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Joss Whedon

"Free Will in a Deterministic Whedonverse" - an essay

Tuesday 18 December 2012, by Webmaster

The works of Joss Whedon have addressed a number of the timeless questions raised by art and literature. Are women truly “the weaker sex”? Do past evil acts make one irredeemably evil? Can there be any realm more cruel and capricious than that of Fox Network Programming? (For those new to Whedon’s career, the answer to all of those questions is “no.”)

Another fundamental question that has been addressed by Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly is that of freedom. Or rather, two distinct but related questions: Can we ever be said to be truly free? and, Do people need to be free? in regard to the latter question, the answer has been an emphatic and unwavering yes. But in regard to the former, the answer has been much more equivocal. Despite the seeming contradiction of this state of affairs—how can freedom be worth fighting for if it may not even be available?—we will see that there is, in fact, no necessary contradiction. The Feeling of Free Will

An inescapable conclusion of human life is that, for much of the time, we are the authors of our own destiny. Every day people experience freely choosing what to do next-whether to cross the street, eat dessert, or buy a house. Some choices may feel less free than others-ask anyone in the midst of quitting smoking-but the experience of willing our actions, even those we may later regret, is a hallmark of human life. And yet, the advances of science have continuously demonstrated that ours is a material world, and most everything in it follows deterministic laws of predictable outcomes, including our own behavior. To many, the claim that our behavior is determined by prior causal forces in just the same manner as the movement of planets or the behavior of insects is an alarming, if not frightening, prospect. To counter this, it is commonly suggested that humans are in possession of a special, acausal, and indeterministic force, known as free will, which exempts us from the seeming nihilism of a deterministic universe. For the religiously inclined, this is commonly cast as the human soul, given by our creator in distinction to all the beasts of the field. For those of a more atheistic bent, who still wish to see human existence as possessing some unique quality that makes us special kinds of volitional agents, the apparently indeterministic quantum processes underlying subatomic particles are seen as a possible means of getting free will back into the admittedly physical brain and body. Both of these positions are commonly supported with recourse to the apparently empirical argument that we must have free will, as we experience freely choosing our behavior all of the time.1 However, recent psychological research has shown this feeling to be largely an illusion: the moment we think we make a decision, it has in fact already been made.

In a series of ground-breaking experiments, Benjamin Libet and colleagues demonstrated that this cornerstone of human existence is, in fact, illusory: people only consciously experience choosing to do something after the neurological processes of doing so have already begun. Participants were asked to make the proverbial minimal conscious effort—lifting a finger—while monitoring a fast-moving clock, and to report the time at which they chose to do so. These participants were also outfitted with electrodes on their scalps and fingers, to objectively measure the brain and muscle activity. They found that the participants reported choosing to move their finger 500 milliseconds after the relevant brain activity began increasing. While half of a second2 may not seem like very much time, this does show that the conscious decision is not the real source of action, but rather a report of a choice that has already been made. This means that our conscious experience of free will is not, in fact, as free as it appears.

It has also been shown that people cannot tell when their decisions are made for them, if they are not conscious of the external source of their decisions. In experiments by Ammon and Gandevia, participants were again asked to choose when to lift a finger, and also to choose which hand to use. By targeting either the right or the left side of the brain with magnetic stimulation, the researchers were able to induce the participants to choose their non-dominant hand eighty percent of the time, whereas unmanipulated participants chose their dominant hand sixty percent of the time. Despite this manipulation, the participants all reported having consciously chosen which hand to use. Similar results had been obtained previously in Delgado’s slightly less controlled and more invasive experiments with a brain surgery patient, electrically stimulating portions of the exposed motor cortex during surgery to produce movement that, behaviorally, appeared normal (unlike the jerky movements produced by electrically stimulating muscles). When asked why he had made these movements, the patient reported consciously willing to do so, claiming he was trying to look under the bed or discover the source of a noise.

Beyond demonstrating the disconnect between the conscious experience of freely willing an action and the actual neurological activity underlying it, psychologists have also demonstrated that participants can be led to experience consciously willing an action that they are not, in fact, impacting at all. Matute found that participants asked to determine the level of contingency between an aversive noise and their typing numbers on a keyboard reported high levels of control over the outcome, despite the fact that the termination of the noise was entirely determined by the activities of another participant. Because they had no other source to which they could attribute control, they leapt to the conclusion that they must be the ones determining the outcome.

