I saw The Lego Movie last week, and it got me thinking. (Major spoilers ahead.)
As you’d expect, the characters in Lego Movie – the plastic mini-figures – act like real people. They think, they feel, they decide. Within the context of the movie, they have free will.
But the big twist at the end reveals what we all know anyway: humans control Legos. It turns out that everything the little yellow guys have been doing was the product of a boy and his father’s imaginations. The boy makes the character say something and the character says it within his own Lego world, as if it had been his own idea all along – because, within the imaginary world, it was his own idea all along.
Does free will exist, or not? Do we choose our own destiny, or are we controlled by some other force, like God or fate or the laws of physics?
The Lego Movie‘s treatment of this issue looks a lot like the philosophical stance known as “compatibilism,” which I believe in myself. Compatibilism says that free will and determinism are compatible, that in fact they are two different words for the same thing.
Anyone watching the Lego people move, talk, and think, would be convinced that they have just as much free will as the toys in Toy Story. They do what they want, when they want, for the reasons they choose. If that isn’t free will, what is?
Yet it turns out that everything they do is the product of another mind. Does that mean their will was somehow less “free?” Of course not, because free will was part of the imaginary scenario the humans were playing out. They were both happening at the same time.
In the same way, my own actions as a human being are completely determined by the laws of physics. My thoughts are identical with nerve impulses in my brain, which are controlled by the iron laws of mathematical reality. Does that mean I don’t have free will? Not at all. It just means that the machinations of my brain are identical with the machinations of the physical universe.
The father in The Lego Movie is played by Will Ferrell, which leads to a delightful coincidence. For the Lego people, Fate and Will are the same thing. (Ha!) So it is in life, says I.