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Objects Have Free Will; People Don’t

I love Rube Goldberg machines. I can watch the same one repeatedly. Why are they so appealing?

It’s tempting to say that we watch in appreciation of the care and artistry put forth by the creators. We marvel at their technical achievement. I think this is wrong.

A well-constructed Rube Goldberg machine sequence has drama. It has points of improbability where you think it isn’t going to quite make it. There are points when something subtle is happening that is important to the action but you don’t notice it until it’s already triggered the next step. In fact, these are the sorts of things that define a good Rube Goldberg machine.

A comparatively bad machine would be the simplest: falling dominoes. Watching dominoes fall is entertaining too, but it’s more difficult to create memorable sequences solely with dominoes.

There’s a paradox to my claim that Rube Goldberg machines are about drama: they are deterministic. They are made to work. They are carefully, meticulously refined to work. The drama that we feel—the tense moments and the doubt—are illusions. To fully enjoy them we have to, only if momentarily, compartmentalize our knowledge that there is a creator.

Does that sound far-fetched? I don’t think it should. That’s, after all what we do with any work of fiction. The author constructs a sequence of events. There are things you want to have happen. A typically enjoyable work is when you find these things unlikely but they end up happening anyway despite setbacks and doubts along the way.

OK Go – This Too Shall Pass – Rube Goldberg Machine – Official Video

But again, this is all artificial. In fact, it is *more* artificial than a Rube Goldberg machine. The machine is constrained by physics, and the creator (in a true Rube Goldberg machine) can’t make changes after the initial mechanism is set. Most authored works, however, are not so constrained. Authors can literally make it all up as they go. The drama is only imagined. If you want real drama in work intended as entertainment, I think you may be stuck with sports.

I’m going to use the word “narrative” to refer to fictional, authored works. These could be novels, plays, movies, TV shows, or a great other number of things. But not Rube Goldberg machines.

One obvious way that such narratives differ from Rube Goldberg machines is that the latter purposefully eschew conscious, decision-making actors, while the former always has at least one. Narratives usually have people in them. And the people are supposed to make choices.

The choices confronted are supposed to be nontrivial, and they are supposed to appear to matter. Perhaps most narratives fails on one or both of these. Either the choice is obvious (even if it involves going down a difficult path) or the consequences of the choice are negated by subsequent events.


There’s a paradox that emerges when comparing real-life Rube Goldberg machines to fictional narratives. We feel as if free will is possessed by conscious entities (usually people). So, fictional narratives are often compelling even though everything about the actors is scripted in advance by the storytellers. Harrison Ford just once went off script 40 years ago on a line that didn’t matter in a movie and people still can’t stop talking about it.

In contrast, physical objects feel like they don’t have free will, so most people see Rube Goldberg machines as entertaining but lacking choice. But this is also a lie. If you watch how Rube Goldberg machines are made, they require exhaustive iterations for even the most trivial machine. None work on the first try. Even dominoes are fickle creatures that seem to have their own will that contravenes the intentions of those who carefully place them.

Rube goldberg fail

A mint, precisely-manufactured domino packs far more surprise than a professional actor. To watch Die Hard is to watch Bruce Willis do all the things someone wrote down that he should do in a pre-planned sequence with repeated off-camera breaks. All the decisions he makes are artificially constructed illusions.

Reality television deserves a callout here. Though reality television often puts people in silly situations, the actions of the participants are ostensibly theirs and not a master planner’s. You might hate the Bachelor, but the person on camera is at least making a genuine decision.

[Note: Skip to section V to avoid huge The Hunger Games spoilers]
Even though narratives are intended to preserve the perception of free will, they don’t always succeed. The example of this phenomenon covered ably by The Last Psychiatrist and less ably by me is the Hunger Games movies.

When Katniss volunteers to take the place of her sister Primrose in the first movie, what sort of choice is that?

Even if we accept the story’s premises, is Katniss’s choice difficult? What kind of person would she have to be to not volunteer to go in her helpless sister’s place? Isn’t this lack of choice a crucial element to Panem’s dystopia?

Katniss’s is a constrained choice. To the extent that it seemed to be a dramatic choice, it was illusory. She was going to volunteer more surely than one domino will be knocked over by its predecessor.

In the final movie of the series, Mockingjay Part II, Katniss finally appears to make consequential choices. She chooses to take it upon herself to assassinate Panem’s president. This results in people being killed. As I watched, I imagined writing that Katniss in this last chapter finally becomes a grown up making grown-up decisions with grown-up consequences.

