The Adjustment Bureau and Free Will

Movies are an excellent vehicle for illustrating philosophy. Whether it is the deontological ethics of The Lord of the Rings or the metaphysics of The Matrix, you can glean philosophical insight from just about any movie. When it comes to the concept of free will, The Adjustment Bureau is among recent big screen film to tackle this subject.

“We actually tried Free Will before. After taking you from hunting and gathering to the height of the Roman Empire we stepped back to see how you'd do on your own. You gave us the Dark Ages for five centuries... until finally we decided we should come back in. The Chairman thought maybe we just needed to do a better job of teaching you how to ride a bike before taking the training wheels off again. So we gave you the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution. For six hundred years we taught you to control your impulses with reason, then in 1910 we stepped back. Within fifty years, you'd brought us World War I, the Depression, Fascism, the Holocaust and capped it off by bringing the entire planet to the brink of destruction in the Cuban Missile Crisis. At that point a decision was taken to step back in again before you did something that even we couldn't fix. You don't have free will, David. You have the appearance of free will.”

(Agent Thompson’s response to David Norris when asked “What ever happened to free will?”)

Movies are an excellent vehicle for illustrating philosophy. Whether it is the deontological ethics of The Lord of the Rings or the metaphysics of The Matrix, you can glean philosophical insight from just about any movie. When it comes to the concept of free will, The Adjustment Bureau is among recent big screen film to tackle this subject. This movie, starring Matt Damon and directed by George Nolfi, is based on the 1954 short story Adjustment Team by Philip K. Dick, the science fiction writer and self described “fictionalizing philosopher.” In The Adjustment Bureau, Damon plays David Norris, a charismatic congressman who seems destined for national political stardom. David meets a beautiful ballet dancer named Elise Sellas. However, strange circumstances keep the two from advancing their relationship. Soon, David finds out who is behind these strange circumstances. When David arrives at work one morning, he sees something he shouldn't - a team of agents (adjusters) in suits and fedoras reprogramming the brain of his business partner. They explain that they're part of the Adjustment Bureau, the people who make sure things happen according to The Chairman's plan.

This mysterious team of agents influences and “adjusts” the events in everyone’s daily lives. In addition, they inform David that he is not supposed to be with Elise because it will ruin The Plan for his and Elise’s lives. The main adjuster takes Elise’s phone number from David and warns him that if he tells anyone about the Adjustment Bureau, the adjusters will erase his mind. But David will not give up pursuing Elise and by doing this, David is risking the loss of his promising political career. Throughout the film, circumstances brought about by the Bureau, at the behest of The Chairman, hinder David’s plans. However, Harry, the main adjuster assigned to David, experiences inner conflict with what is happening to David and Elise. Harry, along with David, wrestle with their roles in this world and, the movie thus tackles the issue of free will.

In the film, reality consists of order maintained by the invisible hand of The Chairman and is administered by the Bureau. Any disruptions to this order produces chaos in the world. The destiny of all humans is preordained. However, despite this deterministic program, the main characters are confronted by another reality: their desire to act in the way they wish. David, Elise, and Harry choose to resist the Bureau’s plans and create their own path. The message seems paradoxical, (at least to an incompatibilist): there is free will but the world we live in is largely deterministic. Moreover, the mysterious existence of The Chairman is central to the engine behind the deterministic themes. The Chairman largely is absent to the viewer, a quite intriguing idea because it leaves the viewer wondering who Dick envisions as the Chairman. Is he a deity of some sort? Is he good or evil?

The Chairman has a plan for each person; a good plan if you abide and a consequent inferior plan if you do not abide. The Chairman wants the good plan to be fulfilled or else the adjusters would not be necessary. It is in this relationship between the Adjustment Bureau and the inhabitants of the world that free will and determinism collide. Although the idea that men in suits secretly controlling the destinies of people is implausible, the plot along with its implications is quite interesting because there are clear resemblances to the world we inhabit. It is great entertainment but, more importantly, the philosophical implications are both profound and persistent.

Free will is the apparent capacity at least human beings possess to choose a course of action among alternatives. The most vigorous debates throughout history involving free will have attempted to answer two questions: 1) Do humans have free will? and 2) Are humans morally responsible for what we do and appear to choose? It is question 1 which is most relevant to the film. Even though Agent Thompson claims that there is no free will, The Adjustment Bureau portrays a world that contains some free will, albeit limited, but simultaneously portrays a world in which free will seems impossible*. This paradox is the product of two elements that are suggested throughout the plot of the film: theological determinism and a materialistic view of man.

Although the nature of The Chairman is not clearly revealed to the viewer, you get a sense that The Chairman is a deity and the providence of this deity guides the affairs of man. This type of determinism, held by some religious traditions (most notably the monotheistic religions), states that God ordains everything that happens. Within theological determinism, there are two groups: hard and soft theological determinism. The latter states that humans have free will despite the fact that God ordains all events. Although God ordains and knows what will happen beforehand, man still has the ability to freely choose their courses of action. The former argues that free will is non-existent and God is in complete control of events including human action (the fact that we think we make free choices is just an illusion of some sort). Although each view has rational difficulties, the film opts for a kind of theological determinism in the form of The Chairman and The Bureau secretly conducting their life-altering activities. An unseen boss who runs the world, knows its outcomes, and charges his agents to execute his plans suggests this type of determinism albeit with some deviations. One of those deviations is the unusual role of free will with this type of determinism.

The love story of David and Elise adds the philosophical intrigue. Their intense love for one another leads them to continually fight against the fate that has been ordained for them. This fight culminates in their attempt to find The Chairman to convince him to change the plan for their lives. Their attempt was futile but their perseverance has produced a change in their life plan. Towards the end of the movie, atop a New York City building, Agent Mitchell explains to David and Elise what is written in a paper that he is holding in his hand, “It says that this situation between the two of you is a serious deviation from the plan. So The Chairman rewrote it.” The choices of two human agents, contending with their assigned fates, were able to change the mind of a divine or divine-like figure.

Some may argue that even the apparent free acts the players make are not free acts because the brain determines their actions even when the Bureau is not involved. When certain people did not comply with their preordained life plan, the adjusters simply altered your brain. David accidentally witnessed this process being performed on his friend. This alteration causes you to make the correct decisions and stay on the determined path. This method undermines free will as humans are perceived as merely machines that need to be physically or chemically altered. (This materialistic view of man denies the existence of the soul which is the aspect of man that, many argue, is the locus of free will.)

All of these issues expressed in the film seem to raise more questions than answer them. Ironically, the director of the film, George Nolfi, stated that the "intention of this film is to raise questions.” Yes, this film has raised questions. But one also gets the sense that being able to choose the course of one’s life is something at least the filmmakers--if not Dick himself--values. We ultimately may be fully determined but if so, it is something we should fight against. The biting irony in that last sentence creates the core of the plot of the film. Dick suggests it’s also the core plot of our lives. That’s worth thinking about.

* This isn’t the entire story. Some of the players in the film appear to make free choices. It is the outcome of those choices that is adjusted by the Bureau. If I choose to talk to a person and some powerful being changes the “natural” course of that action, the choice may still be free even if the outcome is adjusted by another person.
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