Through power, my chains are broken
Thoughts on Star Wars and the existence of Free Will
Sorry for the gruesome image associated with this post. It’s not pretty. What you’re looking at is Darth Vader, the right-hand of the Empire and one of the most powerful men in the galaxy. He’s a powerhouse - in his armor anyways. Here is what Vader is like in his most vulnerable and exposed moments, as depicted in concept art from Star Wars: Rogue One (2018). The scene where a Sith cultist on the planet Mustafar comes to fetch Vader for an audience with an ambitious and meddling Imperial officer. We see Vader in a bacta tank, medicating and healing his wounds incurred during Revenge of the Sith, where he lost limbs and was nearly burned to death.
Would you say Vader is someone who enjoys “freedom” in his life? Or that he possesses a great deal of “free will” regarding his existence and trajectory?
This is the subject of my current chapter I’m writing for “How The Force Can Fix The World”….Free Will….and whether it exists in our own lives, and what Star Wars has to say about it.
I’d like to share an excerpt of the chapter with you.
Do you believe in fate or do you think of every day as a story yet to be written? Most people I meet tend to be somewhere in the middle on this question. On the one hand, it often seems like the universe and our lives have a natural center of gravity, a trajectory onto which we’re born. On the other hand, we all make choices.
One of the most provocative threads throughout the Star Wars saga is the theme of destiny. Qui-Gon Jinn, in his final gasps of breath, insisted that Anakin Skywalker was the Chosen One who was destined to bring balance to the Force. Darth Vader tells Luke Skywalker that it’s his destiny to join forces with him on the Dark Side and rule the galaxy. Luke later believes Ben Solo is destined for incredible evil, and goes so far as to nearly murder him in his sleep to prevent it. Rey, in the final chapter of the final trilogy in the Skywalker story, learns she is the blood heir to Emperor Palpatine. With that kind of evil running through her veins, Rey rightly questions if she’s the force for good in the galaxy she always thought herself to be — or something malevolent.
So much of Star Wars is bound up in lineage and the mantle its characters bear by virtue of their family name. It’s a somewhat medieval notion, but it’s not unfamiliar is it?
We have these debates in modern life all the time about whether or not we’re mere products of our upbringings or anomalies who somehow defied our programming. You’ve likely been part of the nature versus nurture debate at some point in time. Some kid on the other side of the country shoots up their school and the nation's eyes turn to the parents left living in the rubble and shame. Was this their doing? We wonder. Or was this something that was always inside their child, just waiting for its day? Was this fate or the product of a string of bad choices?
Then there’s the opportunity versus equity debate. Does a kid from the D.C. projects have the same chance to succeed and prosper as the son or daughter of a Senator living in material comfort and getting a top-dollar private K-12 education?
These are simultaneously the definitive social and political questions of the moment, and also completely timeless in nature. It’s all part of the discourse over “free will” and whether or not we truly have it. I used to believe that the existence of free will was both uncontroversial and widely accepted, but that turns out not to be the case. In the highest levels of academia, journalism, and media, it’s increasingly in vogue to talk about free will as an illusion. A fairy tale, they say, which we tell ourselves and our children to rationalize human action and give us all hope. Star Wars, however, has remained unflinching in its commitment to the virtue of self-determination, the existence of a free will and the power of choice.
While there is a case to be made that turning our backs on free will could yield more lenient and humane systems of justice, education and overall personal interaction, I’d argue it will do the opposite. Our societal acceptance of free will doctrine, as opposed to what is known in science and philosophy circles as “determinism,” pushes us to be better people and call on the better angels of our nature in daily life. Search your feelings, you know it to be true. From Anakin Skywalker and his rejection of the mantle of the Chosen One prophecy to Luke and struggle over how to stop Ben Solo’s slide toward the dark side, and finally Rey’s ultimate decision to choose the Skywalker name over that if her true lineage — choice and destiny are always in a delicate dance for primacy in the Star Wars story.
You may have noticed that in your own life. A magnetic pull toward certain people, situations, jobs or outcomes. But still we make choices, and get thrown off what we thought to be our course in life. I asked my Mom once what to do when I’d made a financial mistake and felt paralyzed by the fear of attempting to fix it, but instead just making it worse with another bad call. What she said was simple, and has always stuck with me.
Make more choices.
Choose your adventure vs multiple choice
So what is “free will?” It’s a centuries-old shorthand for capturing the debate over whether or not every individual person is in full control of their thoughts and actions. This may seem incredibly simple, but it’s a massive can of worms. Embedded within the notion that free will exists comes with it questions over crime and punishment, sexuality, addiction, the subjectivity of right and wrong and whether or not individual liberty even sets us free at all.
