Saturday, July 30, 2011

Fate, Freedom, or Both

Do you believe in fate?

Not really, I'm more of a dumb luck kind of gal.

These are the final lines spoken in Source Code (2011), a film I've heard described as a thinking person's science fiction story. "Think" is what it made me do and it's the second film in the past week to have that effect. The first was The Adjustment Bureau (2011) and both raise the question, is there really such a thing as chance?

Source Code sets up a scenario in which an event is repeated until a desired outcome is achieved, suggesting what appears as chance may be the by-product of someone or something working behind the scenes. Jake Gyllenhaal as Captain Colter Stevens, is a helicopter pilot KIA in Afghanistan, whose conscious identity has nevertheless been salvaged. Because eight minutes of neural processing remain active and accessible following physical death, a new scientific process enables uploading of Stevens' residual consciousness into the body of a passenger killed in the bombing of a commuter train bound for Chicago. His mission is to find the bomber before s/he can set off a second device downtown. Reminiscent of Bill Murray in Groundhog Day (1993), the success of Stevens' mission requires practice and he must experience his borrowed body dying several times before he can accept the reality of what's happening to him.

As a subplot, Stevens becomes involved with a young woman played by Michelle Monaghan. Unaware they are reliving their final eight minutes over and over and possessing no memory of the experience, she views the attraction between them as spontaneous. In reality, it's an outgrowth of what Stevens learns about her from each previous leap onto the train and expresses in each subsequent leap. In Source Code, what appears as chance is a matter of perception.

The Adjustment Bureau brings Matt Damon and Emily Blunt together as potential lovers by what also seems to be happy coincidence. In this film, however, they were predetermined to be together by a master Plan, composed and set in motion by an unseen character known only as The Chairman. One might expect such a Plan to be inviolable, set in stone, but from time to time, The Chairman has been known to revise it. Although earlier versions have Damon and Blunt living happily ever after, most recently, The Plan indicates "other plans" for them. Their budding romance is considered a mistake and individuals known as caseworkers, who have the duty of implementing The Plan to the letter, intervene.

According to The Adjustment Bureau, chance sometimes slips through the cracks. There are just too many people for too few caseworkers to monitor all of the time, but the effects of chance and free will in most circumstances are pretty limited. Whenever we've been allowed to try running the whole shibang, we've done very badly. The Holocaust, two world wars and the Dark Ages are proof humans lack the maturity and judgement to make choices that don't end in destruction. To prevent us from ultimately destroying the entire planet, the caseworkers have taken over, nudging us this way and that. When persuasion doesn't work, they have the ability to alter our thinking, leading us to make choices more in line with the direction The Plan intends. 

Most people, we're told, are happy enough not knowing their choices aren't free. Security and predictability come at a price and they're willing to pay without a second thought. Now and then, however, someone comes along who needs to know who's pulling the strings and why. For Damon, however, knowing, in and of itself, resolves nothing. For him, love validates the exercise of free will.

But free will is complicated. What we believe to be fully conscious intentionality is more often than not a reflection of the genetics, adaptive behaviors, thoughts, and impressions derived from family and culture, albeit individually processed, packaged, and marketed as "us." Choice is conditionally free; the conditions under which it develops influence its exercise. Those influencing Damon and Blunt include previous versions of The Plan. 

Interestingly, their meeting was prearranged. For Damon's character to achieve the destiny set forth by The Plan, he needed her as inspiration to rise out of a moment of defeat. Once she'd done as the caseworkers intended, that was to have been the end of it. Their ongoing relationship resulted from the desire of one caseworker to give free will another chance. By acting in contradiction to The Plan, he created a space in which Damon and Blunt could take their lives in their own direction. Even if it turned out to be the one chosen for them, long ago.

Is there such a thing as fate? I sometimes think so, though I'd be hard pressed to demonstrate it empirically. But my own ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and sometimes the other way around, is sufficient proof to me, that free choice hasn't completely abandoned the field. I still think it comes down to what we do with it, fate, freedom, or both. Hopefully, it's something good.

(Creative Commons image entitled "Reversible Destiny" by scarletgreen via Flickr)

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