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The Adjustment Bureau

Nathan Jacobson autopsies The Adjustment Bureau, directed and written by George Nolfi (Universal Pictures: March 4, 2011).

Into the ever-expanding catalog1 of films predicated on our anxiety about the extent of our free will, enter The Adjustment Bureau, perhaps the most cerebral and ambivalent of the lot. The film envisions a world in which human action is directed, though not quite determined, by a confluence of chance, free will, and the nearly ubiquitous superintendency of “The Chairman”, a quasi-religious, mysterious power that influences human actions through the intervention of a minion of “clerks” who alter circumstances (and occasionally thought patterns) in order to keep the course of human events in line with “The Plan”. This is not, as some have supposed, a film about human pawns and a grandmaster who determines their fate. Rather, The Adjustment Bureau explores how the course of human events might be guided or “nudged” by such a master when the chess pieces themselves are free agents pursuing their own ends. As it turns out, this decidedly more difficult endeavor requires constant “caretaking” or “meddling”. The film itself remains surprisingly ambivalent toward this state of affairs and offers a provocative and nuanced picture of human agency, of our wills as simultaneously malleable and free. Indeed, the various kinds of interventions in The Adjustment Bureau provide a backdrop for considering just what should and should not be considered a violation of the will. Finally, though it wisely avoids any explicit religious references, the film portrays a world that bears a striking resemblance to a particular theological proposal regarding the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human free will, namely open theism.

The clerks who do the Chairman’s bidding in The Adjustment Bureau engage in several forms of “course correction”, some more and some less problematic for our common notions of human free will. I have classified them as adjustments to reasoning, adjustments to circumstance, and adjustments to the self. Let’s consider them in order, from the least problematic to the most.

Adjustments to Reasoning

The ambivalence of The Adjustment Bureau is expressed most clearly in one particular character: Thompson, “The Hammer” (Terence Stamp). Numerous attempts by a cavalry of work-a-day clerks to bring David Norris (Matt Damon) back in line have failed. The Hammer is brought in to put a final stop to our protagonist’s deviations. His appearance is anticipated with much gravity, for he has earned his reputation, we are told, with his forceful ability to rectify the wayward. But when The Hammer finally arrives on scene, his approach is not at all what we might have expected. In a cavernous urban warehouse, The Hammer greets Norris and then… reasons with himInstead of strong-arming or coercing Damon with some form of violence or an irresistible mechanism, The Hammer offers the rationale for The Plan and outlines the undesirable consequences that will ensue if it isn’t followed. The persuasive effect is forceful to be sure, but there is no coercion here. With respect to the central question of free will, this encounter is telling. For the philosophical libertarian, an essential attribute of free will is that free persons act as they do for the sake of ends, not merely as the product of causes. By appealing to Norris’ reason, and in particular to consequence, The Hammer engages him as just such a free and rational creature.

Here, by way of Norris’ perturbed questions and The Hammer’s forceful answers, the film explicitly articulates the rationale for The Plan. Norris asks why The Bureau does not simply leave humankind to its own affairs. “What about free will?”, he asks directly. The Hammer responds: “You do not have free will. You have the appearance of free will.” The Hammer elaborates. It has been tried, each time to disastrous effect. After nurturing humanity from its hunting and gathering days up through the Roman Empire, The Bureau stepped back only to see “The Dark Ages” ensue. It intervened to bring about the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, but once again, given the chance to stand on our own, we delivered the Depression, two World Wars, and the near annihilation of civilization in the Cuban Missile Crisis. One could object to this hackneyed retelling of humanity’s highlights and lowlights, but the point is that, at least for The Bureau, its constant intervention is motivated by the need to protect humanity from its worst excesses, its most horrific acts. The Bureau, paternalistic though it may be, is driven by a desire to steer history away from the cliff. This overarching goal has a very specific application in the case of David Norris. He has been chosen to play a decisive role to that end as the eventual president of the United States. In all likelihood, his relationship with Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt), by whom he is smitten, will result in the failure of both his political and her terpsichorean dreams. In brief, The Hammer’s argument goes: if Norris persists in his deviation from The Plan, the consequences will be devastating on both a personal and national level. Norris is persuaded, for a time, and he leaves Sellas. Time passes and we see his political ambitions and her dancing career coming to fruition, just as The Hammer had predicted.

