Thus Spoke Kubrick: A Brief Examination of Free Will

Self awareness blesses us with confliction:  presenting our minds a future of ambivalence and misconceptions of base-level worth in a chance universe.  Because of this, many find humanity itself is an intrinsic value, often anchoring their opinion to the concept of free will, a gift from the gods to ensure our conceit is not only hot air.  Unlike much of our ancestral counterparts, we act through an assumed filter of choice. When pressed, however, much like any mythology, the concept of free will deflates with the slightest amount of pressure.   We go to great lengths of disassociation to insist upon the complexity and uniqueness of the human experience, but through 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick writes a love letter to our unknown motivators.  

When I speak of free will, what do I mean?  Am I offering a fatalistic viewpoint where all actions are predetermined values and the actors remain unchangeable?  Not quite. Rather, through an agent of chaos, a life experiences a certain degree of unpredictability, where action is demanded of the participant.  We can break up the action into two categories: those of unwillingness (forced action) and those of willingness (desired action). Regardless of the cartographic impetus behind a decision, neither forced action nor desired action are the effects of autonomy.  Kubrick explored the former through the introduction of the Monolith.

2001: A Space Odyssey opens with the grand narrative, an introduction to our history—the dawning of man.  For a first time viewer, it is a humbling event. The horn section of Also Sprach Zarathustra breaks the visual and auditory silence of the vast nothingness of space for the first time.  Kubrick finds himself seated comfortably in the mythology of the divine, taking the place of God and separating the light from the darkness with the first sunrise of man.  

The Monolith is subject to controversy and discussion throughout the film community.  It serves as almost a Rorschach test for the viewer. While its ambiguity gives rise to many metaphors, the most fitting comes with the application to free will.  Driven from a watering hole, an ancient tribe stumbles upon the featureless and geometrically pleasing structure. Here we find the claim of consciousness and its mysterious effects through a simple symbol of biology.  The Monolith exists through incongruity with the surrounding environment. Its featureless dimensions are at war with the imperfect landscape of the desert. However, there is something familiar and completely natural about it.  A recurring motif to remind the viewer they are not writer of their story.

Like the proto-humans, our drive is somewhat of an odd companion; something that feels completely foreign to our sense of autonomy but natural to our biological composition.  When they discover the Monolith, it whispers to them with unmitigated influence, bringing to light their basic, primal urges and pushing them to react with violence in an attempt to tip the Darwinian scales and  reclaim a fundamental necessity for survival: water. It is the instinctual reflex of the forced action. As Daniel H. Pink states in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, our motivation can be thought of in terms of an operating system.  In these very early days of our ancestors, the Monolith is motivation 1.0, controlling our thoughts and processes with rudimentary biological needs.  Turning to the other side of the spectrum, when reduced to their simplest form, desires are made of the same indescribable material as the Monolith. We might be free to act upon our desire, but we have no control over the desire itself.  

Kubrick mirrors this complexity and unknowability of our drive with one of the opening scenes in A Clockwork Orange, where Alex and his droogs encounter a rival gang in an abandoned theater. There is one key difference between this encounter and the proto-humans of 2001.  Rather than tying the characters’ drives to an extrinsic motivational factor such as survival, Alex and his accomplices are driven by the sheer intrinsic value of violence itself.  What does this mean in terms of Alex’s choices? Is he choosing violence because of the pleasure he receives from the acts, or is the pleasure received too good to avoid? Regardless of the answer, if he does not choose the deterministic factors behind his actions, where is the freedom in his desires?  

Because of his violent proclivities, Alex is the perfect candidate for a new controversial form of cognitive therapy where, in essence, the treatment rewires the brain and forces Alex to become physically sick at the thought of violence.  As the Chaplain so aptly remarks, “The question is whether or not this technique really makes a man good. Goodness comes from within. Goodness is chosen. When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.” However, Kubrick built a house of doubt from the beginning and has left enough room for the viewer to question the conclusion at which the Chaplain arrives. If the treatment just replaces Alex’s natural urges with a different catalyst, how is he any different than before?  If the Monolith of the mind is eclipsed by another mysterious impetus that influences the actions of its recipients, can we really say that either application is the definition of autonomy? No. While most of us have lived our lives under the myopic conclusion of the Chaplain, we need to align our definitions of humanity with the truth: we are nothing more than complex machines, wired with the collective will of biology and shaped through the extrinsic values of our parents, friends, and role models.  

In its most basic definition, free will is predicated on the ability to choose the opposite without any variables being changed.  If the clock were turned back and the same options were presented, in order for Alex or the proto-humans—or the audience for that matter—to act differently, they would need an external or internal factor to diverge from the original context.  Even with this information in mind, however, most of us will continue to live with the illusion. We will continue feeling as if we are the writer of our personal narratives because, let’s face it, we have no choice. And while this information will not change the way we think about ourselves to any significant degree, recognizing the illusion of free will can affect our daily interactions.  We might find a little empathy and understanding in our fellow man.