Thursday, 11 February 2016

Whose Great Idea Was This?

According to a television programme that I saw last week, we don’t have as much control over our actions as we think. In fact it appears that the notion of ‘free will’ could just be a myth – our bodies simply react to trillions of competing stimuli in an automated process over which we have no conscious control. This could explain quite a lot.

The TV presenter, who was a Doctor (so it must be true), showed us an experiment in which a patient was connected to various laboratory machines and instructed to move their limbs while electromagnetic beams were aimed at their head. By changing the electromagnetic settings, the Doctor could make the patient move the ‘wrong’ limb – although, weirdly, the patient always thought that the unintended movement was their own idea, thus maintaining the misconception that we are responsible for our own actions.

The implications for horseracing are huge. For a start, no one can possibly blame me if Starchitect doesn’t win the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury this weekend. My choice of selection has basically been preordained by a sequence of events which are entirely outwith my own control.

Moreover, we can’t blame the jockey, the trainer or the horse either – they’re all just creatures responding to a complex matrix of external forces. Although it should be noted that Starchitect is a particularly handsome creature and this may well turn out to be one of the forces that discriminates in his favour. 

In another programme this week, I heard an anthropologist discussing a similar theme. Simon McBurney spends his time asking people to point to the place where their ‘consciousness’ comes from. As you’d expect, most adults in western civilisation point to their brain. Some people might point to their heart, which is a nice sentiment, especially with Valentines Day just around the corner. But in the isolated wilds of the Amazon Rain Forest, McBurney found a tribe of people who pointed at the jungle surrounding them. Their belief is that their consciousness comes, not just from the self, but from their environment – which links us back to the hypothesis of the Doctor on TV.  

I’m not sure why I didn’t see this before. I am quite certain that if you asked a hundred thousand Irishmen where their consciousness comes from, they’d point East towards Cheltenham. Like a murmuration of starlings swooping in the Autumn dusk, or a hive of bees swarming in the Spring, droves of punters migrate across the Irish Channel each year in March – apparently coordinated by the unseen hand of fate. Few know how they managed to get to Cheltenham; even fewer know how they got back.

Most of the Irish contingent will be hardwired to bet on any horse trained by Willie Mullins. They’ll probably go home having backed a high proportion of winners. Unfortunately, I’m pre-programmed to support horses at longer prices (it’s a medical condition known as ‘greed’) – and will consequently come away much poorer. But at least I know, now, that it isn’t my fault.

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