On kicking a robot in the balls, or why I think we don't have free will



This is a story from my Appalachian Trail hike.

For those of you who don't know, I did 400 miles of the AT back in 2012 (from April 1 to mid-May).

Bunkhouse at the NOC

There was a place on the trail called the NOC in North Carolina.  It was literally on the trail, as in the trail passed through it.  It's got a restaurant, an outdoor gear shop, whitewater rafting, and hiker accommodations.  I remember that the day I got there, we'd arrived at around 4:00, and it was raining, and we were all kind of miserable and wet.

There's a check-in hut there for hikers to book rooms, and it was open until 5:00, so we went there first.  Got a room with 2 bunk beds, so 4 of us could sleep there.  I took top bunk.  I changed into some dry clothes and hung up my wet ones, and went to the restaurant.  Got the "hiker burger", which was a half pound monster burger, and a beer.  Some friends we were hiking with arrived a little later, and the check-in hut was closed so they couldn't get a room (despite there being vacancies).  The next campsite was a mile up the trail and they really didn't want to hike anymore because of the rain and the cold.  I mean, the NOC had showers and toilets and shelter and power, and those are things that you learn not to take for granted when you're hiking.

So after dinner they decide that they're gonna just try to break in to some of the rooms.  Now, these rooms are sparse.  Like, it's 2 metal bunk beds, mattresses, pillows, power outlets, and an overhead light.  Not really anything to steal.  So I'm not thinking much of the break-in.  Nobody's depriving anyone else of anything, so there's nothing to be morally outraged about.  And they do it!  With just a credit card, they open up a couple empty rooms and bunk there for the night.

So I'm glad that they managed to do it, and I go take a shower and go to bed.  Now, as I said, I'm on the top bunk.  The ceiling is sloped above me so there's ample room above my head, but above my feet it's pretty tight.  Still, it's plenty of room to sleep.

A giant robot
I start dreaming, and my dream is that I'm fighting a bunch of robots.  What happens in the dream isn't very important, but how the dream ends is key.  In the dream, I kick one of the robots right in his robot balls, or where his robot balls would be if robots have balls.  Because when I kick him there, it's just my foot against a hard, flat object.  I awaken to my foot howling in pain.  In real life, I kicked the ceiling, hard.

My foot isn't broken or anything, or even hurt badly enough to stay off the trail.  However, I can't figure out one thing: how was it that at the exact moment in my dream that I kicked the robot in his chassis, my foot hit the ceiling?  My mind would have to have calibrated itself the night before, subconsciously registering that the ceiling was low, and arranging to have a dream in which this low ceiling would play a key role.

That's the "unbelievable, to me" story.  The more believable story is this: I retconned the whole thing.  That is, as soon as I woke up, my mind decided "shit, he's kicked the ceiling; we have to make up a story about why he would have done that" and made up a whole false memory of a dream involving fighting robots and kicking them in the balls.

Now, if I can retcon a dream, why wouldn't I retcon other events in my life?  That is, why wouldn't my "narrating brain" make up things that my "experiencing brain" never actually experienced (read Thinking, Fast and Slow for more information on the 2 brains)?  This is similar to the experiences of split-brain patients, with the left brain making up reasons for what the right brain did that had absolutely no actual relevance for the right brain's actions.  It's confabulation.

What really clinches it for me is that I know that something in me made me kick up my leg.  It may have just been a random spasm.  In a normal bed with ample space to kick above me, it may not have even woken me up.  But because it did, and because I hurt myself, presumably something in my brain wanted to say "hey, listen, you actually had agency here, and you kicked for a valid reason: you were trying to incapacitate a robot."  It made up a story so I could have the illusion of control.

I doubt this will change anyone else's mind about whether we have free will, but for me it was a really powerful demonstration that no, we don't, and we go through all kinds of mental gymnastics to try to hide that fact from ourselves.  Or maybe the lesson is that we have free will in a macro sense (as in, we can plan things if we're deliberately trying to), but most of our life is lived on autopilot and the "meanings" for things happening are all made up after the fact.

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