Further, research has shown that participants will report some volitional control for events with which they know for a fact they had nothing to do. Wegner, Sparrow, and Winerman had participants sit in front of a mirror while wearing a robe, with a research assistant placing his or her hands through the arms of the robe. A series of tape-recorded instructions (e.g., clap your hands, wave them back and forth) directed the assistant’s movements. Afterward, participants were asked to rate how much they felt they had consciously controlled the activity. When the participants themselves did not hear the instructions, they provided very low responses (roughly one and a half on a seven-point scale). When they did hear the instructions, however, they reported mid-level responses (about three on the scale). While not claiming full authorship of the activity, it is remarkable that awareness of what the ensuing action was to be doubled the sense of volitional control for activities that every subject knew perfectly well they were not controlling. This suggests that our feeling of free will derives in part from the presence of cues to authorship, such as prior knowledge of the ensuing action and visual evidence that the action is being performed by our bodies. In this experiment, the participants who heard the recorded instructions and saw what looked like their own hands making the movements apparently received sufficient cues to experience partial authorship, despite being consciously aware that this was not the case.

Beyond the immediate illusion of freely choosing a given action, the entire industry of modern social science is largely predicated on the possibility of finding the underlying causal processes that lead people to make the choices they do, be they individual life history factors, cultural or social pressures, or genetic determinants. Most of the arguments in psychology, sociology, anthropology, and behavioral genetics today are not about whether external factors predictably determine behavior, but about which factors are the most important. It is the very nature of scientific investigations to posit that a given effect has some prior cause, which can be discovered through systematic elimination of candidate causes (Popper). In the case of human behavior, these causes may range from genetic predispositions or brain trauma to traumatic childhoods or an oppressively patriarchal culture, but they are nearly always “external,” in the sense of being outside of the agent’s control at the time the choice was made. The Problem with Prophecies

In essence, then, it seems to be the case that humans are rather easily led to believe they have freely made choices which were actually the inevitable effects of prior causes. This is also true of the humans (and close facsimiles thereof) in the works of Joss Whedon. While the immediate evidence for illusory will described in these experiments is rarely seen, the deterministic nature of apparently free choices is commonly illustrated through the metaphor of prophecies. Indeed, it is nearly a truism of the Whedonverse that the attempt to avoid the consequences of a prophecy is precisely what causes its fulfillment. In season one of Buffy, Buffy attempted to circumvent a prophecy that the Master (an old and powerful vampire) would escape and kill her. Although she had resigned herself to dying, she hoped to prevent the Master’s escape by confronting him directly in his prison in the subterranean ruins of a church (“Prophecy Girl,” 1-12). It soon turned out, however, that killing3 Buffy was the very thing that provided the Master with sufficient power to free himself; had she never gone to the Master’s lair, he would not have been able to escape.

Similarly, in Angel, the Nyazian Scrolls prophesized the “Tro-Clon,” a confluence of events that spread across several seasons, and foretold either the “purification” or the “ruination” of humanity, or possibly both (“Offspring,” 3-7). Confronted with this prophecy, various characters attempted to prevent its outcome, and each attempt was essential to its actual fulfillment. First (in the chronology of the world, not that of the television episodes), the time-traveling demon Sahjhan learned that the Nyazian Scrolls foretold that the “one sired by the vampire with a soul” would be the one to kill him (“Forgiving,” 3-17). In order to prevent this outcome, he froze Daniel Holtz, Angelus’s nineteenth-century nemesis, and released him in the twenty-first century, where he manipulated him into attempting to kill Angel and Darla before Angel’s son Connor could be born (“Quickening,” 3-8). As Holtz did not do so, Sahjhan also changed the prophecy to warn that “the father will kill the son” (“Forgiving,” 3-17), which in turn led Wesley to assist Holtz in kidnapping the infant Connor, whom Holtz then took to Quor-Toth, a hell dimension where time passed more quickly than in the normal world (“Sleep Tight,” 3-16). Connor returned a few weeks later, having passed seventeen years in a hell dimension acquiring the skills necessary to eventually kill Sahjhan (“A New World,” 3-20).

But that was not all. Another aspect of the Tro-Clon was that Connor had to father the “Power That Was” Jasmine with Angel’s love interest Cordelia (“Apocalypse Nowish,” 4-7), and the subsequent events (discussed in greater detail below) led to such despair that Angel did have to kill him, in a way-he slit Connor’s throat in order to complete a spell performed by the evil law firm Wolfram & Hart that rewrote reality and placed Connor in a normal family, with memories of a normal childhood (“Home,” 4-22). In the following season, Connor did return, now unknown to all but Angel, and did in fact kill Sahjhan in combat (“Origin,” 5-18).

