Choose your own

15 February 2013

I can’t take my eyes off the telephone as I sit here on the bottom stair, waiting for the police to arrive. A bloody handprint violates the ivory plastic of the receiver, dully reflecting the horror upstairs. The ninth button of the key pad, crimsoned with the lives of my friend and his family, bleats menacingly on my retina.

The last conversation I had with Brian is alive like thunder in my mind, beating out a dark rhythm to the tune of my confusion. I now know that when we parted that night, Brian heading towards the warmth of wife, child and semi whilst I set my sights on the barmaid, I understood nothing. I was too complacent in my belief that words, in the end, are only words. But here I now sit, and up there he lies.

I met Brian on our first day of senior school. His family had moved into our street a couple of weeks before, and as our front door clicked shut behind an emblazered me, so did theirs behind him.

We hadn’t yet met, but were aware of each other, so even though, or perhaps because, we could see we were to be thrown together for the next five years, each kept to his side of the road as we began the longest walk of our young lives. I glanced over for signs of the nervousness I felt, catching his eye as I did so. We both turned our gaze studiously back to the ground ahead of us, cheeks burning, stomachs churning.

At the end of the road, I crossed and joined him on the same stretch of pavement. He was slightly ahead of me, but I soon found myself two steps from his side. Hiya, I offered in a croaky warble. Hello, he replied, turning to smile at me. I’m Gary, I said.

We chatted as eleven year old boys do the rest of the way. His family had moved because his mum had a new job as a manager. His dad worked from home, he was a graphic designer and artist. Brian didn’t have any brothers or sisters. He was excited about starting senior school because he liked learning things, but he knew he wouldn’t know anyone.

I wasn’t bothered about starting school, I knew it was what happened next. I would probably know some people because I’d been to three different junior schools in the town, not because I was in trouble or anything but my mum and dad had different ideas about the sort of school I should go to. I’d been at the most recent one for less than a year and my closest friends would be attending a different senior school, so I wouldn’t start off with allies either. I had a younger sister, and my parents were both university teachers of subjects that used a lot of words.

Brian and I remained friends through school and beyond, as happens in stories but not so often in real life. We discovered girls together, ineptly, for the first four years talking about the ones we fancied but only occasionally about what we thought we might do with one when we had her alone. In the fifth year of school we both had at least one opportunity to find out, and agreed school was easy in comparison with working out how to control that many parts of your body at the same time.

Whereas I was a generally adequate student with a love of and aptitude for art and design, Brian excelled in all subjects except the ones that required the use of your hands more than your head. This meant we took different exams and were headed in different academic directions, but we felt similarly about the school environment so made our applications to sixth form college together, surviving more exams, girls who actually wanted to go out with us, low level promiscuity and part time jobs, before finding ourselves at the same university.

Our parents joked that some wires must have been crossed, what with me studying art and Brian philosophy, and were supportive of our friendship and the paths we were starting out on. They were confident enough in us to subtly raise the idea we might be amorously entwined, which we denied with smiles, omitting to tell them about the night we and two of our female classmates at college had shared dinner, a room and each other.

I wish I could say our relationship was ‘normal’, but I know it wasn’t. We didn’t compete intellectually or physically, we took an interest in each other’s pursuits and offered support, we never argued over a girl, we critiqued books and films and paintings and ideas together. And, it’s important to say, we had other friends, some shared and others unique to one or the other.

We completed our undergraduate degrees fifteen years ago, both deciding to stay in the city where our social and intellectual worlds had already begun to burgeon. Brian commenced a master’s degree and I continued to develop a small arts group with some friends, hosting shows, submitting work to magazines and working what hours I could in a pub where students discussed politics and philosophy, picked paint from their skins and admired each other’s hairstyles with oblique glances.