Though I take The Hammer’s deference to persuasion to be indicative of The Bureau’s reticence to use coercion, The Hammer remains a dubious character, representing an attitude of expedience on behalf of The Plan in other respects. He is juxtaposed by another clerk, Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie). Mitchell is the case manager assigned to Norris. Later in the film, Mitchell claims that The Hammer lied when he told Norris that it was Sellas’ carefree whimsy that would have derailed his career by unleashing his self-destructive recklessness. Mitchell suggests instead that it is because Norris would have found contentment in her, losing the restive, lonely spirit that was driving his political ambition. These conflicting claims raise the question of whether at least some of the clerks are willing to lie, to justify means for the sake of ends. During Norris’ initial encounter with The Bureau, we overhear a conversation about a previous case, the “Taurus Case”, in which The Bureau attempted to lie to the subject for years before finally leveling with him. The Bureau’s apparent willingness to employ deception is due cause to be wary of their interventions. Whether The Hammer’s appeal to Norris can be justified depends largely on whether his claims are in fact true. His deception would not constitute the negation of Norris’ free will — his decision would be an ill-informed decision, but a decision nonetheless — but The Bureau’s moral framework is left in question. In any case, the fundamental predictions of The Hammer’s narrative are substantiated as the plot continues, and Norris himself is satisfied that The Hammer told it to him straight, more or less. That being the case, Norris’ ultimate decision to spurn The Plan for the sake of his love for Sellas is itself questionable. If, in fact, the course of human history is hanging in the balance, with disaster on one side and human flourishing on the other; and if, in fact, Norris’ ascendancy to the presidency is pivotal to the outcome and incompatible with his relationship with Sellas; in such a scenario, well, his choice of love is a selfish if understandable one. The Bureau, it would seem, is acting on behalf of communal interest whereas Norris is acting in his own. The one versus the many. I dare say, given those options, most of us would prefer that Norris choose to realign himself with The Plan and avert a future of perpetual strife and poverty. The filmmakers, however, would have us sympathize with Norris, so we don’t see the blighted future resulting from his personal love story. Fortunately, it turns out The Bureau has contingency plans.

Adjustments to Circumstance

The chain of events the film recounts are set in motion by the smallest clerical error. Mitchell dozes off and fails to cause a spilt coffee. Thereby, he also fails to delay Norris’ arrival at his day job. Because Norris arrives on time, he witnesses a rather disturbing adjustment of his coworkers in process. He sees behind the curtain, necessitating The Bureau’s disclosures to him about their existence and activities. Now, it may be unnerving to recognize the extent to which one’s course in life is determined by happenstance, by spilt coffees, but there is no denying it. From the day we are born (where, when, and to whom) to the day we die, the options available to us are often not of our choosing. You could not choose to be an astronaut in 1800, or a gladiator in 2010. You cannot choose rich parents or poor, Caucasian or Latino. The vagaries of life are also determinative. We happen to meet someone we could easily have missed and eventually marry them. You make a split decision to run a yellow light and a reckless driver t-bones you in the intersection resulting in paralysis. You choose the chicken instead of the fish, which happens to be bad, and the resulting food poisoning ruins the mood. You forego the anticipated lovemaking and the child that would have been conceived is not. Decisive junctures in our lives hang on the smallest variations in circumstance. I am reminded of the “butterfly effect”, that in a dynamic system the slightest difference in initial conditions can result in widely divergent outcomes. The givens of life limit the roads we may travel, and many of the forks on that road are laid by forces outside of our control. It has been well said that freedom of the will is not in choosing our circumstances, but in choosing what we will do in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Even if we come to peace with the role of chance in our lives, what of the engineered circumstances in The Adjustment Bureau? That someone or something is orchestrating the circumstances in which we find ourselves is perhaps more troubling. Serendipity or luck is one thing, providence or fate quite another. But this too bears a second thought. Good parents and governments, for example, engage in benign forms of such engineering as a matter of responsibility. A mother doesn’t offer candy at dinner, though undoubtedly her child would choose it over the veggies if the option was available. Piano lessons instead of piling rocks, sports instead of the Playstation, one school or neighborhood over another… such carefully chosen circumstances are designed to steer a child toward one of several favored outcomes by curating the available options. Especially to the extent that parents are sensitive to the natural desires and aptitudes of their child, such engineering can be a good thing. In this regard, it is worth noting that The Chairman’s plan for Norris is in accord with his aptitudes and aspirations. Of course, both parents and governments can be too constrictive, as when governments are accused of “social engineering” or parents of living vicariously through their children. There will always be debate about just which affairs authorities ought to have a role in, but it seems, as in most things, there is a balance, a range wherein our adjustments are blameless.

