In 2013, I wrote an essay about the role of the philosophical idea of “predeterminism” in Philip K. Dick’s short story Minority Report.
Many will know Dick not only for this particular story, but also for providing the basis for the movie Blade Runner in the form of his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep, or for writing The Man in the High Castle, my personal favourite which was now turned into a TV series by amazon prime.
I recently reread my paper on predeterminism in Minority Report and thought it to be a shame if it went unpublished. I don’t want to say that I think my work is worth publishing, but then, in a way I DO think there are people who want to read it – why else would I write a blog? So I decided, after a little back and forth, to release at least a great portion of the 14 page essay in form of this blog post.
A little information about predeterminism before we get started: predeterminism is the mostly religious idea, that everything we do is already predetermined by birth, even before birth. Unlike determinism, which says that each act is based on a preceding act, predeterminism is the idea that our life is alread planned out completely by God or fate. Actually, my favourite definition of predeterminism (and a criticism thereof) was written by Immanuel Kant in his Groundworks of the Metaphysics of Morals. Kant explains that free will is the concept of being able to act as one desires. If one is not able to act as one desires, but is only subject to the desires of something or someone, one is a means to an end and therefore has no free will. But all humans are intelligent beings that exist for the sole purpose of existence, and are not to be the subject of something or someone else’s will. Therefore humans have free will. Predeterminism is only an excuse found by people who don’t want to be held responsible for what they do (compare the Reclam edition of Die Metaphysik der Sitten, page 77f).
Dick’s The Minority Report is strongly based on the theory of predeterminism that Descartes and Kant were so opposed to. In the story, the three precogs, Donna, Jerry, and Mike, can see future crimes. They are connected to computers that are fed data from their minds and turn this data into a majority report that is printed out onto little cards. But, “the existence of a majority logically implies a corresponding minority” (The Minority Report 84): It can happen that the three computers do arrive at different results, and then “it is impossible to tell a priori which is correct. The solution, based on a careful study of statistical method, is to utilize a third computer to check the results of the first two. In this manner, a so-called majority report is obtained. It can be assumed with fair probability that the agreement of two out of three computers indicates which of the alternative results are accurate.” (The Minority Report 85). But even with this possibility of an alternate future that is displayed in a minority report, the system still depends on the predetermination of human actions. Throughout the story, the reader wonders whether the Precrime system and the precog’s reports are really reliable. At one point of the story, one of the characters even speaks about his doubts when it comes to predetermination: while they are sitting in Kaplan’s car, Anderton is asked by one of Kaplan’s men: “For the first time in history, Precrime goes wrong? An innocent man is framed by those cards. Maybe there’ve been other innocent people – right?” Anderton can’t do anything but “listlessly” agree (The Minority Report 81). In the end, Dick seems to eliminate the readers doubts. Anderton kills the man he was supposed to kill in the first place, hence fulfilling the precogs’ predictions. The only question remaining is, if Anderton’s actions were really predetermined, or if it was free will that led to the assassination of Kaplan.
Even with the doubts about whether the precogs really predict the future, in the end it happens as it was predicted – at least as long as the police are not there in time. Since the police can change the course of history by imprisoning the criminal before he can even commit the crime, it seems like the predetermined outcome – the criminal committing the crime – is not met. But predeterminism is, as said before, the theory that everything is “completely determined by prior events”, including all human actions. Since the police know one week in advance that a crime is going to happen, they can act accordingly, ergo what happens to the criminal is still predetermined by prior events.
Anderton tells Witwer in the beginning of the story, how they were not able to stop a criminal from murdering his victim “five years ago” (The Minority Report 74). Using Mill’s theory on predeterminism as described above, this escape can be fitted into the predetermination theory as follows:
Every action is always subject to the strongest desire at that particular moment in time. And the desires one has are predetermined at any moment in time. The police can act in a way that the criminal cannot follow his desire to flee by acting in a way that will predetermine his arrest. In this particular situation where the criminal escaped, it seems like the desire of the police to capture the criminal before he can follow his desire to kill was either not high enough, or the criminal’s desire to escape was predetermined in such a manner by prior acts, e.g. that he was warned beforehand, that he succeeded. Since Anderton does not give all the information needed to properly analyse the situation, it is not possible to point out one particular solution to this dilemma.
Anderton’s situation, on the other hand, is described with all the information needed to come to one solution, which will be attained in the following.
The first step is to take a closer look at the three reports that the three precogs gave. The first one, given by Donna, reads as follows: on his way home, Anderton is kidnapped by Kaplan’s Military Intelligence agents. He is brought to Kaplan’s house, were he is given an ultimatum: “voluntarily disband the Precrime system or face open hostilities with Army [sic].” Anderton turns to the Senate for support, but to avoid civil war, the Senate wants to return to military law to cope with this emergency. So Anderton and some other fanatic police officers locate Kaplan, and Anderton shoots him (The Minority Report 95). The second report, given by Jerry, supersedes this report. In Jerry’s report, Anderton reads the report saying that he is going to kill Kaplan. To save himself and his job, he does not kill Kaplan, and accepts the system’s downfall (The Minority Report 95ff). The third and last report, given by Mike, is part of the majority report. In this report, Anderton kills Kaplan. But this report uses both Donna’s and Jerry’s reports, predicting that Anderton will kill Kaplan on stage at the military rally, to show the public that the Precrime system is in fact infallible. Before he would kill Kaplan though, Anderton would make a deal with Witwer that he only has to go to exile for this murder, not in a detention camp (The Minority Report 102).
The report given by Mike had to be true, since no other report superseded it, and the actions described in the prior reports could only lead to this final report. Ergo, it was predetermined that Kaplan would die through Anderton’s hands. The only reason Anderton had a minority report was, because Anderton was able to read his report in the first place. If he hadn’t had read the report saying that he would kill someone, he would have never thought about not killing this particular person. Actually, what seems to be a decision made on his own behalf, that he will kill Kaplan to save the system, was not even a decision based on free will, but something that was predicted through the actions Anderton conducted in order to avoid the prediction, and could not have been avoided.
This is what the story tells the reader about free will: it is non-existent. The movie, on the other hand, thanks to a twist in the end, seems to promote the idea of free will, and a soft predeterminism is introduced, as opposed to Dick’s hard predeterminism in the short story.
The picture above is a still from the movie Minority Report from 2002 with Tom Cruise © Twentieth Century Fox