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Sunday, April 10, 2016

Ten Great Philosophical Movies That Question Free Will

Mr. Nobody (2009)
From the beginning of time, human beings have wondered if the universe has a plan in store for them. We have pondered whether every person is born to fulfill a determined destiny, or if every human can build their future from scratch, depending on the choices they make.
It is true that we are determined by time, space, the laws of physics, and so on. We seem to believe we possess some kind of control over our decisions, and that our personality, preferences and tastes are up to us. We believe that we are conscious and aware of every turn on the tracks on the train of life. However, it’s actually more probable that a clueless blind dog is driving that train, and we’re just along for the ride, thinking our will controls the vehicle.
That’s why philosophers have wondered if the fate of people is conditioned by outside random forces, which shape our lifestyle from the cradle to the grave. The fact that if you weren’t born to those parents, or in that neighborhood, or in a different country or century, your life would have been totally different, makes us wonder if humanity is really free, or if we just collectively act on instinct like biological robots.
Considering that filmmakers tend to be visual philosophers, this list has 10 films that explore this topic, each one reaching different conclusions.

10. Pi (1998)
pi 1998
Max is a genius mathematician, whose search for a unique code to decrypt the patterns he sees all over nature will drive him on a downward spiral to madness.
He spends all day in his small apartment, fixing and adapting all sorts of special hardware, entirely dedicated to finding a magical combination of numbers that will uncover hidden truths about the world. Max is convinced that he’ll discover the key to understanding the universe on a whole.
However, it turns out that a few Jewish researchers are searching for this combination as well; they think it’s the real name of God that can only be found by a chosen one.
So, if Max believes there’s a determined number that can be used to understand the world’s patterns and even predict their outcomes, then free will can’t exist. In that case, human beings would just be following a set of natural rules that organize the universe, maybe obeying divine purposes, like the Jewish researchers in this movie seem to believe.
Max’s positions represent a branch of mathematical determinism that claims that free will is really an illusion. Laws of physics give a compelling diagram of how the world works, without any need for a metaphysical entity governing living things. There are many scientists, especially neurologists, that support this theory.
Wolf Singer is one of the most popular among them; an article he wrote in 2004, claiming that the illusion of “conscious” decisions can be explained by certain processes in the brain, has created controversy and intense discussion.
Do we have free will? No. There’s a natural pattern that predicts every event.

9. Watchmen (2009)
On the surface, “Watchmen” doesn’t seem like a film related to the free will vs. determinism debate.
Zach Snyder isn’t known for his intellectual depth as a director. Thankfully, master comic book writer Alan Moore (the author of the graphic novel “Watchmen” is based on) loves to analyze philosophical matters in his work, much like Batman loves to add thousands of layers of black paint to everything he owns.
In one of the best written chapters of the graphic novel, Moore lets us consider what it would be like to be an omnipresent being. He describes Dr. Manhattan’s perspective of time in a vivid way. This character is aware of every little event that happens anywhere, and at the same time, his memories and future happenings fuse together to provide him with a divine perspective of the world.
In the notable scene where a Vietnamese woman slashes the comedian’s face with a broken bottle just before he fatally shoots her, Dr. Manhattan is present and does nothing to stop this atrocious murder. Considering his godlike powers and firm morality, this doesn’t makes sense until later in the film when Dr. Manhattan confesses that “everything is predetermined, even my responses”.
As an omnipresent and omnipotent being, he knows when and how anything is going to happen, but unless it is already predetermined, he can’t stop any future event simply because he has prior knowledge of it taking place. Paradoxically, he’s also predetermined.
All this references the famous philosophical debate which wonders, if a God already knows what everybody’s going to do before it happens, then could we still have free will? Many philosophers, namely Leibniz, Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Anselm, have given different answers to this question. Moore’s answer seems to be that even God is a victim of determinism; he just stands and watches his creations interact without being able to intervene unless is already predetermined to do so. So, in short, everybody is time’s bitch.
Do we have free will? Absolutely not. Even God’s actions are predetermined.

