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Science Behind the Fiction: What does Black Mirror: Bandersnatch tell us about free will?

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Jan 2, 2019

Black Mirror, the science-fiction anthology series from Charlie Brooker, is back with the long-awaited choose-your-own-adventure episode, Bandersnatch.

The episode, if it can be called that, begins with an introduction to the lead character, Stefan, an aspiring game designer in 1984 who's been working on an independent game based on his favorite choose-your-own-adventure novel.

The episode quickly prompts you to make choices which start out innocently enough — a choice of breakfast cereal or music for Stefan's walkman — but quickly become serious and sinister.

Spoilers for Netlflix's Bandersnatch below.

The novel, from which Stefan's video game and the episode take their names, is incredibly important to the narrative. Not just because it serves as a symbol of the viewing experience but because it belonged to Stefan's mother, who died when he was a child.

As the story progresses, you learn that Stefan blames himself, and to some extent his father, for the death of his mother. As a child, Stefan held up a planned trip looking for his stuffed toy (which his father had hidden), and ultimately refuses to leave. This delayed his mother's departure, forcing her onto a later train which derailed; she died in the accident.

This makes Stefan's obsession with the Bandersnatch novel more poignant. It's important not just because it belonged to his mother but because it underscores his desire to go back and change a decision in his past, to choose a different path. It's a sentiment emboldened by Stefan's therapist when he expresses his regret. "The past is immutable. No matter how painful it is, we can't change things. We can't choose differently with hindsight. We all have to learn to accept that," she says. It's meant to be comforting, but is it true?

The desire to change the past is a feeling most of us are probably familiar with. How many times in our lives do we make decisions which, with the benefit of hindsight, we wish we hadn't made? How many of us have wished, even in secret, that we could go back and choose a different path? Which raises the question, given the opportunity to relive a moment in time, could we do something other than what was already done? Or did we make the only choice that could have been made? Are we characters in a story which has many branching paths, or is the tale written to the end, with each of us destined to play it out?

The Case for Free Will

The question of free will has been a subject of philosophy dating back at least to pre-socratic thought in ancient Greece. The fate of individuals and the world at large was long held as determined by the gods, so this was the first documented time in humanity that a natural explanation for events was sought.

This sort of inquiry got people thinking about whether or not they were the authors of their own lives, but it also raised the question as to whether other natural events, outside of ourselves, might shape our choices and the way we live.

To the average person, the question of free will is a non-issue. Of course we are the primary drivers of our lives, making choices for good or ill. We are, at day's end, responsible for our actions and accountable for their consequences, right?

It certainly feels that way. Questions like what should we have for breakfast and which podcast to turn on during the morning commute feel entirely personal. Are you more in the mood for toast or oatmeal? Do you want talk radio or Norwegian death metal? When you're driving and you get cut off, do you lay on the horn or let it slide? These are everyday choices that you make. And whatever happens, it's you in the driver's seat, both literally and figuratively.

But is that really true? When that fellow commuter almost sideswipes you and you feel the rage bubbling up inside, is that you? Or are you at the mercy of external stimuli? Did you choose to raise your middle finger or is that the inevitable consequence of causes outside of your control?

Scientists have been grappling with this question for decades and have designed certain experiments attempting to find an answer.

In the 1980s, experiments were carried out by Benjamin Libet in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, which asked participants to make a simple hand movement and record the time at which they made the conscious decision to do so. Participants were connected to equipment which measured brain activity and Libet found that activity in the brain was measured prior to the conscious decision to act.

Some have interpreted these findings to mean that the conscious experience of our choices doesn't reflect an actual choice, but rather, a play-by-play of actions already determined by other factors. Others, however, called into question the nature of Libet's experiments. There is the question of whether simple decisions such as when to move a hand are indicative of more complex decisions which occur in everyday life. There is also the question of the subjective reporting of timescales by participants. Additionally, technology has advanced considerably since the '80s and the possibility that the experiment's measurements weren't valid is of some concern.

Scientists have attempted, since the Libet experiments, to find other explanations for the data. Researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand designed an experiment which hoped to explain away the previous findings. They suggest that the signals Libet measured might have only been the brain's "readiness potential" to make any decision, not a specific one. If that's the case, the possibility of free will might still be on the table.

