Minority Report

Determinism and Free Will


Minority Report as an Introduction to Determinism and to Free Will

A premonition of John Anderton killing Leo CrowIn the film Minority Report, Precrime Chief John Anderton is running from “the law.”  His crime?  The “future murder” of a man he’s never met.

The man he is anticipated to murder is named Leo F. Crow.  When Anderton discovers Crow’s whereabouts, he decides to investigate.  Agatha, a psychically gifted (or cursed) individual who foresaw Anderton’s crime, emphatically states, “You have a choice.  Walk away.  Do it now.”  Anderton proceeds because he wishes to know what’s happened to his life, and believes Crow might have some sort of answer.  He assures Agatha that he won’t kill Crow.  “I don’t even know him,” Anderton explains.

However, when Anderton gets inside Crow’s apartment, he finds what looks like evidence that Crow was the man who kidnapped (and presumably murdered) Anderton’s son six years earlier.  Anderton has desired to kill whomever took his son, and now believes he has the man.  “You said so yourself: there is no minority report,” Anderton tells Agatha.  “I don’t have an alternative future.  I am going to kill this man.

Yet Agatha insists, “You still have a choice!”  And her point may have some merit.  After all, as it turns out, Anderton doesn’t execute Crow; instead, Anderton tries to arrest Crow.  Crow still dies, primarily because Crow wishes to die, but at least it was not caused by Anderton; rather, it was caused by Crow himself pulling on the gun in Anderton’s hands.  Thus, Anderton apparently did make a choice—a choice not to murder.

Before the term libertarian became applied to a political philosophy aimed at eliminating aggression in all human interactions, the term originally referred to the metaphysical belief in free will.  Minority Report interestingly defends both libertarianisms.  The implication of the film is this:  Anderton was fully capable to defying the expectations of his psychic companion, and thus can be shown to possess free will.  But is this necessarily the case?

The concept of free will is often pitted against the concept of causality or determinism—as though these were somehow contradictory philosophies.  And, not surprisingly, determinists and metaphysical libertarians are both interested in the implications of this thought-provoking film.

On the one hand, we have someone like Mark Rowlands, who uses Minority Report as a jumping board with which to defend determinism.  He does this in chapter five of his book, The Philosopher at the End of the Universe: Philosophy Explained Through Science Fiction Films, titled “Minority Report: The Problem of Free Will.”

On the other hand, we have someone like Michael Huemer, who uses the same film as a jumping board with which to defend libertarianism.  His essay is titled “Free Will and Determinism in the World of Minority Report,” and appears in the book Science Fiction and Philosophy: From Time Travel to Superintelligence, edited by Susan Schneider.

Mark Rowlands’s Failure to Argue Against Free WillMark Rowlands

I define free will as including any actions that are caused by one’s subjective desires and beliefs—a definition that I think most average people can understand and accept.  Unfortunately, in Mark Rowlands’s treatment of the subject, he doesn’t even provide a logical definition of free will, and it is precisely this lack of a definition that he uses to provide himself the wiggle-room needed to make his long-winded argument against freedom of will.

Rowlands first brings up the Libet/Kornhuber experiments, in which it was discovered that “the recorded electrical activity in your brain…buil[ds] up a second to a second and a half before you flex[] your finger,”1 as though this is somehow supposed to indicate that you lack free will.  Rowlands’s argument is this:  “The movement of your finger was actually caused by the activity in your brain, activity which occurred before your act of will, and of which you were completely unaware.”2  At no point does Rowlands even consider the subjective nature of time, or the very rational concept that perhaps, just perhaps, he is constructing a false dichotomy between the electrical activity and the decision to flex.3  Rowlands then goes on to say that one’s decisions, and thus one’s actions, are the inevitable result of “overwhelmingly powerful desire[s]” held by the individual, and that individuals have no power over what they do and do not desire.4  Well, true enough; but since when does a person need to have control over her or his own desires in order to have free will?

