Theater and Free Will

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.

4 thoughts on “Theater and Free Will”

  1. I think there’s enough slop in the quantum universe to leave room for a degree of unpredictability that allows for free will. Having said that, I do believe human minds are state machines that respond to reward and punishment reliably. Unfortunately, because human minds can redefine what constitutes a reward and what a punishment on a minute by minute basis, this behaviorist insight has little predictive value on the behavior of an individual person in a particular situation. Even if there isn’t enough quantum variation in our neural pathways to create genuinely unpredictable behavior, most of us experience a very convincing sense of free will that makes it a valid component in art. I refer you back to your cosmological examples. Even though we know the apparent movement of the sun is caused by rotation of the earth, we still talk about sunrises and sunsets. It is viscerally and artistically unsatisfying to talk about “periods of time during which a part of the planet some distance from where I am rotates out of or into the way of my perception of light from the sun.” I will go farther that art is often at its best when it depicts how the world feels as opposed to what the world is. One of the key insights someone new to drawing needs to internalize is that even to produce a realistic drawing, it is necessary to depict what the thing looks like rather than what you know it is.

    1. Oh, there is so much to unpack in what you’ve written here.

      I disagree with what I think is your fundamental premise that art is more satisfying when its truer to our hearts than our minds. I think that’s selling ourselves short; in fact, I think its incumbent upon us as artists (as I wrote in Tuesday’s post) to be able to make art the speaks to the modern human mind, which is one that understands the real nature of a sunrise. We are no longer doing anyone a service when we buy into the fictions our senses want us to believe, I think. And we need to begin to develop an artistic vocabulary that’s more comfortable — I’ll even settle for less antagonistic — toward science and evidence and fact.

  2. I would have to experience more art through the no illusions lens to have a strong opinion on the matter. I would tune your interpretation to say that I prefer art that is true to my senses as opposed to true to my heart, but given the basic freight of what I say, I have no license to deprive you of metaphor.

    Life as we encounter it is unmitigated novel authenticity. That is, the particular configuration of stimuli confronting our senses at any given moment is new. Our minds are ill suited to dealing with constant novelty, and so we filter our sensory field through a set of learned categories that reassure us the complex shifting field of moving greenery above the intricate brown structure is the same windblown tree it was a moment before.

    Some intriguing art uses those filters against us to force us to re-encounter the thing itself or at least the sensory impression itself and thereby call those categories and our world view into question. The plays of Will Eno and Tim Crouch, in my experience, make my expectations about human nature and narrative structure waver in an enlivening way. So I agree with you that art that tugs on pieces of the world view can be great.

    I still think I hang up on the free will thing, partly because I’m an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy. In those genres, mind control and possession are sometimes used to rob characters of free will. I almost always find those portions of a story the least satisfying. Doesn’t mean I’m closed off to a script that is written without the concept of free will, but I am convinced it would be very difficult to stage effectively.

    1. To rob someone of free will would suggest they have free will in the first place. What if, however, we do not have it at all? That’s what I’m asking.

      If we do not have it, and we eventually come to terms with that fact societally — much as we have NOT done with the beyond-doubt fact of evolution — what would it mean for our experience of narrative? Would we still be able to “root” for a protagonist if that protagonist, we understand, is simply acting in response to stimuli? It would almost, I fear, be like watching a river and “rooting” for it to keep flowing. (And that you for not depriving me of metaphor. I don’t know where I’d be without it.)

      I realize that my entire line of inquiry here is dependent not only on the notion that we do not have free will, but that if we don’t, we’ll be able to incorporate that fact into our sense of being human… and I myself have doubts about both of those propositions. I am, in the end, merely speculating.

      Like you, I value art that challenges the structures we have evolved in our brains to help us live in and cope with and interpret the “unmitigated novel authenticity” (great phrase) of life. I mistrust stories, even as I tell them, and the playwrights whose work undermine narrative are of great appeal to me. I expect we’ll see more and more playwrights attempt the same sort of thing — as I have tried to do, notably in LET X, but also in THE GREAT DISMAL to a lesser extent — as drama evolves into the next century.

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