Mark Reads ‘The Science of Discworld II’: Chapter 16

In the sixteenth chapter of The Science of Discworld II, do we have free will? If you’re intrigued, then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld. 

Trigger Warning: For discussion of anti-Roma slurs/stereotypes, religious abuse and homophobia

I just wanted to note upfront that I am skipping the g-slur used throughout the text in the videos; I realize this was published in 2002 and that at the same time, I had no idea that it was a slur, either. Still, I’m reading it now, and the use of it isn’t acceptable, so I don’t even want to say it. And in this instance, more so than the last batch, there’s the stereotypical equation of Roma people with fortune tellers, so… yeah, those of us who are not Roma need to combat this trope as much as possible. 

So, there was a LOT in here that resonated with me and my upbringing. (And I remain surprised at how much I continue to have to say about these books; I’m always worried I’m going to run out of stuff to respond to, you know?) The notion of free will is a complicated one for me, given that I, like in the examples the authors give, was told that God already had a will for me. I was supposed to act in line with it. Even worse, I lived in one of those conservative religious cultures where I was already doomed. No matter what I did, if I did not renounce being gay, I was destined for Hell. And that’s terrifying, isn’t it? “Destined.” It meant that at a very young age, fully knowing that I was attracted to other boys, I was aware that I had virtually no choices that would prevent me from going to Hell. Oh, I tried to adapt, to fake heterosexuality, to force my mind and my heart to be attracted to other girls, but I was always keenly aware that this was fake, that I was a fraud.

How do you grow up in a system like that? How can you believe choice matters when you’re taught so young that it doesn’t? And that wasn’t the only means by which this idea was drilled into my head. There were so many other ways in which God was taught to me to be omniscient, omnipotent, and had already made a decision about my eternal soul. In hindsight, I can see both why I believed what I was told—lord, was I ever desperate for direction, validation, and attention—and why I now still experience shame while thinking about it. How could I accept a world so cruel? How could I believe the words of someone who literally did not follow what she taught? But thinking, “I should have known,” is an act of futility. I didn’t know and you can’t know what you don’t know. It’s impossible to do so. I don’t know if I’ll ever know if this was intentional or if this was passed on to me because my mother also did not question the programming she was taught. At the very least, though, I think it’s important to analyze this stuff, to be honest about the ways in which systems have taught us that there is no hope, no real choice. What is their interest in teaching us these sort of lessons? Because I view my past less as one where someone was desperate to get me to believe in God—surely, there were more attractive methods—but of one where control was absolute. If I could be controlled, could be molded into a precise and exact version of a person, then the techniques did not matter. All that mattered was that I was obedient, and turning a child into a ball of terror and anxiety is certainly one way to achieve that. 

As religious and strict as my mother was, she contained so many contradictions. Practically everything was evil, Satanic, or would have an undue influence on children. Yet she wholly believed in astrology, y’all, while actively criticizing other people for believing in it. I am sure you have lots of questions, and I can answer NONE OF THEM. But she would discount people’s opinions because of what sign they were; she chose political candidates based on chart readings; she would insult people based on that, too. So, it was real easy for me to consider astrology and horoscopes to be utter nonsense at a young age. Which is fascinating, now that I’m thinking about it! Why was I so quick to disbelieve that, to notice the contradictions present between belief and behavior? It’s got to be an issue of stakes. Not believing in the Zodiac signs didn’t mean I would be sent to Hell, you know? There wasn’t the same fear running through my body, and so it was easier for me to see astrology as nothing more than a silly hobby.

I can’t say I feel that much different about it all, given how many wildly differing (and hilariously contradictory) opinions I’ve heard about my sign or even my “new” one. I admit that there’s always going to be a part of me that wonders if my environment would have been different as a child, if I’d still believe as I did. Was I primed for disbelief, or did that come about because of my experiences? I’m not sure, and I don’t think there’s any way to definitively know that. Like this chapter says, there’s no scientific test for free will or for belief. You can’t measure that unless you could restart a person’s life and watch it develop with one element changed. Even then, can you really determine the trajectory of a life with just one change? Was my mother’s religion the cause of all of this, or was it some other factor? Or some other interaction? At the end of the day, I can think of these sort of things, but I mostly try to focus on how my beliefs affect the here and now. How they affect a possible future. I can’t know that, either, but I can do my best to try and observe the world, notice patterns, and make a judgement about the future. 

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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