What’s Expected of Us by Ted Chiang

★★★★☆ (4/5)

 The light flashes if you press the button. Specifically, the light flashes one second before you press the button

Ah Ted! The essence of your stories, your natural brevity of style just brings about the densest of subject matters within comprehension. In “What’s Expected of Us”, Ted Chiang once again toys with the idea of free-will and determinism. It is a circular argument with many who’d concur with the symbiotic relationship of choice and fate, and still many who’d disagree with their compatibility in a rationale world, using force of philosophy, logic and maybe maths too.

The immediate problem is that Predictors demonstrate that there’s no such thing as free will

This is a concise read which goes into depth of this dilemma through an invention called a “Predictor” where a small hand held device flashes light mere moments before one presses the button. The central argument is this: if one resorted to not pressing the button at all, the light wouldn’t flash to begin with. But when light flashes, it compels the person to press the button. In crude terms, the light knows if a human will press the button or not. The scientific element is added through the rationale that the Predictor sends a signal which navigates through time in the past, thereby determining if one would push the button or not.

The heart of each Predictor is a circuit with a negative time delay — it sends a signal back in time

This becomes problematic for those who lose faith in self-determination completely. Since fate is already at work, having set their entire lives and minute actions into motion, these people reject to make choices which affect their everyday living. This spells doom for humanity as reliance on fatalism overpowers notions of freedom and liberty, which in turn marks the possible demise of human intellect, knowledge and progress.

Some people, realizing that their choices don’t matter, refuse to make any choices at all

People used to speculate about a thought that destroys the thinker, some unspeakable lovecraftian horror, or a Gödel sentence that crashes the human logical system. It turns out that the disabling thought is one that we’ve all encountered: the idea that free will doesn’t exist

The ending to this story is worded with brilliant and incisive commentary on human condition, tying the plot together. It becomes apparent that this is a warning from future when technology has allowed the Predictor to relay messages further back into time rather than just mere seconds. Humanity is forewarned to keep up with the illusion of free-will despite it having no measure of power in human life. This acknowledgement itself can weigh the future of humanity, tipping it either way.

My message to you is this: pretend that you have free will. It’s essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know that they don’t. The reality isn’t important: what’s important is your belief, and believing the lie is the only way to avoid a waking coma. Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has

Some of you will succumb and some of you won’t, and my sending this warning won’t alter those proportions. So why did I do it? Because I had no choice.


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