Again, the actions of each of the agents in this convoluted story, each attempting to avoid a prophesied outcome, led to that very outcome. Had Sahjhan not meddled with the original prophecy, or preserved Holtz to set loose upon Angel when Darla was pregnant, it is possible Wesley never would have helped Holtz kidnap Connor in order to avoid Angel’s killing of him. Had that not occurred, Connor might not have acquired the skills needed to defeat Sahjhan, nor would he have lost the normal childhood that led to the despondency that, in turn, led to Angel’s having to “kill” him in order to give him a new life. We see that, in the world of Angel and Buffy, it is not merely the case that decisions which were thought to be free had actually been predetermined, but that the predestination was only possible because of attempts to escape it. While these prophecies are always taken at face value, dictating in advance what events will transpire, they actually serve as triggers, leading the characters they speak of to pursue a predictable line of action, in turn creating the conditions that will actually fulfill the prophecy.

The essence of determinism is this predictability. Decisions are not made ex nihilo, but are the predictable outcomes of a mechanistic process, a long, traceable line of causes and effects. In the case of complicated agents like human beings, that is a very complex process, combining the personality or temperament of the actor, the past events he or she has encountered, and the immediate circumstances surrounding the moment of decision, but it remains strictly predictable, and anyone with access to enough information can calculate what will happen when person X encounters situation Y at time Z. In the mystical world of Buffy and Angel, gods and demons do have access to this information, and frequently employ it to determine the actions of our heroes. But we also see this determinism in the decidedly less mystical world of Firefly. While there is no prophecy detailing the future of Malcolm Reynolds, the captain of the smugglers’ ship Serenity, other characters are frequently shown to be able to manipulate his actions by presenting him with information they know will lead to his doing what they desire. In “The Message” (1-12), for example, Mal and first mate Zoe’s old war buddy Tracey manipulated them into assisting in his plan to escape the corrupt Alliance officer he was cheating out of the artificial organs he was hired to transport inside his body.4 Tracey took a drug to feign death and had himself mailed to the Serenity crew along with a recorded message asking them to get his body safely back to his home planet, quoting the beginning of a meaningful maxim from their days in the war: “When you can’t run anymore, you crawl, and when you can’t crawl, you find someone to carry you.” Tracey was relying on their sense of obligation to comrades-in-arms to get him out of a problem he created for himself, and when things later went south, the reanimated Tracey told Mal that he picked him and Zoe because they were sentimental “saps,” and therefore predictable.

Mal, in turn, avoided the worst outcomes of these “predestinations” by himself predicting what other people would do. He rightly predicted that local crime boss Patience would attempt to kill him while buying scavenged Alliance goods from him, and feigned trust while sending out his tracker and muscle Jayne to neutralize Patience’s snipers (“Serenity”). In “Trash,” he again predicted a double-cross, in this case expecting Saffron—a con woman by whom he had already been tricked once before—to attempt to steal the Lassiter, a valuable antique laser gun she had conspired with Mal to steal from its rightful owner. He sent another crew member, Inara, to await Saffron at the drop point and retrieve the Lassiter after Saffron’s inevitable betrayal. Finally, in Serenity (the film, not the episode), Mal recognizes that Inara is being forced to call him into a trap by the fact that they do not fight during their conversation, which would have been the normally predictable course. Prepared for the Alliance to know his location, he removes the signaling beacon they would use to track and destroy his ship, throwing it to the Alliance operative just as that threat is made.

The ability of Mal and others to counter these predictions in Firefly, as opposed to the oedipal fulfillment of prophecies in Buffy and Angel, derives from the difference in their sources. Because the prophecies come from deities, with nigh-infinite access to information, they are able to foresee the countermeasures the characters will attempt, and incorporate them into the plan. When it is other humans making predictions, with our significantly more limited access to relevant information, every contingency is not planned for, and the characters are better able to grapple with the deterministic forces that confront them. To put it more provocatively, in the worlds of Joss Whedon, the greatest threats to freedom are the gods. The Compatibility of Free Will and Determinism

This brings us to the core of the free will and determinism dilemma. The characters in Whedon’s worlds are not free in the strict sense of being completely undetermined. In fact, they are eminently determined, making choices that can be predicted in advance with knowledge of their personality and the surrounding circumstances when they make that choice. However, this determinism cuts both ways, and means that the characters are also capable of predicting their opponents’ behavior, and this capacity presents new information which changes those circumstances. In each of the cases where Mal avoided the trap set for him by an opponent who predicted his deterministic behavior, he did not in fact change that behavior; he merely added additional behaviors, making predictions in response to the fact of his opponent’s predictions. Of course, his opponents may have predicted that prediction, and adopted their own countermeasures, leading to an infinite regress of second-guessing. At some point, however, this would become too cognitively taxing for any human being to engage in, and someone would eventually fail to predict the still causally determined choice of the other.

