Let me ask a question and then ask what kind of question that question is. The question first: is our future utterly determined, or do we determine our future by the choices we make? And then: at its core, what type of question is this? Philosophical? Theological? Technological? Sociological? Obviously, how we answer the first question will be influenced by the way we understand the world, but also the way we categorize the question hints at our worldview. A predetermined future is predicated on a predeterminer—maybe God, maybe some supercomputer or other form of artificial intelligence, maybe big brother. A future shaped by our own choices makes us the master of our fate—maybe individually, maybe corporately, but free to act all the same.
As annoying as this will probably sound, though, I’m not so sure all of this is as binary as I’ve just laid it out to be. And that’s why I was slightly irritated throughout much of FX’s Devs. It’s not that I find the determinism v. free will question uninteresting. Some might, I guess. I heard a podcast interview with Alex Garland, the show’s creator and director, in which he scoffs at the sort of hyper-intellectualism that dismisses this question as old hat. Like, been there, asked that. That wasn’t my reaction to the show—I wasn’t bored, just buzzing with a thousand more questions. It seemed to me that the discussion around determinism and free will isn’t as binary as the show presented it; one being true does not necessarily exclude the other.
My frustration probably came from ultimately not allowing the show to unfold on its own terms. For example: at times, I made the mistake of interpreting certain characters’ worldviews as Devs making these sweeping, heavy-handed STATEMENTS. During one scene in particular, I kept arguing out loud with a character until Gwyn finally shut it down so she could actually, you know, listen to the dialogue. Throughout the show, many of the actors deliver their lines with an intentional flatness, and I initially misinterpreted this flatness as both bad acting and a way of communicating a thesis.
Without spoiling anything, after finishing the series, here’s my response to my own mid-show frustrations: my bad. I might still have a few disagreements with the show’s decisions (does the alto sax have to be that loud?), but Devs isn’t proffering an answer. It’s digging into the question and creating a vibe (an absolute vibe) within which to do that digging best.
But I can’t end this post without at least returning to the first paragraph. You might guess my bias: the question for me is fundamentally theological. That’s not to say the question isn’t multifaceted, but at its core, I believe it’s a question about God, and more precisely, about who God is. In the show, programmers at a secret division of the tech company Amaya develop a quantum predictive system that can look to the future and revisit the past. Interestingly, the first moment from the past we see and hear in Devs is blurry but unmistakable: Jesus Christ on the cross.
And though Devs stays mostly opaque in its presentation of messianic imagery (until, arguably, the final episode), the show’s repeated use of christological images and language (unintentionally) helped me approach an answer to the determinism v. free will question. “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” says Paul in 1 Corinthians 2. So while in one sense a clear answer to the question still completely eludes me, in another sense I know everything I need to know.
Brad Zwiers (’12) graduated from Calvin College in 2012 and Western Theological Seminary in 2015. He will not be graduating from any more schools. He often stares at books he wishes he could read but knows he will not finish and goes for long walks with his wife, Gwyn. Sometimes he plays basketball and always he follows the greatest sporting club in the world, Liverpool F.C.