8. Being John Malkovich (1999)
It’s obvious at this point that Charlie Kaufman reads a few books on philosophy before writing a new screenplay. Every movie he has made features several philosophical ideas, which he uses to intrigue his audiences just as those thoughts intrigued him. “Being John Malkovich” proves he can combine these kinds of questions with his trademark comedic style.
Dualists and physicalists have been arguing about the existence of a “mind” or “soul” for ages. This film’s plot seems to support the dualists; they think that a higher immaterial consciousness must exist in living things.
The protagonist in “Being John Malkovich” finds a secret door in his office that leads to John Malkovich’s head. He can see everything from Malkovich’s perspective, and given that the main character is also an expert puppeteer, he’s able to control poor John’s body after a few rounds of practice. This raises some questions: where does Malkovich’s conscience go when he’s being controlled by the puppeteer? How is this man able to see through the eyes of Malkovich without him noticing? Where does our conscience come from, and why are we able to control our bodies?
The film also portrays an interesting fact; when anyone enters Malkovich’s head, they go in with their whole bodies. It’s not just a conscience transfer; their whole physical bodies enter Malkovich’s mind and then exit it after a few minutes.
Does this mean our body is just the manifestation of our consciousness? Or is what we call “consciousness” just a byproduct of our brain’s sophisticated biology? This is not a new issue in philosophy; dozens of intellectuals have debated and even written hundreds of books about it.
Descartes firmly opposed the existence of an immaterial substance that lies only in living things; how can a non-material substance interact with a material one? It’s one of the questions that dualist theories like the one in this film face, although science hasn’t reached the point of pointing to the precise mechanisms of the brain that constitute what we call “free” choices; most scientists prefer the physicalist’s claims.
However, subjective experiences play a big role in “Being John Malkovich”; are the subjects that visit Malkovich’s mind really being John Malkovich, or are they just controlling his body? Then again, isn’t our brains all we really are? Or is there more to a human being?
Do we have free will? Yes, but our body could be invaded by other humans, forcing us to redefine the nature of being.

7. Dead Man Walking (1995)
If we, as a species, don’t really have control over our choices, then how can we blame a murderer for killing people if he’s predetermined to do so? Why should we blame anyone if our choices depend on hundreds of external factors that we have no control over? “Dead Man Walking” deals with all these questions wonderfully, telling the story of an inmate sentenced to death by lethal injection as he copes with guilt, denial and anxiety.
Susan Sarandon plays a nun trying to save a criminal (Sean Penn) from imminent execution; she believes he might be innocent, or at least worthy of a lighter form of punishment. Her character interrogates the imprisoned to find out the facts about what he’s accused of doing. He claims he was drugged at the time, and that he also hadn’t slept for two days. Penn’s character blames his partner for having committed the crimes; he just stood and watched as he murdered a young man and his girlfriend.
The nun’s attempts to spare him are unsuccessful, so she chooses to convince the criminal to accept his guilt in the matters. He may have not killed anyone; however, he was an accomplice and did nothing to stop the crime. In the end, he comes out of his denial and admits that he was more involved in the events that he wanted to recognize.
All of this relates to Peter Strawson’s famous article about free will and morality, titled “Liberty and Resentment”.

He claims that we don’t need to know if free will exists, and to not be confident about the correctness of our morality and legal system, because there are a series of feelings that humans experience (as the parents of the murder victims in the movie represent) when injustice is perpetrated, which validates our moral and penal practices.
Strawson also claims that criminals must be punished without victimization, meaning that they should be judged according to their actions and held accountable, regardless of whether they claim to have been mentally incapacitated at the time. The vandals should recognize their guilt if they want to be considered equal to their peers; if not, they should be isolated from the rest of society.
Sarandon’s character approaches these concepts from a religious perspective that is very similar to Strawson’s view. If somebody wants to be remain a part of society, they must admit their doings were reprehensible. She finally accomplishes this under the pressure of his quickly approaching execution. The movie also comments on the negative sides of the death penalty and how a life sentence could grant inmates the time to think about their terrible actions.
Do we have free will? It’s not clear, but regardless of this, our legal system must continue functioning by presupposing the existence of “freedom to do otherwise”.

