Regardless of whether a person is a believer of the hard sciences and/or of the softer sciences, and regardless of whether a person is a believer of religion, spirituality, and/or the general existence of a force greater than that which is understandable by a human at the ego level, it’s quite widely accepted that it’s difficult to define what free will is.
What is free will? If I believe in a one-God and one day, want to eat chocolate ice cream, did I want that chocolate ice cream because God wanted me to? What if I simply ignore that command and don’t eat chocolate ice cream. Was that God’s intention?
What about more serious things? What if I want something that is considered “bad” in the society I live in? If I want to set a house on fire, should I act on it just as I might act on the desire to eat chocolate ice cream, assuming that the desire to set a house on fire is God’s will? Who decides what’s God’s will and what not? Do I really decide it? How do I know I am deciding it? Where does the decision come from?
Even if I wanted to set God aside, even if I were to adopt the strictly and purely scientific approach, or, at least, whatever is considered scientific in a given era—even so. Why do I ever want to eat chocolate ice cream, and why do I ever want to set a house on fire? And what is the thing that makes me decide one way or another with such desires? Is it really free will? How do we know it’s will that is free? Is the feeling of choice real or an illusion? What is real anyway? What is an illusion anyway? Is there even a difference between the two?
Unconscious and subconscious information rises to the surface of the conscious all the time. Unconscious information, by definition, because I am unconscious of it, cannot be accessed until such information rises to the surface. So then, is it even possible for me to define what free will is, while I’m this merely conscious being? This being who isn’t aware of everything there is to be aware of?
Such are things that I ponder about, and as I was reading “The Silent Strength of Stones” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, I pondered about them again.
In this book, there are humans with magical powers, who can connect with the forces of nature. Such forces are almost unnoticeable by mundane humans without magical powers, but those humans who do have magical powers know what’s going on. Sometimes. But not always.
Also in this book, spells and/or magical voices can influence other people’s minds and/or actions. Sometimes people seem to be very aware that they just performed an action which they didn’t want to perform only seconds ago; at other times, people seem to be influenced more gradually, so gradually that they aren’t sure of what they originally wanted. They think they wanted to perform an action or they think they wanted to change their minds, but it’s not that. To us, the readers, the origin of the change is clear: it was the spell and/or the magical voice. And by magical voice, I mean that the voice itself has the power to influence others, without the words being a particular spell. And, even if the magical influence is sudden instead gradual, even so, many characters in this book, many times, don’t seem to be certain whether what they just did came from them or from someone else.
And this is related to the free will idea. What is free will? When I watch something and change my mind, is that free will because I decided to change my mind? Is that how it works? Do you ever remember when you decided to change your mind? In my case, nope. I notice that my mind has already changed. I don’t decide to change my mind. Even if it seems like I am deciding.
For example, if I am taking a walk. I could walk out of my house and do a loop by going left, or I could do a loop by going right. How do I decide which way to go? I could create an alternating schedule and say that I decided I would take left the day after I take right, and so on and so forth. But on the first day, how do I decide which way to go? Say, if there were a squirrel on the left side of the path, and I take left because I find the squirrel cute, then was that my decision? Who or what put the squirrel there? And who or what made me into this creature who thinks squirrels are cute? And on top of that, a creature who, because she finds squirrels cute, needs to take the left path instead of the right?
This chain of questions can go on and on endlessly and by the time I run out of stuff to ask myself, it becomes clear that it is completely unclear whether I have free will or not. More often than not, I conclude that I don’t have free will that I can consciously count on, and that’s fine, mostly. It’s acceptable that I prefer chocolate ice cream over vanilla ice cream for various reasons that I cannot fathom. The reason it wouldn’t be acceptable that I might want to set a house on fire is more due to legalities than whether it’s my free will or not.
At any rate, this book, “The Silent Strength of Stones,” adds some extra flavor to the question of free will by using the concept of binding as one of the clear obstacles to free will. In a way, because the concept of binding is so strong in this book, the question of free will becomes secondary. When someone binds you, it doesn’t matter whether the will you have is free or not—clearly there is an outside factor that is influencing your will…
…unless you wanna push the chain of questions further by asking, why did you, of all people, experience binding? Why, of all people whom the binders could bind, were you bound? Especially in this book, the way binding and free will are presented is multi-layered. Literally so.