But then, on reflection, could she really have chosen not to do so after all that had happened? Could she have waited out the rest of the war as a mascot? Was that truly a plausible option?

Is this holding narratives to an impossibly high standard? How many heroes make decisions that are real when held to such a stringent standard? Don’t most of the characters in most movies choose in whatever way the narrative demands? How could you avoid this?

The Matrix (1999) – The Pill scene

I’m inclined to say this line of critique is not unfair even if it is unforgiving. Maybe most narratives are just bad in this way and people are just not very good at identifying them as bad because actors do such a good job of making their choices seem genuine even when they are straightforward, and there’s all that music in the background to convince us that big things are happening. This is among the reasons we can watch historical narratives where the ending is already known, and we can consumer narratives we love over and over again. When you see an opera, you are typically expected to read the whole story beforehand so you know what is going on. This rarely dampens one’s enjoyment.

To engage with a narrative is to momentarily forget it is a narrative. You can know intellectually that Die Hard is a movie, but you can’t think “I am watching Bruce Willis pretend to do things” at the exact same moment that you are rooting for his character. You must suspend disbelief.

If you still can.

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Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1. ...more →

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36 thoughts on “Objects Have Free Will; People Don’t

  1. Sophocles would like a word with you.

    But seriously, the Greek dramas, and even the Homeric epics were narrating according to a script that was intimately familiar to the audience. The fate of Oedipus was no less inevitable than the twists and turns he took to escape it, in the eyes of his audience. What makes / made these dramas compelling was the opportunity to examine a series of seemingly meaningless and tragic events from new and diverse perspectives; each teller of the Oedipus saga had his own take on it. Each interwove his own moral themes, his own understanding of the motives and meanings.

    To return to your Rube Goldberg machine, we are all, as I see it, falling dominoes. And therein lies the fascination of a good drama: seeing the elevation of the merely human, or the merely machine, to something artistic, beautiful, transcendental. And I think the appreciation is not merely aesthetic; to recognize the common humanity of ourselves and these objects is to be inspired to be better, or at least to be comforted that we are in some way of the same stuff.

    I can’t speak to the Hunger Games, but to move from such breathless platitudes to a concrete example: what made the Matrix good, I think, was the audience’s initial identification with Neo’s crummy life and lonesome hobbies, and then the transition to a world that at the time (and perhaps even now) seems tantalizingly possible, one of computer bits and slavery and noble struggle. What made the Matrix special wasn’t Neo’s choice of one pill; it was that it was a pill, and a world of digital slavery and office drudgery, instead of a wizard holding a mystical ring. But then, the wizard and the ring, or the girl and her bow and her compassion also inspired different people.

    I do not deny your criticism of art; whether any of these provides as great moral enrichment, or more than merely passing hope or elevation, seems unlikely to me when compared with some older works.

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    • I once opined we like superhero movies for similar reasons: we all hold the fantasy of doing something Big and something Good when most of us are stuck on a treadmill of work that is marginally meaningful at best.

      Or Harry Potter, for that matter: the fantasy of being something special.

      And yeah, I know in another thread I talked about rejecting the Chosen One narrative, but really, deep down, I would kind of like to be that one who had the power to make things a lot better. And not just the platitudinous “but you’re helping shape the next generation of doctors” crap better.

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      • filly,
        Yet, when you actually tell someone: Here’s what you can do to make everyone’s life better — most people haven’t the guts to actually do it.

        Imagine for a minute that you could track down the type of murderer who specializes in making children’s deaths look like accidents… (If you need to gild the lily, imagine that he’s making snuff porn out of their deaths). Would you have the guts to shoot the motherfucker? Pay someone else to assassinate the guy?

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  2. This is tangent to your point, but I’m not a fan of how the construction of a Rube Goldberg device is supposed to (in visual media) indicate a character is an inventive genius. Creative? Sure, but not an engineering prodigy.

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  3. As best I can tell, your issue here is that art is necessarily a representation of a thing but not that thing itself. A painting of the Mona Lisa is not the woman who posed for it, The Macient Matiner is not really a sailor, and a peice of fiction that is about free will is not actually free will itself.

    This seems so obvious on its face that I’m not sure a comparison to RG machines is necessary.

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  4. The best Rube Goldberg machines, movie-plot-wise, involve humans.

    True Romance is the example that immediately came to my mind. A collision course between three groups of violent people… culminating in all of them shooting each other.

