The Philosophy Behind ‘The Adjustment Bureau’

by Max Andrews

George Nolfi and Phillip Dick’s recent movie ‘The Adjustment Bureau‘ is certainly a film that can get you thinking and asking the questions, “How?” and, “But why?”  I had no idea this movie was coming out until a friend Tweeted it to me a couple of days before the premiere, which made for a great date night.  Before I get into the details, my opinion of the film is that though it was entertaining and had an ‘indy-esque’ vibe to it, though it made me frustrated.

David (Matt Damon) falls in love with Elise (Emily Blunt) in the only-in-the-movies-could-it-ever-happen type moments.  They hit it off and we begin the story line.  David is heading to work a few months later after his mysterious run-in with Elise and Harry, a bureau case officer, is supposed to make David spill his coffee by 7:05 AM.  Well, it doesn’t happen and it becomes a problem because it has compromised “the plan.”  David sees Elise on that bus and they reunite.  Not good for the bureau.  Once David gets off the bus he walks into work and notices that his staff is being tampered with (for lack of a better word).  They are scanning their brains in the moment as time seems to have frozen.  Because David had not spilled his cup of coffee he witnesses what is going on.  David meets the bureau and finds out what they do and then we continue on with the plot.

Source: IMBD

Going into the movie I didn’t know what to expect as far as how they were going portray human freedom and the bureau’s providence.  There’s a clear and distinct correlation between the bureau’s chairman and God; and the case officers with angels.  The case officers are limited in their scope of abilities by the chairman, they report to the chairman, they are not perfect, and they do work for the chairman.  The chairman is the one who makes the plans.  The plans are referenced by the case workers in these books they carry around.  Here’s where I get frustrated because there seems to be an inconsistency.  Throughout the film you’ll come to understand that humans really do have free will.  In the scene when David enters his office and finds the case officers tampering with his colleagues brains, they are doing that in order to change their minds about something.  Here we have the classic illustration of soft-determinism/compatibilism.  Say there’s a scientist who plants electrodes in my brain.  I’m free to act according to my will as long as I do what the scientist wants.  Now, say I’m in a room with you.  I can either shoot you or I can walk away and we both live.  Now, I don’t want to kill you, but perhaps the scientist wants me to kill you.  Because I don’t want to do what the scientist wants me to do he activates the electrodes in my brain, which causes me to kill you.  Now back to the film.  We have David’s colleagues doing something that requires a strong-actualization, an introduction of direct causation into the states of affairs (directly causing the changes in the brains).  Now, we don’t know the efficacy of these changes, whether it’s merely an introduction of new information to be considered or if it’s something that necessarily brings about the change, we don’t know but it seems to be the case that it was actually changed.

Later on in the film you come to learn that every historical event happened to bring about the state of affairs David finds himself in.  The black plague existed to bring about this certain aspect in David’s life, the Enlightenment was brought about so that David will be reasonable, etc.  David seems to be a focus of a theodicy.  David’s not allowed to be with Elise because if he is with her then he will not be what the bureau needs him to be.  We now find ourselves with counterfactual knowledge.  If David does this, then this will happen.  If David does not do this, then this will happen (and this will not happen).  You also find the bureau using terms and phrases like “you would do this” or “you would have done that.”  So there seems to be an indication of a knowledge of counterfactual human freedom.  Okay, this makes sense.  If all these historical events were brought about so that a particular state of affairs would obtain that seems to be quite providential given that these humans have free will.  It sounds like good ‘ole Molinism! (But… it’s not).

Source: IMBD

I would not be surprised if we find this film being referenced as illustrations for openness theologians in the time to come.  It really is an excellent depiction of overall openness providence, since the climax and denouement will help shape how you interpret the earlier parts of film.  The two writers could have made a clearer distinction on how free will is portrayed and how it relates to the bureau’s providential plan.  The film is quite entertaining and you find yourself caught in the middle of David and Elise’s relationship.  One moment you want them to make it and the next you don’t because you’re too mad at David.  However, a word of caution to you philosophically minded folk, you may find yourself with the same frustration I had in trying to get a consistent depiction of human freedom and providence.


7 Comments to “The Philosophy Behind ‘The Adjustment Bureau’”

  1. Thanks for the review and reflection on this movie. I was already looking forward to seeing it – but now I really want to see it.

    Blessings,
    B.

  2. Thanks for the review Max. I definitely agree that the movie wasn’t consistent in their portrayal of free will vs. determinism.

  3. Greg Boyd has already cited the movie in a tweet–so good prediction about openness theologians using the movie. Another open theist pastor (whom Greg was quoting) said it was kinda like calvinist angels employed by a open theist God. :)

    • HA! I would completely agree with the Calvinist angels comment. The angels were not completely informed with what the Open God was doing. I think you’ll find the movie interesting if you haven’t already seen it.

  4. I have yet to see the movie, but now that I have read your review, Max, I believe I will. I have read the original Philip K. Dick story, and it sounds like it is not much like the movie. This is, of course, not overly surprising, since the original is not particularly long reading and so there is the necessity of embellishment.

    Unfortunately Dick passed away several years ago, and cannot defend his stories. many of which have been made into movies: Minority Report, Paycheck, Total Recall, Blade Runner, Next, etc…. They are compelling stories. It is rather unfortunate that a botch copyright extension filing was botched and so the Dick estate sees no royalties from these films. Several which became major cult films.

  5. I did a goodle search for ” does the Adjustment Bureau depict Molinism? ” and came across this review. I saw this film with my son and immediately wondered, seeing it through my theological and philosophical lenses, if it was depicting Molinism. Was I seeing the “counterfactuals” in play?

    Thanks for a nice review. I agree, it did leave me frustrated.

    • Jeff, Thanks for commenting :-) Your son is quite bright and not many people would think of Molinism when it comes to these things. I wanted it to be Molinism the whole time but the final scene bugged me so much lol

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