The main character’s name is Nick. He is a teenager who lives in a vacation town and works at the convenience store that his father owns. And by the end of the story, it’s fairly clear that Nick was bound, in not just one way but multiple layers, including a layer of dirt, not because the binders wanted to do the binding, but because the binders were compelled to do the binding. And Nick, unbeknownst to himself—as in, unbeknownst to his so-called free will—wanted to be bound, and more than that, needed to be bound. Because, without these series of bindings that at first seemed to go against his free will, he would not have found out about his magical powers at the conscious level. He was somewhat aware of them at the subconscious level, and there were more powers at the unconscious level even before the binding, but he might never have become aware of them at the conscious level.
There is a scene in which Willow, a girl with magical powers and awareness of her own powers, tells Nick to write down the inventory of the convenience store without actually checking the inventory. The book is written from Nick’s first-person POV. Nick thinks it’s not possible to write down the list of inventories without him actually doing the work of counting each and every good within the store. But, quote,
“Write,” she said, in her velvet voice.
I blinked and wrote, feeling four cold spots on my forehead, and thinking about nothing at all. I flipped pages on the yellow legal pad and wrote more. My hand cramped but I didn’t stop to shake it. Seven pages later I dropped the pad and pen and tried to flex my fingers. Man, they hurt.
Willow stopped touching me.
“Don’t do that,” I said. My voice shook. My fingers were twitching. Don’t do it? How had she done it? I had heard of hypnosis, but this was something else. The pain in my hand was real, and so were all the pages of scribbling. I looked at them because I didn’t want to look at her.
Maybe I did know everything that was in the store. I might have listed things we had lost to pilfering. Or maybe I knew about those too, and didn’t know I knew.“The Silent Strength of Stones” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
This last part is key. “Maybe I knew about those too, and didn’t know I knew.” Sure, there is a lot that we don’t know that we don’t know. But then there are also things that we do know and we don’t know we know.
And Willow, as well as some other characters who are aware of their magical powers, can tell someone like Nick to know the things that they’ve known all along at not only the subconscious/unconscious level, but also at the conscious level.
The book overtly talks about the concept of “owning” other people. One of the ways in wihch a person can be owned is by fetching. A person with magical power can have fetches. They fetch someone. When that happens, that magical person is responsible for the fetchling and can make the fetchling do stuff. And that idea of “making the fetchling do stuff” goes far beyond what Willow just did in the previously quoted scene.
For example, Evan, a boy who can transform into a wolf and has some other magical powers, fetches Nick. So, the following is what Evan can do. Quote,
“Be well,” he said.
I took some deep breaths and felt health running through me like alcohol.“The Silent Strength of Stones” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
And when Evan says “Heal,” quote,
My hands tingled, then itched; it felt like bees were swarming across my palms, prickles and wing brushes. Under the skin, heat grew, peaked, faded, leaving a shadowed-stone cool behind.
The hairs on my neck and forearms prickled. I touched one hand with another and felt only smooth skin.“The Silent Strength of Stones” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
At this point in the book, Nick doesn’t think he has outright magical powers. He is aware that he has a particularly convincing voice, but he doesn’t think it’s overt magic.
So, Nick questions, quote,
How could a wolf order me to do something impossible and have me accomplish it?
I could persuade people to do things they didn’t want to do, but he hadn’t bothered with persuasion. He had told me, and I had done it.“The Silent Strength of Stones” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
And later, Nick and Evan have a conversation about this. Quote,
“How can you tell me to do something and I do it, even though I don’t know how?”
“When did I?”
“You said, ‘Heal.’”
“But you know how to do that.”
“You don’t strike me as particularly cautious. You must have scraped yourself before. Of course your body knows how to heal. Otherwise you’d be all sores.”
“But it doesn’t happen in a moment.”
“It could, though.” I felt him sniffing my hands, tiny puffs of warm breath against my skin. “You have the energy for it.” He sounded puzzled. “How odd.”“The Silent Strength of Stones” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Quite interesting, isn’t it? Nick says, a wolf ordered him to do something impossible and had him accomplish it. But the wolf boy Evan says, “of course your body knows how to heal.” The thing that Nick considered impossible was never impossible, to begin with. And for some reason, Evan the wolf knew it better than Nick.
