The Lego Movie, Free Will, and Compatibilism

lego movie

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.

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5 responses to “The Lego Movie, Free Will, and Compatibilism

  1. What a great title- How could I not read this post!? I didn’t plan on seeing the Lego Movie but I’m definitely going to now, what an awesome tongue-in-cheek secretly philosophical idea that is!

    Is the arguments over Free Will just arguments over the definition of the statement? The idea you portray sounds like what I would call a “referred will” (of the boy through the lego) or a will-version of pantheism. I’d always thought of will deriving from the self, meaning in a world where the self is simply a reaction-agent then the self and thus the will are illusions.

    • The arguments over free will are…messy. Some would say it’s all a matter of definition, while others (myself included) argue that “free” will typically isn’t well-defined enough to be a meaningful concept separate from “non-free” will. It’s enough to keep philosophers busy for centuries. πŸ™‚

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. I’m still (very mildly) upset that Alan Moore’s comic book Big Numbers, which was based on applying fractals to storytelling, stalled out after two issues. I thought that had great potential.

  3. Whoops, wrong comment. πŸ™‚ What I meant to say was:

    Interesting. I didn’t know there was a name (“compatibilism”) for that philosophy. I learned about it from one of my characters. She’s omnipotent and omniscient, and she’s said that the way humans perceive “free will” and “determinism” as incompatible is just because we don’t see time as it actually exists. From her point(s) of view, both are true.

    This applies to writing, too. I often let my characters do whatever they want, but obviously I’m determining it, even if it’s something that screws up my plan for where the scene “should” be going.

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