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The Will of the Force: The Last Jedi and the Problem of Free Will

Can free will and moral responsibility exist when the future is beyond our control?
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He was using his power to get sex. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

In every Star Wars film destiny is a central theme, and The Last Jedi is no exception. The main characters – including Kylo Ren, Rey, and Luke Skywalker – are explicitly portrayed as possessing a fixed destiny in that their futures are preordained by a mysterious energy field that governs the entire universe: the Force. This same energy is also presented as determining the outcome of the struggle between the warring sides in which the main characters play their part: the Resistance and the First Order. But here lies a puzzle: the characters are explicitly portrayed as making many free choices, for which they are being morally responsible. But how can someone make free choices they are responsible for if their future is fixed by something outside of their control?

 Let’s begin by getting clear on how it might be possible for the future to be fixed. If forthcoming events are already determined by present or past events in that universe, then the universe is deterministic. A universe is deterministic if every event in it has a sufficient cause (a prior occurrence which is ‘enough’ to bring about each event). If a universe is deterministic, then everything that happens in it is made to do so by what has already happened. And here, ‘everything’ really means everything: all the happenings from the tiniest subatomic fluctuations to supernovas, galactic collisions, and all that’s in-between; including, most importantly, people’s actions. And so, given the complete state of the universe at any time, its future state at any point in time is predetermined.

So, we can make sense of how futures can be fixed in the Star Wars universe if we understand it as deterministic. Kylo, Rey, and Luke have destinies because everything that occurs in the universe – including their every thought and action – is determined by what has happened up to that point. And Star Wars lore tells us that the Force is the main determinant of what happens, especially, it seems, when it comes to the fates of people and polities.

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"Either our universe is predetermined like the Star Wars universe, or it’s indeterministic. But either way, it’s not immediately obvious that free will in a significant enough sense is possible."

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This brings us to the first part of the puzzle. In The Last Jedi, Kylo and other members of the First Order that he leads are portrayed as choosing to act in various ways. For example, he deliberately attacks Luke, and appears to use every effort to kill him. This choice is presented as one Kylo makes ‘of his own free will’. And the same holds true for the other characters in the film: Rey seemingly freely chooses to persuade Luke to train her, and in turn Luke is portrayed as making a free choice about whether to do this. But to what extent can these actions be viewed as free if they are simply part of some grand, predetermined ‘plan’ governed by the Force? To answer this question, we need to reflect on what must be the case in order for a person’s will to be free. A person’s will is a kind of mental state – an occurrence in their mind that we would normally call an ‘intention’. Intentions seem to be an essential component of action: persons’ actions – such as hailing a taxi, making a cup of tea, or killing an opponent with a lightsaber –are whatever they do intentionally. This suggests that prior to taking action, the intention to act in that way must be formed in the person’s mind. Once the intention is formed, it will normally cause the person to act in the relevant way (sometimes our intentions to act are frustrated, of course). And, intentions are in turn caused by other mental states such as beliefs and desires. Here’s a simple causal model of this:

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So, the question about what must be the case for there to be free will can be understood as asking: what do people’s intentions need to be free from, exactly, in order to cause free actions? Consider again Rey’s intention to persuade Luke to train her. Presumably, this is caused by her desire to be a Jedi Knight and her belief that Luke training her is the best way to become one. If the Star Wars universe is deterministic, then it looks as if Rey’s forming the belief, desire, and intention such that she tries to persuade Luke to train her was fixed from the moment the universe began.

A reasonable thought at this stage is that this entails that Rey’s action is not free, but philosophers are divided on this. Some, known as incompatibilists, contend that if a universe is deterministic then there cannot be free will in it. Others, known as compatibilists, contend that there can in fact be free will in a deterministic universe. The basic move made by compatibilists is to argue that so long as a person’s intentions are free from certain kinds of prior causes then there can be free will. Different compatibilists tell different stories about which prior causes must be ruled out for a person’s actions to be free. But one rough-and-ready version of what many of those stories have in common is that a person’s intentions are freely formed so long as they are not brought about by particular types of irrational thought processes.

For example, Harry Frankfurt famously argued that a person’s actions are free if they desire to have their own desires. Someone addicted to smoking, say, might desire to smoke, but also desire not to desire to smoke. Such a person is not acting freely, Frankfurt suggested, and it seems also that they exhibit a certain kind of irrationality: there is a conflict between their desires. Whereas a person who desires to smoke and desires to desire to smoke is acting freely and, in so far as their desires are consistent, more rationally. And this kind of free will – freedom from inconsistent desires – is compatible with the universe being deterministic.

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"Is simply being free from irrational thought processes sufficient for a person to be morally responsible for their actions?"