Then, in a case like this, Nick himself doesn’t know his own powers but someone like Evan or Willow comes along and binds, fetches, controls, and in many other ways takes power from Nick and thereby gives him power. Nick doesn’t have all his free will anymore, but somehow he is more powerful and he is closer to his true nature. He always had it in him that he could heal wounds in an instant but according to his so-called conscious free will, he had considered such an action impossible.
Then what is free and not free? Is it free that he was free to not heal himself instantly? Is it not free that he did heal himself instantly? What about the desirability of free will or lack thereof? Is the barrier that you put yourself desirable if it’s considered free but undesirable if it’s considered not free? If I’m surrounded by mundanity in a magical world, and I just don’t get it, should I take solace in the fact that I don’t get magic out of my own free will, because free will is so good? Even when free will is a shaky concept, to begin with?
And, again, in the book—why did this binding fetching controlling happen to Nick, of all people? Evan and Willow were drawn to Nick. The book makes it pretty clear. The reason it’s beautiful is that it doesn’t make it as if the controller has full control of their free will either. I don’t think that’s ever the case, in fiction or otherwise. The controller has some inexplicable urge to control someone. And in this case, it was Evan and Willow being drawn to Nick. Willow can almost not stop herself from wanting to fetch Nick, which is why Evan goes ahead and fetches Nick first. Because, according to the book’s worldbuilding, a fetchling cannot be owned by two people simultaneously. So, see, Evan feels compelled to fetch Nick because Willow wants to fetch Nick, and Willow doesn’t know why she wants to fetch Nick. Thus, Nick is the one being fetched, but it’s not like Evan and Willow have much more control either.
All of them have unconscious and subconscious information rising to the surface of the conscious, all the time. And until such information rises, by definition, they cannot know what that information is. Only afterward becomes it clear that cause and effect weren’t so clearly separated as it might have seemed at first. It may have seemed that Nick was fetched because Willow and Evan wanted it so, but later it is revealed clearly that Willow and Evan could not have stopped themselves from fetching Nick. There was something in Nick that none of them were aware of, at the conscious level, which caused the fetching.
Even at the most nonmagical level, free will is tricky to define. And along with free will, because of what free will implies, it’s tricky to define what cause and effect are. Also it’s tricky to define what is possible and what isn’t. Say, for something like the placebo effect to be possible, the power to heal yourself had to have been inside you all along. Otherwise, how could the so-called “mere” thought have healed you without the so-called “actual” medicine? And I say “so-called,” because if thought can heal without medicine, then it is not “mere thought” anymore. And if medicine can be replaced by thought as a treatment, then it is not “actual medicine” anymore. Which is which? What do we know? What don’t we know? Unconscious and subconscious information rises to the surface of the conscious all the time. We don’t know what we don’t know, but also, we don’t even know what we do know. Then something happens, and suddenly we know.
In “The Silent Strength of Stones,” Nick shows at various points that he has always had powers that defy the common sense of his spacetime. Quote,
Mom had taught me this lake greeting. After she left, I had ditched a lot of what she had given me, but this one was important, still. Ever since that winter day when I lay on the ice and tried to let it freeze me, I had felt an intense connection to the lake. Ice had crept up over my bare hands, but I had not frozen. I had taken off my jacket, shirt, and longjohns, and lain back down, determined to do a good job of it, and ice had embraced me. It melted a little under me and closed over me. I lay feeling it over me like a blanket, holding me in what I was certain was false warmth, and my mind slowed; I could feel my thoughts calming and crystallizing. Ice held me while I watched the short day fade and the stars blink into being in the dark sky. Later, when Pop came out of the house, calling for me, nothing in me had frozen. I sat up out of crackling ice, brushed a film of ice from my face, dressed and went back to the Venture.“The Silent Strength of Stones” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Now, this might sound like pure magic. But then, you know, the healing scene from earlier makes me wonder. It is absolutely correct that we know how to heal ourselves. Evan spoke the truth. The only thing Evan did differently was to tell Nick to heal himself, and because Nick was Evan’s fetchling, Nick followed the order immediately instead of gradually. One might argue that not freezing to death is different from healing a wound, because healing a wound is something that’s possible, but not freezing to death is not possible. But is it really? How do we know this?
