What Search Engines Tell Us About Free Will

Ah, the humble search engine. A set of algorithms designed to facilitate human efforts to find information. The search engine is not intelligent, and neither is its overhyped child, ChatGPT, but it can tell us a lot about being human.

The Ghost Is in Us, not the Machine

Imagine this scenario. A person wants to find something on the Internet so that person goes to a search engine and types in a couple of words. Easy to imagine because we choose to do such a thing quite frequently. The search engine does as it is programmed to do — it returns a set of Web site addresses that allegedly answer the person’s search terms.

Then what happens? The person chooses which, if any, of the suggested Web sites to visit. The number of suggestions is finite, so the person’s possible choices are also finite. Of course, the person can also choose not to decide, but they still have made a choice.

Such is life. We are beings who must make choices and act on them. We make choices. We constantly are forced to make choices in response to our environment.

A mistake some people make is feeling that because circumstances force us to make choices and give us only a finite number of choices that therefore, circumstances also determine out choices. This is just lazy thinking. And while some ideologies exhort us to deny our self and thoughts, we remain undetermined and free.

A person can be influenced, but being influenced is not the same as being determined. Certainly, ideologies and corporations choose to try to influence people’s decisions. People are persuadable, more than cats are. But persuadable is also not the same as being determined.

The corporations and the ideologues can expend great efforts to influence people and persuade them into choosing certain actions, but corporations and ideologues understand that people have to be tricked, even coerced and deceived into choosing certain actions. They call it “the art of persuasion.” Many books and articles have been writing to help people persuade other people, but always, always, the suggested “art of persuasion” techniques are ways to influence other people into using their free will to choose certain actions.

Search engines are a prime example of all of the above. A search engine reacts to a person’s free will choice of search terms and returns a set of search results. Those search results are the finite circumstances a person faces when making choices of which search result, if any, to pursue. The search engine is programmed to try to influence a person into choosing certain search results. Those persuasion techniques can be successful, or a person can ignore or resist them. Regardless, a person makes a choice. No one else makes the choice but that person, no matter how forced are the circumstances and urgency that a choice must be made.

The amazing thing about people is that they have free will. Another amazing, but tragic, thing is that people have the free will to surrender their free will. That ghost that resides within each person can only be influenced so much, but it can be tricked into giving away its greatest gift — free will.


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