Objects Have Free Will; People Don’t

Vikram Bath

Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1.

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36 Responses

  1. Jean Meslier says:

    Sophocles would like a word with you.

    But seriously, the Greek dramas, and even the Homeric epics were narrating according to a script that was intimately familiar to the audience. The fate of Oedipus was no less inevitable than the twists and turns he took to escape it, in the eyes of his audience. What makes / made these dramas compelling was the opportunity to examine a series of seemingly meaningless and tragic events from new and diverse perspectives; each teller of the Oedipus saga had his own take on it. Each interwove his own moral themes, his own understanding of the motives and meanings.

    To return to your Rube Goldberg machine, we are all, as I see it, falling dominoes. And therein lies the fascination of a good drama: seeing the elevation of the merely human, or the merely machine, to something artistic, beautiful, transcendental. And I think the appreciation is not merely aesthetic; to recognize the common humanity of ourselves and these objects is to be inspired to be better, or at least to be comforted that we are in some way of the same stuff.

    I can’t speak to the Hunger Games, but to move from such breathless platitudes to a concrete example: what made the Matrix good, I think, was the audience’s initial identification with Neo’s crummy life and lonesome hobbies, and then the transition to a world that at the time (and perhaps even now) seems tantalizingly possible, one of computer bits and slavery and noble struggle. What made the Matrix special wasn’t Neo’s choice of one pill; it was that it was a pill, and a world of digital slavery and office drudgery, instead of a wizard holding a mystical ring. But then, the wizard and the ring, or the girl and her bow and her compassion also inspired different people.

    I do not deny your criticism of art; whether any of these provides as great moral enrichment, or more than merely passing hope or elevation, seems unlikely to me when compared with some older works.Report

    • fillyjonk in reply to Jean Meslier says:

      I once opined we like superhero movies for similar reasons: we all hold the fantasy of doing something Big and something Good when most of us are stuck on a treadmill of work that is marginally meaningful at best.

      Or Harry Potter, for that matter: the fantasy of being something special.

      And yeah, I know in another thread I talked about rejecting the Chosen One narrative, but really, deep down, I would kind of like to be that one who had the power to make things a lot better. And not just the platitudinous “but you’re helping shape the next generation of doctors” crap better.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to fillyjonk says:

        Nearly everybody is the hero or heroine of their own story.Report

      • Kim in reply to fillyjonk says:

        Yet, when you actually tell someone: Here’s what you can do to make everyone’s life better — most people haven’t the guts to actually do it.

        Imagine for a minute that you could track down the type of murderer who specializes in making children’s deaths look like accidents… (If you need to gild the lily, imagine that he’s making snuff porn out of their deaths). Would you have the guts to shoot the motherfucker? Pay someone else to assassinate the guy?Report

      • One reason I like Batman Begins and the sequel (haven’t seen part III) is that the protagonist (Bruce Wayne) plays a pretty big personal price for his super-heroism. (Of course, he’s less “chosen” and more “has a lot of resources.”)Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to Jean Meslier says:

      So the point is not that Oedipus falls, but how, and which tree branches he hits on the way down.Report

  2. Oscar Gordan says:

    This is tangent to your point, but I’m not a fan of how the construction of a Rube Goldberg device is supposed to (in visual media) indicate a character is an inventive genius. Creative? Sure, but not an engineering prodigy.Report

  3. RTod says:

    As best I can tell, your issue here is that art is necessarily a representation of a thing but not that thing itself. A painting of the Mona Lisa is not the woman who posed for it, The Macient Matiner is not really a sailor, and a peice of fiction that is about free will is not actually free will itself.

    This seems so obvious on its face that I’m not sure a comparison to RG machines is necessary.Report

    • Kolohe in reply to RTod says:

      Ceci n’est pas René Magritte.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to RTod says:

      This is a lesson René Magritte taught the western world nearly a hundred years ago. Art critics argued with Magritte to his face about what he had actually painted.