Rowlands’s argument against free will is more or less similar to every argument I’ve seen against free will, and it suffers from a complete misconceptualisation, in my opinion, of that to which the term free will refers, as I shall explain below.  Reading Rowlands, one gets the notion that he is purposely tacitly defining free will so that it happens to fall just outside of that which is defendably real—indeed, just outside of that which is even conceptualisable.  In his first paragraph in his section on indeterminism,5 Rowlands sets up his arguments to imply that those who believe in free will must reject the view that everything that happens is deterministic, which is a strawman.  This means he’s promoting the view that free will requires indeterminism, requires the existence of breaks in the universal chain of cause and effect (or, as he calls it, “some sort of gap in the causal order—some sort of hiatus or hole in the labyrinth of causal lineages that make up the history of the universe”6).  If Rowlands were correct that free will requires such gaps or breaks, then he’d likely be correct that free will does not exist.  But, I see no reason to arbitrarily define free will in such a supernatural manner.  This is exemplified on page 142, where Rowlands writes that

it is no more a free movement when your arm shoots out for no reason at all than it is when it shoots out as a result of a neurological condition.  You have no control over the event in either case.  In the first case, you have no control over your arm because it is made inevitable by something, the neurophysiological problem, over which you have no control.  But in the second case, your arm just shoots out for no reason; the movement has no cause.  But, then, you have no control over the movement.

Thus, Rowlands arbitrarily defines free will as any action that neither has a cause nor lacks a cause, as any action that is neither compatible with determinism nor with indeterminism.7  Suffice it to say, I found Rowland’s arguments lacking.  If we simply define free will as I do, as the state of one’s actions when said actions are determined by one’s subjective desires and beliefs, then we can see that free will requires causation, and all of Mr. Rowlands’s convoluted wiggling can be swept away.

Michael Huemer’s Failure to Argue Against Determinism

Five years later, with the publication of Science Fiction and Philosophy, we get Huemer’s take.  And Huemer starts rationally enough by explaining what sort of entities could possess free will.8  Non-sentient robots would not have free will because they do not even possess the capability of weighing different actions that they could physically perform to see which physically possible action they believe will best yield their subjective desires.  Sentient beings, it would seem, by contrast, have such an ability by virtue of their awareness.

Huemer lists two criteria for free will to exist, criteria that I believe unfortunately ultimately only lead many to confusion.  He mentions, first, alternative possibilities, and second, self-control.9  It’s really the alternative possibilities concept that throws most people through a loop.  Do alternative possibilities exist?  Well, yes and no, depending entirely upon how you are defining them.  And this is one of the big things that lead determinists to challenge free will and, indeed, to define free will in such convoluted manners as we saw Rowlands define it above.

Michael Huemer

When one speaks of “alternative possibilities,” one is likely referring to one of these two very different things.  One person may use the term to mean that the future is so undeterminable that even an omnipotent being, who knows everything there is to know about past and present occurrences, would not be able to calculate all future events, and would not be able to calculate precisely because I could “choose” to turn left or “choose” to turn right while magically opting not to base my decision on any internal or external stimuli.  But this conception of “alternative possibilities” causes “free will” to seem like something completely supernatural and entirely undetermined by previous causes—even those causes we call desires and beliefs.  Thus, viewing “alternative possibilities” in this light unfortunately leads an individual away from what is truly free will and instead toward indeterminism, or the view that cause does not yield effect.  It should be no surprise that a determinist will reject the view of the metaphysical libertarian if he thinks that the metaphysical libertarian is relying on this sort of indeterminism in order to defend the concept of free will!

