Two jellyfish drift haplessly below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. The current is warm where the jellyfish float and neither is inclined to go deeper where the pressures grow great, the light dimmer and the water colder—nor is either inclined to approach the surface where predatory oceangoing birds might pluck one up by the crown, hauling it away to desiccate on some beach, a gelatinous dessert for some seafaring scavenger.
As the current carries them they debate an issue which has preoccupied marine coelenterates for eons: the existence of free will.
“The capacity of a creature to act of its own volition, undetermined by physical or divine forces generally implies the existence of consciousness,” asserts the first. “But given the tiny ganglion clusters with which you and I are working, that could not be at issue,” it submits, raising its umbrella-like disk to reveal the small nerve pillar which directs its actions.
Jellyfish are by nature non-confrontational creatures but an indictment of the parameters of its very existence brings a scowl to the translucent visage of the second: “In my estimation, consciousness is overrated,” it replies, waving its tentacles heatedly. “The ability to look in a mirror, and recognize your own face is hardly a measure of the capacity to make non-determined decisions!”
Turning its ambiguous face toward the sky, the first responds: “But self-reflective gray matter implies the potential for reconsideration. Recall the Kantian categorical imperative—Do as you would have all others do in similar circumstances—the unconditional rule of conscience.”
It sums up as they continue to drift. “When were you last able to do that?!”
The second pumps its umbrella up and down indignantly, rising. “Free will is the exercise of the potential for alternative actions in a given situation, nothing more!” it bubbles agitatedly, the reflexive activity turning it pink as it bobs toward the surface.
“The line between acts of instinct and considered acts of choice is indistinct. Perhaps the appearance of alternatives is the true essence of the only important kind of free will there is…”
The first jellyfish is affronted by this indiscreet use of mechanistic pragmatism, but with a patience inherited through millennia of unaltered genetic coding, it allows the second to continue.
“…and using that notion of free will, a jellyfish under duress, might swim up or down—left or right. Nature would judge which decision was favored. But without alternative possibilities there could be no selection, and without selection there could be no evolution.”
As the sun dips toward the far horizon, on the craggy shore a man peers into the depths, casting his shadow far out into the rippling Pacific. “Poor pathetic creatures we are!” the man laments, considering two drifting jelly forms. “We wash about in currents of time and place with no control, completely without choice or free will.”
Meanwhile below, the two jellyfish drift easily through the man’s long shadow, one heading along the ragged shore, while its companion puts out to sea with an abandoned wave of its tentacles and a full genetic cargo of unmade decisions, questions to be asked, and possibilities to be tested.