By James Powers
“The universe is deterministic. It’s godless and neutral, and defined only by physical laws. The life we lead, with all its apparent chaos, is actually a life on tramlines.”
In the first episode of FX’s new miniseries Devs, an enigmatic tech CEO gives this matter-of-fact explanation to one of his terrified employees who has just been caught in the act of corporate espionage. Forest, the grizzled and reclusive leader of software company Amaya (hypnotically portrayed by Nick Offerman, very much playing against type), delivers these words with conviction, but nonetheless has a tortured expression behind his eyes as he does so. It seems that, however deeply he believes this philosophy, he’s still far from being at peace with it.
“If we live in a deterministic universe,” Forest continues, “then your decisions can only have been the result of something prior. I hope you understand what I’m saying – this is forgiveness. You made no decision to betray me. You could only have done what you did.” The young employee, however, can’t bring himself to accept Forest’s magnanimity – which turns out to be the wrong choice. Assuming he ever even had a choice, that is.
Devs, the brainchild of Alex Garland (the same guy behind the haunting sci-fi thrillers Ex Machina and Annihilation), explores territory that is both timely and timeless. It looks at the frightening power that today’s tech companies hold over us, while asking whether we, as individuals, ever actually had any power to begin with. Although the question of whether humans truly have free will isn’t a new one, Devs makes it feel all the more pressing by flirting with the spectre of scientific proof that our behavior is all determined – and, worse still, the spectre of such supposed proof being weaponized by Silicon Valley.
But after some thought, I find that only one of these threats is actually scary.
Within Amaya, the elite and secretive development department (“Devs”) is perfecting a quantum computer that is apparently able to read the past and also forecast the future. It does so by analyzing the movement of atoms with such incredible precision that it can determine where those atoms have been, and where they will eventually be. And, by extension, it can also determine the behavior of all the people, animals and objects that those atoms compose. It sees the crucifixion of Christ, and Forest’s daughter playing in her bedroom as a little girl, and the impending death of a key character, among other things.
Of course, if a computer is able to accurately prophesy events both past and present based on physical data alone, this seems to raise a frightening question – one that animates much of the show’s tension. Namely, do we really have control over our lives in the form of free will? Or are all our supposed “decisions” merely the result of forces around and inside us – evolution, instinct, neurochemistry, quantum physics?
In its finale which aired yesterday, Devs proves to be a bit coy about which thesis it actually believes (though you can check out this podcast taping if you’re curious about Garland’s personal beliefs on the matter*). As a religious viewer who also affirms the reality of those “neutral” physical forces, however, I can’t help but wonder if Garland is setting up a false dichotomy. Could both theses be true? Is there a way that my decisions really are my own, even if they’re also the result of electrochemical signals in my brain, which are themselves affected by my genes, my upbringing, what I saw on TV last night and what I ate for lunch three days ago?
Basically, while I find Devs’ portrayal of an overpowered tech company to be highly believable and unsettling, I also find its use of physical determinism as an existential boogeyman to be a little underwhelming. If a computer is able to predict how many kids I’ll have, or what kind of hot sauce I’ll put on my taco, or what will eventually kill me, I’m kind of inclined to say “so what?” Let me explain.
At the risk of stating the obvious, all of the sciences are in the business of looking at what has happened in the past and using that to forecast what will happen in the future. That’s basically the scientific method – hypothesis, experiment, revised hypothesis, more experiments. Admittedly, the predictions we come up with through this method tend to be imperfect, especially in areas that focus on human behavior like economics or sociology.
So the show asks – what if we could make these predictions with 100% accuracy? Well, I would suggest that even 100% accuracy still leaves a giant question unanswered. Amaya’s quantum computer (or maybe Google’s, a few years down the road) may be able to tell us precisely what will happen – but it still cannot answer why. Or, at any rate, it can only give us a partial explanation of “why.”
