The Algorithm

by Veer Gill


This short story is the result of an internal search for the true meaning and purpose of existence. It also deals with how society at large might deal with such an inquiry.

A small extract:

Even though I don't exercise it, I have that free will. I can walk into work today and hand in my resignation. I won't do it because it simply suits me to remain employed.

Basically, you go about life instinctively, but at any time you can prove you have free will by not doing what you would normally do in a situation ... and do anything else!

Stranger: I can do you one better. I have a theory that helps prove that humans don't have an ounce of free will. And it has nothing to do with religion or God!

Most of his chores for the morning are done; clearing the snow, putting away dishes, checking emails. But Ray is late getting out of home, as he usually is. Professionally, he is at a position where he can flexibly manage his time, but he is conscious of the fact that he usually reaches work at around quarter past 9 when he aims to start at 8:30.

Today is a similar day, with a similar feeling. He finds himself deliberately slowing down his morning tasks. Although this feeling is familiar, the exact reason for it is not clear. He doesn't try to bother too much as it is uncomfortable thinking about it. By now, he's grown accustomed to it, so it's easy to sweep it aside.

As he's waiting at the bus stop, Rex notices someone approaching with a cup of coffee in each hand. As the person sits beside him, Rex looks at him amusedly.

Stranger: I know, I know; these are just to keep my hands warm. Don't think I'll ever get used to this cold!

Rex: Hahaha... I take it you're not from here.

Stranger: Hell no! And hopefully, I won't be here for long. I couldn't survive here for too long.

Rex: Don't worry, I've lived here my entire life and I'm still not used to this weather.

What brings you to this part of the world?

Stranger: Ah (looking down, smiling & shaking his head)... Chaos!

Rex: Pardon me?

Stranger: (Chuckles) Chaos theory! Every action or movement in the world being a result of an infinite number of events that have happened in the past and directly or indirectly led to it.

Something like your brother's best friend recommending a sports academy to you, where you meet a girl that you develop a crush on, only to later get together with her friend, who then becomes your wife and the mother of your children. Her trajectory infuses with yours along with an infinite number of others and this can ultimately lead to you move to another country, win the lottery, die in a crash or even kill someone.

Rex: Oh jeez (laughing), the old free will debate?

What you're saying is not incorrect, but I feel that it's incomplete when it comes to explaining reality. You're not considering that at any point in time I can choose to do something different, counter-intuitive. It's highly unlikely, most people would never do that because we're all a certain type of person reacting to circumstances in our own, but predictable ways. But even though I don't exercise it, I have that free will. I can walk into work today and hand in my resignation. I won't do it because it simply suits me to remain employed.

Basically, you go about life instinctively, but at any time you can prove you have free will by not doing what you would normally do in a situation ... and do anything else!

Stranger: I can do you one better. I have a theory which helps prove that humans don't have an ounce of free will. And it has nothing to do with religion or God!

Rex: (thinking for a few seconds) Hmm... Interesting...

Stranger: (putting down his coffee to shake Rex's hand). I'm Joel by the way.

Rex: Rex (smiling, shaking his hand)

Joel: Okay, let me go back and start from what you were just saying about always having a choice in any situation.

You're saying is that it's obvious that our life and decisions are steered by our environment... by our culture, ethnicity, upbringing, family & friends, social status, incidents in our past, even our genetics... but we still have free will. We still have this power that can override all these other factors, and steer our life, if and when we choose.

Rex: Yes...

Joel: What about cases where the impact of your environment is extreme? You can actually turn to science to look into this. Phenomenon such as PTSD help us understand that events which we might not have any control over, can very strongly dictate our entire perspective on life, and sometimes even our decision whether it's worth living or not.

Do you think when people who are suffering from severe mental health issues commit suicide, they still have that choice?

Rex: Well... I don't know about that. But I'm sure you'd agree that in most cases, if not all, we can alter our decision based on our inner voice.

I...uh... I mean for example, even when all conditions point you to keep working at a job as it provides you anything material that you think you need, you can still possibly convince yourself to take that radical decision which goes against all your experience and predispositions.

Joel: My theory builds upon this understanding and takes it a step further!

What if your brain's workings, your inner voice, all your thoughts, and actions are the result of a fundamental law of the universe? It works kind of like an algorithm... or an equation. A highly complex code that's processed in your brain and drives your mental function.

Rex: ...? (confused)

Joel: Hear me out now...

Just like a piece of software, "I" am the result of a string of commands that link together in an action-to-reaction chain. This string is presumably infinitely complex. And by "I", I mean all my actions, inactions, feelings, emotions - any sort-of impact that I have on existence.