6. Waking Life (2001)

If I were to explain this movie to a fellow “film scholar”, I would describe it as a “philosophical clusterfuck”. Director Richard Linklater seems to be a philosophy fan, so he seized the opportunity to portray all his doubts and questions about life and existence in a single chaotic movie, in which a bunch of insufferable pseudo-intellectual individuals poorly explain famous philosophical issues. However, a few of these series of ramblings are interesting for the purposes of this article.
A philosophy professor describes Sartre’s ideas about free will and personal responsibility; he says that when postmodernists describe human beings as a confluence of forces or a social construction, the individual gets to play the part of victim of the universe, not really choosing who he is.
Sartre thinks that every human chooses to be what it is, and that everyone is always capable of changing and becoming something else. Here lies the concept of “angst”, defined as the pressure and anxiety one feels for being able to decide at every turn and at the same time, being an example for all humanity.
The second point of view argues that human beings must be governed by the same physical deterministic laws that reign over everything else. As we are physical bodies, all our actions correspond to a determined physical formula, which really makes us doubt the existence of free will.
As you see, this film is more a series of lectures or a long podcast than it is a movie. Linklater didn’t care about subtlety or illustrations of philosophical thoughts, he preferred to film a group of people lecturing the main character about all sorts of issues. This proves to be tiring, but is useful as a philosophy 101 lesson. As a film? It doesn’t hold up.
Do we have free will? It is undetermined; this film tries to start a debate about it, but doesn’t offer a cohesive answer or even a narrative.5. Twelve Monkeys (1995)
12 monkeys
If you haven’t seen this film, then scroll down with your eyes closed for about five seconds because this is going to be a spoilery ride.
A highly contagious virus kills five billion people in 1997; the result is an apocalyptic scenario in which the remaining humanity has moved underground. Bruce Willis is chosen to travel back in time, not to change the events that lead to the disaster, but to look for a pure sample of the virus so that the post-apocalyptic scientists can find a cure.
Long story short, Willis’s character is shot while trying to murder the man guilty of releasing the deadly virus. Also, the protagonist often dreams about a traumatic event of his childhood, where he saw a man getting shot at an airport. In the end, we find out that the man that he saw getting killed was his older self as a time traveler.
This has a lot of mind-blowing implications: the protagonist’s life was conditioned from when he was a child to die in that exact moment, and the reason he died was because he forgot about determinism. The movie establishes that time can’t be changed, not even with a functional time machine, because everything is already predetermined to happen in a certain way.
Willis’s character falls into the illusion of free will, thinking that he can change the past, and ends up fulfilling his destiny of being shot to death. He had a blatant warning that should have been enough for him to avoid getting killed in that way. However, it was already predetermined to happen, and nothing to do against fate.
Do we have free will? No, we all have a fate to fulfill and time machines are useless.  When I started watching this movie I didn’t realized that it would kill so many of my dreams.

4. The Thin Red Line (1998)
The Thin Red Line
This movie is famous for two things: being one of the greatest war movies of all time, and the fact that director Terrence Malick cast almost every actor in Hollywood and edited out a few of them in post-production.
A poorly known fact, however, are the philosophical implications of this film. As the author of this outstanding article eloquently points out, the entire structure of “The Thin Red Line” is based on the writings of philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.
Unlike most war movies where the story is told through an individual’s perspective, Malick chooses to approach this phenomenon from various angles. We see each soldier’s point of view, the life choices that got them in the Army, their ways to cope with the horrors of war, their desires and their motivations to stay alive. We also hear their inner monologues, so we understand what they’re experiencing.
An objective reality exists, but it is beyond our grasp; humans can give hundreds of different meanings to the same event. So, in short, all of our personal worldviews are biased and impossible to fully share with others.
Every soldier tries to rationalize the events happening around them, in an attempt to find meaning invested in the horror of war. They’re all alone with their own ways of thinking, believing that their brothers in arms share common thoughts with them, when each of them must bear their own individual cross.
This is why conflict emerges between Lt. Gordon Tall (Nick Nolte) and Capt. James Staros (Elias Koteas). They’re both experiencing the same events; however, Tall believes that the ends justify the means and doesn’t care about losing a few soldiers on the battlefield. Staros considers them his children and isn’t interested in sending his men to a certain defeat and painful death, based on his superior’s reckless orders.
So, if every human lives in their own personal reality that is affected by a number of external factors, how can we make conscious and free choices about the empirical world? If we are trapped in our own subjectivity, then how can our decisions continue to be free? The fact that we could never comprehend the whole picture in any circumstance puts the existence of free will in doubt.
Do we have free will? If we do, it would be very limited by our own philosophies, ideologies and prejudices. So, would it still be free?

