Saturday, January 12, 2019

A Buddhist Take on Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

The question of free will has plagued mankind for as long as we've been able to ask questions.  Do we control our fate, or is it decided for us?  Are we the captains of our souls, or are we the pawns of destiny?

For example, Hindus adhere to theological determinism.  They believe that each person is born into a specific caste based on their past karma.  Dalits (slaves) are at the bottom of the pyramid and Brahmin (priests) are at the top.  People are not allowed to move from a lower caste to a higher one.

In America, Calvinists also reject the notion of free will; believing that each person is predestined by God to arrive in either heaven or hell when they die.  In contrast,  Zen philosopher Alan Watts thought the question of free will was foolish because it suggested that man might be separate from the universe; able to act outside of its confines and mysteries.  

Recently, the question of free will was taken up by Netflix in a new Black Mirror episode called Bandersnatch.  The premise of the episode is straight-forward.  Stefan Butler, the main character, is a video game designer who is working on a game called Bandersnatch; based on a book by the same name.  He gets approval from a software company to develop the game, gets to work on his creation, and quickly loses his mind.

What makes this episode unique, however, is the fact that the viewer controls the story.  At various points, the episode pauses, and the viewer has to make a choice ranging from the simple (e.g. what album does Stefan want to buy) to the complex (e.g. should Stefan take the job at Tuckersoft).  Based on how the viewer chooses, the story veers in various directions.

But that's not the really cool part.  In my view, the best part of the episode comes when Stefan starts questioning why he makes certain choices.  He knows he wants to bite his nails in the therapist's office, but he doesn't know why.  Of course, the answer is because that's the option we chose for him, but he doesn't know that.

Stefan just knows that he feels a desire, and he doesn't know where it comes from.  He feels an itch, but he doesn't know why he wants to scratch it.  In the end, it's the not knowing that drives him mad.

The situation is summed up beautifully by Colin Ritman, a fellow game designer, who describes humanity's plight in the following speech:

There’s messages in every game. Like Pac-Man. Do you know what ‘Pac’ stands for? P-A-C. Program and control. He’s program-and-control man. The whole thing’s a metaphor. He thinks he’s got free will, but really he’s trapped in a maze, in a system. All he can do is consume. He’s pursued by demons that are probably just in his own head, and even if he does manage to escape by slipping out one side of the maze, what happens? He pops right back in the other side. People think it’s a happy game. It’s not a happy game. It’s a fucking nightmare world. And the worst thing is it’s real, and we live in it.

I like this speech because it's 100% correct from the Buddhist perspective.  We all live in an inescapable maze called Samsara.  We have "ghosts" in our heads called greed, anger, ignorance, and desire that cause all kinds of mayhem.  And we live in a society that's constantly pushing us to consume more stuff each day.  That being said, the speech isn't very original.  In fact, I think I heard a similar rant during one of my freshmen philosophy courses.

We all know that we're trapped in a maze.  The question is can we live in the maze and still be free? 

Case in point, I'm writing this post in English.  I think it would be cool to write it in Japanese.  But I don't know Japanese, and I don't have time to learn it in the time-frame that I'd like to publish this piece.  And even if I did, most of my readers don't read Japanese.  So, if I want to post this in a timely fashion, in a way that lots of people will understand what I'm saying, English is the only option.  So, am I choosing to write this in English, or is karma forcing my hand?

Moreover, why am I writing this, to begin with!  I actually thought about not writing this article; just to prove that I could.  But the idea of it festered in my brain like a mosquito bite.  I didn't want to scratch it, but it felt so good when I did, and then I couldn't stop.  So, here I am gleefully typing away while my cat who doesn't worry about philosophical questions sleeps beside me.

I say all of this to say that if we define free will as the ability to make any choice, fulfill any desire, then none of us have it.  We're trapped in a maze built by our physical bodies, societal norms, and past life experiences. More than that, we don't know why we have certain desires any more than Stefan knows why he bites his nails.

However, if we take the Buddhist perspective; defining free will as freedom from desire, as opposed to freedom to fulfill it, we have a chance.  This perspective helps us break the karmic cycles created by our desire.  It helps us find peace within the confines of the maze.

Of course, we could take Pac Man's approach to life, and chase endlessly after the things we want.  But this path isn't as glamorous as it sounds.  Those power pellets that he loves so much, the ones that make his ghosts turn blue and run away, they stop working after level 20.

And if he plays a perfect game with no mistakes, his reward is getting to the "kill stage" at level 256.  At this point, the game runs out of memory, he can't advance any further, and he has no choice but to allow himself to be eaten.  There's no fan fair, no happy ending, just death.

So, Pac Man spends his life running away from things that scare him, and chasing things that he hopes will bring him joy.  But in the end, he finds that there is literally no escape from his fears and the objects of his desire don't make him happy.  Sound familiar?

From the Buddhist perspective, this is slavery, the complete opposite of free will.  He runs when the system says run, he hides when it wants him to hide.  And he spends his life chasing after something that doesn't exist.  In contrast, Buddhists express their free will by refusing to be controlled by desire and fear.  We live in a maze, but we don't live by the rules of that maze.

If the power pellets of life (status, wealth, fame, etc.) stop working at level 20, then we stop chasing them at level 1.  Instead, we learn to be happy with what we already have.  If our ghosts are going to catch us no matter what we do, we sit in meditation, and we wait for them.

In this way, the practice of acceptance becomes an expression of free will.

To put it another way, the human condition is one of being trapped between a past that we cannot change and a future that we cannot control.  It's only here, now in the present moment that freedom can be found.  And it's only by accepting the things outside of our control, turning away from sensual desires that we can embody that freedom.  

To do anything else is to live like Pac Man; mindlessly running through a maze without free will or hope of escape.

*Photo Courtesy of Netflix

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A Buddhist Take on Black Mirror: Bandersnatch