Determination vs. Determinism

Kevin Madigan

In Review | Film The Adjustment Bureau, directed by George Nolfi. 106 minutes.

There once was an old man who said, "Damn!
It is borne in upon me I am
An engine that moves
In determinate grooves,
I'm not even a bus, I'm a tram."
—Maurice Hare, "Limerick" (1905)

For the philosophically and theologically disposed, The Adjustment Bureau is a movie in which not only two lovers, but two forms of determination collide. One form of determination, philosophically speaking, focuses on the human agent's active efforts, by exercise of "free will" (a term with a rich history and thus impossible to define easily), to resist or even to defeat impersonal forces attempting to fix authoritatively the large contours of his or her destiny. The pitiable speaker in Maurice Hare's limerick expresses another form of determination, which we might simply call determinism. This second form expressly rules out the agent's capacity to act by an exercise of free will. Indeed, it asserts (or can assert, because it is also a historical tradition with complex permutations) that we do not have, and never have had, free will. Rather, we are hapless pawns (agents would emphatically be the wrong word)—chess pieces moved around by some inscrutable transcendent source for the implementation and completion of a mystifying and inscrutable cosmic plan. Our illusory aspirations and destinies are not so much chosen as given and inflexibly imposed. We are trams in a groove. Worse, cosmic designs are enforced by sinister agents, who exist only to ensure we remain trapped in our grooves of fate. The two major protagonists in The Adjustment Bureau attempt to exercise what we shall loosely call their free will against the determined forces that vigorously attempt to control their destiny. The movie poses the philosophical question: which theory corresponds more truthfully to the human condition? Or, to put it more crudely and in competitive terms, which will win?

Reviews of this movie have, rightly, been overwhelmingly positive. A well-made political thriller, it is also a thriller of a love story, and well acted. When critics have expressed unhappiness, they have almost invariably focused on two elements. First, there is the occasionally heavy, didactic screenplay, which, fearing that viewers will not Get It, relays in vulgar language what the movie, at the philosophical level, is All About. Regrettably, this criticism is all too accurate. Characters embarrassingly inquire, for example, if humans have free will or not—as if the answer were susceptible to a simple yes or no response. The second criticism focuses on the ending. Narratives, we all know, are notoriously difficult to conclude. This is especially the case when two incompatible (it seems) philosophical systems are at war. Critical vexation has focused on the film's ending, arguing that the screenwriter essentially surrenders to the difficulties of the metaphysical conundrum he has taken on, writing an easy, schmaltzy ending by conceding one "side" easy victory. Speaking for many, Dana Stevens, in an otherwise largely positive review, severely concludes that the rushed ending "blows." She complains:

After all the work the movie has done to make us root for David and Elise's [the two lovers whom the enforcers try to keep apart] connection, or puzzle over the arcane laws that govern their universe, the ending feels like a lazy do-over, a cosmic "never mind!" There was room for this final scene . . . to be both intellectually and emotionally satisfying. Instead, in a curious act of abdication, the film gives up on engaging its viewers' brains, as if unaware that, in doing so, it will lose our hearts as well.1

This is a deeply felt and intelligent protest, and it is a view expressed, with less literary panache perhaps, by many others.

I wonder, though. Is the verdict, widely rendered, that the film's ending leaves the viewer intellectually (and otherwise) impoverished itself a simplistic interpretation of the film's conclusion? I think it is. But to believe so and, more importantly, to argue so, requires that we look at the film through lenses furnished by certain theological and philosophical traditions, especially ones that posit some compatibility between free will and determinism. The most relevant and enduring of these traditions is called "compatibilism," which I will use to argue my point (though without acknowledging, much less sufficiently explaining, the complex historical tradition and the many subtle terminological and substantive differences that constitute it). Suffice it to say that compatibilism—preoccupied with the agent's capacity for choice and, especially, freedom for moral agency—not only allows for but argues for the notion that free will and determinism are largely, perhaps entirely, compatible. Seen in these terms, the ending of the movie and the film in general look much more satisfying, philosophically, than the critics have so far perceived.

The film is inspired by Philip K. Dick's stylistically and narratively spare story "The Adjustment Team." No fewer than ten of Dick's stories have been made into film since his death in 1982; these include a parade of sci-fi and metaphysical hits, including Total Recall, Blade Runner, A Scanner Darkly, and Minority Report; and now this film. Screenwriter George Nolfi, long intrigued by the cinematic possibilities of this short story, added in the element of an immediate attraction between David Norris, played by Matt Damon, and Elise Sellas, brought iridescently and divertingly to life by Emily Blunt. Blunt is known for roles in The Devil Wears Prada, Charlie Wilson's War, and The Young Victoria; she chooses here yet another interesting script which allows her to show off her wry comic chops.

As the film does in other ways, the romantic plot deviates from Dick's short story. In the short story, the protagonist is married and, it seems, monogamous and even chaste; the romantic was simply of no interest to Dick. The protagonist's domestic life is pure Leave It to Beaver, so much so that parts of the story are, today, excruciatingly embarrassing to read. More importantly, the short story seems to dwell less on philosophical themes of fate and free will than on the political ones of authoritarianism and totalitarianism. In all these ways, and more, the short story is the product of its particular social and political culture.

