Ted Chiang, the author of the short story that inspired the sci-fi movie “Arrival,” has also written one of my favorite tales about free will (or our lack thereof). It’s titled “What’s Expected of Us” and it features a deceptively simple device called a Predictor: a button coupled to a green LED. The LED lights up right before you press the button, and it’s never wrong. If you do not press the button in a year, the LED will stay off just as long. But if you suddenly go for it, BAM, you’ll see the green light a fraction of a second before your fingers ever touch the maddening thing. Nobody has ever been able to fool the Predictor. Humankind concludes, with stark certainty, that free will does not exist. Many people despair and are driven to inaction: they become de facto vegetables, unable or unwilling to initiate any behavior, no matter how trivial.
With no choice, the characters in Chiang’s story seem to believe, there is no point. But what choice do we really have?
Chiang’s dystopian scenario may be closer to reality than some of us would like to believe, at least in terms of our experience of free will. Indeed, both neuroscientists and stage magicians have compelling evidence that our choices tend to be far less free that we think. Our January/February Illusions column, just out, explores the topic of illusory choice, through examples from magic forcing and research by Petter Johansson’s and Lars Hall’s “choice blindness” lab.
To learn more, check out also Petter Johansson’s TEDx presentation on choice blindness: