Futurama’s Bender and Free Will (and compatibilism, Sartre, and jail)

futuramaI 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 bender
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
jpsSartre 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 BackToTheFuturamaimplicit 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.


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  1. #1 by SelfAwarePatterns on March 25, 2014 - 7:31 pm

    Excellent post! I enjoy Futurama, but have only watched it sporadically. Never saw his particular episode. It sounds like I need to look it up.

    Sartre’s view is interesting, but how free do our projections of goals need to be to satisfy him? I might could see wanting to be free of our genetics if we’re not happy with our innate nature. But do we want to free of our life experiences, of moral instruction, or of learned knowledge?

    Or is the idea to pick and choose among those that we want to be constrained by? If so, how would we know which criteria to use to select them if not by reference to experience or innate preferences? Or do we want to pick and choose those too?

    This recursive causality is what makes me think libertarian free will is incoherent. Compatibilism might seem unsatisfying to a purist, but I think it’s all that’s available.

    • #2 by ausomeawestin on March 27, 2014 - 10:08 am

      Thanks for the kind words, and for these excellent questions!

      You hit on a tricky part of Sartre’s views on free will — while his criticism of external restraints opposes him to classic compatibilism, he is not quite a libertarian, as he never specifies that the ultimate origin of the projected goals must be in the subject. In this way, Sartre doesn’t fit nicely into the analytic free will debate, being on the continental side of the divide. Still, I think there are ideas to take away from Sartre.

      I don’t think Sartre would say that we pick and choose what we are constrained by. If we want to change something but fail, Sartre would say there is freedom there even if we didn’t choose for that thing to obtain (in the sense that if we could choose we would choose for it to not obtain). Rather, Sartre thinks that our choices are embedded in the constraints of life experiences, moral instruction, and learned knowledge, but in a moment of freely will choice our choice is not restricted by these restraints in that we “transcend” our “facticity”. “Facticity” are these constraints we’ve been speaking of, andSartre describes facticity as, “my place, my body, my past, my position”, which are the material facts with which I identify as my identity. Facticity can be understood as the concrete facts that show who you are at the present moment and how you got there, such that facticity includes your character. In this way there is a facticity of freedom because it is through freedom that we have chosen goals that constitute the character we have at the present moment. Recalling that man is also a creature with consciousness that projects goals to be realized in the future, Sartre holds that man is not only facticity, but has transcendence in which he, “propels itself towards a future and is aware that it is doing so”. Sartre calls this aspect of man ‘transcendence’ precisely because it goes beyond the present facts of facticity to imagine the future.

      Admittedly things are getting a tad existential here, and I won’t pretend to believe that Sartre is right, as Sartre is making the sorts of claims that you noted you would be skeptical of. The more I think of it though, the more Sartre seems to be a libertarian. It’s still possible for all of this to be consistent with a Frankfurtian hierarchal compatibilism, but Sartre seems to intend a libertarian picture.

      And yes there are some serious objections to libertarianism, I think it might be a losing position. Still, I’d like to see the compatibilist offer explanations for how their necessary and sufficient conditions accomplish everything that the libertarian’s does. Thanks for stopping by and asking great questions.

  2. #3 by jmeqvist on March 25, 2014 - 10:13 pm

    Great post! I quite enjoy Futurama and I find the show has more depth than many give it credit for.

    I suspect that the intuitions that we have about freewill that make compatibilism seem unattractive and libertarian freewill attractive, are reinforced within western nations by the Christian heritage of these nations. The idea that there is a singular soul or self that is separate from one’s physical body, and not subject to being altered by physical causes that determines the actions of one’s physical body seems to reinforce the idea that we can only have freewill if our decisions are in someway uncaused. Furthermore, while western nations are nonimally secula,r many of our literary, political and cultural traditions only make sense against the backdrop of a Christian conception of the role of soul to body. So it is not particularly surprising that so many of us are drawn to the idea of libertarian freewill.

    • #4 by ausomeawestin on March 27, 2014 - 10:35 am


      You pose an intriguing and highly plausible diagnosis of the reason for sympathy for libertarianism.

