It is amazing how movies and comics often shed light on philosophical and theological issues. One specific topic regularly addressed in pop culture is known as the “free will debate.” Some philosophers and theologians affirm a view called determinism and state that we never have genuine freedom (an ability) to choose between a range of options compatible with human nature. When a person believes that things other than the person causally determine all things about the person, then it seems obvious that the person is not free or responsible for any thought, action, belief, or behavior.
Many determinists, however, contend that freedom and/or responsibility can still exist on a deterministic worldview. These folks affirm a view called “compatibilism.”
Compatibilism is basically the view that there is no real conflict between determinism and free will and/or responsibility. That is to say, one who holds to compatibilistic “freedom” affirms that all thoughts, actions, beliefs, and behaviors of a person are ultimately determined by things other than the person and cannot be otherwise. However, the compatibilist asserts that if the person voluntarily acts in the manner in which they have been forced to act, then they are free and/or responsible for the act. Even though there does not seem to be anything “free” about being forced to think or act in a particular manner, these determinists (often either Calvinists or atheists) affirm this so-called “compatibilistic freedom.”
Several popular movies reveal the absurdity of so-called “compatibilistic freedom.” Consider three different universes (the “multiverse”): the Star Wars Universe, the Marvel Universe, and the DC Universe.
First consider the droid, K-2SO, from Star Wars: Rogue One:
K-2SO was built and programmed by Arakyd Industries to have a “nature” that always “chooses” or acts in accordance with the goals of the Empire. K-2 is not responsible for being built by Arakyd Industries and the droid is not responsible for its programmed “Empire nature.” K-2 is even programmed to “like” his programming and because of this programming wants and desires to act accordingly. K-2 is not responsible for how “he” was programmed.
K-2SO, however, was stolen against the droid’s will and reprogrammed with a new nature that will now always “choose” or act in accordance with the goals of the Rebellion (which are antithetical to the goals of the Empire). K-2 is even programmed by Cassian Andor to “like” his new programming and because of this re-programming, K-2 now wants and desires to act accordingly. K-2 is not responsible for how “he” was re-programmed.
All of K-2’s “thoughts” and actions are determined by the nature of “his” programming; none of which was up to the droid. K-2 is not responsible for “his” nature/programming or how the programming determines “him” to think or act (we can learn more from K-2 and Yoda on this topic here).
On Calvinistic compatibilism, there is no significant difference between droids and humans.
Next consider the movie Captain America: Civil War.
James “Bucky” Barnes, Captain America’s childhood friend, has been brainwashed and turned into a human weapon. Cap correctly tells Barnes that he was not really responsible for his crimes — the bad guys who brainwashed him to possess a desire to commit these crimes are truly guilty! In fact, the bad guys changed Bucky’s nature from that of a “good guy” to that of someone who desires to commit evil acts. Among these evil acts is the murder of Tony Stark’s parents.
Stark (Iron Man) loses his mind and holds Bucky Barnes responsible for the murder of his parents — even though the bad guys are the ones responsible for brainwashing and manipulating Bucky’s nature so that he would “choose” (for lack of a better word) to kill Stark’s parents. In fact, Stark goes berserk in an attempt to kill Bucky. Captain America, however, fights to defend Bucky because he sees the obvious truth: Bucky was not responsible and should not be held accountable!
Everyone knows that Stark was morally wrong for trying to kill Bucky — he should have gone after the evil people who were responsible for causally determining Bucky’s mindset and nature (against his will) which caused and determined Bucky to act on his “greatest desire at that moment” (which was not up to him) to kill Stark’s parents. Stark held the wrong guy accountable.
The compatibilist disagrees with Captain America and contends that Stark is right for holding Bucky (instead of the bad guy who brainwashed him) responsible for the death of his parents. Surely, God would not make the same mistake (See Timothy Fox’s great article, Captain America, Bucky, & Moral Responsibility).
Finally, consider Harley Quinn and the Joker from the DC universe. In the movie Suicide Squad, the Joker kidnapped and brainwashed Harley against her will. The Joker forced himself upon her and causally determined her to be unable to resist him. Left to Harley’s own devices — her nature — she would always reject the Joker if given a choice, but the Joker took away her ability to choose otherwise. She has been manipulated to now have a new nature. Because of the Joker’s actions, Harley has made “choices” based on her new desires, but this is because of the new nature she was forced to possess against her will. As a result, Harley has suffered psychological trauma and has been violated against her original will (even though the Joker has forced her to think and act in accords to his will — and to like it too).
Calvinistic compatibilists suggest that humans are still responsible for their beliefs and behaviors even though God causally determines their natures, which determines their wants and desires, which guarantees certain actions. Calvinistic compatibilists (if they are going to remain consistent) contend that this is exactly what the Joker did to Harley Quinn, and that Harley “freely” loves and follows the Joker although she is incapable of choosing otherwise based on her new “Joker-loving nature.” On this view, however, God is worse than the Joker because God is ultimately responsible for every person’s wants and desires which guarantees every person’s thoughts and actions. Moreover, on this absurd view, God holds everyone eternally accountable for things in which He was responsible.
Many philosophical arguments have been offered demonstrating that there is nothing free about compatibilistic “freedom” (See Compatibilism Is Incompatible with Reality and Fifty Shades of Compatibilism). In fact, the eminent philosopher of mind, John Searle notes that if all decisions are always simply based on one’s greatest desires then rationality goes down the drain:
“… cases of actions for which the antecedent beliefs and desires really are causally sufficient, far from being models of rationality, are in fact bizarre and typically irrational cases.” (Rationality in Action; 2001; 12)
With that said, however, a plethora of popular movies (the “multiverse”) might do a better job of demonstrating the absurdity of this shallow philosophy (Colossians 2:8) called “compatibilism” for those who are first dipping their toes into these deeper theological waters. Reject compatibilistic determinism. Choose libertarian freedom instead.
Stay reasonable (Isaiah 1:18),