    But the problem with Free Will in movies is the problem of Free Will in life. How could John Wick have done anything but what he did?

    Well, when you bought that double cheeseburger at Wendy’s instead of bringing in a salad, how could you have done anything but that? The entirety of your life built up to this day and you failed to make the salad, you bounced off the billiard balls that were your family and your weekend errands, ending up in a drive-thru yelling at a speaker, asking for a double.

    It was inevitable, really.

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    • Always trust the ex-Calvinist on the pre-destination debate… they’ve probably lived with it as a living/breathing notion.

      Artistically, though, there’s just so little pay-off for inserting the existential dilemma in what is a plot driven payoff. I’m reminded of the Gnostic magnum opus, The Matrix; they could have re-worked the story to present the Cypher dilemma as a viable option (apparently they decided re-insertion was impossible, so that avenue is closed by the authors) which would have made the Red/Blue pill choice all the more compelling. But at what [movie] cost? We aren’t really interested in Neo’s choice, just that he chose. In fact, we learn that he has chosen thus dozens of time. So maybe the Calvinists are right, after all… or maybe its a Calvinist gnosticism.

      In Catholic reading, my least favorite is a certain sort of Saint book that reads like an inevitability of the Saint becoming a Saint… I call them, spot the saint books. Louis de Wohl is probably the prime offender. I don’t even let my kids read them as they are the opposite of edifying… I find them soul crushing; sort of like Chosen One books where we can’t figure out why St. XYZ was chosen, just that he was… so every choice he/she makes is always the right one. So, maybe Calvinist books after all.

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      • The existential dilemma is a rough one but the most compelling ones are the choice between Great Reward/Wrong Thing and Right Thing/Massive Cost (up to and including death).

        So the choice at the end of John Wick 2 struck me as being very interesting but its interestingness undercut by some special dispensation.

        If you want the really good ones, you have to go back to the Disaster! films of the 70’s. Gene Hackman in The Poseidon Adventure. Now *THAT* was a character.

        Make people engage in lifeboat ethics. *NOW* we’re dealing with choices.

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      • Not that I’m aware of the work you cite, Marchemaine, but for some reason, what you say here reminds me of Jean Racine’s plays, or at least those I’ve read. They seem to hinge on the characters having already made their choices–or their future choices having already been made–and the actual drama is the characters’ having to deal with, live with, or confront that fact.

        (Maybe Racine’s drama is just a redux of what Jean Meslier is describing above. He and his literary milieu were self-consciously “neo-classical” and derived most of their plots from Greek and Roman history and mythology.)

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    • IMO, the best Rube Goldberg movies are caper flicks. The Sting. The Italian Job. Ocean’s Eleven. (Both the new and original versions of the last two, by the way. I liked them all.) We get to see an elaborately-constructed artifice just barely work and pull off something that seems miraculous.

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      • That’s a sub-genre of Competence Porn, though. See the following (inevitably charismatic) people put into situations where they can use all kinds of knowledge of the system (inside and out) and hack it and exploit weaknesses. See Brad Pitt use social engineering! See the fat guy type furiously for a couple of seconds and then yell “WE’RE IN!”! See Julia Roberts’s cleavage!

        See them walk away with the money.

        For the kind of thing that you’re talking about, I kinda prefer the (aforementioned) Die Hard.

        You’ve got this team of criminals who have mastery of all kinds of tech, knowledge of the system (inside and out), and social engineers that you couldn’t believe…


        The Rube Goldberg Machine that, suddenly, attracts the attention of the kitten.

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      • Read The Code of the Woosters sometime. It’s a perfectly constructed Rube Goldberg machine. Most books with plots that elaborate require at least some of the characters to act inexplicably, or at least unexpectedly with inadequate justification. But Wodehouse’s people act exactly as they should: like idiots, of course, but like the particular kind of idiot they are.

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      • IMO, the best Rube Goldberg movies are caper flicks. The Sting. The Italian Job. Ocean’s Eleven. (Both the new and original versions of the last two, by the way. I liked them all.) We get to see an elaborately-constructed artifice just barely work and pull off something that seems miraculous.

        Heh. I was recently hypothesizing about a video game I would make if I had unlimited time and money, and I was any good at that sort of thing. And one of the games I came up with was, basically, building a heist movie.

        Like, you collect information about people, and locations, and try to plan out a heist. Then you’d put it into motion and see how it worked. It could even play out like a heist movie, where during gameplay you get cutbacks to what you previously did, and then can immediately use it.