Brian became a lecturer at the university, leading people along the uncanny paths of the philosophy of mind. He was successful in his job, but his refusal to fall in and accept one or other physicalist explanation of the mind led to his papers being less well received than they probably deserved. He believed a philosopher has a duty to reserve judgement to a greater degree than other academics find reasonable. What I’ve tried to express through painting, sculpture and drawing disallowed Brian from leaving his agnosticism behind.

While he was making sure he’d never be known as a philosopher in his own lifetime, I was making a name for myself as a vaguely interesting but not highly skilled painter. There was some commercial work, intermittent shows – including a showcase that toured eastern Europe – and a couple of well received features in suitable magazines. I’m known in my own circles, and that’s enough for me.

I spend most of my time at my studio, a not-too-small space in a compartmentalised warehouse housing a few dozen human beings desperately attempting to articulate whatever it is gnaws away at them. I have a feeling some may possess little more than paints and canvas in the way of credentials, but that’s no reason for me not to smile and wish them a good morning.

My bedsit is therefore merely a place to sleep. I don’t even make use of the communal kitchen; I keep a kettle in my room and prepare food at the studio. If I meet a woman – or sometimes, in recent years, a man – they’re of the sort who would much rather leave with paint on their backside than the crease of a pillow across their face.

This contrast with Brian’s mortgaged, fitted-carpeted, child supporting life made no difference to our relationship. Whilst still, for now, considered unconventional, I find no reason to spend my life unwashed or without humility. I often visited him, his wife and their daughter, and they would attend my shows and the odd party when diaries permitted. Brian and I remained as close as ever, meeting at least once a week to eat and drink and talk as we had for years.

It was on one of these nights, last week, we had the conversation that now fills my head, a gruesome suggestion of which coats the bedroom upstairs. His words circle my understanding, retaining a maddening distance; how our life led here I cannot fathom.

We met, as usual, in the Red Lion, and settled into our booth with twin pints of pale ale, fresh anecdotes and a smattering of conjecture on a recently released film. Then Brian settled back in the way he did when he was about to introduce an idea for discussion, usually something he had been pondering and wanted to turn over in my mind.

He had been thinking about free will after reading a paper by a colleague a couple of weeks ago. He recounted how most philosophers of mind believe one day we’ll be able to explain the mind in physical terms. Love will be described as ‘when the brain does this’ and a thought as ‘this or that brain state’. What we call thinking and feeling will be recognised as physical conditions, governed by the same laws as objects. We will understand that our decisions, emotions and the rest of it are the result of the same processes that make the planets orbit the sun or a bee search flower after flower for pollen. And when we realise how we feel and what we do couldn’t have been any other way, we will come to accept that free will is an illusion.

Because who’s to say the bee doesn’t think it’s free? How might some higher being, watching us like we watch bees, interpret our behaviour? We do similar things most days, and what we call wants would be no more apparent to them than the desires of a bee might be to us.

So how can we save our freedom from these philosophers? I asked. Some people believe that whilst the choices you’re confronted with are out of your control, Brian explained, you’re free as long as you’re not forced or compelled to do something, if you’re free to choose a course of action. But, unfortunately perhaps, most people like to think their freedom includes choosing whether or not they want to do something, not just if they do it or not.

I agreed. We more than like to think our achievements are down to our choices; our whole view of ourselves is wrapped up in it. How can you reward someone for something if, even though they weren’t made to do it, it wasn’t really up to them that they ended up doing it?

For these reasons, continued Brian, many people think what that description of free will can’t be called free will at all. You need to be free to act to have free will, yes, but you need something else as well. So some believe we have free will in the way we usually think of it, and others that there’s simply no such thing.

So, I said, you either have to believe you have total free will, but without any evidence other than what you feel, or you’re free to do what you want but not to decide what you want, or you don’t have free will at all? I’m a bee, not a bee or half a bee.