In the film, the menacing bureaucracy of Dick's short story is promoted, so to speak, to the cosmic domain. Here, the characters are destined, in David's case, for the American presidency and, in Elise's, to achieve distinction as the most talented ballerina of her age. These are the fates for which they have been elected, through no choice of their own. The note of deviation from "the Plan" emerges immediately as the political enemies of Norris's candidacy for the Senate torpedo his chances by revealing, at the last moment, a photograph of what seems like a relatively innocuous college prank.

Distraught, Norris retires to a men's room to plan his concession speech. Surprisingly, it is there that he first encounters Elise, in flight from a dull wedding party she crashed. The chemistry is immediate. The two fall instantly for one another, and so suddenly that they find themselves passionately kissing in the hotel restroom. For reasons determined more by plot dynamics than the caprice of urgent passion, Emily quickly departs. The problem? They were not supposed, not "fated," to meet, as David soon finds out. The grand cosmic plan designed by "the Chairman" (God? Destiny? Fate?) had them slated separately for greatness in politics and art.

Having apparently sunk his political career, David joins a business run by his old campaign manager. To his shock, on entering his office one day he encounters men in stylish 1960s fedoras, who seem to have frozen his colleagues into physical and psychological stasis: the first episode of "adjustment." Desperately attempting to flee, David is run down by the Chairman's bureau chief. He recommends that David not reveal to anyone what he has seen. The penalty? His brain will be "rebooted," like a hard-drive being erased. Oh, and one more thing: He's not to see Elise again. That was not in the Plan. Explaining the presence of the unwelcome agents in his office, and his job more generally, the chief tells David that he and his staff are present to "keep [him, David,] on plan." Possessed of remarkable, even supernatural, powers, the agents are still not (and this is not unimportant) all powerful.

This is where the film, philosophically speaking, gets interesting. David refuses to accept, and indeed struggles against, the Plan determined for him. Three years after their initial encounter, Elise and David meet again by chance—and, here, let's remember Hare's limerick—on a bus, not on a tram. In an act of volition, David pursues Elise. This, of course, is a violation of the Order of Things. Clearly, David can exercise free will in a world that is otherwise starkly programmed (quite literally, with the Chairman's bureaucratic agents enforcing predetermined scripts by consulting impossibly complex notebook diagrams. Later in the narrative, David is informed by an agent that humans once possessed free will, but, because they so misused it, it was taken away from them. This is as close as we get, explicitly speaking, to the postlapsarian story of Adam and Eve and to the theological world of late Augustinianism, with its unconditional denial of the possibility of a robust free will.

Elise and David have never heard of Augustine and, rightly, they don't care. They are preoccupied with one another and with eluding the Chairman's bureaucrats, except for one, Thompson (played convincingly by Terence Stamp), an evil angel who mysteriously falls into goodness and has a weakness for love. After a terrifying chase of the couple by agents of the cosmic Bureau, which includes a tour through the iconic sites of New York City—including, not coincidentally, that symbol of freedom, the Statue of Liberty—the Chairman, exasperated, capitulates to his determined human adversaries. He will allow the Plan to be adjusted. Love (not to mention human agency and the freedom and capacity to choose a course of action) triumphs over the Plan orchestrated by the Chairman.

This is the narrative moment that so disappoints Dana Stevens and other critics. To them, David and Elise's triumph seems too facile against the backdrop of so thoroughly determined a world. But this, I would argue, is precisely where philosophical compatibilism comes in to save the film. In some forms of classical compatibilism, the determined world is simply a set of impediments that obstruct our aspirations. They stand in the way of our desires, and we are meant, by exercise of our free will, to surmount these impediments to achievement (including moral achievement) and fulfillment. No less a figure than Thomas Hobbes put it this way in The Leviathan: our freedom in this world of impediments consists in "find[ing] no stop, in doing what [w]e ha[ve] the will, desire, or inclination to do." Surely, external forces exist to determine our fate, and even to coerce us into acting contrary to what the will and heart desire. But the power of human agency and the desire to act unencumbered by external constraint allow us to resist, and sometimes to inhibit (or even vanquish) those external forces. Our destinies are not altogether shaped by cosmic plans, the laws of nature, or, I would add, by our genes, nurturing, and environment; nor are they completely determined by the triumphs and errors of our past. We live in a world in which these powerful forces surely help shape our possibilities for action, but there is never any moment in time when only a single future is possible. Metaphysical conditions allow us to choose from a spectrum of options; we are not simply determined.

Seen in this light, The Adjustment Bureau is less an allegory of the clash between fate and free will and is more about the capacity of humans to choose among a limited spectrum of possibilities—limited because our world and selves are also, to some extent, determined. The film is, in the end, about the heroic human capacity to struggle against the grim and seemingly omnipotent forces of destiny, to act as relatively free agents and to choose the good and the fulfilling. If I am right about this, The Adjustment Bureau is not only successful as a conventional political thriller. It is also a film that has understood the world and the human condition far more profoundly than its critics would have us believe.


  1. Dana Stevens, "The Adjustment Bureau," Slate, March 3, 2011;

Kevin J. Madigan is Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History at HDS. He has been the faculty adviser to the Bulletin for two years.