Part I -- The Debate
"So, what is the status of free will these days?" John asked.
"Still going strong," Rhonda said, "thank you very much."
Kari laughed, tossing back her blonde curls. "How exactly did we get on this subject?" she asked.
It was late at night, and the window of John's dorm room looked out on a nearly deserted quadrangle. Five students were relaxing on the beds and chairs in various stages of fatigue and inebriation; a good-sized collection of empty beer bottles in the corner attested to the amount of celebrating that had already occurred. John's room would ordinarily have housed two students. But by some quirk of administration he had it to himself, and it had become something of a social center for the students on his corridor. Though John himself tended to be rather quiet, he had quickly made friends with most of the others in the dorm.
The room was known as 'The Romper Room,' both for the socializing that went on there and for the succession of girls that John had brought home in his astonishingly successful dating career. The secret of his success was widely debated in the dorm; though reasonably good-looking, tall and thin with brown hair and piercing green eyes, there was nothing obvious about John to explain why so many women fell for him.
As is often the case with late-night college discussions, especially when ample supplies of beer are on hand, the conversation had turned to The Deep Questions. Jasmine took a swig from her own bottle and answered Kari.
"I think we started from the ethics of medical practice and took a right at the nature of consciousness. But I might have missed something."
Though three girls were present, none of them were among John's conquests. All were friends from the dorm. Rhonda and Kari were roommates from down the hall: Rhonda was a tall, slim brunette, and Kari a short, curvy blonde with an infectious laugh. Kari was an art major, while Rhonda majored in philosophy, which was what had invited the question about free will in the first place. Jasmine, the third girl, was a petite Japanese girl who (like John) was studying psychology, and who tended to keep to herself. This was the most outgoing that anyone had ever seen her.
The only other guy present gave a snort. "Free will is a myth," Gary declared decisively.
Gary was a sharp contrast to John. He stood six foot three, with large muscles, wavy blond hair and deep blue eyes. His track record with the ladies was nearly as impressive as John's, though no one wondered at his success; nor did he have John's knack of avoiding recriminations. At the moment, four different girls were in love with him (that he knew about), and all of them hated each other poisonously, while at least three others had progressed to the stage of hating Gary poisonously. That was the way Gary liked it. He found the idea of monogamy extremely dull. Gary was pre-law, and already had plans for how to spend his first million as a top attorney. Perhaps for practice, he also enjoyed taking the side of any argument which was most opposed by the people he was with, whoever they might be.
"How on earth can you say that?" Rhonda demanded disgustedly. She was not among Gary's corps of admirers.
"Simple physics. Our brains are just machines, like computers, programmed in a certain way. If you could measure them well enough, you could predict everything we do. If you could alter the pattern of our neurons, you could make us think and do whatever you wanted. Where's the free will in that?"
Jasmine spoke up. "At the level of the single brain cells that might be true..."
"There you go!" said Gary triumphantly.
"...but the brain as a whole is so complex, it couldn't be predicted in practice, by any conceivable means."
"In principle is good enough for me, babe," Gary said. Jasmine flushed.
"Well, I feel like I have free will," Kari intervened. "I mean, I think and do things, and I make decisions."
"Only an illusion," Gary said. "If I could reprogram you to do something else, that would seem like your own decision as well."
Kari shuddered. "That's a creepy thought."
"I wouldn't worry about it," Rhonda said. "And anyway, it's irrelevant. Even if he could take away your free will -- which is impossible -- he'd still have his own free will. It wouldn't make free will a myth."
"Not really," Gary denied. "I'd still be controlled by my natural programming."
"That's crap, Gary," Rhonda said flatly. "You are your natural programming. That's like saying you'd be a slave of yourself. It's meaningless."
John seemed more interested in the earlier point. "So, if I had a machine to reprogram Kari here, you would still believe in free will?"
"Absolutely," Rhonda said.
"Why is everyone picking on me?" Kari pouted. "Why don't you reprogram Gary?"
"OK," John agreed with a smile. "Say I could reprogram Gary. What would that prove about free will?"
"Nothing," Rhonda maintained. "And besides, it would be very immoral to do that. Even to Gary."