But lest such circumstance engineering be thought operative only in the spheres of parenting and governing, I hasten to add that this state of affairs is in fact the norm in virtually all of life. We are constantly erecting incentives and disincentives, opening doors and closing others, making some choices more appealing and others less so. We make choices about where to build roads. We make laws. We tax tobacco. We wear perfume or cologne. We seat our niece adjacent to an eligible bachelor at the Thanksgiving table. We advertise. We give ultimatums to our enemies, to our lovers. Every time we open our mouths or step out the door we are adjusting our environment with some consequence and usually with some end in mind. The arena of human affairs is an unceasing competition or concert of wills. In a cleverly written and well delivered concession speech early in the film, Norris confesses to this reality in politics. Going off script, he observes that in spite of his reputation for “authenticity”, his political persona was precisely crafted to appeal to the widest swath of voters. He jokes that his red and blue tie was hand-picked from fifty-six other rejected ties. A yellow tie would cause some voters to think him not serious, a sliver tie that he had forgotten his hard-scrabble Brooklyn roots. He notes that his campaign had paid a consultant $7200 to determine the perfect amount of scuffing on his shoes to convey exactly the right balance of professionalism on the one hand and hard work on the other. One is reminded of Barack Obama’s early reluctance to pander by wearing the politician’s standard issue, American flag lapel pin. Ironically, by so candidly pulling back the curtains on his campaign, Norris endears himself to the voters and sets himself up for his next campaign. But the implication is clear, whatever Norris chose to say or do, it would influence the choices of New York voters. His actions, his own adjustments to circumstance, are an imposition on the wills of others.

This state of affairs in which our wills are cajoled, enticed, obstructed, prevailed upon, resisted, encouraged, and discouraged from every direction — be it by chance circumstance or the intentional actions of another — is the epic arena of our wills, not their negation. The alternative — a world that in no way limited or favored our options, a world that lacked constraints or consequence — would not make us more free. Such a world of vast emptiness would make us entirely impotent. To exist is to be one thing and not another. There is no possible world where we have capacities without limitations. God, say the philosophers, cannot choose not to exist. Moreover, because we prize our wills so, we do not clear the field. We test them. In football, we set a goal, populate the field with obstacles, and draw up boundaries and rules. We invented the marathon, a Herculean test of will, and countless other artificial trials in order to discover the most tireless wills among us. Or take love. You may win my heart, but only if you woo me relentlessly. I want to know your heart is true and your desire strong. Take trust. You may perform heart surgery on me, but only if you have surmounted medical school, demonstrating a disciplined will over many years. Life is a test of will.

The critical issue is whether the will can be influenced without being coerced. Our experience of our own decision making is the reason we think this distinction is real. If a friend casually asks me if, perchance, it would be convenient for me to drive them to the airport, it may be easy to say no. If that same friend implores me to do so, it may be very difficult to say no. We feel weight in the choices that present themselves to us. Some choices are light. Others heavy. And even when deliberating over a choice of the utmost gravity, we sense the ability to resist the force of a given option. For the determinist, The Hammer is right. This intimately felt intuition is illusory, only an “appearance”. In reality, whichever option we ultimately choose was irresistible from the start, even if it felt as though it lightly and politely appealed to us. There is nothing in me that can tip the scale against the weight of circumstance in and around me. For the determinist, inputs determine outputs. When I hit the “j” key on my keyboard, my computer inevitably displays a “j”, according to its programming. If I alter circumstance, typing an “m” instead, I force my computer to perform a different action, to display an “m”. Because it possesses no will, no countervailing force, to adjust it is also to coerce it. The only scenario in which it makes sense to maintain a fundamental distinction between persuasive versus coercive kinds of adjustments to circumstance is if our wills are not irresistibly determined by them.

The point is this. Adjustment of circumstance is the inescapable and ethical way to press upon the will of a free person. This is not to say that there are not more and less ethical ways to appeal to another. Kindness, forthrightness, and other virtues of interpersonal engagement should govern our appeals. It is only to say that our own adjustments in word and deed are the only recourse we have to appeal to another, and many of our appeals are not only blameless but praiseworthy.

For the most part, The Chairman and his clerks in The Adjustment Bureau limit themselves to adjustments to circumstance, though at times to a powerful degree. The film’s centerpiece action sequence is illustrative. Having resolved to see Sellas against The Chairman’s wishes, an army of clerks is enlisted to obstruct Norris’ odyssey across town to meet her. Traffic lights turn red, cell phones and land lines in his vicinity are disabled, a taxi he hails is abruptly side-swiped by another vehicle. In spite of the gauntlet of obstacles thrown in his path by the clerks, one thing does not happen. His chosen course, his resolute will, is not irresistibly flipped by some interior or metaphysical means by The Chairman. Such a coercive kind of course correction is either beyond The Chairman’s power or his principles. We have reason to believe it is the latter. The clerks inform us that their powers are deliberately limited. Their adjustments cannot exceed a certain quota of ripple effects. Their awareness of human intentions is stifled by water. And, in a somewhat silly contrivance, their sundry powers are lost if they drop their fedoras. It seems that The Chairman prefers to limit the extent of intervention when possible. It’s why, probably, the majority of adjustments involve trivialities like spilt coffee and dropped phone calls. Minimal ripples. On the other hand, in an ominous conversation, Mitchell intimates to Norris that the death of his parents while he was still young was the work of The Chairman, all part of The Plan. One wonders if an intervention of such tragic magnitude can be sufficiently justified.

Adjustments to the Self?

We come, finally, to the most dubious of the clerks’ course corrections. For C. S. Lewis, for example, this kind of divine interference was the most troubling of possibilities.