      Taking the lesson that an image of a thing is not the thing itself, does the image nevertheless have any value? If not, then why do we have art in the first place? Is it not the case that many of the great truths of real life are found (most obviously) in works of fiction? Freedom is worth sacrifice. Forgiveness brings strength. We are more alike than we are different, even with our enemies. At its best, fiction teaches us these great truths, in ways that are considerably less bloody and painful than lived experience.Report

    • Vikram Bath in reply to RTod says:

      RTod: As best I can tell, your issue here is that art is necessarily a representation of a thing but not that thing itself.

      Then I’ve failed. (There’s a first time for everything!) It’s OK for a representation to be a representation. It’s that some representations aren’t very good. There does exist fiction where choices are real. One that comes to mind is The Martian. Out of left field, I know, but Susan Isaac’s Shining Through comes to mind as well. Harry Potter definitely has to go face Voldemort, and the woman in Rogue One definitely has to go steal the Death Star plans, but a lot of different things could have happened in Taxi Driver.Report

      • DavidTC in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Harry Potter definitely has to go face Voldemort, and the woman in Rogue One definitely has to go steal the Death Star plans, but a lot of different things could have happened in Taxi Driver.

        In a way, you’re just restating the Anthropic Principle of fiction: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AnthropicPrinciple

        Fictional stories have interesting things happen in them because they are stories about interesting events. (Because stories about uninteresting things are, obviously, very uninteresting.)

        The story of Voldemort without some sort of Harry Potter is kinda stupid and everyone dies.

        In the real world, the reason that story doesn’t exist is that no one wants to tell that story, and no one would buy it if they did.

        In a more philosophical sense, all fiction is equally really, even fiction that no one bothered to create yet. All those stories are ‘out there’ in some sense, just…who the hell cares about the dumb ones no one has bothered to make?

        The difference between Taxi Driver and the other things is that other movies are clearly heroic tales, with an obvious narrative path, whereas Taxi Driver, while also interesting, is not following any sort of obvious narrative path. It has a narrative, but no one can figure out where it’s going.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to RTod says:

      “The map is not the territory. ” — Alfred Korzybski (who was a complete charlatan, but he got off a good one on occasion.)Report

  4. Jaybird says:

    The best Rube Goldberg machines, movie-plot-wise, involve humans.

    True Romance is the example that immediately came to my mind. A collision course between three groups of violent people… culminating in all of them shooting each other.

    But the problem with Free Will in movies is the problem of Free Will in life. How could John Wick have done anything but what he did?

    Well, when you bought that double cheeseburger at Wendy’s instead of bringing in a salad, how could you have done anything but that? The entirety of your life built up to this day and you failed to make the salad, you bounced off the billiard balls that were your family and your weekend errands, ending up in a drive-thru yelling at a speaker, asking for a double.

    It was inevitable, really.Report

    • Marchmaine in reply to Jaybird says:

      Always trust the ex-Calvinist on the pre-destination debate… they’ve probably lived with it as a living/breathing notion.

      Artistically, though, there’s just so little pay-off for inserting the existential dilemma in what is a plot driven payoff. I’m reminded of the Gnostic magnum opus, The Matrix; they could have re-worked the story to present the Cypher dilemma as a viable option (apparently they decided re-insertion was impossible, so that avenue is closed by the authors) which would have made the Red/Blue pill choice all the more compelling. But at what [movie] cost? We aren’t really interested in Neo’s choice, just that he chose. In fact, we learn that he has chosen thus dozens of time. So maybe the Calvinists are right, after all… or maybe its a Calvinist gnosticism.

      In Catholic reading, my least favorite is a certain sort of Saint book that reads like an inevitability of the Saint becoming a Saint… I call them, spot the saint books. Louis de Wohl is probably the prime offender. I don’t even let my kids read them as they are the opposite of edifying… I find them soul crushing; sort of like Chosen One books where we can’t figure out why St. XYZ was chosen, just that he was… so every choice he/she makes is always the right one. So, maybe Calvinist books after all.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Marchmaine says:

        The existential dilemma is a rough one but the most compelling ones are the choice between Great Reward/Wrong Thing and Right Thing/Massive Cost (up to and including death).