Free will is the public square is boiled down to our innate ability to choose one thing over another free of worldly or divine interference. We choose to order pizza over pasta at a restaurant, we choose to watch Return of the Jedi and not The Phantom Menace on movie night, we choose to speak with cruelty toward a friend who hurt us, instead of leading with grace and patience. When I was a kid I had the “Choose Your Own Adventure” Star Wars books. These were fun little books where you’d get to a scene and be offered three or four choices for what could happen next. Maybe you choose in the Empire Strikes Back book to have Lando not betray Han Solo and never sell him out to Darth Vader and Boba Fett. The story would then take a detour, but in the end, Han would likely still end up encased in carbonite and hanging on the wall of Jabba’s Palace. One way or another.
So I had a choice as the reader, to choose what happened next in the adventure, albeit a choice limited to only three options. A, B and C. If I wanted none of these, too bad. And that’s one way you could capture what the free will debate is really about. Are we the authors of our thoughts and the story that is our lives, or are we just the reader? “Choose your own adventure” is a nice tagline, but it’s not all that adventurous when you realize just how confined the range of outcomes really are.
You may be thinking, okay sure, outcomes are sometimes limited in nature but don’t we pick freely between options A, B and C? This experience of having a choice is a foundation for why most people, including myself, tend to believe in free will.
Choices & Chains
Humanity has a funny way of always rebranding bondage to be synonymous with freedom. My daughter reminded me of this the same week I was working on this chapter when she starting sharing what she’d learned in class about sharecropping in the Reconstruction era, after the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished. This was a huge trend at the time. Poor farmers both black and white would enter into land rental agreements with wealthier landowners, and they’d pay the rent by sharing portions of their crop. Well that obviously didn’t go well for a lot of sharecroppers. Farming is anything but a stable business, just ask Luke Skywalker’s family on Tatooine, the moisture farmers Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. One bad season or extended drought and sharecroppers would find themselves buried in debt, working it off for years to come in service of men who very likely once owned slaves. So much for freedom.
It kinda hit me over the head, thinking about this subject material and freedom juxtaposed against limited choices, and then I looked in my wallet and pulled out my Chase Freedom Unlimited credit card. This thing had been a thorn in my side for a few years after I’d gotten it. I finally had good credit, and with good credit came a higher credit limit and with that came, well, buying things. It’s not a pretty thing when you get behind on those payments and the interest rate kicks in. And yet, what credit cards sell in many cases is “freedom,” or a wider range of possibilities for whoever wields it. You could fly to France and stay in the best hotel in Paris, right now.
So you do it. Cause that feels like freedom. But then the rest of the year after that vacation is over, all your mundane daily decisions will be made against the backdrop of debt and monthly payments with the looming specter of interest accumulating.. Should you work extra hours at your job, or take on an additional client even though you have barely any time left for family or pleasure? Your best friend gets engaged and suddenly you’re asked to be a bridesmaid or groomsman, with all the fun unexpected costs that come with that.
Sure. You have the power to say yes or to decline. But do you have free will, in the sense that your choice isn’t being meddled with by external forces? I’m not so sure.
The Force shall set me free
Ancient philosophers Plato and Aristotle once led a discourse on free will when Plato’s Republic posited that the human condition is to be enslaved to passion, or our base desires. Think hedonism: you eat, drink, have sex and assert dominance over others in accordance with passing whims. Wisdom and liberation from these hardwired vices, Plato thought, came from mastery of those invisible forces. Subjugating them, instead of the other way around. It’s not at all dissimilar from what you’ve read in this very book's chapter on Redemption and the concept of conquering “The Shadow” in order to tame hubris and ego.
The Jedi Order embodies this kind of stoic, monkish tradition. They view attachments and emotion as forces that invade their member’s ability to think clearly, exercise judgment and make “good choices.” So they try to abstain from those sources of distortion. Free will, they might say, is enhanced by limiting your range of choices in life. Refusing to ever touch a cigarette means that you’ll never have to feel that pain of nicotine addiction dragging you outside to smoke during your child’s championship basketball game.
The Jedi’s rivals, the Sith, essentially believe that our very existence comes with chains built-in. We’re in spiritual slavery and born into the service of others, whether that be employers, parents, teachers or in the case of Anakin Skywalker, an actual slaveowner. Setting your passion free to steer your actions, so as to accumulate power and break whatever “chains'' you feel are holding you down in life. If you’ve never heard either the Jedi Code or the Sith Code, here they are.
If you zero in on Plato’s commentary on free will, and even that of a doctrinal Sith like Darth Maul or Sidious, the agreement there is that both our environment and our base instincts have incredible power and play a role in what choices we ultimately make.
—-> (and we’ll pause here) PRE-ORDER’s for the book are coming soon
Anyways, there’s a snippet of where this chapter is going on the subject of Free Will and Star Wars. The whole idea of Sith being set free by their emotions and accumulation of power is interesting and sad to me. We are awfully clever as people, when it comes to tricking ourselves into confusing freedom & slavery, choice and limitation. Vader did all these things to set himself free in life, and not be constrained. And in the end, he spent decades living inside a mechanical Iron Maiden torture device and soaking in healing tubs during all his “free” time.
Are you fooling yourself in the same way, in any part of your own life?