"Gee, thanks a lot," Gary said, flashing the grin that had brought many a coed to her knees.
"Do you think so?" John asked. "Would it be immoral under all circumstances? How is it any different from ordinary persuasion?"
"It's completely different. When you persuade someone, they have a chance to think about your arguments and make a decision. If you reprogram someone they don't."
"Is there any more beer?" Kari asked.
"In the fridge," John said. "Why don't you bring one for everybody? And I think there's another bag of chips over there."
This proposal was approved by everyone except Jasmine, who claimed to still have plenty in her bottle. Kari got up from her seat on the second bed (John was reclining on the first) and fetched beers for everyone while the argument continued.
"I think that reprogramming someone wouldn't always be immoral," Jasmine said. "I mean, imagine using it to cure mental illness. That would be good."
"I don't know," Rhonda said. "It sounds dubious to me even then. I mean, if you reprogram someone, you're changing who they are."
"Not necessarily," Jasmine argued. "A minor change wouldn't have to alter their identity..."
"You girls are such wimps," Gary said. "If I had a machine to reprogram people I'd use it in a heartbeat, and I wouldn't lose any sleep over it."
Rhonda rolled her eyes. "Oh, please."
"Seriously," Gary insisted. "Why not? You've got to use every advantage you've got. Survival of the fittest. The best will prosper."
"They shouldn't let civilians read Nietzsche without a license," Rhonda said. "Or is it Ayn Rand in your case? But I don't think even you would use something like that without suffering a moral qualm."
"Maybe if I were using it to hurt people," Gary said. He accepted a new beer from Kari and took a drink. "But I'd just be using it to help myself. No different from any other advantage."
"What do you think, Kari?" John asked her, as she settled back onto the bed next to Rhonda. "Would reprogramming people's minds always be immoral?"
"I think this is the silliest debate yet," Kari said. "Cheers!"
"But aren't there things you'd like to change about yourself?" Jasmine asked. "You could...oh, I don't know. Stop biting your nails, or something. Wouldn't that be worthwhile?"
Kari examined her well-chewed cuticles critically. "Well, maybe. But I'd only want it to be used with my own permission. Having someone change me without knowing about it is creepy."
"So, to sum up," John said, ticking them off on his fingers. "Rhonda thinks it would be immoral under all circumstances; Kari thinks it might be all right with her permission; Jasmine thinks it would be moral if used for the good of others; and Gary..."
"In a heartbeat," Gary said with a grin.
"Interesting," John said. "Oh, Kari, by the way: do I have your permission? I promise only to do good things with it."
Rhonda gave a groan, but Kari laughed. "Sure, John," she said. "Why not? Fire away."
"Thanks a lot," John said gratefully. "I appreciate it, just for the record." He sat up and raised a hand. "OK, everybody. Nap time now."
John snapped his fingers, and Gary, Jasmine and Kari all immediately slumped into apparent unconsciousness. Jasmine's beer bottle slipped from her limp fingers and began spilling onto the floor.
"Oh, shit," Rhonda said.
Part IIA -- The Test: Practical Experience
"OK, guys," Rhonda said. "Very funny. Ha ha. The joke's on me."
Gary, Jasmine and Kari remained oblivious. John sighed.
"They can't hear you," he told Rhonda. "They're all asleep. I wanted to have a private chat with you. Would you mind picking up that bottle, by the way? It's spilling everywhere."
Rhonda righted the bottle while saying, "So, what am I supposed to think? That you have a machine that reprogrammed them, just like that?"
"No machine," John said. He tapped his forehead. "I'm all natural."
"Sure you are," Rhonda said. "Jeez, guys, get up. How gullible do you think I am?"
"All right," John said with another sigh. "Proof. Why don't you try leaving the room?"
Rhonda looked at him suspiciously. "Why? Is there some practical joke rigged outside?"
"No jokes," John said. "Just try it."
With a shrug, Rhonda got up and went to the door. There was a long pause.
"I can't open the door." She looked back at him over her shoulder with growing anxiety.
"Why not? It's not locked," John said calmly.
.... There is more of this story ...