. Another option is that once he takes a real life, Don Quixote will be so horrified that he will be shaken out of his delusions. This is akin to a young recruit who goes to war believing that it is good to die for one’s country, only to be completely disillusioned by the realities of warfare.

And there is a third option, much more complex and profound. As long as he fought imaginary giants, Don Quixote was just play-acting, but once he actually kills somebody, he will cling to his fantasies for all he is worth, because they are the only thing giving meaning to his terrible crime. Paradoxically, the more sacrifices we make for an imaginary story, the stronger the story becomes, because we desperately want to give meaning to these sacrifices and to the suffering we have caused.

In politics this is known as the ‘Our Boys Didn’t Die in Vain’ syndrome. In 1915 Italy entered the First World War on the side of the Entente powers. Italy’s declared aim was to ‘liberate’ Trento and Trieste – two ‘Italian’ territories that the Austro-Hungarian Empire held ‘unjustly’. Italian politicians gave fiery speeches in parliament, vowing historical redress and promising a return to the glories of ancient Rome. Hundreds of thousands of Italian recruits went to the front shouting, ‘For Trento and Trieste!’ They thought it would be a walkover.

It was anything but. The Austro-Hungarian army held a strong defensive line along the Isonzo River. The Italians hurled themselves against the line in eleven gory battles, gaining a few kilometres at most, and never securing a breakthrough. In the first battle they lost 15,000 men. In the second battle they lost 40,000 men. In the third battle they lost 60,000. So it continued for more than two dreadful years until the eleventh engagement, when the Austrians finally counter-attacked, and in the Battle of Caporreto soundly defeated the Italians and pushed them back almost to the gates of Venice. The glorious adventure became a bloodbath. By the end of the war, almost 700,000 Italian soldiers were killed, and more than a million were wounded.20 After losing the first Isonzo battle, Italian politicians had two choices. They could admit their mistake and sign a peace treaty. Austria–Hungary had no claims against Italy, and would have been delighted to sign a peace treaty because it was busy fighting for survival against the much stronger Russians. Yet how could the politicians go to the parents, wives and children of 15,000 dead Italian soldiers, and tell them: ‘Sorry, there has been a mistake. We hope you don’t take it too hard, but your Giovanni died in vain, and so did your Marco.’ Alternatively they could say: ‘Giovanni and Marco were heroes! They died so that Trieste would be Italian, and we will make sure they didn’t die in vain. We will go on fighting until victory is ours!’ Not surprisingly, the politicians preferred the second option. So they fought a second battle, and lost another 40,000 men. The politicians again decided it would be best to keep on fighting, because ‘our boys didn’t die in vain’.

Yet you cannot blame only the politicians. The masses also kept supporting the war. And when after the war Italy did not get all the territories it demanded, Italian democracy placed at its head Benito Mussolini and his fascists, who promised they would gain for Italy a proper compensation for all the sacrifices it had made. While it’s hard for a politician to tell parents that their son died for no good reason, it is far more difficult for parents to say this to themselves – and it is even harder for the victims. A crippled soldier who lost his legs would rather tell himself, ‘I sacrificed myself for the glory of the eternal Italian nation!’ than ‘I lost my legs because I was stupid enough to believe self-serving politicians.’ It is much easier to live with the fantasy, because the fantasy gives meaning to the suffering.

Priests discovered this principle thousands of years ago. It underlies numerous religious ceremonies and commandments. If you want to make people believe in imaginary entities such as gods and nations, you should make them sacrifice something valuable. The more painful the sacrifice, the more convinced people are of the existence of the imaginary recipient. A poor peasant sacrificing a priceless bull to Jupiter will become convinced that Jupiter really exists, otherwise how can he excuse his stupidity? The peasant will sacrifice another bull, and another, and another, just so he won’t have to admit that all the previous bulls were wasted. For exactly the same reason, if I have sacrificed a child to the glory of the Italian nation, or my legs to the communist revolution, it’s enough to turn me into a zealous Italian nationalist or an enthusiastic communist. For if Italian national myths or communist propaganda are a lie, then I will be forced to admit that my child’s death or my own paralysis have been completely pointless. Few people have the stomach to admit such a thing.

