The Undetermined Flight Paths of Bees

When you take a bee and release it at a random, unknown location, it will follow a three-step process. First, it’ll fly straight or whatever course it was on before you captured it. Second, it will fly slowly to orient itself, frequently changing direction. Finally, it will zip straight back to the hive as soon as it has figured out the terrain. Fascinating, right? Bees seem to have a spatial memory similar to ours.

The study in which this pattern was discovered even includes graphics of the bees’ flight paths. Whether you look at those squiggly lines or a fly zooming around beneath your ceiling, you can’t help but wonder: How much of these paths is predetermined? They fly so fast! Do they know where they’re going in advance?

Without turning this into a big argument about the existence of free will, if you had asked the late Jamse Carse, author of Finite and Infinite Games, he’d have given you a resounding “No.” Nature is “irreducibly spontaneous,” Carse contended, a phenomenon humans deeply struggle with.

Nature is “perfectly indifferent” to our culture, to everything humans think, believe, assert, or do, yet it is not chaotic either. There are rules and patterns in nature, some of which we can even observe — like the flight paths of displaced bees — but how those rules and patterns come together, what their next outcome might be, is totally unknowable.

Initially, this might sound depressing. Like we are powerless pawns, living on a hostile planet, floating around in indifferent space. Actually, however, nature doing its own thing is our very source of freedom, Carse asserted: “Our freedom in relation to nature is not the freedom to change nature; it is not the possession of power over natural phenomena. It is the freedom to change ourselves.”

Our freedom is not a freedom over nature, Carse said, but “the freedom to be natural, that is, to answer to the spontaneity of nature with our own spontaneity.” Only if we surrender to nature’s nonchalance can we truly engage with it, seeing our interactions with it as a playful back and forth of two parties intending to both listen and speak, each taking their turn. “The more deeply a culture respects the indifference of nature, the more creatively it will call upon its own spontaneity in response,” Carse wrote.

In that sense, our lives are not questions. It is not a matter of finding our purpose, slotting right into the perfect place reserved for us by the universe. Life is a matter of creating our purpose, of saying, “Wow, that’s awesome, nature! Now it’s my turn. Look what I’ve got to offer!” Not like we do in a contest where the goal is to win, but the way we might dance to a wedding band, hoping each song will lead to yet another. Our lives are a game in nature, and the goal is to keep playing.

So no, no one knows where the bee will fly next. Not even the bee. Until it makes a call in the moment, the entire universe will be watching — yet it will always find its way home in the end.