No word in my vocabulary expressed deeper hatred than the word Interference. But Christianity placed at the center what then seemed to me a sort of transcendental Interferer. If its picture were true then no sort of “treaty with reality” could ever be possible. There was no region even in the innermost depth of one’s soul (nay, there least of all) which one could surround with a barbed wire fence and guard with a notice No Admittance. (Surprised by Joy, 1955)

The involuntary thought adjustment of Norris’ business partner and campaign manager appears to be just such an interference. Norris arrives at their office earlier than “planned” and witnesses a team of clerks attending to Charlie Traynor (Michael Kelly) while he is in a frozen, passive state. My initial impression was that this adjustment was by means of a mechanical and direct interference with Traynor’s brain. On a second viewing, I noticed that though the clerks are using some apparatus, presumably with some effect on his physical body, the idea they are adjusting is being imparted aurally, utilizing instead of circumventing Traynor’s senses. It is not clear exactly what is underway, but it is possible that the process is akin to hypnosis, in which the subject is especially prone to suggestion, but, we are told, not entirely defenseless against it. I am reminded too of Inception, wherein the body is breached but the inception team cannot simply override the subject’s beliefs. It can only subtly prompt and suggest a new belief, a belief that in the end the subject must come to on his own. Once again, in The Adjustment Bureau, the exposition is ambivalent about the true nature of this adjustment. Mitchell and another clerk offer conflicting accounts. Richardson (John Slatterly) says they attempt to help you change your own mind, but if that fails, they change it for you. Mitchell’s interpretation is more circumspect. I do not recall the precise dialogue, but in his words, the clerks make slight alterations to reasoning. They cannot, and therefore do not, access feelings or convictions. He adds, “That would be too invasive.” In this exchange in particular we have an explicit indication that the filmmakers — as well as The Chairman — are preoccupied by the subject of this autopsy, by just what constitutes an overreach against our wills.

Four aspects of this particular adjustment raise alarm. First, that the subject is made passive, perhaps unable to resist. Second, that the subject’s personal space, his own body, is perhaps invaded. Third, that the adjustment is surreptitious, that it is performed while the subject is unawares. And finally, that the adjustment is involuntary. Nevertheless, here too I want to propose, with caution, that such an adjustment may not constitute the negation of an agent’s will.

A peculiar thing about many of our thoughts is the spontaneous nature of their generation. They occur to us, they happen to us. They often emerge from my subconscious, both in dreams and waking life, unsolicited and unexpectedly. Behold creative inspiration. However, once such a thought has entered the theater of my mind, I have the ability to entertain it, or dismiss it. Indeed, this is our most basic freedom, the freedom to choose what we will dwell on. With that in mind, we can entertain the possibility that The Bureau’s adjustment in this case may have been the introduction of a suggestion or a thought without being a revocation of Traynor’s will. In the film, the issue at hand is that Traynor thinks the price point of investing in a particular green technology is too high. What if the idea The Bureau introduced into Traynor’s thinking was an insight into the possible return on investment, which, upon reflection, led him to reconsider whether the price was too high after all? What if it was a greater awareness of the impending consequences of our dependence on carbon fuels? Again, the parallels in everyday life are perhaps instructive. We place great hope in the power of education. Whatever cause we are invested in, whether it be mitigating anthropogenic global warming or fighting breast cancer, we believe that if only we could impart this or that truth to others, they may come around and join us in our cause. We print pamphlets, buy bullhorns, build websites, and establish think tanks in order to get the message out, hoping that if we can introduce some critical pieces of information, others will change their minds, and subsequently, their actions. We do not regard these endeavors as the slightest violation of their wills. On the contrary, we consider our educational efforts a service. And so, the devil is in the details. If The Bureau “changes your mind” in the colloquial sense of changing a resolved course of action you have chosen, their adjustment can only be regarded as a trespass of the will. If, on the other hand, The Bureau is introducing supplementary thoughts and ideas that merely serve to inform the will, their adjustment is akin to an entirely commendable kind of persuasion.