        So the choice at the end of John Wick 2 struck me as being very interesting but its interestingness undercut by some special dispensation.

        If you want the really good ones, you have to go back to the Disaster! films of the 70’s. Gene Hackman in The Poseidon Adventure. Now *THAT* was a character.

        Make people engage in lifeboat ethics. *NOW* we’re dealing with choices.Report

      • Not that I’m aware of the work you cite, Marchemaine, but for some reason, what you say here reminds me of Jean Racine’s plays, or at least those I’ve read. They seem to hinge on the characters having already made their choices–or their future choices having already been made–and the actual drama is the characters’ having to deal with, live with, or confront that fact.

        (Maybe Racine’s drama is just a redux of what Jean Meslier is describing above. He and his literary milieu were self-consciously “neo-classical” and derived most of their plots from Greek and Roman history and mythology.)Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Jaybird says:

      IMO, the best Rube Goldberg movies are caper flicks. The Sting. The Italian Job. Ocean’s Eleven. (Both the new and original versions of the last two, by the way. I liked them all.) We get to see an elaborately-constructed artifice just barely work and pull off something that seems miraculous.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Burt Likko says:

        That’s a sub-genre of Competence Porn, though. See the following (inevitably charismatic) people put into situations where they can use all kinds of knowledge of the system (inside and out) and hack it and exploit weaknesses. See Brad Pitt use social engineering! See the fat guy type furiously for a couple of seconds and then yell “WE’RE IN!”! See Julia Roberts’s cleavage!

        See them walk away with the money.

        For the kind of thing that you’re talking about, I kinda prefer the (aforementioned) Die Hard.

        You’ve got this team of criminals who have mastery of all kinds of tech, knowledge of the system (inside and out), and social engineers that you couldn’t believe…


        The Rube Goldberg Machine that, suddenly, attracts the attention of the kitten.Report

      • Read The Code of the Woosters sometime. It’s a perfectly constructed Rube Goldberg machine. Most books with plots that elaborate require at least some of the characters to act inexplicably, or at least unexpectedly with inadequate justification. But Wodehouse’s people act exactly as they should: like idiots, of course, but like the particular kind of idiot they are.Report

      • DavidTC in reply to Burt Likko says:

        IMO, the best Rube Goldberg movies are caper flicks. The Sting. The Italian Job. Ocean’s Eleven. (Both the new and original versions of the last two, by the way. I liked them all.) We get to see an elaborately-constructed artifice just barely work and pull off something that seems miraculous.

        Heh. I was recently hypothesizing about a video game I would make if I had unlimited time and money, and I was any good at that sort of thing. And one of the games I came up with was, basically, building a heist movie.

        Like, you collect information about people, and locations, and try to plan out a heist. Then you’d put it into motion and see how it worked. It could even play out like a heist movie, where during gameplay you get cutbacks to what you previously did, and then can immediately use it.

        And there always would be a few random variables you’d have to put in buffers for, and those would even change from play to play. So you can’t just brute-force your way through it, making minor corrections.

        That guard might randomly get up at a different time, for example. So you can’t count on that hallway being clear, you need to set up something to *tell* you when it’s clear, or something to trigger the guard when *you* want him to get up.

        Or if a con on someone was borderline, someone might believe it one time and not believe it the next. So either try something else, or do more research on that guy for a better con, or have a plan if it failed.

        And then you eventually do that one and move on to the next heist. Probably some sort of RPG progression system, where you earn points or money to increase skills, I dunno.

        I never made the connection to Rube Goldberg, but you’re right…and considering that there are dozens of games where you build Rube Goldberg machines, and even more games where you *can* build them and people spend a lot of time doing so (I admit I have built a few in Fallout 4.)….it would probably be pretty enjoyable to do it with people.Report

  5. Kolohe says:

    Reality television deserves a callout here. Though reality television often puts people in silly situations, the actions of the participants are ostensibly theirs and not a master planner’s. You might hate the Bachelor, but the person on camera is at least making a genuine decision.