I felt the whole thing seemed a bit pessimistic. Brian thought that, regardless of the arguments philosophers come up with, people will hold on to the belief they’re in control of who they are and what they do. But they do often hold contradictory views. Tell someone about a crime, and they’ll usually say the person who committed it should be held responsible for it, but tell them about circumstances that led to the crime being the only course of action, and they’ll say they shouldn’t be held responsible for it. They’ll say, in a given situation, they chose to do something, but in the same situation someone else didn’t really choose, but were forced into it by circumstance. At another time, they’ll say they shouldn’t be held responsible for what they did, because they had no choice, but present the same scenario with someone else in their role, and they’ll say the opposite.

All this sounded fair enough, but what confused me was why he was so worked up about it. His eyes had glinted that night in the way they did when he was excited by an idea. I enjoyed talking to him about this stuff, but I never became emotionally involved in the way he did. My manic side, my passion, arose with and led to my work. Whereas he could articulate in words what burned within him, I relied on a brush or chalk to communicate my self to others.

He reminded me he had been generally discounted by the philosophy of mind community for refusing to accept there has to be a physical explanation of the mind. He didn’t deny it might be true, but  didn’t see it as inevitable. Because our society at this moment in time has embraced natural science, doesn’t mean what it explores is all there is.

I might therefore expect him to discount these arguments out of hand as the product of an acceptance of materialism, the existence of the world of things and stuff. Well, he did, for just that reason. But he had also been thinking about whether or not free will is compatible with any theory of the mind.

Some people think mind and body are separate, distinct things, he continued. But that there’s a link between them, they affect each other. If the physical is affected by natural laws, the mental will be too, via that connection. My mind will be affected by my environment, meaning I’m not in control of who I become, what desires I have. So the only free will I have is the weak kind, the freedom to act.

Others deny there’s any interaction between them, believing instead that they run in parallel. This idea usually requires the intervention of some designer, or god, to either make a connection between the mental and the physical or set up the parallel in the first place via some sort of programming. The existence of such a creator or designer wouldn’t allow for free will either, as the programming would be necessarily deterministic.

Another idea is that there’s nothing but mind, in one way or another. Some people believe mind created everything, including the physical universe, whether that mind was a god’s or mine. Others say mind shapes the physical world, giving objects meaning and so on.  We had already decided free will isn’t compatible with a physical world.

Some, however, say material things are nothing more than sensations that could have come from anywhere. So it might seem that, if the world is entirely within you, the sum of your perceptions, you must have free will, because there’s nothing to act on you, no physical things and no physical laws. But if there is nothing but my mind, what does free will even mean?

And why, if the world is your world, or you, do you have no memory of choosing the world to be like this? Why do you have no choice but to, at least apparently, experience the same world, day after day? Why does it seem that things in this world do in fact have an effect on your desires and decisions?

You could choose to say there’s a part of you – the unconscious – that takes those decisions, and so, as the unconscious is part of you, you have free will. But is that what we mean by free will? Does an unconscious, something that makes decisions without your knowledge, not play the part of someone or something else?

Whatever way he thought about it, Brian concluded that every one of his actions could be understood as the result of things that previously happened in the world. If he wanted to put together an argument for having free will as we think of it,  for choosing both what he wanted to do and what he actually did, he didn’t think he could.

I’d seen Brian animated by his ideas before but not to the extent he was that evening. He appeared to be standing on the edge of something, perhaps frenzy, although, on reflection, I wasn’t sure I really knew what that looked like.

So I asked what he thought it meant for us, there, in the pub. Even if we do find out there is no such thing as the mind, that it’s a product of chemicals and reactions, or an illusion created by our perception of them, I won’t feel much different, will I? I’d still think I want to fuck Mandy, the manager of the pub, again, because she’s got a fabulous arse; I’d still say I was angry with someone for nicking my paints again, or amused by one of Brian’s bad jokes, again. So what was with the excitement?

After all these years of study, of thinking about what he was in what seemed to everyone an abstract way, he believed he had stumbled across a practical application of pure speculation. The greatest service philosophy could do the human race is demonstrate it doesn’t make sense to punish people, for anything.

