I haven’t been getting my Puella fix lately, and as a consequence have found myself revisiting old episodes to examine more deeply what has happened so far in the show. Right away I was intrigued by some of the first dialogue in episode one.
“If you give up, it’ll be the end of everything, but you have the capacity to change fate. This unavoidable destruction, this sorrow–you can change it all. That’s why you have this power.” -Kyuubey
“Are you telling the truth? Can someone like me really do something to stop this? Can I really prevent everything from turning out this way?” -Madoka
For those who are unfamiliar with the problem of free will, it is the philosophical discussion surrounding how whether our choices or the past will affect the future. You can break down the debate into four major ideas, but I will be leaving out indeterminism as it doesn’t relate to the rest of the post:
Hard Determinism – A hard determinist believes that the past completely determines the future. Since all future events are caused by past events, the future is causally determined. It is not within our power to shape the future. Free will is an illusion.
Soft Determinism – A soft determinist holds that we can have free will even if the future is determined. We are free and responsible for our actions as long as these actions are caused in the right way. We can distinguish two different forms of soft determinism – Traditional Compatibilism and Deep Self-Compatibilism. The difference between the two being how the action is determined to be free (The former being not forced and by the agent’s own will. The latter being that it is caused by authentic desires).
Libertarianism – A libertarian insists that human beings are agents and that agents have special causal powers. They can initiate (cause) events on their own account and are therefore free to shape the future.
“This unavoidable destruction- … you have the power to change it all.”
This statement by Kyuubey is absolutely innocuous, and by itself does not bring about any real information. It is merely an interesting reflection of the statements based on a Libertarian view of free will. If we look deeper through the series so far, we can find more on this to try and get a clearer picture of what role Kyuubey actually has in mind for the girls. During episode 10, Homura’s plans to stop the Walpurgis Night and save Madoka are thwarted again. Before she disappears back into the endless cycle of time travel, Kyuubey leaves this sentiment:
“Sooner or later, the same thing would have happened anyway. Madoka, in this form, will probably destroy this planet within ten days or so. Well, the rest is your problem–humanity’s problem.”
Not only does he say that all of this was inevitable, thus contradicting his original statement that these events could be changed, but he also condemns the entire human race and their planet to destruction. He brushes it off as no longer his problem. Kyuubey is supposed to be a being without emotion that traveled to their planet (dimension, universe?) to collect energy for the purpose of slowing entropy. Earlier in the series, during episode 9, we learn of these purposes.
“It’s not like we hold a grudge against humanity or anything. It is all for the sake of this world we all live in. … Unfortunately, our species is incapable of what you call emotions.“
“Are you saying that we should just die for you?”
“Do you know how many cultures exist in this universe, consuming energy every moment? Sometime in the future, you humans will leave the planet and join us too. It wouldn’t be nice if the universe was dying by that time, would it? If you think about it, it’s not such a bad trade-off!“
Kyuubey puts up the argument for the ultimate sacrifice they are making, and presenting the fact that the sacrifice of one for the greater good of many is both logical and reasonable. There is no emotion involved in this view of that debate, so at first one would say that Kyuubey is what he says- An emotionless being here to collect energy and facilitate the universe, which also effects the future of the human race. Madoka pushes on, arguing that he couldn’t possibly understand how they feel, to which he replies:
“But we’re making the contract only if you agree to it. Isn’t that kind enough for you?”
“You’ve just been tricking us!“
“We can’t understand what it means “to trick” to begin with. When you regret a wrong decision based on a misunderstanding, you humans tend to hate the other party for some reason.“
Now wait a minute, in the same exact episode he contradicts himself again. When talking to Kyōko about Sayaka’s situation as a new born witch, we get the following dialogue:
“Is there any way to get back her soul gem?”
“None, as far as I know.”
“So, there might be one that you don’t know?”
“The existence of Puella Magi is itself against reaosn. I won’t be surprised no matter what improbable acitons you take.”
At first, this isn’t a direct contradiction, but if we listen to what he says to Homura during the final scene, we see the issue arise after she asks if Sayaka could have been saved:
“That’s foolish! It’s obviously impossible!“
“Then why didn’t you stop her?”
“Of course if it was a needless sacrifice, I would have stopped her, but her fall had a greater meaning. Now you’re the only Puella Magi left to face the Walpurgis, and not even you stand a chance alone. To protect this city, Madoka must become a Puella Magi.”