The set of all relevant prior conditions, and of all relevant present information, is too large for the future results to be calculated with certainty. And if our futures cannot be calculated in advance, then we are “free” in the very important sense of being able to behave in an unexpected manner. This is why the claim that our behavior is determined, in the sense of being the result of prior conditions interacting with present ones, need not lead to the nihilistic conclusion that we are slaves of predestination. In essence, we do not have the kind of free will we like to think we do—that the decision to act begins spontaneously when we hear ourselves thinking it, and has no prior cause that makes it predictable. But we do have the kind of freedom we like to attribute to other people—a fundamental responsibility for one’s decisions.

This is because there is a distinction between the fact of free will, and the feeling of free will. We have an illusory experience of free will that makes us think we are not “meat puppets,” our strings being pulled by a long line of materialistic, predictable, and therefore determined processes. This is, in an important sense, false, as what determinism really means is simply that there is a traceable chain of causes and effects underlying our behavior, and we do not simply do things out of the blue. To say that the conscious experience of free will is an illusion is not to say that we do not have free will, but merely that it does not work the way we feel like it does. The fact of free will is distinct from the feeling-and we are the ones making our decisions, even if they do not happen the way we feel like they do.

For while the experience of making choices through one’s own free will may itself be illusory, it remains the case that, most of the time, we are the source of our behavior. Surely, it is the outcome of a number of forces, both internal and external, that have coalesced into our individual life histories, opinions, beliefs, and desires, but these remain ours; there is not another agent making those choices for us. Most of the time, the meat inside the puppet is the thing pulling the strings. Using the Illusion

The illusory experience of consciously willed choices serves as a kind of cognitive shorthand, saving the conscious representational machinery the trouble of experiencing much of the “math” of decision-making, and instead presenting us with the “sum,” the end-result decision that has motivated our actions, or lack thereof. It appears that this experience of being free to make one’s own choices is not merely a cognitive simplification, but may be an important aspect of psychological health, suggesting that the normal functioning of human minds depends on that illusion. Glass, Singer, and Friedman demonstrated that merely believing one has control over the environment may enhance performance in stressful environments. Two groups of subjects were asked to complete a series of complex cognitive tasks while being subjected to random, loud bursts of noise. One group was given a button, which they were told could be used to stop the noises at any time, although the experimenter would prefer it if they did not. The other group was given no such option. Although no one in the button condition ever actually used it to stop the distracting noise, they showed a significantly higher performance on the tasks than their peers in the no-button condition, showing greater tolerance for frustration (in attempting to solve insolu ble puzzles), and missing two-thirds fewer errors in a proofreading task. Further, they reported the noise to be less aversive, and expressed greater feelings of control than those in the no-button condition. Similarly, Taylor, Lichtman, and Wood have found that a belief in greater personal control than the facts technically suggest may improve responses to threatening information. Among breast cancer patients, believing one (or one’s physician) could exert some control over the cancer was strongly associated with overall positive adjustment.

Further, the will to exert control over one’s circumstances also seems to motivate greater achievement. In a series of experiments, Burger demonstrated that a strong “desire for control” (such as preferring to make one’s own decisions, avoiding the loss of control, and taking on positions of leadership) is tied to a number of factors essential in achieving success. For example, despite showing no significant difference in performance in an anagram task, participants high in desire for control asked to be given more difficult subsequent tasks than those reporting a low desire. They also expressed greater estimations of their ability to complete simple but cognitively taxing tasks, such as connecting randomized numbers sequentially, yet made more accurate estimations of how successful they would be. In a timed proofreading task, high desire for control participants made a greater effort than lows, when the task was made more complicated by adding additional requirements (to note the number of appearances of the word “the” and of proper nouns). In all of these studies, it is worth noting that the desire for control was not related to a greater ability to perform the tasks, but rather a greater motivation to achieve.

These studies5 all point to the conclusion that the factual accuracy of one’s conscious experience of freely willing action and controlling one’s destiny is not the only criterion for evaluating the utility of that experience. It seems that, in many kinds of situations, we may benefit from overestimating the extent to which we can consciously control the events that happen to us, and the desire to maintain that overestimation may be essential in driving the human race to produce the actual accomplishments we have. Even if we are not as free as we like to think we are, there may well be a very good reason for thinking so. As Gunn said after being told about the external manipulation of everyone’s choices to bring about the Tro-Clon:

GUNN: The final score can’t be rigged. I don’t care how many players you grease; that final shot always comes up a question mark. But here’s the thing: you never know when you take it. Could be when you’re duking it out with the legion of doom, or when you’re just crossing the street deciding where to have brunch. So you just treat it all like it was up to you-the world in the balance, ’cuz you never know when it is. (Angel, “Inside Out,” 4-17) Fighting for Freedom

