Escape from Spiderhead

Posted by: S. Goldberg
Designed for: High School, Middle School
Topics Covered: Free Will, Determinism
Estimated Time Necessary: 1-2 hrs + overnight reading assignment
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Learning Objectives

  • Understanding Free Will vs Determinism - How can we know we have free will? Gaining an understanding of this timeless philosophical problem is our main objective
Attached PDF

Tool Text


George Saunders’ “Escape from Spiderhead” is a dystopian short story that portrays a controlled pharmacological environment in which scientists experimentally manipulate the desires and emotions of human subjects. Students are confronted with the question whether the chemical cocktails produced by our brains grant greater freedom than Spiderhead. Sanders’ riveting story is thought-provoking and challenges students to probe the topic of free will and determinism.

See PDF Attached to this Tool & have your students read it beforehand.

Overarching Question:

  • How does the story reinforce your preferred position on free will? How can the story challenge your preferred position on free will? Explain.

Brief Definition of Positions on Free Will:

  • Hard Determinism – People’s actions are causally necessitated and their actions are therefore unfree.
  • Compatiblism – Although all actions are caused, people act with free will and are morally responsible whenever they are not constrained or forced to perform the action.
  • Deep Compatiblism – People are free only if only if they act on desires they truly want to act on (i.e., desires that move people are genuinely “their own”).
  • Libertarianism – People’s actions are not causally necessitated. People have special powers to cause their actions and are morally responsible for their choices.
Escape from Spiderhead

Possible Discussion Questions
  1. Why does Jeff participate in Abnesti’s project at Spiderhead? Has he chosen to participate?
  2. Thanks to Verbaluce, Jeff is able to wax poetic about loving Heather. He refers to his deepest longing fulfilled (50-51)? Does Jeff love Heather? If not, how is genuine love different from what Jeff experiences? Abnesti says, “Say someone can’t love? Now he or she can” (57). Does the project at Spiderhead support Abnesti’s claim?
  3. Why does Abnesti tell Jeff to make a decision whether Rachel or Heather should get Darkenfloxx? What is Jeff’s decision? Does he make it freely? Explain. (pgs 56,62-63, 65)
  4. What was Jeff’s fateful night? In what sense was it “fateful”? (76-77)
  5. How does Jeff “doink with [Abnesti’s] experimental design integrity”? (63)
  6. Why does Jeff feel “a little jerked around”? (64)
  7. Does Jeff freely participate in the Confirmation Trial? The test reveals that he no longer feels any romantic love toward Heather. Verlaine says that he’s showing “just pretty much basic human feeling.” What is the difference between feelings that belong to Jeff and those s(t)imulated by the study? (67-68, 70)
  8. Saying “acknowledge” implies permission, but why would it be misleading to call this consent? (75-76)
  9. Does Jeff choose his fate at the end of the story? Is it completely up to him? (78-81)

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