3. Memento (2000)
This is the film that put Christopher Nolan on the map. It’s the one that confused thousands of film enthusiasts due to its fragmented storyline, backwards narrative, and Guy Pearce’s sweet drug dealer suit.
Pearce plays a man who suffers from a terrible condition; he can’t form new memories and he forgets everything he’s doing every few minutes, except for a few facts about himself and his life before the incident that caused his mental dysfunctions.
The protagonist’s only goal is to find the man who killed his wife. This makes him act recklessly due to not caring about anything or anyone else, and he murders a few people in order to find his target. He’s also manipulated by a number of individuals, who find out that having a criminal partner that forgets everything once in awhile is a good deal.
It’s not clear if Pearce’s character is really free; the movie is ambiguous in exploring whether he is fully responsible for the crimes he commits. He constantly forgets the motives of his actions, so does that make him innocent? The protagonist may not have acted the way he did if he didn’t suffer from his condition.
If he’s considered mentally incapable, then according to Strawson’s views, he’s not fully responsible; however, he’s still a murderer. Or perhaps, every time he forgets his recent past, he’s a different person, so the true guilty individual doesn’t exist anymore.
Determinists would say that he couldn’t act otherwise, or to be more radical, that none of us can. The movie seems to imply this as well, as when Teddy is explaining to the protagonist the truth about his situation, he says, “So you lie to yourself to be happy. There’s nothing wrong with that. We all do it.” He seems to represent certain deterministic views that people like Wolf Singer defend; he would claim that humans can’t really choose, that our advanced brains do it for us.
“Memento” makes us doubt the veracity of our own memory. It is stated along the way that it isn’t always safe to trust our memories, due to their lack of precision, which is a simple thought I find a bit terrifying.
Do we have free will? It’s debatable, because many of the memories we base our decisions on may not have happened as we remember them.

2. Interstellar (2014)
Christopher Nolan’s amazing space epic is no less than an impressive technical achievement, but as is the case for many of his films, the movie’s topics are deeper and more philosophical to what they seem on the surface.
In “Interstellar”, Nolan takes a physicist’s approach on the subject of free will. In the film’s climax, we see how Cooper cruises through the “fifth dimension” where he can see every instant in time from behind his daughter’s bookcase.
This special physical space seems to englobe every other dimension, including time. Cooper is capable to physically see time all together. Past, present and future moments from his daughter’s life are available for his eyes to examine. He can even influence them, and this excites Cooper, as he’s finally able to interact with his daughter for what he believed was the last time.
Being able to perceive time as easily as one perceives any other physical object raises a few questions: does this mean that every event is already predetermined? If every instant is palpable and concrete, then is it impossible to do otherwise? Considering this, everything that happens seems to be written in stone.
The fact that every incident in the universe of “Interstellar” (and maybe in ours as well) was already meant to happen, subtracts any sense of purpose from it.
Do we have free will? No. Every event is already predetermined; we are unaware of this because we can’t perceive the fifth dimension.

1. Mr. Nobody (2009)
Mr Nobody
There are many movies that are based on philosophical themes, and various others illustrate interesting philosophical concepts; countless films are influenced by the writings of famous philosophers and some carry out a few philosophical implications within their core. “Mr. Nobody” is a member of all of these groups and is arguably the best at explaining philosophy with the use of images and sharp editing.
It tells the story of Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto), a 118-year-old man who some call C.R.A.F.T. (Can’t Remember a Fucking Thing). He claims to have lived every possible series of events that could have happened to him, and this is of course impossible. Nemo represents a being capable of this feat, one that is aware of every possible life he could have lived, but doesn’t know which life he actually experienced firsthand.
The film depicts the responsibility of the moral being and the angst that comes with the freedom of choice, which is a concept that Sartre carefully constructed in his books.
It also portrays how humans are determined by an infinite number of external causes. From a poorly-made shoelace that alters the course of the protagonist’s life, to an unemployed man boiling an egg, they cause a storm that separates Nemo from the love of his life.
In a few scenes, the protagonist doesn’t seem to know why he acted the way he did, and we see how he causes a violent detour in his destiny for it, as though his brain suddenly decided for him. According to Wolf Singer, this happens all the time; we only notice it once in awhile, but each of our decisions is made by our brains, after comparing favorable versus unfavorable consequences.
We see people’s lives being ruined by sickness, people unable to cope with depression, or suddenly dying from a random event, furthering the thesis of our lack of real control over our lives. The ontology of not choosing is also portrayed. In a key scene, the protagonists says, “as long as you don’t choose, everything remains possible.” This should have been the slogan of the film, because it represents the nature of the plot.
However, the filmmakers don’t offer a straight answer about the existence of free will, they prefer letting us argue about it, and we certainly will.
Do we have free will? Yes, or maybe not, maybe a little bit, or not at all.
Author Bio: Juan studies philosophy. He love films and music and plans to go to film school with his cat.

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