I recently fell in love with ‘Futurama’, the sci-fi action cartoon that merges black, surreal comedy with toilet humor. Being set in the future allows vast technological improvements to be assumed, and with it the anthropomorphizing of everyday objects, making Furturama the heir to the Flintstones, though the apple falls far from the tree in the dystopian amount of consumer safety failures. One of the main characters is a highly anthropomorphized robot named Bender (forgive me if you are familiar with the show), a self-centered and cruel humanoid machine with a taste for the thrill of larceny.
Settling for Compatibilism
In a recently viewed episode (season nine, episode nine), Bender is brought to trial for an attempted robbery of the girl scouts, but is
found not guilty when Bender’s (talking blue southerner chicken) counsel argues that as a robot, Bender lacks free will, and is thus not responsible for his actions. Rather than being happy that he is not to be punished, Bender is devastated that people might think that he didn’t really do all the “cool” things that he did. He then goes on a spiritual journey to find meaning in a life devoid of free will, and along the way there are various statements embedded in the dialogue in favor of compatibilism. Eventually, Bender accepts compatibilism after giving up hope in a more robust idea of free will, coming to believe that meaning comes from embracing one’s actions. However, when Bender learns of a computer chip that makes robot free will possible, he recognizes his error in settling for compatibilism and begins his search for free will.
Though more a psychological issue than a philosophical one, the episode does seem to argue that compatibilism is a second-best theory wherein we settle for an altered version of free will that is in significant ways different from what we think are the necessary conditions for free will. The compatibilist might be right that the necessary conditions that our folk-psychology provides are not actually necessary. The question becomes whether the compatibilist owes us an explanation for why we think libertarian conditions are necessary for free will. I do not think that they owe us this sort of explanation, but I do think the onus is on the compatibilist to show how their conditions adequately address the features that the libertarian thinks are necessary.
Freedom in Jail
There appears to me another implicit argument against compatibilism. After getting the free will chip, Bender commits another crime and being responsible for his actions, this time is found guilty. As he is dragged away to jail, Bender is positively ecstatic, saying, “woohoo I did it!” The compatibilist will have difficulty addressing this sentiment. After all, the compatibilist is not concerned about the origin of internal compulsions to act, but is concerned with whether an action is forced or prevented by external events. In jail, Bender’s internal compulsions will be prevented by external factors, such that the compatibilist thinks that Bender will not be free upon going to jail. There is an obvious tension here between what Bender thinks and what the compatibilist thinks. Bender is happy to go to jail because for him it means he has free will, but for the compatibilist, Bender is celebrating the fact that he does not have free will.
Now, this tension is obviously semantic and not metaphysical, but we still might attend to whose semantics better mirrors the metaphysics. While it is reasonable to say that one is not free when in jail, it seems an entirely different matter to claim that while in jail one is denied of their free will. Jean-Paul Sartre offers the quintessential argument for why one is not robbed of their free will even when they are incarcerated.
Sartre on Freedom
Sartre observes that there is indisputable difference between the projection of the possibility of a goal and the realization of that goal. He rejects common conceptualizations of freedom as the realization of a goal because he argues that this implies that motives or projections are irrelevant to free choices. As such, Sartre looks to the projection or the motive of the goal to find freedom. He observes that in projecting a goal as an end we are met with resistance in actualizing that goal. Sartre astutely notes that that resistance was brought about by our projecting of the goal, in that there would be no resistance to the achievement of that goal if it was not a goal in the first place. This leads Sartre to posit that freedom is not in the absence of restraints but that in projecting a goal, “it is therefore our freedom which constitutes the limits which it will subsequently encounter” (all quotes here are from Being and Nothingness; I didn’t write page numbers in the notes I am now using).
Sartre posits that freedom does not exist without obstacles or restraints which it can overcome, noting, “if no obstacle, then no freedom”. Yet, if there is freedom only where there are obstacles, and we cause obstacles to arise by the projection of our goals, then it is by the projection of goals that we constitute our freedom as the tension between our projected goals and the obstacles to the realization of those goals. By projecting goals we create the obstacles to those goals, such that regardless of whether we do or do not overcome those obstacles, we freely do so because those obstacles arose by our freely projecting those goals.
So, even if external events, such as being in jail, limit our abilities to realize our goals, we still have free will in the creation of goals. If what Bender cares about is having free will, then it seems he is right to celebrate going to jail.
Conclusion: Back to the Futurama
Suffice it to say that Futurama is a great show, and though the balance normally leans towards absurdist sci-fi humor, there is implicit discussion of environmental issues, human rights violations, and the evils of war, in addition to the timeless enigma of free will. It seems the writers favor a libertarian conception of free will, and my intention here has been to present the arguments implicit in the episode, in the hopes of revealing redeeming qualities of the show to those who might otherwise dismiss it out of hand.