There used to be this thing called the “10-second barrier.” Well, it still exists, but it’s less relevant now. Quote from Wikipedia,
The 10-second barrier is the physical and psychological barrier of completing the 100 metres sprint in under ten seconds. The achievement is traditionally regarded as the hallmark of a world-class male sprinter. Its significance has become less important since the late 1990s, as an increasing number of runners have surpassed the ten seconds mark. The current men’s world record holder is Usain Bolt, who ran a 9.58 at the 2009 IAAF World Championship competition.“10-second barrier” from Wikipedia
And looking at cases like these makes me think… It’s one thing to say that running 100 meters in 10 seconds is incredibly difficult. It’s another to say that running that fast is impossible. Just look at the history of humanity, and I’m amazed that it’s even possible to think that it’s impossible. We were never supposed to fly, but we’re flying. When we lose a limb, we were supposed to live without a limb without the choice of having prosthetics. And it’s only in recent history that humans have lived so war-free and contagious-disease-free, relatively speaking, that many people live long enough to die from cancer. The infant mortality rate used to be astounding. Look where we are now. I’m talking less about progress and the wonders of science, more about how it’s actually the most scientific thing to assume that whatever current science deems impossible will become possible at some point in the future.
So, why not something that looks like magic? Why wouldn’t we be able to heal ourselves more quickly? Why wouldn’t we be able to not freeze on a very cold day? Everything is Clarketech until it becomes science. Clarke’s third law: ”Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Two centuries ago, in the 1800s, someone my age would have been lucky to have half her healthy teeth still sticking to her gums. But in the present day, these seemingly simple things called toothbrushes and toothpaste come along, and I can count on keeping my healthy teeth for the next half a century.
Two decades ago, in the early 2000s, there was no iPhone. Can you imagine that? It was in the head of Steve Jobs and not in this thing called reality. Now, some find it difficult to imagine a reality without a smartphone.
And yet we use the smartphone thinking it’s our free will and brush our teeth thinking it’s our free will. Or, we might say that it’s not free will. We might say that we’re using the smartphone and toothpaste and toothbrush in order to compete and survive in the current day world. In other words, because we have to. But no, we don’t have to. There are people who don’t use smartphones and don’t brush their teeth. Where… where does this idea of having free will when it doesn’t exist, and not having free will when it’s a choice, come from?
If someone feels compelled to use the smartphone in order to survive in this world, where does that compulsion come from? Not everyone thinks this way. That is for certain. One may think everyone thinks that way, but that is simply untrue. There exist people without smartphones and somehow they don’t fall dead immediately. So then where does the compulsion come from? Where did the smartphone come from? And how much more of the unconscious and subconscious mind and other parts of the awareness that we cannot label do we know but don’t know that we know, and don’t know and also don’t know that we don’t know?
Interestingly, in the book, spells aren’t something that a spellee passively receives from the speller. There is a scene in which Evan and Nick are talking about how Evan didn’t mean his spell that way, necessarily, but Nick interpreted the spell in that way, and thus, that way became the way. Nick says, quote,
“I guess I assumed that was what you meant.” I remembered: he had rendered me dumb, and then undid it, and I had assumed he meant I should stop him from making me do things that would make him look foolish. This introduced a new element to our relationship: creative hearing.“The Silent Strength of Stones” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
“Creative hearing,” Nick says. And where does that creativity come from? Even Nick doesn’t know. He might say that it was his survival instinct or for his own convenience. But where do survival instinct and the desire for convenience come from? And in the book, there are points when Nick does quite dangerous things. So, why do survival instinct and the desire for convenience arise at some points and not at others?
How come we think some things are impossible and others are possible?
Where are all these questions coming from? Why am I this person who asks these questions?
There is a lot of voluntary and involuntary binding in this book—especially family bondage. The word “cage” is used four times. Yes, I checked, and it was easy to check, because I read this book in ebook format. Meanwhile, the word “bind” and related words appear more than two dozen times. I didn’t count the exact number.
Anyway, both magical and mundane humans try to bind others, consciously or unconsciously, and succeed to varying degrees. And every time such binding happens, it’s questionable just what free will is.
