Adjustment Bureau and Free Will

If you’ve watched the movie ‘The Adjustment Bureau’, I’m sure you’ll recall a scene where Thompson lectures protagonist David Norris on his naive belief in free will of humans.

The quote from Thompson is reproduced below, with added Wikipedia links.

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. 

Rick Pimental comments on the Philosophy News Service:

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. […]

Pimental also poignantly and succinctly identifies the key paradox of the film:

We ultimately may be fully determined but if so, it is something we should fight against.

What is your own view of ‘free will’? Do we really possess it? Does this question even matter? 

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