What of the violation of the body? I have already noted that it is quite possible that the clerks do not inject themselves into Traynor’s thoughts by a direct adjustment to his brain. But what if they had? Suppose that some day in the future we make contact with an alien race and because of the audible frequency or amplitude at which they speak we cannot communicate via the normal means of our senses. We discover, however, that by wiring our brains together with a kind of translator that stimulates the brain in the way our senses do, we can communicate directly. It would seem, in such an event, that though my epidermis had been breached, this form of communication need not be any more coercive than our normal modes of communication. This prospect, I should note, is no idle fancy. We have already managed to translate simple brain signals into commands for artificial limbs. It is not science fiction to imagine a day in the not too distant future when simple thoughts could be relayed directly from one human brain to another, if it hasn’t already been accomplished. So far I have avoided any religious parallels suggested by our story, preferring to save that for the end. But here, a common religious belief cannot be avoided, namely, that God often communicates and communes directly with the soul. Whether or not this belief is ever true, it is worth considering how believers regard this supposed interaction, and it is immediately apparent that in most instances it is not considered an unwelcome imposition at all. Indeed, it is sought after in prayer. We read of some instances in which the encounter is described as overpowering, such as Paul on the road to Damascus and in the writings of some mystics. For the most part, the descriptive language is the opposite. In Christianity, for example, the Spirit who so communes is described as a helper, teacher, comforter, reminder, and guide. When speaking to Elijah, we read, God’s voice was not in the tornado, nor in the earthquake or fire, but rather in a “still small voice”. For the Christian, then, the direct and unbodily interaction with another being contains the same duality of persuasive and coercive engagement that we find in our mediated interactions with others. If an adjustment is to be a violation of our autonomy, the directness of engagement with the self is not, it appears, the determinative issue.

The justified concern here, it seems to me, is that this particular adjustment is at once surreptitious and involuntary. Traynor is decommissioned and recalibrated without his consent and without his knowledge. There are, again, parallels in life, and in this case we are not indifferent to machinations carried out in the dark. Back room deals, secret informants, special provisions slipped into the tax code… we recoil at such Machiavellian realpolitik. We naturally suspect that what is carried on in the dark is done there because if it was brought into the light we would regard it as unjustified. We do allow for some secrecy to the extent that we trust our representatives, but there is a tacit approval in our awareness of such classified goings-on. In Traynor’s case, no such approval is apparent. One might hope that Traynor had resolved for himself that if he was in the wrong, he was willing to be corrected, but couldn’t a more transparent means of adjustment be employed in such a case. In the end, little can be said to diminish our unease at this particular adjustment. Norris’  horrified reaction would be our own.

The essential issue is what, exactly, is the self. Here too the determinist versus libertarian account of the will is in play. On the libertarian view, the willing self has a body, beliefs, emotions, and desires. The self is not identical to its body, beliefs, emotions, and desires. On this view, The Chairman and others may implicate themselves in our minds and bodies without bearing the responsiblity of turning our wills. For the determinist, the will just is a nexus of my body, beliefs, and desires, plus whatever forces are operative in my vicinity. To meddle with circumstance or my brain, it matters not which, is to irrevocably turn my will toward whatever course I take.

Halfway Ambivalent

I have several times referred to the film’s point of view toward The Chairman as ambivalent, expressed in particular in Mitchell’s and Thompson’s conflicting accounts of The Chairman’s modus operandi. The film is not ambivalent, however, about the supreme value of free will or toward Norris’ insistence on preserving his own chosen course through life. In this regard, the film is not at all faithful to its source material. The Adjustment Bureau is loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s very short story, “The Adjustment Team”. In Dick’s original work, the protagonist’s encounter with The Bureau results in his willing and total obeisance. Terrified, Ed tells his wife: “The Hell with it! After what I saw? Listen, Ruth. I saw the fabric of reality split open. I saw — behind. Underneath. I saw what was really there. And I don’t want to go back. … Ever.” When Ed realizes that his first encounter with The Bureau was not a delusion, when he notices the slight adjustments to reality: “He froze rigid. The inner office — it was changed. The hackles of his neck rose. Cold fear gripped him, clutching at his windpipe.” Unlike the willful Norris, Ed is overcome by fear and is all too eager to fall back in line, swearing that he’ll never tell a soul. There are, however, similarities. The “Old Man” and his clerks are less than sympathetic characters. The adjusters are tired, exhausted by the effort required to stay apace with the ever changing matrix of human actions and by course correcting them toward the desired outcome. The Old Man’s rationale for their adjustments is much like The Hammer’s. Ed asks: “What was it for? I’m sure it was some worthwhile purpose.” The Old Man replies, “it must be done. For the good of all. For your good.” He proceeds to detail a chain of events, how, as a result of the adjustment, a real estate deal handled by Ed’s office will ultimately blossom into an international collaboration of scientists that will defuse the tension between the Soviets and the West. (“The Adjustment Team” was published in 1954.) I should note that, having read the short story, what the filmmakers have done with the seed of an idea therein is truly remarkable. Their world is far richer, their Bureau more intriguing, their characters more compelling. Plus, the viewer is rewarded with a happy ending, the triumph of love and of the will. What remains from the original, though, is Dick’s ambivalence toward The Bureau. Their activities are justified by worthwhile ends, but their methods are questionable and the clerks themselves are unsavory.