    Reality TV is famous/notorious for the producers to create whatever narrative they feel like making through the use of editing. The Apprentice production team, some have said, had to really work in overtime to make Donald’s decisions appear to be based on something other than random fluctuations of the quantum foam.Report

  6. KenB says:

    I enjoyed this post, but I think there’s a distinction that needs to be made. My thesis adviser was fond of quoting Catherine the Great: “freedom is the right to do what is permitted by law”. Each genre or form has its rules that must be followed, or else you’re no longer meeting the requirements. The objects in a Rube Goldberg device have to follow the laws of physics — if a ball is placed at the top of a ramp, it has to roll down, and a domino pushed at its top will fall in the opposite direction. If you’re writing a limerick, then your creativity is bound by following the AABBA rhyme scheme and the amphibrachic prosody. If you’re writing a monomyth-style movie, then your character ultimately has to answer his/her call of destiny.

    So Katniss, the heroine, can’t do otherwise than take the place of her sister without turning the movie into an entirely different thing (perhaps an examination of the limits of family duty and the emotional consequences of declining even a supererogatory act). Thus, an audience that’s familiar with the form will always be able to make certain predictions, just like we’ll have some idea of what the last word in the second line of the limerick will be based on the rhyme scheme.

    The best artists find ways to make the inevitable seem surprising and yet sensible. Others produce something familiar and enjoyable while remaining in safe waters, which is enough for many people much of the time.Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to KenB says:

      As people have said about the Anthropic Principle, it’s like water theorizing about how some divine agency must be at work because otherwise the shape of the puddle would not so perfectly fit into the hole.

      “Thus, an audience that’s familiar with the form will always be able to make certain predictions, just like we’ll have some idea of what the last word in the second line of the limerick will be based on the rhyme scheme.”

      And the thing is, this audience can still enjoy the story. Every diver goes into the water, but it’s how they go in that matters.

      “The best artists find ways to make the inevitable seem surprising and yet sensible. ”

      And, I think, that gets to what Vikram is offended by; the times when it’s not done well and you can see the artist’s finger holding down the lever so the ball goes into the hole instead of getting stuck.Report

      • KenB in reply to DensityDuck says:

        It’s possible that I missed the message of his post and merely restated his point…

        Possibly related: I remember a John Cleese interview where he was talking about the writing process for Fawlty Towers, and when they had to put in certain plot points to set up a later payoff, they worked hard to make the presentation of those plot points so funny that the audience wouldn’t realize they were actually part of the scaffolding.Report

        • DensityDuck in reply to KenB says:

          I think we both restated his point, actually, based on what he’s written in later comments.Report

        • Kristin Devine in reply to KenB says:

          First time I watched The Incredibles I had a moment of sheer childish delight when the villain was brought down by his cape. Realizing how absolutely perfectly they’d set that up so no one even saw it coming (“No capes!”) . So well done!

          Or in Die Hard when it’s all so perfectly logical that he has his shoes off, because he’s trying to relax based on what the guy on the airplane told him and this comes back around to bite him when they shoot the glass…it is like a Rube Goldberg machine, really.Report

    • Kristin Devine in reply to KenB says:

      Enjoyed the piece a lot but also agree with Ken.

      I remember having “creativity is wonderful” drummed into my head a lot as a kid, only to find out as an adult, that creativity has to take place within some narrowly defined guidelines that are sometimes rather arbitrary but may as well be laws of physics. In retrospect they’d have done more good had they been proactive about teaching us the guidelines and not so much pushing the creativity angle.

      There was a line in one of my English textbooks that went something like “A hero with a sword is boring, but if you have a hero with a sword made of strawberry jello, then you’re really onto something!!”

      No, you’re not.Report