The Ethics of Precrime

Minority ReportI just read the Philip K. Dick short story “The Minority Report.” I’ve seen the film that is based upon it a number of times before. But as with any written story, reading gives you time to think. In this case, I began to think about the metaphysics of precrime. For those of you unaware of the plot, it revolves around the existence of so called “precogs.” They can predict crime—hence “precrime.” As a result, the police arrest assailants before they commit crimes that the precogs have predicted. This creates all kinds of metaphysical problems that I will get to shortly.

Dick wrote the story when he was just 28, and I don’t think he really understood what he had come up with. Both the story and the film have a fundamental paradox. It is a little less troubling in the story, so let me lay it out as it occurs in the film. Anderton is accused of killing a man he has neither met nor heard of. In the process of trying to prove his innocence, he comes into contact with a man who claims to have killed Anterton’s son. Anterton then (more or less) kills the man.

But this begs a very big question: how did the precogs know that Anterton would meet this man when it was only because of their prediction that he did? The answer is that the whole idea of precrime is even more aggravating than time travel! But there’s more, because there is no way that precrime could work in any philosophically justifiable way.

When the precogs predict a crime, there are two possibilities:

  1. They are predicting the crime that would take place given all of the ways that their prediction will alter reality.
  2. They are predicting the crime that would take place without the many and assorted ways that their prediction will alter reality.

If it is case 1, then the prediction itself is altering reality. There is no way to say that the crime would have been committed without the prediction. This is the case in the story and the movie. There is no way to truly see Anderton as culpable given that he would never have committed the crime without the precrime system causing him to do it.

If it is case 2, then the precrime system is arresting people who might well be guilty in another universe, but who are very clearly not guilty in the universe in which they are found guilty. The precrime system does exist. Predictions that depend upon it not existing are not valid for the universe in which it does exist.

I know that all of this metaphysics may strike some as ridiculous. Yet this is exactly what the story is about. There could not be an ethical precrime. It is quite literally a system that punishes thought crimes. There is no way around this. If you think in terms of wave equations: until an event occurs, the future is just probabilities. Now, I am enough of a mystic to believe that multiple (even infinite) strands of time may branch off at each instant. And someone outside of time might be able to map each of branches. But no one inside that time can do so because in doing so they change the branch.

(Think about it this way. Suppose there was a god or something outside of time and he was able to pump his knowledge into the precogs’ heads. Doing that would change the time branch—the universe. There is no way around that.)

Strangely, the movie Minority Report ends correctly where the short story does not. (The writers had 45 years to think about.) In the movie, the flaws in precrime are exposed and the system is ended. (However, they are not the metaphysical flaws I am discussing here.) In the story, Anterton does as the precogs predicted in order to save the system. It is unfortunate, because Dick explicitly discusses branches of time as the different timing of the precog predictions affect later ones. But the more fundamental problem that I’ve discussed here seems completely to have eluded him. But it’s a really great story!

Afterword

I just looked up the title of this article on Google to see what people had written. I have to say, I’m pretty disappointed. No one seems to be aware of the issues I’ve raised here. These do not strike me as terrible profound or intelligent observations. Maybe it just my peculiar combination of mysticism and science that draws me here. But these metaphysical question are explicitly raised in both the story and the movie. Geez!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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