This contains minor spoilers for Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.
I’m in the minority on Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch interactive episode – I find Charlie Brooker’s anti-humanism increasingly tiresome, and out of place in a world that desperately needs positivity*, and I also think that the meta-within-meta concept is student-level stuff and not half as clever as it thinks it is – but I was intrigued by the way the episode approaches the concept of free will. Free will is one of the underpinnings of our modern society – we all operate under the assumption that we have it, after all – but it’s less clear cut than that.
The usual free will debates are free will vs destiny, which fall into the theistic realm – destiny is a supernatural concept that requires some kind of a guiding force. But for the past few decades the real debate has shifted inward, to the self, rather than outward to God or the Fates or whatever. It’s possible that we don’t have free will because we are, essentially, robots whose programming allows us to justify the actions we are forced to take as choices we make.
You see this in Bandersnatch, as Stefan becomes slowly aware that he’s not the one making the choices in his life. In the context of the show this is a fourth wall break, but it read to me as being quite close to some of the stuff I’ve been learning about the human mind in the past couple of years, and that is quite close to research that has changed the way we look at the world and our place in it.
Bandersnatch touches on some of the larger non-free will concepts – the idea that the choices you are making are inherently limited due to the mental formations that you carry with you (while you may feel like you have the free will to make a choice between two breakfast cereals, the show says, the reality is that you are only presented with two cereals – this is not a choice, this is a rigged scenario. Taking it further back, the choices you make in your life are rigged by everything from your social class to the chemistry of your brain and the traumas you experienced as a child) – but where it really gets interesting is in the idea that even the most seemingly conscious choices are actually not being made by you.
A paper published in 1999 (the year of The Matrix), “Apparent mental causation: Sources of the experience of will” argued that many of our choices are actually being made by our brains before we think we make them, and that our consciousness is a system that retroactively justifies those choices. It’s an illusion – your brain already decided on the Frosted Flakes long before you consciously did, and all your consciousness did was layer what’s called a postdictive illusion on the whole thing. Your mind rationalizes the subconscious choices you are making and convinces you that you (the self with which you identify, ie, the controller you believe is in charge of the system) are making them.
This lines up with a modular theory of the mind; in the modular theory the mind is made up of these little programming nodes, all of which are competing for your attention. You have a self preservation module, a gene propagation node, a basic maintenance node, so on and so forth, and they are operating at this nano-second level, reacting to your environment and circumstance. They battle it out amongst each other and the winner gets to send a thought up to the main control room, where you believe you thought it. But it was actually just sent up to you.
You know this theory because it’s the premise of the Pixar movie Inside Out. That’s likely how your mind works – there’s no YOU inside there, there are just these modules that are vying for, not exactly control, but rather attention.
Or maybe it is control. All of this stuff, all this new neuroscience, actually supports things that the Buddha was saying 2500 years ago about there being no self. What’s more, this research only supports what any meditator comes to understand very quickly in their meditation practice: thoughts think themselves. When you sit on the cushion and do not empty your mind but rather allow your mind to do its thing and attempt to simply observe that, you see that the thoughts just bubble up like farts in a bathtub. The mind thinks itself, just as the heart beats itself. You don’t control your heart, and you don’t control your mind.
This is the key insight of Buddhist meditation, and it allows us to get to a place where we can observe our emotions before acting upon them. See, most of us just go through our lives in the postdictive illusion, acting on whatever our mind modules throw our way and then coming up with justifications for them that are more elaborate than “This was an attempt to protect myself from a perceived threat” or “This was an attempt to attract a mate.” We create increasingly complex reasoning for the choices we make, obscuring the original source of those decisions behind layers and layers of justification. This is delusion, and it leads to increased suffering. When we are not aware of the place from which our choices arise, those choices are controlling us.
Within Bandersnatch Stefan is able to eventually see that his strings are being pulled, and he is able to resist. Not enough; Brooker’s cynicism is cosmic in nature, and he forces your hand by limiting your choices. There are only a handful of endings possible, and the most positive one somehow manages to equate mental healing with death. At any rate, Stefan sees his modular mind in action, but he does not have the training to be free of it.
The question, of course, is whether any of us can be free of it. The goal of meditation is to be freer of it; meditators work to be able to observe these modules in action, and thus not be slaves to them. The idea is that when we are aware of the modules sending up the choices, we can encourage certain modules over others, like strength training of our unconscious minds. But perhaps the ultimate goal is to go even further than that.
I tend to think that when the Buddha talked about nirvana what he was talking about was full detachment from the modular mind; he found himself in a position where he wasn’t having one or two choices forced on him by the modules, but actually had the full range of modular options available to him. Is it possible that nirvana, the fully enlightened state, is simply having the freest possible will? Could things have worked out better for Stefan in any of these situations if he only had more access to Netflix’s programming and thus had more options in every scenario?
*Brooker’s old collaborator, Chris Morris, manages to do the same kind of pitch-black send-up of the modern world without resorting to hating everyone, including the viewer. Check out his masterpiece Four Lions, a dark-as-hell satire about terrorism that actually has love for all of its deluded, ridiculous terrorists.
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