But, the term alternative possibilities can refer to something much more natural, too.  It could simply refer to different physically-possible options.  For example, I am physically capable of (1) cutting off my own finger and also of (2) not cutting off my own finger.  Now, the determinist and the compatibilist would say that whatever choice I make with regards to these options, my choice is caused by my desires and my beliefs.  And, both the determinist and the compatibilist would be correct!  In my own case, my personal desires and beliefs inevitably lead me to solely choosing not to cut off any of my fingers at this time.  Thus, when we use the term alternative possibilities in this manner, it simply means that there are different physically possible options, some that will more likely lead the individual to fulfilling her desires and others that are less likely to fulfilling her desires.  This use of the term alternative possibilities in no way should be inferred as meaning it is actually possible that a person may choose an action that she believes will be less likely to ultimately lead to the satisfaction of her strongest desires, only that she is aware of some or all of the different actions she is physically capable of taking, and of her own beliefs regarding the utility of each one.  Therefore, when we use the term alternative possibilities in this manner, we describe something that no determinist (or, at least no determinist who believes that sentient beings exist) has any reason to reject.

Huemer explains the problem with the term in his section on soft determinism.10  He also defines soft determinism as “the view that determinism is true, and yet we have free will anyway.”11  Basically, Huemer defines soft determinism in the same way we would define compatibilism.  After providing his definition, Huemer proceeds to present two of the arguments in favour of what he calls soft determinism.  First, he presents the argument that we will see Rowlands attribute to Hume below.12  Next, he presents what we might call the anti-indeterminist argument:

Another line of thought pressed by some soft determinists holds that freedom actually requires determinism.  For, they say, if determinism were false, and our actions were not determined by antecedent causes, these actions would merely be random occurrences, and what is random is under no one’s control.  Since free will requires self-control, we would lack free will.

Suppose, for example, that even though I have no desire to stand on my head loudly singing the national anthem right now, there’s still a chance that I might wind up doing it anyway, prompted by no desire, belief, or other motivation of mine.  That possibility wouldn’t make me free; rather, it would seem to make me unfree.  The only way we can control our actions and decisions is by having them be caused by our internal thoughts and motivations.  Indeterminism not only doesn’t help us with this, it precludes our satisfying this precondition on freedom.  Surely, then—if we have a coherent notion of free will at all—free will does not require indeterminism.13

Unfortunately, after presenting this extremely clear-headed and insightful argument, the author does a one-eighty and writes, “While the above arguments have some plausibility they seem less compelling than some of the objections to soft determinism.”14  That’s right, the author wants to reject any form of determinism, and simply claims, without evidence, that his arguments for compatibilism are “less compelling” than his arguments against determinism.  And what are Huemer’s great arguments against determinism?  Nothing less than the very same flawed arguments that determinists use to promote the view that free will cannot exist!15  Suffice it to say, I found Huemer’s arguments against determinism just as lacking as Rowland’s arguments against freedom of will.

A Compatibilist Critique

Free will, as understood by most average believers in free will, is far less convoluted than these intellectuals want to make it out to be.  Most proponents of free will understand it to mean, very simply, that one’s actions are caused by one’s own desires and beliefs, rather than by some supernatural entity.  It’s not a leprechaun or a god or a cursed ring that makes you to eat that apple, it’s your own subjective desires and beliefs that lead you to (A) crave the apple and (B) believe more good will come to you as a result of you eating the apple than harm.  The determinist who then claims that you do not have control over your own desires or beliefs misses the point entirely, since control over one’s desires or beliefs is not a prerequisite for one’s actions to be determined by said desires and beliefs.

Clearly, freedom of will requires causation; for, were it not for causes leading to effects, we would be stuck with an indeterminist world in which one’s desires and beliefs do not cause one’s choice of actions or physical movements.  In such a world, one’s arm as noted above might shoot out spontaneously without you even desiring it to do so.  Clearly, therefore, free will requires determinism, and is incompatible with indeterminism.16