Toward the end of the book, Nick forms a special connection with dirt. Dirt, as in, the earth stuff that lies around everywhere in the forest and around lakes and wherever else. He wears the dirt like a cloak over him. And what happens is, quote,
The dirt walked me after her, which scared me. It felt like my clothes had come alive and were controlling my body.“The Silent Strength of Stones” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
This is maximum external control. This is maximum internal surrendering of free will, and yet, prior to the surrendering, the book makes it extremely clear that Nick chose to surrender. But where did the desire to surrender come from? Sure, according to the plot, it’s because Nick wanted to help Willow and Evan in a dangerous situation. But we don’t always save people in dangerous situations.
At the end of the book, Willow and Evan, who were bound to their magical family, are also bound to the dirt, just like Nick. Willow asks, “If I bind to you, do I unbind to my family?” Dirt says, “Only if you wish to.” Then she whispers, “Thank you. Thank you for choice.”
See, again. There is the idea of choice.
But is there really a choice? To me it didn’t seem like Willow and Evan didn’t have much choice other than to be bound by Dirt. Otherwise, their original family would have continued to abuse them thoroughly.
Being born with magic wasn’t a choice. Somehow, Willow seems fine with that part of the lack of choice. She didn’t choose her family, and she says a few times that she cannot leave her family even though her family blinded Nick, almost drowned him, and did other terrible things, sometimes terrible because they were, to use a simplistic word, evil, and at other times, terrible because of their sheer inability and stupidity. By which I mean, these people—Willow’s birth relatives—aren’t great at the magic stuff they do. They’re really… their magic sounds primitive. And it’s not because it has to do with nature, with stones and water and air and fire; it’s because they’re not very good at it.
So, this idea of choice in this book is fascinating. It seems that choice is depicted as something good, but is there really choice?
Why Evan? Why Willow? Why Nick? Nobody can answer that, other than—because Nina Kiriki Hoffman wanted it so. She is the divine force driving this book. But why did Nina Kiriki Hoffman want it so? We don’t know. Something or someone gave her Nick and Evan and Willow. We could say it’s because of the things that Nina Kiriki Hoffman experienced in her life, or the books she read, or the movies she watched, but why were those books and movies in front of her to watch and why did those things happen in her life? More important than why, it’s clear that Nina Kiriki Hoffman, just like everybody else, did not choose every single thing that unfolded in her life. It’s just… not possible to choose every single thing that unfolds in anybody’s life. Free will, even if it were to exist in some fashion, cannot help but be limited—so limited that there is more that isn’t free than that which is free.
And that’s not necessarily a problem. It’s just how it is. One might even say that there is beauty in not having a choice. I think… in the book, there is a lot of talk about family bondage. So, to use family as an example: I think part of what makes family beautiful, either in reality or in perceived reality, is that there is some amount of lack of choice.
This point it something I sometimes wonder about: this point of lack of choice in family. Right now people have mostly zero control over what offspring they get. They have zero control over what parents they get. This is so if you look at the world through the linear-time lens with cause and effect clearly defined. What will happen once we start designing our babies more directly? What would that mean spiritually? Will family be less beautiful because there are more choices? But what about choosing your spouse? Is there more beauty in a relationship if we have no choice in selecting our spouse? What if we were randomly allocated spouses? Or what if we had an alternating spouse system? Now how about that? It seems to me that there is much romance about romance in the 20th and 21st century, but this is not necessarily normal. And by “normal,” here, I don’t mean it’s good or desirable, I mean, selecting your own spouse was not the norm for at least some parts of human history in many parts of the world. Was life less beautiful because of that? Does free will make life more or less beautiful, necessarily? How do we even decide when we not only don’t know what we don’t know, but don’t even know what we do know?
Unconscious and subconscious information rises to the surface of the conscious all the time. And until such information does so, we have no way of knowing what’s in us. We don’t even have a clear way of defining what “in us” means. It may seem like the skin is a very clear and undeniable barrier that separates inside from outside, but even at the most unmagical level, cells are being born and dying all the time. That means the barrier is changing all the time. Also, you know, when you think about it, the mouth connects to the anus. I always find this idea amusing. Usually it seems that the inside of the mouth is, well, inside. But keep going down that path and it connects to the anus and there you are. You’re outside again.
- Shinto – Someone Will
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