I thought there must have been something I didn’t understand. Did he really think he could convince people of that? They love punishing others, apart from anything else. And are they going to give up the idea they’re free because of a philosophical argument? Even if I agreed with him – which I’m not sure I don’t – it wouldn’t make any difference to what it feels like to be me, and I feel free.

Apart from the fact it wouldn’t actually make sense to suggest I should, he said, I don’t need to give up that idea or feeling. People can still go about doing what they ‘choose’ to, because for the most part it doesn’t matter that much, or at least not in a way we can easily perceive. But for those people who commit crimes, especially horrendous ones, maybe we can start to understand it makes no sense to say they chose to do it. He knew things have already started to move in that direction, but the idea we have free will still underlies it all, and stops us taking the really big step. So why not show it to be a myth? It won’t make any difference to the day-to-day, but it could change things where it really matters.

As for whether or not people would be convinced, he didn’t intend to hold a conference and make an announcement. The idea would have to be introduced subtly, slowly, it might take years, he was sure it would take years, but if he could convince enough people it might stick.

Did he really believe it then?

Yes, he did. He knew he could push that glass over or not, but the fact he wouldn’t was the product of so many other events, experiences, thoughts, billions of which happened before he was even thought of. Did our meeting have anything to do with us? And if it didn’t, could we really be said to have chosen our paths in life since that moment? Wouldn’t things be completely different for both of us if we hadn’t met?

Shortly after, as I stood at the urinal, I noticed a queasiness flowering in my belly. It was the sort of mellow sickness I feel when something isn’t quite right, when I’m worried or guilty. Like now. But I couldn’t place it. I thought maybe I was concerned for my friend. Whilst it wasn’t the first time I’d seen him this animated about an idea, there was something about his excitement that seemed to have unnerved me. Perhaps he was going to make a fool of himself; I discounted that, he was too grounded, sensible, too in the world to go out on such a limb that he’d fall and ruin everything he’d built up.

Back at the table, I told Brian about an exhibition I was interested in, and from there the conversation meandered pleasingly. We didn’t return to the earlier topic, which made me feel better. Maybe I was overreacting and this situation was no different from usual.

Once we’d finished our third drink, Brian said he had to go, he’d promised to be home by half ten. I said I was going to stick around, so we hugged and he left. I went and sat at the bar, the lack of Tuesday night customers leaving Mandy and I ample time to flirt before the pub closed and we could head to a late bar.

We woke up the next morning side by side in my bedsit. I sat up and looked down at her warm nudity, feeling puzzled but safe. I woke her up and we fucked a couple more times. Then she left, and I fell back to sleep.

I dreamt I had a public relations job, a senior position. I was sat behind my desk in an open plan office, worrying because I had made a mistake. The only other person there was Brian, who, I knew, was unable to leave his desk. The error I had made was going to affect him, not me, which was why I was so concerned. I kept alternating my gaze between my friend and an open door opposite me, the door to the office of the chief executive. I knew I had to admit what I had done, or Brian would suffer.

Eventually I tore myself from my seat and walked over to the open door. Brian watched me, returning my nervous look with an unconcerned smile. I turned back to the feared entrance, and stepped over the threshold.

The chief executive was perched on the corner of her desk, one leg crossed over the other. Her skirt rode high and a stretch of thigh taunted me. She was Mandy. Immediately she saw me she laughed, smiled and told me I had nothing to worry about. I protested, pleaded my guilt, but she refused to countenance my need to apologise.

Panic filled me. I knew I had to own up to my mistake, offer an apology and have it accepted if I was to save Brian. But Mandy just smiled at me.

On leaving the office, I saw Brian’s parents and my parents to one side of the open plan room. They were sat on red velvet theatre seats, watching the scene impassively, their hands folded in their respective laps.

When I awoke I recognised the urge to start working, so I dressed quickly and set off for the studio. When I arrived I understood I didn’t have what I needed, so turned back around. The door closed behind me, and I stood in the corridor, not knowing what it was I required. So I thought.