The film’s ambivalence toward The Bureau is made possible by its exclusion of morally hazardous choices in the stories of its protagonists. The choices at which The Bureau directs its adjustments are morally neutral, or nearly so. Should Norris continue to pursue his political career or retire to private life? Should he and Sellas continue their relationship or go their separate ways? Though profoundly significant to those involved, these are not choices between good and evil. Traynor’s deliberation about investing in green technology has perhaps an ethical dimension, but not unambiguously so. Had the film included instances of The Bureau inducing a character into a wicked act, any ambivalence we may have had would evaporate. Those are means we would not abide. The Bureau’s ethical standing is already compromised by its willingness to employ deception. It is telling that the filmmakers do no tread there, preferring to maintain some degree of irresolution regarding The Bureau’s interventions.

Whatever ambivalence the film maintains toward The Bureau, it should be clear that on the whole it endorses a robust sense of human free will. This is most clearly evident in the resolution of David Norris’ storyline. The reason he cannot ultimately be brought in line with The Plan is because his will power overcomes each of the many obstacles thrown in his path. As a result, The Chairman alters the plan out of necessity, or out of respect for his persistence. And, in the lamest scene in the film, we see that his future life is now an open book. The literally blank page we see implies, unintentionally I hope, an impossibility, that his future actions will no longer intersect with the lives of others. More charitably, the intention is to show that his role in The Plan is from that point forward unscripted.

I resonate with the film’s insistence on free will. I am an incorrigible incompatibilist, unable to conceive of predetermined events as morally responsible and significant acts. To my mind, if determined, we are inescapably and drastically reduced to passive, albeit conscious, carriers of causation. It is my deepest hope that The Hammer is wrong, that my self-awareness is revelatory rather than illusory, that my experience of a deliberative and freely willing self is indicative of a real, if inscrutable, faculty at my core. That being said, the plausibility of free will is often undercut by a naive view of the will, that it must be entirely unencumbered and cannot admit degrees or yield probabilities. This mistaken view is why, I suspect, some have come away from the film with the impression that The Bureau’s interventions are necessarily violations of our wills. For some, if The Bureau’s adjustments have any suasion over my course of action, then I did not act freely. This is why I take The Adjustment Bureau to be such a salutary contribution to the literature on this perennial subject. It provides pictures of a variety of kinds of engagement with the will without judging in each case whether they constitue a negation of the will.

The best way to think of The Bureau’s interaction with Norris is as a competition of wills, The Chairman’s will expressed in The Plan and Norris’ will in his resolute choice to be with Sellas. It is not a story of an active and powerful agent acting upon a passive and impotent recipient, not of a determiner and the determined. It is true that The Chairman has far greater powers and resources to bring to bear in this contest of wills, but even still, Norris is able to resist. As I have argued, this state of affairs is similar in kind, if not in degree, to the countless interactions with others that we navigate every day. In our terrestrial lives as well, there are great disparities in the resources each individual has at her disposal in service of her will. But as long as we possess a will that is able to counter the pressures exerted on it by an equal exertion of will power, those disparities can be levelled. It is the will that can make otherwise powerless individuals forces to be reckoned with.

Adjustments to Theism

By keeping explicitly religious actors from the stage, The Adjustment Bureau does us a great service, inviting us to consider the rightful boundaries of our wills in a more neutral context. For example, the ambiguous identity of The Bureau prompts reflection on the appropriate actions of large institutions, companies, campaigns, and governments whose reach into our lives is similarly powerful and pervasive. Nike, Exxon, the World Bank, the Catholic Church, your local city council; such “bureaus” are thoroughly entangled in the course of history and in our personal lives. Their activities are of great consequence for millions, and it is incumbent upon them to wield their great power responsibly, without running roughshod over the life stories of individuals. Like The Chairman, presidents and CEOs should evaluate their decisions with an eye toward how invasive or coercive the result. Like the clerks, each of us ought to appreciate the influence our words and actions have in the lives of others, and accordingly, to regard them not as isolated acts but as choices of great significance.

The ambiguous identity of The Bureau notwithstanding, religious allusions are inescapable. Mitchell concedes that the clerks are what some have called angels. When referring to The Chairman, he glances skyward, toward “the heavens”. The Chairman has been around for thousands of years at least. If The Chairman is transcendent, is in some sense divine, we naturally wonder if this picture of his involvement in human affairs comports with what we would expect or want from such a being.

In the current landscape of theological reflection on the sovereignty of God, three views of God’s relationship to history are at the forefront of discussion. In the tradition of Augustine, Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards, theological determinism regards God’s sovereignty over human affairs as meticulous, complete, and unilateral. On this view, (libertarian) free will is an illusion. A second view, Molinism, concurs that God’s sovereignty is meticulous and complete, but it is not unilateral. God lays out history and his involvement in it by taking into account what we as agents in our own right will freely do in the circumstances presented to us. God is able to establish the future in virtue of a remarkable faculty called “middle knowledge” by which he knows the counterfactuals of freedom, that is, not only what we will do in a given circumstance, but also what we would do in an alternate circumstance. Furthermore, because God is omniscient, God knows the outcome of our free choices before we make them, without determining them. Though Molinism preserves free will, on both of these views, the future is settled. A third view is known as open theism, “open” because it regards at least some of the future as unsettled, as open. This is a necessary corollary, it is argued, of our being endowed with free will. Open theists maintain that God’s capacity for meticulous and complete control remains, but that God chooses to limit his sovereign control in order to create space for free creatures like ourselves, creatures with whom he can then enjoy love and communion, relations which are, on this view, necessarily bilateral and undetermined.