      Derek Parfit made the claim that our understanding of morality will change as we become more secularized. I think you make a valid point in noting that the literary and cultural traditions may stay with us in continuing to instill sympathy for libertarianism. Do you think that this sentiment for libertarianism has or will wear off in time? I ask because morality and free will seem linked to me, so I’m interested to hear if you think public perception of one could change will the other remains unaltered. I know you write about this kind of topic frequently, so I’m curious as to your thoughts.

      • #5 by jmeqvist on March 30, 2014 - 8:54 pm

        I agree with you that morality and free will are linked in the sense that morality seems to entail that someone could have done otherwise. If there is a form of compatibilism which can show that even though there is causal determinism this does not negate moral responsibility then this could over time lead to a decline in the appeal of libertarianism. However, contrastingly, while the most popular models of libertarian free will in societal culture are inflected with vaguely Christian ideas, other forms of libertarianism may arise which are appealing simply in light of the fact that they do a better job of explaining moral responsibility than compatibilist or libertarian alternatives.

        But to answer your question I think that the more peculiarly Christian forms of libertarianism may fade if societies continue to trend towards being less specifically Christian. Yet, I don’t necessarily see this as leading to a large decline of the appeal of libertarianism, because libertarianism seems to lend itself particularly well to explaining our most basic conceptions of moral responsibility. Now it is true that these basic moral conceptions may change as well, in which case libertarianism could fade in terms of its popular appeal, as these more basic moral conceptions begin to change, but I am skeptical of whether it is likely that we will see a change in these more basic moral conceptions, as these more basic moral conceptions are elements of Christianity, but they are also elements of all of the religions and philosophies of the so-called Axial Age. The philosophies and religions of the Axial Age include Christianity, Socratic thought, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism, so I don’t see it as likely that there will be much of an overall shift in basic moral conceptions anytime in the near future, as these religions and philosophies are deeply embedded within modern conceptions of morality, and consequently there would have to be a huge shift for these basic moral conceptions to be dislodged.

      • #6 by ausomeawestin on April 3, 2014 - 3:02 pm

        Very interesting points, thanks for indulging me by sharing them. I think you are correct in your hypotheses about libertarianism. But I do think Parfit might be right that our moral judgments on particular cases might change as morality and religion become disentangled. Most persons who are staunchly opposed to gay marriage or abortion are so because of their religion’s moral views. Once we get used to the idea of a secularly based morality — which Parfit posits is a relativity new phenomena in the big scheme of things — we might see that our prior moral judgements were mislead by outdated beliefs instilled by religious texts. We can allow religion to have its say on various things, but exclude it from the realm of moral judgment. This disentangling would benefit religion as an institution, because if it no longer makes dubious moral judgments then it might not scare off persons, like myself, who find the moral commitments of certain religions untenable. I imagine you wouldn’t deny these points and I suspect that your comments on the unlikeliness of changes in basic moral conceptions are more about fundamental values of human dignity and autonomy. In that sense I agree with you on that aspect of the intersection of morality and religion.

  3. #7 by jmeqvist on April 6, 2014 - 2:47 pm

    I cannot seem to respond directly to your last comment, but yes my comment pertained to the idea of the fundamental values like beneficence, and human dignity.

    I do agree that when people move from a religious to a secular outlook their judgments will often change, although, I do not know if religion and morality can be disentangled in the way that you are suggesting. It is possible, although I think unlikely, that we could see a falling away of traditional religion, in which case moral judgments could be disentangled from religion as religion ceases to be something that people are drawn to, But if traditional religion remains as a significant element of society then I doubt that morality and religion could be fully disentangled. The public morality of society could be disentangled from religion, but I cannot see how traditional religion could be disentangled from a religious person’s moral judgments.

    Maybe I am just misunderstanding you, but I just do not know what it would mean to give religion its say, but somehow exclude it from the realm of moral judgment. If you could clarify this for me that would be excellent.

