Friday night we saw Adjustment Bureau with Matt Damon and Emily Oivia Leah Blunt. In the film, a romantic suspense drama, Damon stumbles on the fact that a group of beings are charged with keeping humanity on a plan written by “the Chairman,” who one gets the impression is the equivalent of God. Vague about the details, these “adjusters” come in and make subtle changes in our minds and situations, forging coincidences, changes of mind (though they can’t mess with personality and emotion — they can only subtly adjust how people reason) and use probability to make sure humanity doesn’t veer from the plan.
It’s not like there is no free will. As long as we are not causing events which cause the plan for humanity as a whole to progress as expected we can make lots of different choices. We have a lot of choice, but we cannot defy fate — if one is meant to play a particular role, that will happen one way or another.
Yet it had an interesting twist. When Matt Damon asks about free will, he’s told that they tried that. At the height of the Roman Empire “they” decided humans could try it on their own. The dark ages resulted and civilization collapsed. So they intervened again and gave us the enlightenment, and in 1910 decided to let us try it on our own. That brought two world wars, the holocaust and the arms race. The decided to intervene with a new plan after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The international relations person in me thought “gee, talk about ethnocentric, the plan apparently only involves the West.” But there was something intriguing in that whole story line. The conclusion actually reminded me of some of my thoughts on the Sophie Scholl movie I mentioned a few days ago. (By the way, if you didn’t read the comic Uzza linked to in the comment section of that post, you should check it out — I’ve forwarded it to all the faculty at the university and am going to use that to get students to reflect on what they would do — thanks, Uzza!)
First, a thought experiment. What if there were entities, or a God, who had the power to twist fate to avoid the worst catastrophes, or at least to force us to learn from them? This entity could plop Romeo Dallaire into Rwanda so there would be a witness to humanity’s failure in that genocide and limit the damage our propensity towards fear and hatred create. Usually free will and fate are put forth as a dichotomy — we have one but not the other. In reality free will is never absolute, fate is always a product of circumstance and probability, even with no interventions. If there were some intervening force giving us a modicum of free will even as we were kept on a plan, would that ultimately be better than giving us total free will and letting our inability to handle our fears and impulses run amok?
People would be tempted to say yes. That’s what in fact they yearn for when they pray to God or Allah for some kind of help — to provide for the people in Japan suffering after the Tsunami or to save a young child’s life from a debilitating disease. And even if you want to say that’s not God intervening in peoples’ minds, what about prayers to help a loved one have the strength to overcome an addiction, or to get a cold hearted leader to have some compassion?
The conclusion added a level to this (I won’t give away the plot). One character reflects that maybe free will is something humans have to learn to fight for, to not just go along with the plan, but be able to risk everything to truly live the life they want to live, on their own terms. With that the film suddenly seemed not just about a fancy God-light entity guiding human development, but about conformity.
You see, there is indeed a plan. It’s embedded in our culture and daily routines. We’ve made that plan through our practices over centuries. And just as the plan can be re-written in the film (apparently it has gone through multiple versions), we alter the plan created by those who came before us every time we question the culture and status quo we were born into and take steps to change it. To the extent we conform to expectations we follow the plan, and our lives are not truly our own. We may think we’re making rational choices, un-manipulated and clear headed. Or we may cleverly think that we like the plan and are choosing to follow it. But if it’s based on conformity (an inner fear of not being accepted, not being liked, or some how not doing the ‘right’ thing), then it truly is not from inside. We are letting the external shape our internal self. That dehumanizes, and makes us more automatons than individual humans.
Which is the point of the comic Uzza pointed too — Sophie Scholl was true to herself, Traudl Junge was not. There may not be a “plan” enforced by drably suited bureaucrats with the power to intervene in our mental processes and create coincidences and accidents. But if we don’t look inside, conquer fear, live as we truly believe it is right to live, following our conscience and inner voice, then there may as well be.