My meditation was interrupted by the sound of a door opening at one end of the hallway. I looked in the direction of the noise and saw Jasper leaving his studio. He did still have those large canvases, and of course I could have one. I’d apparently changed my mind.

Once we’d manoeuvred the one and a half by two metre canvas into my studio I left again, still unclear as to what else I must procure. This time I reached the pavement before I had to stop and think. I looked to my right and saw a bus lumbering towards me on its way to the retail park outside the town centre.

I followed it as it shambled past, taking in the advertisement pasted to its side for yet another Hollywood blockbuster. It starred a middle aged man pretending not to be, whose large shoulders and inevitable firearm were poised to protect a highlighted suburban princess as they ran through malignant streets.

The few early afternoon passengers gazed out through dirty windows and me. What can they see? I thought. A stream of shut in faces floating through my distracted consciousness.

The bus pulled itself onwards, shaking its rear end at me provocatively. Its number stared back in black and yellow: 69. As usual, I chuckled. I looked down at my rough brown boots, then back up in the direction the bus had taken, finding where I had to go.

An hour later I was back in the studio, half a dozen pots of emulsion littering the floor about my feet. The canvas Jasper had donated was hung on a wall, its emptiness reaching out to stroke my brow.

I had no idea what I was doing. When I was younger I’d worked with a certain aimlessness, allowing the painting to fall from me. But very quickly I’d learnt to plan, to think the work out. Which made what I was doing at that moment unnerving. No; I was frightened. The canvas, the paint – I still didn’t know why I had them or what I was about to do with them. The more I thought about it the sicker I felt. So I stopped thinking.

Seven or eight hours later, I walked away, unable to look at the work. I headed for a bottle of gin and stayed there for a couple of days, reckoning by the alarmless clock in my bedsit. When I emerged from the stupor, my first thought was the canvas and how it had taken my studio from me. I couldn’t go back; neither could I ask someone to remove it for me.

The need for food throbbed through my body, but the thought of granting myself sustenance turned my stomach. On the stool next to my bed stood half a plastic bottle holding water and dirty paint brushes. It tasted bitter but went down quickly.

The next however long was spent sitting on the edge of my bed, feet on the floor, head in hands, wedged between claustro- and agoraphobia. The only escape from vertigo was to wonder what was wrong with me, but that yielded no answer. Alcohol still worming through my veins, I daydreamed about settling into the blanket of the earth’s atmosphere, of it holding me like a piece of fruit suspended in the jelly of a trifle. I vomited, lay down, and slept.

Another night and morning had passed when I woke again, a pounding in my head. But as soon as I was conscious enough to think, I found all I wanted to do was continue sleeping. An unfamiliar cold dampness crept through to my awareness; I had soiled the bed. Leaving the sheets where they were, I stumbled, naked out of my room. Sitting under the shower, head back and mouth open I let warm water fill my stomach.

A dog worrying ducks on the pond; I was in the park. I looked down to check I was dressed. On the bench next to me, my shitty sheets in a black plastic bag. The dog returned to its owner at a pace, pleased with its efforts. The ducks ducked, feet waggling, until a child arrived with a bag of bread and they flew across the water to petition her. A squirrel shiny eyed them from a tree trunk, legs spread, attention divided between the bread, an overflowing bin and the recent memory of a predator; choices to be made. I left my sheets behind.

There were less people in the park, but they were there, and I shrank from it. After years of living in England I know how seldom another human being seeks to catch your eye, to exchange strangerly greetings, but as I malingered through the urban noasis I was disgusted by the thought one might try to interact with me. Why was I outside?

The door to the Red Lion opened. Mandy looked up from her position behind the bar and smiled. I turned and left, nauseous. Now here to go.

Brian’s house looked so usual, nestled in its street. Orange light. Silence. Blue flickerings between curtain, irrelevant. Knock at the door.

I look up. The police are here.

That was quick.

Copyright Dan Sumners 2013

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