    • #8 by ausomeawestin on April 8, 2014 - 4:00 pm

      Perhaps religion cannot be fully disentangled from moral claims. I must admit that I do not know much about any form of religion, having never been to a real church, such that I do not know the internal structure of how beliefs on various areas of though intersect, perhaps there is interdependence, such that its coherentist-type justification would imply the falsity of all those beliefs if one were to be found false.

      When I said that we might give religion its say I meant that it could still be allowed to have its metaphysical claims and thus still provide the comforts of some being or force giving a purpose to everything. I always figured that something to that effect was the main draw of religion, but I don’t stake too much on that, it is a pseudo-psych theory. And to your point it might be impossible to disentangle those “omniscient onlooker” views from morality.

      • #9 by jmeqvist on April 9, 2014 - 10:40 pm

        I am not an expert on religion either, but I am an interested in it from a sociological, historical and philosophical perspective.

        It seems to me that if one was to give religion its say on metaphysical matters, while disentangling this from moral claims this would translate religion into a mere doctrine of theism.Theism can be understood merely as a set of metaphysical beliefs, but religion does not seem to me to be best understood as a set of metaphysical beliefs about the origin of the universe, but as a tradition of teachings that posit a correct way of being in the world in light of an understanding of the universe. The trouble with translating religion into a mere doctrine of theism is that a large part of the draw of religion seems to lies in its ability to say something valuable about our moral orientation within the world.

        That said, I agree with you that people are also drawn to religion because they are attracted to the idea of universe that is ordered by God, but this cannot explain why so many belong to particular religions rather than merely being deists, as the idea of a universe ordered by God does not lead one to any particular religion. On the other hand, I think the moral/spiritual insights of religion can explain why people continue to be drawn to particular religions as opposed to a more generalized belief in God. For example, the draw of Christianity might partially lie in the fact that it suggests that humans are inherently degraded or sinful and need redemption. Many people loathe this belief, but I think it provides a very powerful image of the human condition, even though I am not particularly drawn to it.

        Now the insight of a religion on morality and human life can be separated from its metaphysical basis in some cases, but in many cases it cannot. For example, take the notion of “agape.” While agape is a contested concept within Christian circles, it roughly refers to the love of God or Christ for humanity. Furthermore, by emulating this love we can participate in the God’s love for humanity. So while agape is clearly a moral concept in that it posits a certain kind of activity as good, it also involves a claim that there is a loving God, and that we can relate to him through participating in his love of humanity. Thus, it does not seem possible for me to detach the moral element of agape from the implications that agape has about God. If I were to isolate agape from belief in God then I would radically change the meaning of the good. Consequently, it does not seem possible to fully isolate the moral teachings of religion from its metaphysical content.

        Therefore, as a result of the fact that the moral content of religion cannot be completely separated from its metaphysical claims, and the fact that the draw of particular religions is connected with their moral teaching, it seems problematic to suggest that we could have a religion that was silent on moral matters.

        I am not trying to be critical, but rather just trying to explain my uneasiness with the idea that religion could remain in tact if religion were to become silent on moral matters. Theism could remain intact, but I do not know if religion could.

        Once again thanks for taking the time to always make intelligent posts.

      • #10 by ausomeawestin on April 10, 2014 - 2:07 pm

        Well if you’re not an expert you at least know a lot more about religion than me! I appreciate you taking the time to clearly articulate your concern that it is problematic to suggest that the moral content could be removed from religion. I find your argument convincing. You raise a very interesting point in noting that persons are drawn to a certain religion for the moral prescriptions it offers. This seems plausible, but mainly if we take a macro-level approach in noting that religious moral beliefs shape the common morality of the culture, which in turn leads persons within that culture to be drawn to that religion for the dormant moral beliefs that are in fact instilled by the cultural influence of that religion. Otherwise we have a difficult time accounting for the commonality of persons sticking with the religion their parents introduced them to. But I think this is a trickier point that doesn’t undermine your claim that religions are tied to their moral judgments.

        Thanks again for the kind words, it is perhaps ironic that you speak of “intelligent posts” in the comment section of a post about Futurama. lol. But I commend you for the same intellectual rigor. Your recent essay on Kant and citizenship was brilliant, and I might have commented had I more to say than merely registering my agreement with your analysis.

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