I sat at my table, stooped over a defaced notebook, buried in comfort food and baggy clothes, thinking and rethinking my degree. What was I doing? Where was I going? I pictured myself bald and middle-aged, dissatisfied with my desk job and my similarly balding partner (or my lack of one), redirecting my passions into sports cars and mini-golf.
In the kindergarten era of colourful finger paintings pinned proudly on corkboards, we began to wonder: “What will I be when I grow up?” We internalised the platitudes of inspirational, self-help movies and TEDTalks. Thousands of high school students spent hours at Open Days, ravenously inhaling both information sessions and free food, pouring diligently over undergraduate guides. Now, in university, between voracious CV-building and clumsy socialising, we still find time to agonise over the direction of our lives, what courses to choose, what classes to take.
In such times of indecision, I turn to science. Its formulaic methodology fulfills roles as both my agony aunt and angsty diary entry. I tried to find the necessary ratio of enjoyment to future employability in mathematical differential equations. Each deduction was written out in shining black ink, only to be smudged as I wrote out the next line. I wished tables and graphs could quantify and solve the all-consuming paralysis of choice and the greed of wanting it all.
I was overwhelmed by choice, confined by the paradox of too much freedom. I stood before two branching crossroads, trying to see down them as far as I could. I was Esther from The Bell Jar, staring at the figs on a tree, each fig a wonderful future. Unable to choose one fig and lose all the rest, she and I are frozen in indecision – and in our hesitation the figs blacken and fall at our feet. I was terrified that this indecision would consume me to the point my choices disappeared altogether.
I was afraid of choice, but also of not making a choice. Each fear perpetuated the other in a spiraling, chaotic waltz. Like a millennial teenager finding comfort in the rituals of MySpace, my confusion sent me scrabbling desperately for institution and order in science and mathematics.
Before we commit, everything is possible. Schrödinger’s Cat, when placed in a bunker with an equal chance of dying or staying alive, can be said to be both dead and alive, until someone opens the bunker and checks. Every possibility – living, dying – exists simultaneously in a quantum superposition. But in making our choice, in opening that bunker, we collapse our reality down to one single state, one lonely possibility, unable to ever experience the other possibilities of that choice. The cat will forevermore be either dead or alive. As Stephen Hawking noted, yes Zayn may still be in One Direction in a parallel universe, where reality collapsed into a different possibility. But sadly, despairingly: he’s solo in ours. If the other possibilities are closed, it’s an actuality.
As I sat there vacillating, pen poised over the pros and cons columns in the notebook, I resented my capacity to choose while feeling guilty for my ingratitude. Surely, disavowing the Western privilege of freedom is treason? What about those without alternatives? And yet, I condemned the existence of my options, my ability to exercise free will. I hated my whirring thoughts, the chemical ions firing in my neurons, the very physiological processes that took place in my mind. How could my thoughts be nothing but a result of those chemical and physical processes, my (w)angst nothing more than electric impulses in my brain?
And it was here that science failed me. Those firing chemical ions were made up of quantum particles, of quarks in neutrons and protons in a nucleus, of electrons, of particles governed by the laws of quantum physics. Quantum physics, a study so confusing that one of its defining qualities is uncertainty, ensures quantum particles behave randomly. Certainty about the position of a quantum particle would preclude any knowledge of its movement.
If the chemical processes in my brain, the interactions between these quantum particles, are inherently random under the laws of quantum mechanics, then the capacity for thought is inherently random, and free will inevitable.
My faith in the mathematical certainty of science was fruitless and fig-less. It was the inherent uncertainty of quantum physics that inflicted me with free will. Hunched over my desk, staring blankly at my wall and daydreaming about quarks, I had no choice but to have choice.