It is not determinism that is the enemy of free will, but rather the coercive manipulation of determinism by other agents. By using some form of coercion—either a direct physical threat or a forceful modification of an agent’s internal state—a coercive agent can remove another’s free will by reducing the set of beliefs and desires available to the coerced agent to those which will deterministically produce the desired behavior. The latter form (commonly known as “brainwashing”) has been a recurring topic in Whedon’s work, arising most literally in cases such as the device implanted in the vampire Spike by the Initiative, a secret military organization, which prevented him from attacking humans, or in the Alliance’s manipulation of River’s brain to create a conditioned psychic warrior in Firefly. But much broader (and slightly less literal) brainwashing in order to produce social order has figured prominently in the works of Whedon, and is unequivocally cast as the wrong path.

Firefly, centering around the efforts of a group of distinct individuals all looking to escape the omnipresent arm of the galactic state known as the Alliance, helmed by two veterans of the losing side in the war to avoid governance by that Alliance, really could not be more about freedom if Whedon had flashed the words “Freedom is Neato!” on the screen every tenth frame. The incorrectness of removing freedom for the sake of order was a frequent theme in nearly every episode of the series, but becomes most pronounced in the film that followed its too-brief run, Serenity.

Rather than show the authoritarians-in the form of the Alliance itself or of the petty despots it lets run the outer planets-to be bumbling, selfish, or downright cruel, as in the series, in the film the motivations of the Alliance are cast more complexly as well-intentioned attempts to force the world to be a better place, which inevitably makes it incredibly worse.

For it turns out that the Reavers, a group of horrendously violent men who have lost all trace of humanity and whose attacks on ships and on the outer planets are so violent and devastating as to make them literally unbelievable to the civilized society of the Alliance’s core planets, are actually the remnants of Miranda, a test-planet for the Alliance’s social engineering. There, the Alliance mixed a chemical known as “the Pax” into the ventilation systems, intending for it to reduce aggression and make the planet free of violence and strife. That is, they attempted to circumvent people’s free will by directly attacking the neurological substrates of conflict. The result was truly better than they hoped-people not only stopped fighting with each other, but stopped fighting for life itself. Ninety-nine and nine-tenths percent of the populace simply gave up, lying down and slowly starving to death, without any drive to accomplish even the basic requirements of life. And, as with most psycho-pharmaceuticals, a small portion of the subjects had an (even more) adverse reaction to their treatment, which hyperactivated their anger centers and turned them into the Reavers.

As Whedon himself says, the “film is really about the right to be wrong” (Whedon, Serenity). While the intentions of the Alliance to bring about better living through involuntary chemistry were aimed at doing good, their failure to account for the importance of free will not only massacred an entire planet, but unleashed a much more dangerous force upon the galaxy than the occasional bar brawl or robbery they were attempting to suppress. With Serenity, Whedon is not trying to say that those or other crimes are themselves good things, but that individuals need to be able to choose for themselves whether to engage in them.

The narrative arc of season four of Angel is Whedon’s most direct treatment of the value of free will, threatened by the aforementioned Jasmine. Perhaps not coincidentally, he also considers it the best season (Whedon, “Season Four Overview”). One of the Powers That Be (deity-like beings who maintain a generally hands-off approach to the human realm), she decided to incarnate herself on Earth and bring about world peace by robbing everyone of their free will and uniting them in unconditional devotion to her. Although she initially enslaved Angel and his friends, as well, they broke free of her spell by coming into contact with her blood, and set about finding a way to end her domination of Earth. This season directly addressed the value of free will by casting the question in the most challenging terms—is free will more valuable than a world free of strife and suffering? The bliss experienced by Jasmine’s followers contrasted sharply with the pain experienced by the members of Angel Investigations as they contemplated the loss of that happiness and, more importantly, of the confidence that everything would work out for the best because Jasmine said so (“Sacrifice,” 4-20). After Angel managed to break Jasmine’s spell, Los Angeles erupted into violence, as everyone lashed out in fear and confusion, having lost their sense of peace and happiness. They confronted each other, Jasmine berating Angel for having ended world peace by ending her control, directly addressing the season’s moral—and the conclusion of this essay—in the following exchange:

JASMINE: I offered paradise; you chose this.

ANGEL: Because I could. Because that’s what you took away from us: choice.

JASMINE: And look what free will has gotten you.

ANGEL: Hey, I didn’t say we’re smart. I said it’s our right. It’s what makes us human (“Peace Out,” 4-21)