10 May 2014

Katie's choice

Approaching after an evening lecture... She was very slim. Maybe painfully slim, with rather sharp features that were often obscured by her long mousey hair. But she was quite pretty in an awkward, ungainly, almost ugly sort of way. A big-lipped mouth, but her eyes seemed dull. She was about to talk to me and I was struggling to remember her name. Oh... Katie.* Not Katherine. I was going to say Katherine. Having begun simply to explain and apologise for her poor attendance, she had then chosen to tell me about her problems. And eventually she smiled, rather weakly, and said, ‘It’s my boyfriend. He’s a drunk. He keeps hurting me. He's a lot older than me. It's frightening.’


‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘I'm just finding things a struggle.’ And her voice trembled and, oh no… She started to cry. Nothing dramatic. Just a little tear welling up in one eye and rolling down her cheek.

Another one, I thought, with an inward sigh, for this does happen from time to time to a much older sympathetic person, as I try to be, when teaching young adults... My thoughts then continued with stern instructions to myself: Listen, but stand back. Keep a distance. Don’t get involved.

But within minutes there she was, pouring out all her troubles in full flow. So distressed that she had to sit down, occasionally resting her head in both hands. So I sat beside her, although choosing to leave an empty chair between us, and she was sobbing so much that a colleague came through and asked, ‘You all right in here?’ talking to me, not her. To which I nodded, but rolled my eyes, as he stood looking at Katie for a moment then went away. Not wanting to get involved.

And she carried on. Katie to me now. I would not forget her name again. And she carried on, for about twenty minutes, about the boyfriend who hit her, but who she wouldn't leave. And then also about the drug addiction of her own that she had apparently conquered. This was a woman of barely twenty years old, I reckoned, but her experience of drugs was sufficiently advanced for her to be talking of a past problem supposedly conquered. And after a while she ended up just sobbing, but more quietly. Not talking any more, other than to say ‘Shit... Oh shit,’ occasionally, in between wiping at her eyes.

I heard my internal warning: Don’t get involved. Keep your distance. And yet there I was soon saying, ‘You really need to leave him, don’t you think?’

‘I have nowhere to go.’

‘You’ve just got to get a flat or something.’

‘I’ve not got any money.’

‘How about your family. Could nobody help you?’


‘What about the police?’

‘Don't be stupid.’

And eventually I was saying, ‘You’ve got to work something out here Katie. I am sure you can. But you have got to get out of that situation.’

But she said, ‘I’ve got no choice.’

‘There’s always a choice,’ I said, although I felt like I was talking rubbish. Just saying what I thought would sound right, and would get her out of my room because we were by then all alone on a dark night in what was an almost deserted building, with probably nobody around but a caretaker checking the rooms.

So I escorted her out, and to the roadway, and we parted.

But Katie's choice?

The nub... The issue... is the old well-worn but oft-ignored one of whether or not we ever have a choice about anything, really. If we are, essentially, conscious chemical systems, how can we be free? If we are sustained by physics and chemistry, where is the scope for choice? Where is the scope for freedom? What would be true freedom? It would surely have to be the ability to make something happen that was not going to happen anyway. Is there any scope in our current view of physico-chemistry for such a possibility? It appears not. Any ‘decisions’ of the brain that are founded on chemical events will be a result of either determinism or chance or some mixture of the two, as all chemistry is.

Chemistry is not free, and if we are the result of chemistry, then we cannot be free, at least not in the sense of being able to make something happen that was not going to happen anyway. When we feel that we have made a decision, what we probably mean is that the automatic chemistry of our brain has caused a pattern of neuronal activity that makes us feel clear about what we 'want' to do. But why do we want to do it? Is it merely because the vagaries of chemical change have made us want to?

It has been suggested that the indeterminism of quantum mechanics offers scope for freedom, using arguments that, in general, suggest our freedom may be exercised when we, meaning our brains, (somehow...) make a quantum mechanical system collapse into one of its available options. But how free would a decision made that way really be, on the basis of our current understanding of the operation of the brain? Our current understanding tells us that everything that happens in the brain is the result of chemical change. So the mechanism making the choice, enforcing upon some electrons which way to jump, or something like that, would itself be a chemical mechanism governed either by chance, statistical determinism, or some mixture of the two. Such a mechanism cannot offer any hope of freedom, for it is not free itself.

So if by ‘free’ we mean free to do what the chemistry of our brain makes us want to do, then yes, we can have freedom; but it is a freedom merely to be enslaved by decisions made by chemistry. If by ‘free’, we mean free to make something happen that would not otherwise have happened, then we know of no physical process that could give us such power. So we have no evidence to suggest that we can possibly be truly free.

That does not to imply that we are necessarily robotic slaves to blind chemistry, but simply that what we have discovered about ourselves so far reveals no possible way for us to be free in the manner that we generally consider ourselves to be. When we sit down to make a decision, what scientific analysis surely suggests we are doing is just giving the physics and chemistry of the brain the time to settle into whatever pattern of activity some mixture of statistical determinism and chance cause it to attain.

This is a bleak view. It questions the very notion of personal responsibility. How can we be held responsible for what chemistry makes us do? It may be a false view. Consciousness and decision-making may arise from a completely different and unknown realm altogether, but the scientific method has revealed no way in which we can possibly be truly free. Not me, Katie, her boyfriend with his swinging fists, or anybody.

But, whether or not we could ever do anything any differently from how we do, we blunder on, assuming  that we do have some real control.

And fairly soon Katie chose (or did she?) to depart from her education, but I saw her again some months later walking in town and I just asked, 'How are things?'

'Better,' she said, 'Much better.'

And I wondered why.

Really... Why? And how? Any could she ever have been otherwise at all?

She probably could have, I do expect, deep down, but I don't know how. Nobody does.

 *Not her real name actually, but close enough for the purposes of this post

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