The Illusion of Free Will

Ricardo Lapeira / September 14, 2021

The illusion of free will has been a subject of discussion for a very long time now. Although philosophers have thought about this important issue for a long time, it seems there isn’t a definitive answer. 

Do we humans freely choose our actions? Is our life made up of many small decisions determined by factors like our social conditioning? Are we the sum of the events that occur in our lives? What role does biology play? Where do our obsessions end and where does our agency begin? 

We tend to think of ourselves as autonomous beings who are free to choose what we do with our lives, but more often than not this doesn’t seem to be the case. When it comes to human agency, there are way too many questions that still need to be answered. Understandably, one can easily get overwhelmed trying to solve them. Nonetheless, it is safe to say that there seem to be more things that control our lives than what we tend to think of.

Swallow is a psychological thriller that deals with these important issues. It can even help us refine our free-will-related questions. Although it does not give us the answers we might be looking for, it can definitely improve how we think about our human nature and what makes us who we are.

Coping Mechanisms

All of us have what we can call coping mechanisms. These help us deal with the world at large, even if they end up causing more harm than good.

Whether our worldviews accommodate or not to reality, these coping mechanisms come into play. After all, they are the different tools we have to deal with the world, internal and external. Psychology literature aside, we can broadly classify them into two important categories: those mechanisms that help us cope with the world when the world does not meet our expectations, and those that help us cope when our expectations are indeed in line with the world.

We might choose to update our worldviews when we realize that our mental maps do not reflect the world. On the contrary, we might also choose to impose our worldviews over our experience when we decide not to adapt. Neither of these two will guarantee us an ultimate truth. At best, they will help us feel good about ourselves, maybe by giving us some tranquility of having chosen the right path. 

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This is the situation Hunter, the main character in Swallow, is faced with. She finds herself unable to deal with an obsession that is putting her life at risk, but to her, it isn’t a big deal at all. 

Just like Hunter’s case, the important thing is not which of these two mechanisms we tell ourselves we’ve chosen. The thing that really matters is that, at the end of the day, and to our advantage, we can actually get to choose, even if not in a direct way. 

Although we tend to think of ourselves as agents with the power of choice, are we really able to determine which of these two alternatives is best for us? Hunter finds the answer to this question the hard way, as she can’t stop swallowing all sorts of stuff. But she isn’t the only one. Her husband’s family happily finds itself controlling every aspect of her life to prevent her from hurting herself. Hunter can’t stop swallowing. Her family-in-law can’t stop controlling.

Two different coping mechanisms, each the product of different circumstances. But in the end, both cases reflect the almost impossible act of getting a grip on their lives. They end up in a vicious cycle where the most likely outcome seems to be Hunter’s death.

A Rude Awakening

Swallow got me thinking about the important question of free will and human agency, about how we often find ourselves trapped in systemic prisons we build for ourselves. And this is the keyword: systemic. Our beings are not just restrained to the immediacy of our actions and our existence. They belong to something greater than our immediate selves.

It is easier to spot other’s defects than it is to see our personal faults because we are blinded by the systems we belong to. While watching Swallow, I couldn’t help but think about how easy it might have been for Hunter to change her behavior only if she had been able to see her systemic prison. Yet, she couldn’t. 

If we consider Hunter to be a fully autonomous person, able to decide for herself, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why she would, time and time again, put her life at risk by swallowing dangerous objects. Unless, of course, she wasn’t really free to escape her prison or if she wanted to kill herself.

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Instead, if we see her as a victim of her coping mechanisms, someone who is trapped inside her own psychological prison, then things take on a new meaning. Hunter ends up being both a victim and a perpetrator. Someone who built her own prison but is unable to open the door. Her impossibility to take responsibility for her actions ends up being her sentence.

Just like Hunter’s swallowing obsession made her aware of something, Swallow confronts us with a hard reality. Although we tend to think of ourselves as fully autonomous beings, there are many things at play that actually shape our decisions. Nonetheless, no matter how hard coping mechanisms seem to be, we always have a choice, whether we find it impossible to believe or not. There is always an opportunity to rebuild the systems that control us. Although it might take time, it can be done.

I like to believe that free will is not an illusion, but rather a realization that one has to attain. Hunter realizes her truth by swallowing a lot of pain.

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