Over the last thirty years or so, a growing body of experimentation by neuroscientists has begun to suggest that human beings might not actually have free will. The conclusions to date are still tentative, and the entire area warrants (and is attracting) extensive additional research, but the early indications are clear enough to suggest that we might not understand the nature of humanity quite as well as we think we do.
Let’s just sit with the possibility for a second, okay? We do not actually have free will. We are, essentially, complex machines responding to sensory and informational inputs: so complex, in fact, that it actually looks like we do have free will. Hard to imagine, no?
Well, it was hard to imagine, once upon a time, that the Earth revolved around the sun… that homo sapiens evolved from other species… that the universe was more than 14 billion years old… that we aren’t living at the center of it. You get the picture. The absolutely strange can, in time, be incorporated into our understanding of existence… at least by those of us whose minds haven’t been closed by (usually religious) dogma.
In any event… what if it does prove to be true? (Let me be clear in saying that despite what some few scientists claim, the general consensus is that the jury is still out. Actually… it’s probably more accurate to say that the CSIs are still gathering evidence.) What would the absence of free will mean for theater? For the writing and telling of theatrical stories?
Virtually every conventional plot relies irretrievably on the simple idea that characters have choices, that they try and desire and want, that they struggle toward better ends—whether they ever succeed or not. If we do come to understand and accept that free will is an illusion, if we really integrate that concept into our consciousness, how would we experience theater like that? Would it be any more compelling than watching a really complicated whirligig or Rube Goldberg contraption? Pleasing, in some way, but really a mere diversion?
What I suspect—and we’re in a very speculative realm here, of course—is that we need the concept of free will, even if we don’t actually have the thing itself. That without the illusion of free will, we’d be challenged to maintain our very sanity. Then again, that might just be my fear talking. It might be just the revelation that will help us grow as a species in some way.
But let’s get back to theater, shall we? Here are a few questions that have occurred to me—ideas I find curious or trouble about a theatrical universe without free will:
- If ticket buyers are simply responding to stimuli, what stimuli can we put in front of them to get them to buy tickets?
- Of what purpose is theater for an audience of machines? Can it alter our programming?
- Does improvisation actually mean anything anymore?
- Doesn’t the fact that a play is performed roughly the same way, with the same dialogue and blocking night after night, almost seem like a lack of free will already?
You might have your own questions, too. If so, I would love to know what they are… because I’m really a touch disturbed by the whole matter.