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What The Adjustment Bureau Tells Us About Free Will

Is The Adjustment Bureau a story of free will's triumph?

Spoiler Alert: Plot points of The Adjustment Bureau are revealed here.

This weekend The Adjustment Bureau opened, a movie based on the short story Adjustment Team by Philip Dick. As is usual with adaptations of Dick's work, the story and the movie are considerably different, set in different times and places with different characters. But one thing they have in common is the Bureau, a conspiracy theorist's dream, a secret organization that controls all of world history by designing a plan for it, down to each and every individual, and then making sure no one deviates from that plan.

How do they make sure you don't deviate from their plan? Often by simply distracting you to keep you from being in the wrong place at the wrong time. How do they do that? You know those little things that inexplicably go wrong sometimes--coffee spills, power goes out, internet is down, car won't start? Most often that is the Bureau making sure you don't meet someone, start something, or do something that is not in line with their plan. And when things get really extreme, they will mess with your brain--reconfiguring your neural pathways to change the way you reason, literally determining your decisions for you.

They tried letting us do things on our own for a while. The first time was toward the end of the Roman Empire. That led to The Dark Ages. They took control again and gave us the renaissance and enlightenment, but let us go again around 1910--leading to two world wars, a great depression, fascism--the worst horrors of the 20th Century. They had to take control, again, to keep us from destroying ourselves (i.e., solve the Cubin missile crisis) and have been trying to put things back together ever since.

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The philosophical issue The Adjustment Bureau most obviously raises is the question of free will. At first glance, one might think the movie suggests we do have free will, but that our free will is interfered with by The Bureau. But only at first glance. In reality, it seems as if the only two options are order and chaos; either world history is directed by the invisible hand of the Bureau, or we descend into chaos and destroy ourselves because our decisions aren't free, but instead random and non-directed.

Of course, one might think that the movie merely suggests that we make bad free decisions, when left to our own devices. But that is not the way the movie looks at human nature. According to the movie, our decisions are dictated by our reason, personality and emotions, which are all dictated by the structure and activity of our brain. If the Bureau wants to control what decisions you will make, they can do so by simply altering the structure of your brain. In the movie, they alter the reasoning centers of people's brains to make certain reason-based decisions line up with their plan. They could alter personality and emotions too, but that is past a moral line that not even the Bureau will cross. But they could, and that is the point. According to the movie, who you are and what you do is not dictated by some non-material "soul" that is inexplicably tied to your body. No. You are a chemical, biological, purely physical machine that is subject to the laws of nature. You have no free will. What you do is dictated by the structure of your brain, and the structure of your brain is dictated by your DNA and your environment (and sometimes the Bureau), neither of which is up to "you."

But if you've seen the movie, you might wonder. Wait a minute? Isn't it a story about love? The Bureau tries to control David Norris' choices, to make him not fall in love with Elise, but no matter what they do, they can't stop it. Isn't it a story about the triumph of free will? But, if you are thinking this, you didn't watch carefully enough. The Bureau never does anything to David's brain--his reason, emotions, or personality. They simply threaten to reset him (wipe his brain clean) if he ever sees her again, which would eliminate his love for Elise. In fact, the only reason that the pull between David and Elise is so strong (and the reason they keep running into each other) is because an earlier version of the plan had dictated that they be together. So not even their initial attraction has anything to do with free will.

If you want a philosophical movie that deals with free will, and how our ability to love might make us free; or, at least, make us human, go watch Dark City. (A great flick!) But the Adjustment Bureau is not that movie. It might be a movie about the triumph of love, but it is not one about the triumph of free will. It's view of humanity is much more mechanistic; much more materialistic.

One might think that such a view of human nature is ridiculous, but it is the view that more and more academics, especially philosophers, especially scientists, especially neuroscientists, are embracing.

Why? More on that later.

Copyright: David Kyle Johnson

David Kyle Johnson, Ph.D., is an associate professor of philosophy at King's College in Pennsylvania.

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