The Case for Determinism

While the question is still open, many in the scientific community believe there isn't sufficient evidence for human free will. Many cite a materialistic worldview for this viewpoint.

Materialism states that physical matter is all there is, doing away with any notion of spiritualism or the extra-physical. It supposes that those things which seem outside of the physical, like personality or consciousness, are simply the emergent properties of physical processes.

This is, by and large, the prevailing model of neuroscience. The evidence seems to suggest that everything that makes you, you, comes from the physical properties of your body, primarily the brain and from prior experience. This is evidenced by changes in personality after traumatic brain injuries. If what makes a person who they are resides someplace outside of the physical processes of their body, then we shouldn't expect to see such changes after injury.

Science, as a way of understanding the world, relies on the understanding that reality is measurable and testable, that the rules of existence are fixed. Simply put, a scientific worldview hinges on the fact that our universe is causal.

This worldview is borne out by experimentation in every field of research. Physics, chemistry, mathematics, and geology, to name a few, all demonstrate clearly seen cause and effect relationships. Put two chemicals together and they will react in a predictable way. Fuse hydrogen together and it becomes helium. Toss an object into the air, gravity pulls it down. Two plus two equals four.

We don't have any problem accepting these findings as irrefutable truths and yet, somehow, when it comes to our own minds, we require a special exception. But why should human minds, which are made of the same stuff as the rest of the universe, be granted special pleading? If we are made of atoms and molecules, if our minds are made of physical tissues and synapses, all of which behave in ways we understand and can predict, why should the result be anything other than predictable and determined?

Going back to Bandersnatch and the question of breakfast cereals, if you could return to an earlier moment in time and relive it, would you make a different decision? It might feel like you would. Maybe your cereal was stale and you wish you'd had a banana. But you didn't know that at the time of the decision and, even if you could you go back, you still wouldn't know it. The prior causes of that decision would remain the same. The deterministic philosophy suggests you would make the same decision, could only make the same decision, and were always going to make that decision. In the end, you are free to do what you want, but you aren't free to choose what you want. Those desires are the result of causes outside of your awareness and control.

In fact, if we take determinism to its inevitable conclusion, we find that all of existence, the many varied galaxies, their stars and planets, and everything living upon them, were thrust along a set path at the birth of the universe. We are, in effect, like billiard balls crashing around a shifting table. It may seem chaotic, but that's only because we can't see all of the forces at play. All effects can be traced back to that first cause, billions of years beyond our view. And we are little more than players in a grand cosmic script, laid out in its entirety years ago.

It's a bizarre and perhaps uncomfortable thought. We might not be the authors of our own lives, subject instead to the vast illusion of our own free will. This conclusion, if true, leaves us with questions as to how we proceed upon the determined paths of our lives.

Living a Determined Life

A study out of the University of Minnesota gave participants one of two passages from a book; both seemed scientific in nature but one suggested the absence of free will. After reading, participants were asked to take a test, told that if they didn't immediately hit the spacebar once a question populated, the answer would appear, and asked not to cheat. The study found that those who just had their free will questioned were more likely to cheat than the control group.

These findings suggest that maybe a disbelief in free will correlates to a diminishing of personal morality. That interpretation has been called into question, however, due to ambiguity in the experimental design. It's possible other suggestions, not relating to the nature of free will, might have had similar results. There's also the question of how long the effect lasts. Likely, those participants incorporated or disregarded the suggestion shortly after the test. In fact, many scientists disbelieve free will and there is no evidence to suggest they are more likely to be immoral.

So, once we discover the puppet strings hovering over us, what do we do? How do we exist in a world wherein our choices are not our own? What does such a conclusion mean for our criminal justice system? Is punishment of any kind justifiable if we recognize that those guilty of crimes aren't really responsible for their actions?

If you find that you are a character in a sci-fi episodic, being controlled by viewers from the future, do you resist or do you continue to live your life the only way you know how? And if the answer is ultimately unknowable, as suggested by Colin McGinn's Mysterianism, then does it really matter at all?

Happily, it's not all bad news. If anything, a deterministic worldview should make us more grateful for the pleasant things in our lives and more forgiving of the failings of others.

In any event, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is available to stream on Netflix, should you so choose.


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