In Conscious Robots: If We Really Had Free Will, What Would We Do All Day, author Paul Kwatz argues that we don’t possess free will. Instead, we are following the pre-programmed instructions that are hardwired into our brains to ensure the survival of our genes. We are, in effect, robots. And as robots, we are also pre-programmed to sabotage our own happiness and as such will never truly be content.
Thus, the stage is set for this impressive work of non-fiction popular science. Kwatz sets out, in equal measure, to challenge perceptions of free will and to convince readers of their robotic status.
Kwatz, who writes under a pen name, is a free will expert with a background in medicine and brain science. His short but highly persuasive book (which is around 100 pages long), neatly tackles any objections that readers might make about their own free will.
He argues that life is inherently unsatisfactory because of a genetic con-trick that spurs us on to always want more: To earn more money, to run faster, to look more attractive. But whatever we achieve, he says, nothing is ever good enough because we are hardwired to aspire. Doing so safeguards our own genetic future.
It follows, he says, that all human actions come from self-interest. We only care about our own children because our genes tell us to (a nod to the idea of the ‘Selfish Gene’ theory popularised by scientist Richard Dawkins).
The book presents complex issues of free will (or lack of) and determinism in a succinct fashion, and differs from other books on the subject in that is does not merely alert readers as to their pre-programmed personalities, but suggests ways that we can address the issue. While we can never truly possess free will, he says, we can choose to live as though we did possess it.
How? Kwatz argues that, if we truly had free will, we would simply choose to feel great all day. Via a series of interesting questions about whether we would choose to take a ‘happiness pill’ or take other ‘short cuts’ to happiness (and if not, why not?), Kwatz provides food for thought about the way we believe happiness can’t be real unless it is hard-earned and offset by a large dose of pain and suffering.
Positing the idea of a Matrix-style ‘happiness bed’ or ‘happiness drug’ (one that goes above and beyond the sedative effects of the ‘Soma’ as imagined by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World), Kwatz predicts that in the future, humans will be able to directly control the brain chemicals that govern our thoughts and feelings. Such mind meddling will enable us to choose to feel happy whenever we want.
Stating that “Regardless of our achievements in the world, we are condemned to our unfair share of misery, disappointment, heartache and despair. We’re condemned to miss out on the sustained heights of delight and joy that our minds are capable of experiencing”, Kwatz suggests that we need to learn to resist the ‘instructions’ that determine our actions. He goes on to argue that, as a species, we should stop investing money in endeavours such as space travel, which will ultimately never satisfy us, and instead should invest resources into the neuro-science that could make us capable of living in a permanently content and happy state.
Kwatz acknowledges that many readers will feel uncomfortable at the thought of such ‘artificial’ happiness, but his aim is to make us question why that it. Once again, he argues, it is because we feel the need to unquestioningly follow the instructions set out in our genetic ‘robot manuals’.
Whether or not you agree with Kwatz, his book is a must for anyone with an interest in popular science, computing, artificial intelligence (AI) and philosophy. For the rest of us, it is a thought-provoking introduction to some mind-boggling questions.
‘Conscious Robots: If We Really Had Free Will, What Would We Do All Day’ is out now in print, published by Peacock’s Tail Publishing and priced £4.99 in paperback and £2.99 as an eBook. It is available for sale on Amazon UK. Visit www.consciousrobots.com