While he did not directly coax Sayaka into the fight, his motives were purely trickery. At this point in the series, we are aware that Kyuubey cares about nothing other than obtaining the most possible energy. He is willing, and plans to destroy an entire planet and give birth to a witch powerful enough to bend the laws of physics just to meet the quota. He said himself that he could not possibly understand the notion of trickery, yet his plans purposefully set up Sayaka to fail so that Homura would be unable to defeat the Walpurgis Night alone. Even Madoka herself says it:
“Can you save my stupid self before I get tricked by Kyuubey?”
So now that we have established that Kyuubey is either a liar or too naïve to understand that he is being contradictory in the first place. After all, his character is presented as small, innocent, and child-like. Does he truly not feel emotion, or understand trickery, but at the same time pursue plans that are inherently misleading? The complexity in this show is further compounded when we bring Homura’s time travel power in to play.
See “On Quantum Physics, the Fourth Dimension, and Magical Girls… Wait, what?” for a more in-depth analysis of Homura’s powers. For now, I’ll mainly be focusing on time travel in regards to free will and choice. Right away I assume that we can throw out Hard Determinism, because every time Homura travels back in time, she makes choices that cause events to play out differently. Despite this, there are specific major events that always occur, no matter what she chooses to do. Sayaka always turns into a witch. Walpurgis Night always shows up. Madoka always dies/falls while fighting. Supposedly, Mami always dies as well. While all of this is happening, the situations surrounding everything change. This is most highly conducive with the concept of Soft Determinism. The future may be determined already based on the events of the past, but they still have free will to go about their paths and decide how they will react to, fight, or agree with what happens.
Let us now assume that in their world, Soft Determinism holds the strongest grip as the explanation of free will and time. If this is the case, then we can further explore Deep Self-Compatibilism. This states that actions are free if they are caused by desires that are truly our own (authentic desires). Because Madoka is seemingly the focus of this story, I am going to take a leap of faith here and presume that Homura will never solve this series of disasters on her own, with her own choices. If she could, then theoretically it would have already been done. Because she can travel back in time, it means she has theoretically already been to every plane of events and this is backed up by the fact that in Madoka’s timeline, Homura already has these powers and has already been through all of the disaster before meeting Madoka in the first place. If Homura could solve the problem, then she would have already done so due to the paradox of time travel.
So then, at this point it would appear impossible for there to be a light at the end of the tunnel, but that’s where Deep Self-Compatibilism introduces itself. With the assumption that a choice can only be truly free if it is made by authentic desires, then we can explore why Madoka and her friends are stuck in this loop of disaster. Madoka, as a character, is presented to be indecisive and sees herself as “useless”. She periodically leads us to believe that her wish will be something like “I want to be useful, and to protect everyone”. At the start of the first episode, Homura strikes her with a hard statement:
“Kaname Madoka, do you value your current way of life? Your family, your friends–do you think dearly of them? I see. If that’s true, then you mustn’t ever thinking of trying to become someone else. If you do, you’ll lose everything.”
Homura is saying this to Madoka assuming that “change” means to stop being the useless, indecisive girl she is and join the Mahou Shoujo to fight witches. This puts a huge pressure on Madoka to avoid making this difficult choice. On the other hand, Kyuubey is constantly pressuring her to become a Mahou Shoujo, especially when the Walpurgis Night appears, or else the entire world will be destroyed.
So then, with all of this pressure surrounding the type of character that Madoka is, we see her fall to the pressures in the many different timelines. Each time, she fails to consider her own desires. Whenever she is asked or attempts to figure out what she truly wants, it ends up being brushed aside. I think that for the Mahou Shoujo to ever possibly win, Madoka has to finally make her decision based on her own authentic desire. Then, it becomes a true action of free will and breaks the deterministic view of the universe, causing a real change in events.
As this is the Mahou Shoujo genre with some light coming-of-age themes, doesn’t this idea fit in rather well with the problem currently presented to us? It’s up for you to decide, and if you got this far… Thanks for sitting through my long-winded post! I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter.
Also, despite not getting to see the end of the series yet… I’m having a ton of fun discussing it with people. Definitely a positive side to these delays!
Until next time~