Why, for example, does a marble roll? “Because it was pushed,” Forest states plainly. And sure, he’s not wrong. But he’s not fully right either. There’s another, deeper why at issue here, one that no amount of scientific dissection can answer. The deterministic explanation of that rolling marble is focused only on the past – on what happened, physically speaking, to send it on its course. Determinism leaves out (or perhaps ignores) the idea of a meaning behind that marble’s movement – what Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas call its final cause: the future end that brings its previous movement into focus and gives it meaning.
In short, determinism thinks that an explanation of what pushed the marble – a child’s finger, or a falling domino, or a cat’s paw – sufficiently answers the question of why it was pushed. But it doesn’t. There are so many more things we can find out about the meaning of the marble’s movement. Is it part of a child’s game? A step in some ridiculous Rube Goldberg machine? The action of a bored cat? Does God himself want that marble rolling this particular way at this particular moment for some reason?
Science, and scientific determinism, can show us all the minute details of what has happened and what will happen, but it cannot show us the meaning of those happenings. It cannot prove whether or not there is a mind, an intellect or a desire or a will, behind them. An EKG can see the activity of my brain – it could see me using my frontal cortex to formulate these sentences, or experiencing visceral emotions in my amygdala – but it can’t see the “me” that thinks and experiences those things.
Similarly, while a quantum computer could theoretically map out all the physical events of history, both past and future, it still couldn’t interpret those events, couldn’t see whether or not there is a greater significance underneath them. Perhaps a computer can predict my decisions; in fact, many can predict some of them. But that still doesn’t prove there’s not a “me” making those decisions. In short, it can’t see the final cause, the intangible meaning behind what I do. By forgetting (or ignoring) final cause, Forest – and perhaps Garland himself – mistakenly jumps to the conclusion that it does prove that: that there is no free will behind human behavior. And, by extension, he jumps to the conclusion that there is no divine will behind the events of history. But both are things that science cannot (I’ll say it again: CAN NOT) prove, because you cannot see or measure meaning.
So while the tech at the heart of Devs seems at first to pose a major existential threat, the whole “free will is an illusion” thing ultimately proves to be a red herring. Garland himself seems to intuit this, saying that the characters’ human relationships are more important than the “tramlines” on which they find themselves. “In this very, very strange world, the underlying physics give rise to complicated philosophical problems,” he says. “But we have to live in it, and it’s difficult, and it’s disturbing, and it unsettles people…Through it all, what we end up with is love.” Perhaps Garland, like Forest, is unable to fully come to terms with determinism, because he knows it can’t be the whole story.
All that being said, there is real danger that lurks in the heart of Devs’ story. One that is much less philosophical than the free will problem, and much more immediate. It’s a danger that already plays out every day via our phones, albeit in a smaller way than it appears in the show. While a computer cannot disprove that my free will exists, it most definitely can manipulate it, and the more data it has about me and the world around me, the more it is able to do that. Or rather, the more the people who use it are able to do that.
Although Amaya’s gadgetry might be far-fetched, the level of power the company wields is not. After all, if it hadn’t been for Facebook and Google, Twitter and Instagram, the massive global shutdown that we currently find ourselves in could not have happened as swiftly and completely as it did. In this case, the tech companies’ vast influence has thankfully enabled us to save thousands or perhaps tens of thousands of lives – but I’m sure I don’t need to explain some of the drawbacks of that influence.
If there’s one constant throughout history, it’s that power corrupts. Imagine if Google announced tomorrow that their quantum computer could show us exactly why Rome fell, or how the coronavirus debacle will play out, or who will win the presidency in 2028. Would you be excited by that news? Or afraid? For me, that’s a no-brainer.
*Note, JPCatholic students, the eerie physical resemblance between Garland and Fr. Andy. Coincidence? You decide.
About the Author
James Powers is a writer for the Impacting Culture Blog and an alumnus of JPCatholic’s MBA in Film Producing (’19).
For all articles by James, click here.