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Short Story

Born Free

Trevor Emmott reports on a future project to create perfect freedom.

The First of January in the year 5000 is a public holiday on Earth and the colonized planets. Everywhere the millennium celebrations are in full swing. There are of course the usual debates about whether this day really does mark the start of a new millennium or whether there is another year to wait. Apart from that, the main talking point is Charlie.

For today Charlie is to be ‘born’. That is hardly the right word for a being created entirely in the laboratory by genetic engineering, but the term has caught on with the media. At the Research Institute, they prefer to talk of ‘activation’ – and the process is about to start.

With great dignity, the fully-formed body is wheeled from the cold store and electrodes are fixed to the head. The scene is reminiscent of the early twentieth century Frankenstein films (still often shown on television). But this is no subnormal monstrosity. On the contrary, the mind will be superhuman – with lightning-fast thought processes, infallible reasoning capacity and a memory already stored with knowledge of every subject.

Such a genius is expected to make rapid advances in all the arts and sciences. Commercial sponsors have even met the astronomical cost of the project in return for rights to market the creative output.

Producing this astonishing intellect is not however the main aim of the experiment. The ultimate objective is philosophical – and the research team consists of both scientists and philosophers. They have been working together to design an individual with perfect freedom of will.

This was all explained in the celebrated report which foreshadowed the project. It was called Creating Human Autonomy by Rational Limitation of Instinct and Emotion (and that title is now displayed on the laboratory wall, with the initials spelling out the name CHARLIE).

The report argued that the deficiencies of the human will are due to failures of reason. One common kind of irrationality occurs when we act on instinct. Instead of reaching fully conscious decisions informed by well-founded beliefs, we behave impulsively. The risk is greatest when we have to make quick judgements about people – for example, when recruiting staff – and can easily lead to unfair treatment.

The other main obstacle to freedom is allowing ourselves to be overcome by some powerful emotion. For example, we give way to sudden anger and utter an insult that we regret moments later. We may eventually become ashamed of such a tendency to angry outbursts and strive to eradicate it. Even if we succeed, it is only because we are driven by the feeling of shame. So we always remain at the mercy of one emotion or another.

Instinct and emotion, the report concluded, must be made totally subject to reason. ‘Rational limitation’ was the report’s name for a psychological process designed to do just that. Any contemplated action is to be suspended while the motives are investigated. All factors influencing the decision, whether conscious or unconscious, will be precisely identified, thoroughly analyzed and examined for consistency and rationality. The action will go ahead only if it is judged to be entirely reasonable.

For any normal person, this would be an impossibly lengthy and laborious procedure. However, Charlie’s superior mind will complete the whole process perfectly in a fraction of a second, thereby guaranteeing absolute freedom of every action.

In the laboratory, the excitement is now intense. Technicians peering at computer screens soon confirm the presence of breathing and heartbeat and – most crucial of all – furious brain activity. The scientists in the team dance joyfully around the room, while the more introverted philosophers politely congratulate each other.

The jubilation is short-lived. There is not the slightest external sign of life. After an hour there has still been no movement, no speech – not even the flicker of an eyelid.

An emergency meeting is called and the chief scientist tries to reassure the team. “I don’t think we’ve failed. Charlie obviously means to impress us and is working away on a creative project of such magnitude that, even for a superhuman being, the task will take some time to complete. Charlie’s silence is the measure of our success.” One of the philosophers responds. “I agree we have succeeded, but not as you suggest. I believe Charlie shares the view held by many mystics over the ages – that true freedom is to be found in a life of quiet contemplation. The evidence is Charlie’s silence, which will never be broken. I therefore propose we slightly amend the project title to: Creating Human Autonomy by a Reflective Life of Introspective Experience.”

This idea receives much support, though it alarms the Institute’s accountant, who is growing increasingly anxious about the obligations to the commercial sponsors. Then comes a voice from the back of the room. It belongs to a wild-eyed, dishevelled character – the team’s most eccentric member, nicknamed ‘the Sceptic’.

“We have succeeded,” shouts the Sceptic, “in creating a tailor’s dummy. Charlie is designed to act only when motivated by reason. But actions arise from desires, not reason. Actions can’t be called rational at all unless they serve as means to some end. For example, seeking a good job is rational if you wish to make provision for your family. However, that desire to provide for your family is neither rational nor irrational. It is not a means to a further end but an end in itself. It is simply one of our deepest and most compelling desires. Such desires which are beyond rational justification are the very basis of human action.”

The Sceptic waves a dog-eared book. “David Hume made this point in the eighteenth century, when he wrote that reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions. Haven’t I been saying the same for thirty years? In ruling out motivation by these basic desires, we have rendered all action impossible. Charlie’s silence proves only that you should have read Hume – and listened to me.”

The chief scientist speaks again. “Even if you are right, it’s not disastrous. We expected to make minor adjustments after activation. That’s why we inserted a microchip in the brain. Charlie can easily be reprogrammed by remote control. We’ll simply choose a few basic desires which are to be immune from the requirements about rationality.”

Team members start offering suggestions. “What about a desire to compose music?” asks one. “After all, great composers are born musicians. They don’t choose their passion for music and can never be rid of it. But they never see themselves as lacking freedom. Their inborn talent is not some enfeebling handicap, but a liberating gift.”

The accountant eagerly agrees that they should give Charlie an irresistible urge to compose, adding that a few new symphonies a week would clear their debts within a year.

“The tailor’s dummy would become a ventriloquist’s doll!” laughs the Sceptic. “There would be speech and movement – but just the illusion of freedom. We would be creating not autonomy but an automaton. Charlie would be forced to act in accordance with desires which we had selected and implanted. So those actions would be dictated by the ordinary human will. Charlie’s freedom could be no more perfect than our own. But our whole aim was to create greater freedom than we ourselves can ever enjoy.”

The Sceptic refuses to be interrupted. “In fact, Charlie’s position would be worse than our own. The unchosen, uncontrollable and unchangeable compulsion to write music would have been imposed by us. Charlie would be fully aware of our intervention. That would feel like constraint, even if our reasons were purely philosophical.”

With a contemptuous glance at the accountant, the Sceptic continues. “But what if we clearly had some less idealistic motive – perhaps even to make money? Charlie’s sense of freedom would be inferior to that of the most miserable human slave who ever lived.”

No one agrees and over the following months the argument rages on. The media accuse the Institute of imprisoning its creation and launch a “Free Charlie” campaign. The commercial sponsors start legal action against the Institute.

Only Charlie remains aloof. Yet some curious incidents must be recorded. It is never discovered who changed the slogan on the laboratory wall to read: Can Hardly Avoid Roaring with Laughter at Idiotic Experimenters.

And the night security guards sometimes report an eerie optical illusion. In the dim light, Charlie’s face seems to show the merest hint of animation. That subtle expression can perhaps best be described as a smile. A smile suppressed with guilty haste and truly superhuman effort.

© Trevor Emmott 2002

Trevor Emmott emphasizes that any similarities between him and the Sceptic are purely coincidental. Even so, his website at www.MindUser.com gives links to online texts of Hume’s works. See especially the Treatise of Human Nature (Book II Part 3 Section 3).

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