Critical Thought

Fate and Determinism (Take Two – a Groundhog Day Version)

Bill Murray and the late, great Harold Ramis had a famous falling out while filming the 1993 movie Groundhog Day. The short version is that Murray wanted the movie to delve into the philosophical more and Ramis wanted to keep it light and funny. In the end, I’m happy with the balance the two struck despite the cost it had on their friendship.

That said, I am more philosophical myself (for reasons I will discuss in a different post) and probably would have agreed with Murray to the overall detriment of the film (it would have been less funny). Murray’s influence is felt in scenes like, “Well, maybe the real God uses tricks. Maybe He’s not omniscient. Maybe He’s just been around so long He knows everything.” We see it in a scene where he sits on a bench and narrates natural phenomenon like the wind blowing before it happens, creating an aura of control.

What I want to focus on in this piece though is partially obscured by the suspension of disbelief with a fictional project: the other characters.

One of the things I found philosophically fascinating about the film is that Murray’s Phil encounters the same people in the same situations every day. “Think it will be an early spring?” “Will you be checking out today, Mr. Connors?” “Ned! Ryerson!” Phil restarts the same day with his memory of the previous ones, but when he encounters these people they are going about the same routine he always sees. Of course, right? At that point in the day nothing is different for them. They awoke the same as they always do and the same series of events unfolded until the encountered Phil.

That is the part that grabs my attention. Yes, there is bias in this piece based on a previous post. My non-scientific theory is that the universe is functionally pre-determined, but because we cannot know all of the associated variables we have, in the practical sense, free will. Allow me to demonstrate with a separate pop culture example real quick:

In a Community episode, Jeff Winger rolls a die to determine who should go downstairs to get a pizza delivery. Abed warns that he’s creating multiple timelines by doing so, and they play the seven possible deviations to humorous effect (seven being that Abed catches it before it rolls). My theory undoes all of that premise and posits that Jeff, influenced by countless, immeasurable variables, would have tossed the die at one force and one rate of spin in the same conditions that it would always land, bounce, and settle in the same fashion. Factors like, “What if I had thrown it higher?” are eliminated post hoc by the evidence that he did not. That becomes purely a hypothetical. If he could have thrown it higher, he would have. But he didn’t because conditions determined something else.

What fascinates me about the Groundhog Day premise is that Phil starts each day with new conditions, but everyone else in the world starts with the same ones. The water is cold in the shower, he meets the overly chuffed fellow in the hallway, and he interacts with the innkeeper. Nancy Taylor has breakfast at the diner. The old ladies get a flat tire. All of these things happen every day because all of the conditions, save for Phil, remain unchanged.

What the film only partially explores is the ripple effect of Phil’s influence. Nancy has the same day every day, until one day Phil decides to question her about her past and memorize the details. Then he leaves her. The next* day, Phil finds her at the festival and pretends that he remembers her, getting her to agree to a date and changing Nancy’s entire day from that point forward. On future repeats, if Phil does not interact with Nancy then she returns to her original track.

The best look we get at the ripple effect is toward the end of the film when Rita looks for Phil at the party, and most of the attendees revere Phil for his joie de vivre. He’s saved a man’s life. Repaired a nervous groom’s mind and made a happy couple (and sends them to Wrestlemania). He fixed a flat tire. He prevented a boy from injuring himself in a fall. He’s mastered the piano. Despite no one knowing Phil in the morning, Phil is the most distinguished person in Punxsutawney by evening, but what we never really see is the interaction among those people in Punxsutawney away from Phil.

Consider, for example, if the women in the car with the flat tire were the food servers at the restaurant where Buster (Brian Doyle Murray) chokes on his dinner. The flat tire delays her getting to work and she’s a little later getting the food to Buster’s table. Buster puts the steak in his mouth at a different point in the conversation, chews it a little differently, and swallows it without incident. In other words, Groundhog Day presents certain events as inevitable (because they all occur every time Phil relives the day) even though Phil clearly has influence over the events by changing his actions.

For film buffs thinking, “There’s a better example of this” – yes, Run, Lola, Run. But today is Groundhog Day and I’m watching it while thinking about this theory, so we’re doing it with Groundhog Day. For those unfamiliar, Run, Lola, Run explores the exact same sequence of events with minor changes in timing to show the ripple effect and I recommend it!

Obviously, Groundhog Day does not get into that for narrative reasons. The film would become too complicated and lose sight of its theme – the audience needs to remain focused on Phil and we need control around the other elements. My point is that Phil necessarily changes the trajectory for everyone with whom he interacts (to varying degrees), and each of those people then change the trajectories of everyone with whom they interact (to degrees that might be lesser, equal, or far greater than the impact Phil had on them).

In the most obvious sense, Phil interacting with certain people a certain way would delay their other actions. It’s just physics. If Nancy is out on a date with Phil, she’s not wherever she was on days when Phil did not date her. Anybody who interacted with Nancy on those days would not be able to because she would not be present for the interaction. We would not waste screen time on those things, but maybe Nancy has a friendly conversation with someone else and that conversations boosts their mood a bit. Later in the day, that person may make a decision based on feeling well. On days that Nancy is instead dating Phil, the person might make the same decision from a gloomier place.

I don’t think any of that is a philosophical stretch for people to understand. The compelling factor to me is that the film suggests looking back historically, that post hoc piece I described earlier, that because every single condition up to the alarm clock waking Phil is exactly the same in every version. Phil’s changes adjust the trajectory of everyone else, but from that point forward. The man always greets him in the hallway. The innkeeper always offers coffee and tries to make small talk about the weather. Every variable to that point remains controlled, and the film implies that things are predetermined.

“In about five seconds a waiter is going to drop a tray of dishes. 5. 4. 3. 2…[crashes]”

Phil knows the waiter will drop the dishes because it happens in every retelling. It happens every day because the waiter is always in that spot, carrying that tray of dishes, and crouching down to get something from the ground when the tray bumps the counter and spills the dishes. What I am suggesting is that every single variable, from the waiter’s mood to how the dishes are arranged to whatever compelled him to grab the fallen item (even the item being there at that moment) is necessarily the same in that moment in every run-through of the day. Lots of things could change that moment – Phil could deliberately walk over and catch the tray or warn the waiter. There are no scenarios where the waiter simply avoids spilling the dishes.

“What if he decides to put down the tray and then get the item?”

He can’t. I don’t know what variables factor into it. Neither do you, and neither does he. Whatever ones factored into his decision existed as they did, and compelled him to do it the way he did.

Phil changes the variables in the movie – only because he goes back to the start of the day armed with new knowledge. Interestingly, even armed with what amounts to omniscience about the day, we still see factors like his mood impact the decision points. Phil engages the same moment in great moods and in bad. He even quips to the child falling from the tree, “You have never thanked me! See you tomorrow. Maybe.”

I find something comforting in the knowledge that the universe is unfolding a particular way well beyond our control. I mean, we all know that is true, but the general belief seems to be that we exert at least some control over our own lives through decisions and actions. As mentioned, that’s true in a practical sense even if this theory is true because we cannot know all of the variables that factor into a particular moment. Even if one could stop time and analyze a moment to death, we cannot always predict what comes next because we cannot know which variables have an impact and to what extent. So, enjoy your free will. You do get to make decisions in your life. But the universe will churn forward towards the next logical thing no matter what we do, and I find certain beauty in that notion.

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