        And there always would be a few random variables you’d have to put in buffers for, and those would even change from play to play. So you can’t just brute-force your way through it, making minor corrections.

        That guard might randomly get up at a different time, for example. So you can’t count on that hallway being clear, you need to set up something to *tell* you when it’s clear, or something to trigger the guard when *you* want him to get up.

        Or if a con on someone was borderline, someone might believe it one time and not believe it the next. So either try something else, or do more research on that guy for a better con, or have a plan if it failed.

        And then you eventually do that one and move on to the next heist. Probably some sort of RPG progression system, where you earn points or money to increase skills, I dunno.

        I never made the connection to Rube Goldberg, but you’re right…and considering that there are dozens of games where you build Rube Goldberg machines, and even more games where you *can* build them and people spend a lot of time doing so (I admit I have built a few in Fallout 4.)….it would probably be pretty enjoyable to do it with people.

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  5. Reality television deserves a callout here. Though reality television often puts people in silly situations, the actions of the participants are ostensibly theirs and not a master planner’s. You might hate the Bachelor, but the person on camera is at least making a genuine decision.

    Reality TV is famous/notorious for the producers to create whatever narrative they feel like making through the use of editing. The Apprentice production team, some have said, had to really work in overtime to make Donald’s decisions appear to be based on something other than random fluctuations of the quantum foam.

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  6. I enjoyed this post, but I think there’s a distinction that needs to be made. My thesis adviser was fond of quoting Catherine the Great: “freedom is the right to do what is permitted by law”. Each genre or form has its rules that must be followed, or else you’re no longer meeting the requirements. The objects in a Rube Goldberg device have to follow the laws of physics — if a ball is placed at the top of a ramp, it has to roll down, and a domino pushed at its top will fall in the opposite direction. If you’re writing a limerick, then your creativity is bound by following the AABBA rhyme scheme and the amphibrachic prosody. If you’re writing a monomyth-style movie, then your character ultimately has to answer his/her call of destiny.

    So Katniss, the heroine, can’t do otherwise than take the place of her sister without turning the movie into an entirely different thing (perhaps an examination of the limits of family duty and the emotional consequences of declining even a supererogatory act). Thus, an audience that’s familiar with the form will always be able to make certain predictions, just like we’ll have some idea of what the last word in the second line of the limerick will be based on the rhyme scheme.

    The best artists find ways to make the inevitable seem surprising and yet sensible. Others produce something familiar and enjoyable while remaining in safe waters, which is enough for many people much of the time.

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    • As people have said about the Anthropic Principle, it’s like water theorizing about how some divine agency must be at work because otherwise the shape of the puddle would not so perfectly fit into the hole.

      “Thus, an audience that’s familiar with the form will always be able to make certain predictions, just like we’ll have some idea of what the last word in the second line of the limerick will be based on the rhyme scheme.”

      And the thing is, this audience can still enjoy the story. Every diver goes into the water, but it’s how they go in that matters.

      “The best artists find ways to make the inevitable seem surprising and yet sensible. ”

      And, I think, that gets to what Vikram is offended by; the times when it’s not done well and you can see the artist’s finger holding down the lever so the ball goes into the hole instead of getting stuck.

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      • It’s possible that I missed the message of his post and merely restated his point…

        Possibly related: I remember a John Cleese interview where he was talking about the writing process for Fawlty Towers, and when they had to put in certain plot points to set up a later payoff, they worked hard to make the presentation of those plot points so funny that the audience wouldn’t realize they were actually part of the scaffolding.

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        • First time I watched The Incredibles I had a moment of sheer childish delight when the villain was brought down by his cape. Realizing how absolutely perfectly they’d set that up so no one even saw it coming (“No capes!”) . So well done!

          Or in Die Hard when it’s all so perfectly logical that he has his shoes off, because he’s trying to relax based on what the guy on the airplane told him and this comes back around to bite him when they shoot the glass…it is like a Rube Goldberg machine, really.

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    • Enjoyed the piece a lot but also agree with Ken.

      I remember having “creativity is wonderful” drummed into my head a lot as a kid, only to find out as an adult, that creativity has to take place within some narrowly defined guidelines that are sometimes rather arbitrary but may as well be laws of physics. In retrospect they’d have done more good had they been proactive about teaching us the guidelines and not so much pushing the creativity angle.

      There was a line in one of my English textbooks that went something like “A hero with a sword is boring, but if you have a hero with a sword made of strawberry jello, then you’re really onto something!!”

      No, you’re not.

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