The same logic is at work in the economic sphere too. In 1999 the government of Scotland decided to erect a new parliament building. According to the original plan, the construction was supposed to take two years and cost £40 million. In fact, it took five years and cost £400 million. Every time the contractors encountered unexpected difficulties and expenses, they went to the Scottish government and asked for more time and money. Every time this happened, the government told itself: ‘Well, we’ve already sunk £40 million into this and we’ll be completely discredited if we stop now and end up with a half-built skeleton. Let’s authorise another £40 million.’ Six months later the same thing happened, by which time the pressure to avoid ending up with an unfinished building was even greater; and six months after that the story repeated itself, and so on until the actual cost was ten times the original estimate.

Not only governments fall into this trap. Business corporations often sink millions into failed enterprises, while private individuals cling to dysfunctional marriages and dead-end jobs. For the narrating self would much prefer to go on suffering in the future, just so it won’t have to admit that our past suffering was devoid of all meaning. Eventually, if we want to come clean about past mistakes, our narrating self must invent some twist in the plot that will infuse these mistakes with meaning. For example, a pacifist war veteran may tell himself, ‘Yes, I’ve lost my legs because of a mistake. But thanks to this mistake, I understand that war is hell, and from now onwards I will dedicate my life to fight for peace. So my injury did have some positive meaning: it taught me to value peace.’

We see, then, that the self too is an imaginary story, just like nations, gods and money. Each of us has a sophisticated system that throws away most of our experiences, keeps only a few choice samples, mixes them up with bits from movies we saw, novels we read, speeches we heard, and from our own daydreams, and weaves out of all that jumble a seemingly coherent story about who I am, where I came from and where I am going. This story tells me what to love, whom to hate and what to do with myself. This story may even cause me to sacrifice my life, if that’s what the plot requires. We all have our genre. Some people live a tragedy, others inhabit a never-ending religious drama, some approach life as if it were an action film, and not a few act as if in a comedy. But in the end, they are all just stories.

What, then, is the meaning of life? Liberalism maintains that we shouldn’t expect an external entity to provide us with some readymade meaning. Rather, each individual voter, customer and viewer ought to use his or her free will in order to create meaning not just for his or her life, but for the entire universe.

The life sciences undermine liberalism, arguing that the free individual is just a fictional tale concocted by an assembly of biochemical algorithms. Every moment, the biochemical mechanisms of the brain create a flash of experience, which immediately disappears. Then more flashes appear and fade, appear and fade, in quick succession. These momentary experiences do not add up to any enduring essence. The narrating self tries to impose order on this chaos by spinning a never-ending story, in which every such experience has its place, and hence every experience has some lasting meaning. But, as convincing and tempting as it may be, this story is a fiction. Medieval crusaders believed that God and heaven provided their lives with meaning. Modern liberals believe that individual free choices provide life with meaning. They are all equally delusional.

Doubts about the existence of free will and individuals are nothing new, of course. Thinkers in India, China and Greece argued that ‘the individual self is an illusion’ more than 2,000 years ago. Yet such doubts don’t really change history unless they have a practical impact on economics, politics and day-to-day life. Humans are masters of cognitive dissonance, and we allow ourselves to believe one thing in the laboratory and an altogether different thing in the courthouse or in parliament. Just as Christianity didn’t disappear the day Darwin published On the Origin of Species, so liberalism won’t vanish just because scientists have reached the conclusion that there are no free individuals.

Indeed, even Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and the other champions of the new scientific world view refuse to abandon liberalism. After dedicating hundreds of erudite pages to deconstructing the self and the freedom of will, they perform breathtaking intellectual somersaults that miraculously land them back in the eighteenth century, as if all the amazing discoveries of evolutionary biology and brain science have absolutely no bearing on the ethical and political ideas of Locke, Rousseau and Thomas Jefferson.

However, once the heretical scientific insights are translated into everyday technology, routine activities and economic structures, it will become increasingly difficult to sustain this double-game, and we – or our heirs – will probably require a brand-new package of religious beliefs and political institutions. At the beginning of the third millennium, liberalism is threatened not by the philosophical idea that ‘there are no free individuals’ but rather by concrete technologies. We are about to face a flood of extremely useful devices, tools and structures that make no allowance for the free will of individual humans. Can democracy, the free market and human rights survive this flood?

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