Every thought is a result of other stimuli in my life, rather than a consciously decided thing. This continuously evolves my outlook towards life and in turn, affects my next thought or action. When you really think about it, you realize the possibility that every thought you've had, every outburst, every instance where you backed down instead of standing your ground, everything left unsaid between important people, every decision made and not made, has reasons. And I say reasons because it's a long chain and not one simple, easy to explain incident. The point is that nothing about your behavior or your existence is just random.

This theory is based on the notion that people are affected by their environment, but make no mistake it goes far ahead. According to this, both of your thoughts of quitting and not quitting your job, as well as the ultimate decision you take, are not under your control, but a result of this "code".

In short, you're not making independent decisions in the chaos of the universe. You are part of this system going from cause to effect, with just having an illusion of control.

Rex: But a computer program is predictable. We all react differently in different situations!

Joel: What if the algorithm takes into account all of your past experiences & predispositions and generates the thought that you have, and even dictates the decision that you take, without you knowing. My point is, we all react differently because we have had different histories.

Your brain has billions of neurons, which form links and pathways depending upon how it's used. The links for things you do more often become stronger. It's not too different in structure from a computer processor. Even machine learning follows a similar model, with A.I. using a kind of neural network of processors to develop more effective and efficient ways to reach a goal.

What if all the thoughts you've ever had, from the weirdest taboos to the seemingly life-defining epiphanies were the result this code. I think it's not inconceivable; it doesn't even point toward a God. In fact, it lends credence to the theory that there is no God, because it simply establishes a cause and effect relationship between everything and doesn't leave the human experience to something divine.

Rex: Hmmm... interesting, but...

Joel: Just consider this as a thought experiment...

There is another universe, which has the same initial conditions as ours, the same matter and physical laws. Is it conceivable to you that there would be a planet earth and you would be born over there too? Who do you think you would be in that universe - a professional living the same life you're living now or a billionaire living in New York, or maybe a homeless person living on the streets somewhere?

You'd have the exact same life! You and I would be sitting here talking about this in that reality too, because all your external conditions and your reactions towards them would've been the same.

The algorithm takes randomness out of the equation and replaces it with chaos. In that respect, every outcome in the world is theoretically predictable; just practically impossible to do so.

Scientists say that the universe by default moves towards disorder, toward complexity, something they call entropy. I'm just saying that maybe our lives are also dictated by the same physical laws. Our lives also become more complex with time as we continue to react based on the algorithm. Our brains, being a massive network of neurons with trillions of connections, sounds like the perfect processor for such a code. I mean maybe that's what our brain works on with the other "90% of its capacity" (chuckles).

Rex: Well... our lives could also become more complex with time just because there's that much more in them, in terms of relationships, memories, dreams, ...baggage.

But what you're saying does make sense to me on some level. Sometimes I feel more of a machine than a man myself (smiling). In my honest opinion, people can be captivated by an interesting and logical idea but that's temporary. For it to truly sink in and be accepted, people will inevitably look for scientific proof. I mean if true, this idea can fundamentally change the way we see the world around us, and our place in it.

Joel: (Sigh)... you're absolutely right. I don't know how this concept can be proven in a lab; I mean it deals with your consciousness which is grossly misunderstood in and of itself. It's all intangible.

There have been some studies performed at Cornell. They don't prove this hypothesis but sort of point in the direction that we are not merely observers or independent entities just existing in the universe, but our mind or brain is directly connected to its fundamental properties like space and time. You should definitely look into them; I think they're called "feeling the future".

Rex: ...

Joel: I think the so-called enlightened people of the world, the Buddhists, etc., realize all this and that's why they just observe the passage of existence, without trying to control anything. That's it, because that's all they can do. They don't escape the algorithm. Even this realization of theirs is a result of it. They just have a concrete reason now to stop giving a shit about every little thing that we do.

Rex: ...

Joel: I think it makes it easier for us to put ourselves in others' shoes and understand that everyone has a long chain of reasons for their behavior.


So... what do you think?

..About my theory? Sorry if it came off as a bit of a rant by the way (smiling).

Rex: Yeah, it's interesting, sure. But I don't know... if a person accepts it, I'm not sure how it would impact them. Would it liberate them, or increase the already crippling feeling of not being in control of their life?

Joel: But that's not what the implica...

Rex: My bus is here. I gotta get going... can't be late for work!



Take care (walking off).

Joel: ... (confused) Sigh.

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