This is not to say, however, that classical compatibilists have the issue figured out, either.  The “problem of freedom,” as Rowlands attributes to the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–76),David Hume

arises because people tend to confuse causation and compulsion.  But this, according to Hume, is an illegitimate conflation of two very different things.  There is a world of difference, for example, between my doing something because I want to, and doing it because someone has a gun against my head and will kill me if I don’t.  In the first case, in Hume’s terminology, my action is caused, but in the second case it is compelled.  According to compatibilists such as Hume, the opposite of freedom is compulsion, not causation.  Therefore, they claim, my action is only not free if it is compelled.  It can be caused and still be free as long as it is caused in the right sort of way.17

Hume is right (assuming Rowlands correctly describes Hume’s views) that causation is not the opposite of metaphysical freedom; indeed, as I have said above, metaphysical freedom requires causation.  Yet, Hume is wrong (again, assuming Rowlands correctly describes Hume’s views) to believe that metaphysical freedom is the opposite of physical compulsion.  Compulsion is the opposite of what I would call political freedom (or, more simply, “liberty”), where political freedom is the freedom from those who would threaten to initiate force or fraud.  One loses one’s liberty (or political freedom) when one finds a gun pointed at her head, but this does not mean she loses her free will (or metaphysical freedom) also.  The person being threatened at gunpoint can still choose her actions, which is to say her actions are still caused by her desires and beliefs.18  Thus, it’s not both her political freedom and her metaphysical freedom that are being usurped by the gunman, it is merely her political freedom that is being usurped.  The metaphysical libertarian, therefore, would have to say that she can choose to abide by the wishes of the gunman or risk being shot, basing her actions necessarily on her desires and beliefs, while the political libertarian can go further and claim that the aggressive threat of the gunman is unethical and illegitimate.  It is precisely because Hume failed to distinguish between political and metaphysical freedom (assuming Rowlands correctly describes Hume’s views) that his case appears so weak.

Very simply, an action is metaphysically free when it is caused by the individual’s desires and beliefs.19  Anyone who believes in determinism, and who believes that sentient beings exist, must believe that an individual’s actions are determined solely by (A) her desires and beliefs, by (B) a neurological or psychological condition, or by (C) a combination of (A) and (B).  After all, a person would have to accept that “some sort of gap in the causal order—some sort of hiatus or hole in the labyrinth of causal lineages” exists if he were to reject that view, and such a person could therefore not be a determinist.  So, except for those determinists who happen insanely to believe either that no sentient beings exist, or who happen to believe that all human movements are the result of neurological or psychological problems to the utter exclusion of desires or beliefs, determinists ought to admit that their own metaphysical viewpoints rationally requires a belief in free will.  Not only are metaphysical libertarianism and determinism not incompatible, they virtually require one another.

The final throw of the desperation dice for someone who wants to hang on to the idea that determinism is not compatible with free will happens when the person decides to try to redefine free will to mean that an action is only metaphysically free when the actor has control not only over her actions, but also over the cause of her desires, and the cause of the cause of her desires, and so on.20  But it is never explained why free will ought to be redefined in such an obscure way.  This certainly is not how the average layman would understand freedom of the will; rather, most people understand free will simply to mean actions “must have some connection to other things you feel and think,” that “they cannot come about for no reason.”21  This is the standard meaning of free will; it is the viewpoint that most people adopt when they say they believe in free will.

Therefore, most of the debates between determinists and metaphysical libertarians are complete garbage.  Free will exists, which means that actions are determined by one’s desires and beliefs, and so does causality, which means that all other occurrences are also determined.

Minority Report as a Defence of Free Will

What is so interesting about the two philosophical critiques of Minority Report upon which I have focused above is the degree of focus each one gives to determinism.  Rowlands, of course, uses Minority Report to defend determinism.  And Huemer, obviously, uses the film to attack determinism.

I, on the other hand, do not see the film as a defence of, nor an attack on, determinism.  Rather, I see it as a clear defence of free will, which, as noted over and over again above, is not incompatible with determinism.

