Movies can raise philosophical issues for sure, such as The Matrix and now Free Guy. It helps us contemplate the possibility, often suggested by scientists and mad thinkers, that we are characters in some grand simulation.
It is hard to shake off such a preposterous thought. Can a real person enjoying his or her usual life live in something other than what we know as concrete reality? How can be we sure one way or another. Humans may be living in a world of illusions as hard as that is to believe by a rational mind.
Free Guy, artfully portrayed by actor, Ryan Reynolds, confronts this possibility. He is in the midst of a real conundrum. We know from the start that he is a non-player character (aka an NPC) in a genius computer game, called Free City. It is a wild simulation that will change his so-called life for eternity.
It makes you wonder, doesn’t it. More than one person has been blindsided by the idea and its implications. It goes back to René Descartes. This 17th-century French first raised the hypothesis. We all know his famous dictum, “I think, therefore I am.” He asked, what if some evil demon is deceiving him into believing that he lives in a real tangible world. What does it mean if he is not? Well, the evil demon idea is long gone, and there are other ways of framing the concept.
Descartes’ demon is no less preposterous than the new hypothesis offered in 20th and 21st century thought. Image humans as mere brains in a vat, hooked up to electrodes. They are controlled, or mis-controlled by malevolent neuroscientists. It is no different than a demon at the helm of human life. In any case, we could all be living through a series of electrical impulses controlled from the outside. We see this hypothesis so creatively in The Matrix.
Demons and brains in a vat? We can only laugh. Nonetheless, many think we are the creation of some vast and monstrous computer that has fabricated a grand simulation. There are no human minds with free will at all. Minds are emulations of computer code. Yes, some serious thinkers find this plausible if not likely. Among them are philosophers and mathematicians, not to mention physicists.
They are like Guy in the movie, thinking over something rather momentous.
Does free will exist?
The movie asks this big question and it arises in the context of a computer simulation. Guy thinks he enjoys free will, but as he ponders it, he realizes that his thoughts and behavior come from some crafty programming. It seems right to him.
Similarly, extrapolating from this, we can question our own nature and if we are the product of a software program, running on a giant server. Of course, if this were the case, in no way would we have free will and the ability to control what we do and think. It would all be part of our programming.
The implication of this is clear: we can take another step and ask about the difference between a computer-run mind and one operating according to biological laws. As for poor Guy, he enjoys no free will. His thoughts and actions come from computer operations that generate electronic stimuli. Of course, he has no say-so over the matter.
By contrast, cerebral operations based on natural laws are also not controllable by humans, as experiments show. It doesn’t matter whether we live in a real or simulated universe because in the end, we lack free will, with no hope of ever acquiring it. The programming for a simulated neurology would be the product of certain set parameters within which there would be no place for free will unless free will can be defined as the ability to act in a different way than we have chosen to do. You can listen to the debate between libertarians and compatibilists to find out.
Are computer programs conscious?
Consciousness is the heart of the matter as it was for Descartes. His view was seemingly rational at the time and it is still true for many contemporary philosophers like Richard Swinburne. But where does consciousness come from. Surely, it is not just biological brain matter. Indeed, many view the mind as existing apart and beyond matter. They do interact, however, in some mysterious fashion.
Consciousness is a sticky wicket and looking at biology doesn’t yield satisfactory answers. What then is a genuine conscious mind and does it arise from non-biological operations such as those from a computer? After all, we are constantly witnessing the increasing power of computing and the impact of artificial intelligence. Certainly fabricating the workings of a human mind is not that far-fetched. If it were indeed possible, imagine the implications!
For one thing, morality is at stake. Free Guy raises this issue. Okay, so humans have emotions and needs, even desires. They are alternately happy and sad. They fall in love, like Guy, and warrant moral respect. We project all of this into Guy. It is morally wrong to interfere with free will and reset the program running human lives. It is not unlike the idea of murdering someone.
Humans allegedly have rights. Is that part of the framework of a simulation, such as a video game? Some argue it should be, enforcing the assumption of free will. Others have a different opinion. It is a broad and complex issue.