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But is this particular compatibilist kind of free will enough? This brings us to the second part of the puzzle: moral responsibility. Why does free will matter to us? Part of the answer seems to be that human beings have the deeply embedded belief that people can be morally responsible for their actions and judged morally on that basis. And we certainly seem to make such judgments when watching Star Wars. It appears that Snoke and Kylo Ren act in blameworthy ways, while Rey and Luke act in praiseworthy ways. But the justification for such judgements apparently requires that the subject of them be acting sufficiently freely. If a person is forced to do something by forces outside their control, then they cannot be held to be morally responsible for whatever they’ve done. And here’s the rub: is simply being free from irrational thought processes sufficient for a person to be morally responsible for their actions? Is a person’s action’s being determined from the moment the universe began sufficient to deem them never to be morally responsible for their actions? The answers to these questions, over which philosophers are deeply divided, will have a significant bearing on whether the compatibilist variety of free will is taken to be free will enough.

So where does this leave us?

When watching Star Wars it appears as if we have at least some grounds for doubting whether we really are justified in judging, on the one hand, that the characters have predetermined destinies, and on the other, that the characters act freely and so can be held responsible for those acts.

When looking at our universe, where it is perhaps not so obvious that people really do have destinies, matters are even murkier. Of course, the Force doesn't appear to govern our universe, but there are laws of nature and they could determine events at least as much as the Force determines them in the Star Wars universe. A person might be tempted to console themselves with the thought that according to quantum physics our universe is not deterministic, but rather indeterministic: there are events, primarily various kinds of quantum fluctuation, which do not have a sufficient cause. In an indeterministic universe, the complete state of the universe at any time does not fully determine the state of the universe at any future time. Perhaps, it might be thought, this defeats the threat to free will posed by a deterministic universe. But such a thought is not obviously correct. How does adding quantum fluctuations make a person’s actions freer? It seems rather like just adding in a bit of chance into what actions a person might pursue, which might seem to threaten the possibility of free will from a whole other direction.                

So there we have it. Either our universe is predetermined like the Star Wars universe, or it’s indeterministic. But either way, it’s not immediately obvious that free will in a significant enough sense is possible. And if such free will isn’t possible, then no-one would be morally responsible for their actions. Imagine, if you can, a society in which there’s no moral responsibility (as some philosophers have done). Or hope, if you prefer, that the compatibilists are right, and that the extent to which our actions are determined is consistent with free will. But don’t forget that whether you imagine or hope is either already determined to occur, or an at least partly chance-like occurrence in an indeterministic world.

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Gabe Bruininks on 07/02/2018 2:58am

Obviously this is a great topic to explore, but the premise is wrong. Whoever said the force created a deterministic universe in Star Wars? Whoever said destiny was a concrete fact? Sure characters talk about it a lot, and Jedi who can sense the future create prophesies, but the whole point of Last Jedi showed that it's not a deterministic universe.

Remember when Luke reacted to his visions of what Kylo could become and Rey says something to the affect of "his future wasn't set, it was just a possible future." The meaning is clear - Kylo could become this evil force, but by treating him as such it put him on the path to doing so, but the reason we feel empathetic with Kylo Ren is that we know it could have gone a different way. It's the belief that the universe was deterministic that lead Luke to respond by igniting his lightsaber, but perhaps the lesson is that things aren't so. This makes Kylo's choice to "let the past die" so heartbreaking - we understand why he chose what he chose, but it hurts because we know it could have gone a different way. The possibility is what makes that moment so emotional, there is no possibility if its a deterministic universe.

Look also at Rey's force vision. She saw an infinite number of herself in the mirror, all possibilities of who she is, and when she thinks she's going to see her parents but sees herself, it was Force saying "there's only you, your parents don't matter. Now what are you going to do with this feeling of abandonment? What version of you will you choose to become?"

I believe the cosmic force tries to present paths to people, but it's their choice to go on them. The force tries to influence situations, sure, but not in a wholly deterministic manner. It's soft nudges here and there. We don't feel we blame these characters because we have empathy with them, but that doesn't mean they are acting as completely determined. Look at how the Jedi try to keep themselves from the dark side path. They try to teach themselves to resist bad desires because those bad desires will force them to do bad things, this is a version of free will. It's staying away from fear or hate so that you aren't determined by them. "Once you start down the dark path forever will it dominate your destiny" as yoda says. Avoid being on a determined path, that's the free will, while admiring once on the path you are determined by it.

In Star Wars I don't think it's all or nothing. People don't have complete free will, but they also aren't completely determined. There's a force that tries to put you on determined paths, but the characters can ultimately avoid those paths. The characters have things happen to them that are hugely impactful giving them desires and beliefs, but there's that small room for choice in the matter as well. Perhaps this is being a compatiblist, but I don't necessarily accept the deterministic premise as it suggests an all or nothing scenario. I think the true goal of the compatibilist is to try to say maybe we are partly determined and partly free, not free in a determined universe.

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