Anderton is standing in an apartment, holding a gun.  He has a variety of desires, and a variety of beliefs.Anderton pointing his gun at Crow

We know he believes that Crow is the man who murdered his son.  We know that Anderton used to believe that the Precrime system was infallible, but that he currently believes it is fallible.  We know that he came to view the system as fallible once he discovered that sometimes a “minority report” is created, where the minority report is a precognitive vision contradicting the visions of the other two Precogs.  We know he believes he has no minority report.

What we do not know is whether Anderton believes that the Precrime methodology can be flawed even in the absence of a minority report.  Perhaps that thought is in his head, perhaps not.

As for Anderton’s desires, we know he has a desire to see the murderer of his son die.  What we don’t know is what other desires he may have, and how much more or less he may desire these other outcomes.  Perhaps part of him also wants to simply torture the man before him.  Perhaps part of him wants to arrest the man instead.  Perhaps a part of him wants to prove the Precrime system to be fallible, or to prove that he can act in a manner other than envisioned by the Precogs.  Perhaps he desires to get his job back, and believes he can do so by proving himself to the police not to being a murderer.

Ultimately, Anderton will act in whatever way he believes will best fulfil his desires (whatever they may be), rather than having no choice but to follow in the footsteps of the precognitive vision.  It clearly appears, therefore, that the intent of the film is to promote the view that freedom of will does exist, regardless of whether determinism also exists or not.

Free Will and the Ethics of Precrime

Finally, it must be noted that the debate over free will and determinism often leads to some interesting considerations regarding ethics and punishment.  Interestingly, however, despite the disagreements between Rowlands and Huemer, both agree with me that the Precrime system was unjust.

Huemer introduces the problem thusly:  “[T]he Precrime system seems ethically doomed: if the alleged future criminals lack free will, then it is unjust to punish them since they are not morally responsible for what they would have done.  If the alleged future criminals have free will, then it is unjust to punish them since we can not be sufficiently certain that they really would have committed the crime for which they are to be punished.”22  This is important for, as Vikas Singh puts it in The Times of India, “to forego responsibility is to forego choice, and down that path lies individual disempowerment.  Totalitarian ideologies rest on the belief that the individual counts for little, that his life is shaped by forces greater than him.”23  The Precrime system cannot ensure justice because it cannot ensure that everyone it arrests would have committed the murders envisioned, even in those instances where there are no minority reports.  And, because the Precrime system fails to concern itself with those individuals who might be innocent, because it ignores their individual sovereignty and self-worth, it is clearly an authoritarian establishment, deserving no place in a free society.

Huemer adds that

[A] libertarian would likely interpret the existence of minority reports as reflecting the reality of human freedom.  On this view, at least some of the time, it is not yet determined whether a person will commit a certain crime or not, and that is why the pre-cogs disagree.  In those cases where a person’s future is not yet determined, he should not be punished for a future crime even if he probably will commit it.  This is because only the actual decision by which the individual locks in the future in which he commits the crime would make him deserving of punishment; before this decision has been made, there is no existing fact or state of affairs that makes him a “future criminal” or deserving of punishment.24

Further, none of the preseen crimes are necessarily “destined” to happen, even when all three Precog visions are identical.  As Rowlands concludes,This ball indicates that the Precogs anticipate that John Anderton will soon commit a murder

There is, of course, a paradox involved here, one discussed, briefly and inadequately, in the film.  If the precogs see the future, then Tom and the Pre-Crime unit spring into action, and the murder is (hopefully) prevented.  But this means that the murder was not destined to happen after all.  So, how could the precogs, whose ability is supposedly to see what actually happens, rather than predict what is most likely to happen, see something that wasn’t, in fact, going to happen?  They must be seeing something that wasn’t fixed or determined at all.  Which, of course, undermines the entire rationale for the Pre-Crime unit, and the judicial justification for putting into suspended animation those people who actually never got around to doing anything at all.25


1 Mark Rowlands, “Minority Report: The Problem of Free Will,” chapter five of The Philosopher at the End of the Universe: Philosophy Explained Through Science Fiction Films (New York, N. Y.: St. Martin’s Press, 2004), p. 125.