Several aspects of the world envisioned in The Adjustment Bureau invite comparison to Open Theism, though certainly not all. Open theists would surely object to any unscrupulous machinations like outright deception employed by clerks, or angels, on God’s behalf. To start, it is clear that the future in The Adjustment Bureau is unsettled. The Chairman adjusts The Plan after failing to bring Norris back in line, but we also learn that The Plan had already been revised multiple times. In several previous versions Norris and Sellas were intended to be together. Open theists believe that certain features of the future can be guaranteed, such as those depending on God’s own acts in history. Moreover, God has the capacity to guide human history to a large extent while preserving our free will, perhaps in ways similar to what we see in the film. Nevertheless, many aspects of the human story are a collaborative endeavor, involving both the will of God and our own free choices. Secondly, open theists believe that God is responsive to our entreaties. They take literally some passages in the Bible where God is said to have “changed his mind” in response to a human appeal. Third, like the God of open theism, The Chairman knows much, but does not know with certainty the outcome of his interventions into human life. We are told explicitly that the clerks cannot read minds, in spite of a trick Robinson employs to make it seem that they can. What they can do is “perceive your decision tree”. Perhaps The Chairman is similarly limited, unable to see past a free creaturely choice, and therefore only able to predict the outcome with a level of probability.

On the whole, the picture of divine-human interaction in The Adjustment Bureau is highly suggestive of the collaborative picture of history making we find in open theism, but some important differences remain. Many deists, like Thomas Paine, and others have regarded the notion of God remaining active in the timeline he set in motion as quite distasteful. It implies to them that somehow God must have gotten it wrong when he wound up the clock, requiring the constant adjustments. But if the world does not proceed along deterministic, mechanistic lines it cannot be “wound up” with such precision in principle. Furthermore, if God’s reason for creating is the desire to be in relationship with his creatures, it makes no sense for him to remain uninvolved and inaccessible, behind the veil. Unlike The Chairman, in each of the views of divine providence mentioned above, God desires to be known, if only in part. The Chairman’s involvement is apparently motivated only by the need to steer human history toward the good. That is likewise true for open theism. After creation and the Fall, the biblical story is one of God securing our redemption and final restoration by his acts in history. But, in addition, the summum bonum is reconciliation and fellowship with our creator, and so we would expect God to be more forthcoming than The Chairman. For Christians, this willingness to be known is instantiated most decisively in God’s self-disclosure in the person of Jesus. Additionally, on this view the will of God is not hidden away in the clerks’ notebooks but is largely revealed by God’s many revelations recorded in scripture. Finally, theists of all varieties are committed above all to the intrinsic and unsurpassable goodness of God. While The Chairman and his minions appear at times to be feckless and morally compromised, no such inadequacy is thought to characterize God. A primary bone of contention between theological determinists and both views that preserve human agency is whether on theological determinism God is of necessity the “author” of human evil. Theological determinists deny, of course, that such a conclusion follows, but this central concern underscores the importance to each of them that God be righteous, the paragon of the good.

Lobotomy or Hell

I have neglected to discuss the most ominous of The Bureau’s attempted course corrections, the threat of lobotomy. Surely, if anything in our story is a violation of the will, such a grave threat must be. Either conform or we will erase all your memories and sense of self. It is, essentially, the threat of death. Here it is vital to maintain a distinction between freedom and free will. I have written of this distinction at length elsewhere. To rob Norris of his life and liberty would surely be an evil act without sufficient justification. Still, every revolutionary who has rushed the barricades, every martyr who has refused to recant, is witness to the will’s ability to resist even this greatest pressure, at least until their very lives are snuffed out. It is in almost all cases evil to deny someone their life or liberty, but it is not the threat but death that extinguishes the will. Or, does it?

Watching the film, I could not help but think of the parallel with Christianity’s most controversial tenet, the prospect of Hell for those who violate God’s will and do not avoid said fate by faith in Jesus Christ. I do not intend to delve into the many difficult and sensitive issues surrounding this particular doctrine. Rather, I want to consider it only with respect to its implications for free will. On the one hand, many critics of Christianity consider the threat of Hell to be an unjustifiable imposition on our ability to freely reject or accept Christ. There’s no question that the threat of Hell weighs heavily enough in the minds of some that it influences their religious allegiance. It’s why, probably, you have many avowed Christians who make no serious attempt to follow Christ but check in just enough to ensure their “fire insurance” is current, so to speak. On the other hand, many Christians have regarded Hell as an ultimate and lasting testament to God’s respect for our free will. Even in the next life, God does not subdue those who choose not to live under his rule, those who would rather “reign in Hell”, as the saying goes. Well, which is it?

