By David K. Johnson, Ph.D., King’s College
According to many philosophical traditions, human actions are not governed by free will. But if we hold that humans have no free will, then the question becomes whether everything we do is fated. So if we are not free, then we are fated to act as we do. The movie The Adjustment Bureau deals with these philosophical issues.
The Bureau at Work
The Adjustment Bureau is based on a short story by Philip K. Dick entitled Adjustment Team. The story is about the bureau: a secret organization that controls all world history by designing a detailed plan for it, and then makes sure no one deviates from that plan.
To prevent humans from deviating from the plan, they “recalibrate” people—reconfiguring their neural pathways—to get people to behave as they should. They have tried letting us do things on our own. The first time was toward the end of the Roman Empire. That led to the Dark Ages. The second time was around 1910, which led to two world wars, a Great Depression, Fascism—basically the worst horrors of the 20th century.
The story follows David Norris, a candidate for Senate, who accidentally finds out about the bureau. They threaten to “reset him”—wipe his memories and personality—if he ever reveals their existence, and then tell him to stay away from a girl he has fallen in love with, Elise Sellas because their being together is not in the plan.
But David and Elise choose to be together despite the cost. And in the end, because of their persistence, the Chairman—who created the plan in the first place—decides to change the plan so that they could stay with each other.
This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Humans: The Biological Machines
At first glance, The Adjustment Bureau appears to be a movie about the triumph of free will, but upon closer examination, there is no reason to think humans in the movie actually have free will.
David doesn’t choose to pursue or be with Elise despite being “recalibrated” by the bureau. In fact, the bureau never even touches David’s brain in the film. They just threaten to reset him and tell him the consequences of his actions.
Indeed, the reason David is so attracted to Elise is because a previous version of the plan meant for them to be together, and parts of it never got erased. Also, the film depicts humans as clearly not free. Their rational decision process is always predictable; that’s how the agents know when they must make an adjustment.
Learn more about the enigma of free will.
The Facade of Free Will
In one scene, a Bureau agent called Thompson suggests that while humans have the free will to choose “which toothpaste to use or which beverage to order,” for the important things, they only have “the appearance of free will.”
But these ordinary not-important choices are, at best, based on “impulse” without direction or purpose. Decisions dictated by randomness are no freer than those that are determined. Furthermore, since these choices are predictable, they cannot be considered free.
The moral of the movie seems to be that a simple life with your true love is more important than the fulfillment of grandiose goals that will ultimately leave you empty. But on the other hand, this movie clearly illustrates how humans can lack free will without being fated.
Although the term is slippery and can mean many things, the most common understanding of “being fated” includes the notion of conscious control by an outside force, like the bureau. If you are fated, you are fated by something. If some event is fated, it’s included in some plan—a plan someone wrote. The word “fate” might sometimes just mean “inevitable,” but notice that, for example, once a person jumps off a cliff, hitting the ground is inevitable, but we usually wouldn’t call it fated.
With this understanding in mind, we can see how humans could lack free will but not be fated to behave as they do. When the bureau steps back, human behavior is not fated—it is not forcibly aligned to the Chairman’s plan. But if human nature is as it is depicted in the film, and our actions are either determined or random, then human behavior is still not free.
Even if our behavior is dictated by our environment and DNA, unless you think that our environment and DNA have a conscious will, we are not fated to behave as we do. So we can lack free will without being fated.
Learn more about the human free will in the sequels of The Matrix.
None of this means that humans are not fated—either individually or collectively—to behave as they do. It just means that humans lacking free will doesn’t necessarily mean they are fated. But there are arguments that suggest fate can determine our actions.
One possibility is we consider “the Chairman” in the movie as God. In this case, the plan David is rebelling against in The Adjustment Bureau may simply be God’s. Indeed, at one point in the film, Agent Mitchell suggests that the Agents of the Chairman are sometimes called angels.
God is traditionally defined as a perfect being—that is, a being with ultimate power, knowledge and goodness. Those who believe God exists are called theists. And many theists believe that God has a plan for their life—indeed, for all of humanity—and that God himself ensures that plan is brought to fruition.
Is There a Divine Plan?
Christian philosophers, like Clark Pinnock and Thomas Jay Oord, for example, believe that God has granted humans robust free will. Therefore, how our lives and human history pans out is totally up to us. Others believe that God doesn’t dictate individual lives but is in control of the broad strokes of human history.
But many think that our actions—both individually and collectively—are fated by God. Indeed, denominational divisions in the church are often drawn along these lines. It should be pointed out that no major Christian philosopher holds the view that we are fated in a complete manner because such a view would be impossible to defend philosophically.
Common Questions about the Death of Free Will and the Problem of Fate
The most common understanding of “being fated” implies the notion of conscious control by an outside force, such as God. If some events are fated, it is part of some plan—a plan that will inevitably happen.
Some Christian philosophers believe that God has granted humans robust free will. Hence, how our lives and human history pans out is totally up to us. Others believe that God doesn’t dictate individual lives but is in control of the broad strokes of human history.
No major Christian philosopher holds the view that our actions are fully fated because such a view would be impossible to defend philosophically.