2 Ibid.

3 Have you ever been in a conversation, and decided to talk, and found that the other person began speaking first, and that you unintentionally spoke over her?  Does it not seem that your brain sent the signal to your mouth and vocal cords before she began speaking, yet it did not reach your mouth and vocal cords until after she has begun speaking?  This has happened to me, and I would not be surprised if similar things have happened to most of you.  This human experience pretty much eviscerates Rowlands’s interpretation of the Libet/Kornhuber experiments.  The one-second gap does not necessarily mean that your brain has made some secretive decision before you have, but rather simply that it takes a tiny (yet noticeable) amount of time for your decisions to manifest themselves as actions physically.  And, really, should this counter-interpretation come as a shock to anyone who has touched a hot stove?

4 Rowlands, p. 128.

5 Ibid., p. 138.

6 Ibid., p. 139.

7 I have to wonder what Rowlands would say in response to me were I to tell him that the claim freedom of the will requires that actions be neither caused nor not caused “is horrendously obscure,” and that it is “only its obscurity that temps [him] into thinking there is anything worthwhile in [his] view.”  Cf. Rowlands, p. 152.

8 Michael Huemer, “Free Will and Determinism in the World of Minority Report,” chapter ten of Science Fiction and Philosophy: From Time Travel to Superintelligence, ed. Susan Schneider (West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2009), p. 104.

9 Ibid.

10 On page 106, Huemer presents this scenario:

I live in a world in which all events are determined by preceding causes.  The laws of this world determine that my trying to do A in my present circumstances would result in my successfully doing A, while my trying to do B (an incompatible alternative action) in these circumstances would result in my successfully doing B.  The laws and the past also determine that in fact I will try to do A and will not try to do B.  All of this is consistent.  And in this situation, determinism is true, but yet I have alternative possibilities in the sense defined above: that is, there are two actions, A and B, such that if I tried to do either of them, I would succeed; therefore, these are two actions that I “can” perform.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid., p. 107.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

16 While I say that free will requires determinism, I do not say that determinism requires free will.  For one thing, imagine a deterministic universe with no life in it.  Without any sentient beings, there will be no free will, no matter how deterministic the universe may be.  Also, when we consider persons who have neurological or psychological problems, we may very well find ourselves dealing with people who cuss or who punch others while honestly desiring not to cuss or to punch others; while we may say that these people lack free will insofar as their physical movements are not determined by their desires and beliefs, we would still say that their actions and their other physical movements are being determined.

An additional note must thus now be made:  If we are to define, as we ought to, action as being something chosen, and determined by one’s desires and beliefs, then we would not describe a person with Tourette’s as committing an action when she cusses.  Consider this quote from page 148 of Rowlands:  “Leaving the hotel room, in the rather unfortunate way he left the hotel room in the film, is something that happens to [Leo], not something he does.  It’s not an action at all, and so the issue of whether it is a free action simply does not arise.  Leo doesn’t do this freely, because he doesn’t do it at all.”  If your arm were to shoot out spontaneously, without you having the control to stop it, this physical movement would not constitute an action on your part.  All true actions are determined by one’s desires and beliefs, and thus all true actions are, definably, products of free will.

17 Rowlands, pp. 145–146.

18 As Rowlands writes on page 147, “The gun to Leo’s head is not going to work, for example, if he [Leo] believes his life is worthless and that by dying he can secure a big payout for his family (which, in the film he of course, did believe.)  The gun would work only if Leo has a desire to live.”

19 Rowlands on page 150 writes, “According to compatibilism, an action is free of it is caused by a desire—an internal state—of you.”

20 The first eighteen words in this sentence are borrowed from Mr. Rowlands.

21 Rowlands, p. 143.

22 Huemer, p. 104.

23 Vikas Singh, “The Metaphysics of Minority Report,” The Times of India (6 August 2002).

24 Huemer, p. 111.

25 Rowlands, pp. 137–138.