It is demonstrably the case that whatever role the threat of Hell plays in our deliberations about Jesus, it is at least not so fearsome a threat as to be irresistible. Many do in fact resist. The primary reason for this, I suspect, is that until one has embraced the claims of Jesus as describing reality, the threat just is not credible. A recognition of Jesus’ authority to speak on the afterlife is a prerequisite of such a threat having force. Indeed, for those considering the credibility of Christian truth claims, the doctrine of Hell is just as likely to diminish the likelihood of belief, offensive as it is to our belief that a punishment must fit the crime. The threat of Hell evidently does not eliminate our ability to respond freely to the claims of Jesus, though, if taken seriously, it does imbue the choice with the utmost gravity. Even if, as Christian apologists argue, the historical evidence for Jesus having risen from the dead is solid and thereby a vindication of his authority, it clearly is not so overwhelming that it cannot be dismissed. Indeed, some Christian philosophers have suggested that the reason the evidence is tenuous is precisely because God wanted to preserve our ability to reject his rule. If we were undeniably confronted by the creator of a universe as vast as ours, it is quite likely we would succumb to any threat out of abject fear. But, if what God desires is a free surrender to his rule motivated by love and worship, it perhaps requires a certain distance or hiddenness. So, though the threat of Hell could be sufficient to overpower our ability to reject Jesus as Christ, as things stand, the threat is veiled by a sufficient level of uncertainty that by all appearances it is not coercive. Many do not even give it a second thought. In this respect, the threat delivered to Norris has more immediacy by far, for the threat is delivered directly, and he is well aware of The Bureau’s powers.

What of the supposition that Hell is a lasting testament to, perhaps even a necessity of, our free will? Generally speaking, we are not altogether ill-disposed to the prospect of a final judgment, as long as we are graded on a curve. It is the biblical imagery of Hell as a fiery, insufferable, and everlasting fate that is so at odds with our sense of a just reckoning. Construed merely as a choice between eternal bliss and eternal misery, it is inconceivable that anyone would choose the latter. If it is possible, set to the side for the moment the horrific imagery portrayed so graphically in medieval frescoes, in the fearsome prose of Jonathan Edwards, and in the Bible itself. To understand the notion that Hell may be a requisite of our free will, one has to understand the biblical notion of Heaven. By far the most prominent theme in the teachings of Jesus is his call to turn from our ways and instead pursue the “Kingdom of God”, a path characterized by love (i.e. other-centeredness) and submission to God’s rule (i.e. relinquishing our autonomy). This path begins in the here and now and continues in the afterlife. It is an appeal to our wills, a call to a decisive course correction. Understood in this way, it is not hard to imagine some rejecting such a death to the self. Nietzsche and Christopher Hitchens, for example, have voiced their disgust at such a heaven in no uncertain terms. Hitchens likens it to the blind subservience of North Koreans to their “dear leader”. If we are made by nature to survive death, some province for those who reject this call to selfless submission to God and each other is needed. One can imagine that such a place, where the will to power predominates, would be a dreadful destination, not entirely dissimilar to our earthly state of affairs. Nevertheless, our chosen course — whether to be ruled by God or to rule ourselves — is preserved, either in Heaven or in Hell.

Seen in this light, recall the question I raised about the praiseworthiness of Norris’ defiance of The Plan. Matt Damon’s David Norris is an exceedingly likable character. His relationship with Sellas is charming, their repartee clever and natural. It’s impossible not to root for them, especially when they are at odds with such an unlikable lot of clerks. Crucially, we do not see any ill-effect from their choices. Still, when the storytelling devices used to locate our sympathies are stripped away, Norris’ stubborn choice is to satisfy his longing for Sellas at the expense of his fellow citizens. Consider by contrast the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.. He too stood at a fulcrum of history. He felt called by God to play the pivotal role he did in the civil rights movement to our great benefit, but at great personal sacrifice. King always longed to live a quiet life pastoring a church, but instead he carried the mantle of non-violent resistance against inequality, a cause that left him constantly on the brink of exhaustion and which ultimately cost him his life. If you find yourself sympathetic to Norris’ insistence on fulfilling his own desires, on his own will being done, as I am; if you find King’s self-denial in deference to what he perceived to be the will of God challenging; then perhaps you understand the radical call of Jesus. At just such a pivotal moment in the life of Jesus, when the path to the cross had been set in motion, Jesus pleaded with God for another course. The resolution of that conversation, we are told, was his willing self-denial: “Not my will, but your will be done.”


1 A litany of films explore the themes we find in The Adjustment Bureau. Here are some: Pleasantville, The Truman Show, Cider House Rules, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, They Live, Bruce Almighty and Evan Almighty, City of Angels.