Saturday, March 05, 2011

Free-will issues in "The Adjustment Bureau"

by Salman Hameed

I just came back from seeing The Adjustment Bureau. It is based on a story by Philip K. Dick and is actually quite good and entertaining. Plus it follows Mad Men in making another strong case for the use of fedora (right). It centers on the issue of free-will - and does a reasonable job of keeping consistencies within the plot of the film (though the story is not air-tight). The main idea is that there is a plan that is running the world but it requires some adjustments from time to time. Perhaps, chance/coincidences - though small - are to blame for the deviations. But a number of "adjusters" are there to get the plan back on track. The problem is that David Norris (Matt Damon), purely by accident, gets a glimpse 'behind the curtain' - and his now has to be 'adjusted' to get back on the plan. The movie indeed centers around a romance but still some how manages to survive through it (probably because Emily Blunt and Matt Damon have good chemistry and can pull it off). I wish the movie had captured a bit more of the darkness and paranoia that is usually present in Philip K Dick's novels. Nevertheless, you should check out the film.

Here is the trailer, and below it, I have a couple of points with some very mild spoilers.

The movie does not completely short-shrift free-will. In fact, it presents humans as possessing total free-will at least for some time. But the horrors of the world wars of the 20th century and the nuclear age revoked the privilege. We may get it again - but for the time, we have to deal with the plan of the Chairman (probably not Mao). A side note here: I did cringe, when at one time, the history of the world is presented in the following order: Hunter-gatherers, the Roman empire, the dark-ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the cold war. Hmm...well. I mean this may be a tad too narrow - and really, the "dark ages" concept has been out-of-use for some decades now. But this is a minor quibble.

But what is the problem with human free-will? Well, the problem it seems is with human nature - more specifically, with emotions. In fact, the 'adjusters', in some sense, resembled the Vulcans. All reason and (mostly) no emotion. In fact, they can correct only the logical parts of the plan, and cannot directly influence individual emotions or personalities. Do they have free-will? Well, it is not exactly clear - and the movie could have have gone deeper in this particular direction (it does hint in faint affirmation, but does not go far enough). This is also an issue that Islamic and Christian theologies raise about the status of angels, and the 'adjusters' can indeed be thought of as angels of, perhaps, a work-in-progress world.

The ultimate point of the film is that a strong will can indeed re-write (or perhaps even dictate) the plans. This reminded me of Iqbal's famous couplet: (in Urdu first - and then a translation below)

"Khudi ko kar buland itna, ke har takdeer se pehlay
Khuda bande se khud puche, bata teri raza kiya hai. "

Here is a rough translation:

"Raise your 'self' to such heights, that before writing out each destiny,
God Himself would have to ask each individual, 'Tell me what should I write for you'".

Go see the film. If you are looking to explore the topic of free-will via recent films, please check out Knowing (see this earlier post: Science & Religion in Knowing) and the absolutely fantastic A Serious Man (see these earlier posts: "A Serious Man" and Physics and Accept the mystery - go see "A Serious Man").


M. Akbar Hussain said...

Interesting concept. Is it something like matrix?

emre said...

Thanks for the review. My girlfriend just watched it and told me it is terrible. Then again, she does not like Blade Runner either so what does she know? I will have to watch this in my spare time.

Dr. M. Akbar Hussain said...

Off topic:
A request.
Dr. Salman, our Karachi Astronomers Society is arranging a pilot event of presentations and discussions on 12th March and I have asked them to set up Skype connection in the presentation so that I can join it too. It is an initiative for a regular presentation and public outreach program. If the Skype connection is set up, will it be possible for you to join us in the discussion? I hope our astronomical society would immensely benefit from your expertise and knowledge in astronomy.

Ashley said...

I might try and move up my plans so I can see it this evening actually.

Salman Hameed said...

Well - be warned. While Adjustment Bureau is interesting - it is no Blade Runner. I would say that it is better than Minority Report (the movie) whose ending was horrible (and different than Dick's story).

Salman Hameed said...


That sounds like a good plan. But are you sure you can trust me? After all, you had just suggested that this blog was an "instrument of spewing hatred for the Pakistani society" and is an "intentional attempt to harm our interests from outside". And this must be even worse since my own family is part of the very Pakistani society!

Now that we have that out of the way, yes, I will be delighted to participate in the Skype meeting of Karachi Astronomy Society. However, I'm visiting Pakistan next week and will be just getting to Islamabad on March 12th. If the flight is not delayed then I should be able to join in.


Dr. M. Akbar Hussain said...

Dr Salman:
I apologize for the comments. Yet there already is a vicious lot out there who would resort to argumentum ad hominem to defame our society's worthy lot too. We surely don't need any more 'contributions' from our side.
I am not wearing a red cap either at least for a while as long as my panic buttons are not pushed too hard ;-)
And thanks for the willingness for the possibility to join in. Astronomers in Karachi, Quetta, and Tasmania would be connected across the world wide web. The one in Quetta is a lecturer in physics, the rest including myself are all amateurs and freelancers, prone to mistakes, so apologies in advance.

Atlanta Roofing said...

The ending is somewhat of a foregone conclusion, it still engrosses you in a huge way, and the final twenty minutes are stunning. And this actually contains one of Damon's finest performances--naturalistic, subtle, relatable. Some nice sinister undertones, but it's kept earthbound. Just an overall impressive production in every respect.

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