Adjustment Bureau

September 11, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau is a romantic thriller with a sci-fi/fantasy premise.  The world is directed by an organization of bureaucratic nerds in small brim fedoras who keep things going “on plan.”  It’s for our own good – when they step back, things like WWII and the Cuban Missile Crisis happen.

Matt Damon plays Norris, a politician on the fast track to the White House whose path through life needs a bit of adjustment now and then – he’s too impulsive.  If he stays on track, he can save the world, maybe.  He meets Elise (Emily Blunt) another impulsive type and they fall for one another – that’s not in the plan…or is it?

In the original short story by Phillip Dick, Damon’s character was a real estate salesman, but this is Hollywood.  That would have fit better with the satirical edge to the premise, the black humor inherent in learning that our ‘free will’, all our strivings, are guided by dull men (all men) in charcoal grey suits who look like they missed the 7:20 from Long Island, c. 1964.  If it weren’t for Ms. Blunt, the movie would fall flat:  she’s wonderfully sexy, and she and Damon make a great pair of romantic seekers in the world that isn’t what it seems.

A lot of the effects are clever, I love the emphasis on hats – they are an essential element in the Adjusters’ uniform – and many scenes are in grand NYC office spaces that I’ve always found a bit ominous and oppressive – glad to know it isn’t just me and my paranoia!  Terrence Stamp is marvelous as Satan figure known as “The Hammer.”  He’s a bit unsubtle in his adjustments.

Which brings up the Big Questions:  God, predestination, fate, free will, etc.  These are just mentioned, but a lot of reviewers seem to feel that this is what the movie is about – I think it’s just the device that gets it all going, nothing more.  The entire idea of the story is preposterous on the character level.  After being informed of The Truth, and warned that if he tells anyone, his brain will be “reset,” i.e. erased, Norris goes on with his life.  No depression, no strange changes in behavior, no suicidal thoughts?  It’s the equivalent of being abducted by aliens, and he just accepts it and carries on.  Not likely.  Nor does he ask much – never inquires, “Just what is the plan?”

The director said that “The film asks questions – that’s what art is supposed to do.”   Leaving aside the fact that for most of human history, asking questions is pretty much the last thing art was supposed to do, the characters in this film ask remarkably few.

Anyway, it was a lot of fun to watch.

Free will, and all that…again

May 24, 2010

Following up on earlier posts about historical determinism, free will, all that sort of stuff, I offer this astonishing snip from the New York Times, musings by Paul Kennedy on the eternal question of who makes history – great men, or impersonal forces: 

Interestingly, the most important challenge to Carlyle’s great-leader theory came from his fellow Victorian, that émigré, anti-idealist philosopher-historian and political economist, Karl Marx. In the opening paragraphs of his classic “The Eighteenth Brumaire,” he offers those famous lines: “Men make their own History, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

What an astonishing sentence. In it Marx captures not only the agency of human endeavor, but reminds us of how even the most powerful people are constrained by time and space, by geography and history.

Yes, astonishing too is the occurence of favorable comment on Karl Marx in the press, let alone the Times.  Fact is, he was a brilliant historian and thinker.  Maybe not so hot as a practical politician.  Not unlike Mao, about whom I am reading in Phillip Short’s biography – and he too made a difference as an individual.  A big difference!  But as Short makes clear, he did so within the structures of Chinese cultural history, adopting or slipping into the role of detached-philosopher-emperor, the object of daily veneration, just as Mao was brought up to bow to the image of Confucius each morning.

Spinoza on the Essence of Conspiracies

September 11, 2006


Came across this in the first part of Spinoza’s Ethics .   Somehow, he anticipated the nature of conspiracy theories by centuries. Ooops, they have always been with us. Instead, he is the earliest of which I know who laid bare the nature of their non-thinking arguments. “Reduction to ingnorance,” I like that.   In this passage, he was refuting the notion that everything that happens, happens for a reason, or an end, similar to the reasons or ends that humans would imagine.   That is, things don’t “just happen,” there is always a reason explaining them.   This is how conspiracy theories work:

Why weren’t those telephone calls from cell phones on the record..?” [Taken from the website Petition to Investigate 9/11.]

It couldn’t just be an error, or system foul-up out of all the thousands from that building that day…if, in fact, the report that they are missing is correct in the first place.   It must be because…And how do you explain the fact that the impact happened on a beautiful day when visibility was so great..? JFK was killed by several people – must be so – one person couldn’t have done it, and there are those reports of…

And so, Spinoza (my italics):

We must not omit to notice that the followers of this doctrine, anxious to display their talent in assigning final causes, have imported a new method of argument in proof of their theory–namely, a reduction, not to the impossible, but to ignorance; thus showing that they have no other method of exhibiting their doctrine. For example, if a stone falls from a roof onto someone’s head, and kills him, they will demonstrate by their new method, that the stone fell in order to kill the man; for, if it had not by God’s will fallen with that object, how could so many circumstances (and there are often many concurrent circumstances) have all happened together by chance?  Perhaps you will answer that the event is due to the facts that the wind was blowing, and the man was walking that way. [Here, Spinoza perfectly captures that knowing tone of the conspiracy theorist…] “But why,” they will insist, “was the wind blowing, and why was the man at that very time walking that way?”  If you again answer, that the wind had then sprung up because the sea had begun to be agitated the day before, the weather being previously calm, and that the man had been invited by a friend, they will again insist:  “But why was the sea agitated, and why was the man invited at that time?”  So they will pursue their questions from cause to cause, till at last you take refuge in the will of God–in other words, the sanctuary of ignorance.

Pynchon addressed this tendency of people to try and make sense of the world by creating nonsense because they can’t accept the non-sense of the world in Gravity’s Rainbow. It was all due to the Mother Conspiracy.  Mom’s are to blame for everything.  Or you can fret about the ultimate conspiracy, God.

Free Will, and All That …

February 10, 2005

“Who is Number 1?”
“You are Number 6.”
“I am not a number. I am a free man!”


Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I …Where do murderers go, man! Who’s to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar?

Two views of freedom for us poor pismires crawling about the surface of the globe. The Prisoner knows he is a free man, while Melville’s Ahab sees his actions as the movements of a puppet on a string, a string pulled by God, or something, perhaps the blind material universe. His insane murderous behavior is not his fault, it was caused, determined, preordained outside of his powers of volition.  I’ve been thinking about this free will jazz for a while, about thirty years. It occurred to me that something I said in my post about the so-called Intelligent Design theory might be said of free will, to wit, when you stop assuming it exists, you don’t see it anymore. That’s what some folks would argue about free will anyway, that it’s an illusion, that we are all, in fact, some sort of thinking automata that wonder if we have will and volition. Noooo. I don’t think so.

When a person becomes convinced of the soundness of evolutionary theory, he or she stops seeing design in nature, it’s true, but the person will also stop talking about design. Yes, they may say, “nature designed this in such a way..,” but that’s just shorthand for long phrases such as, “the random variation of types was winnowed by natural selection over a long period of time to yield…” Darwinians don’t believe in design in nature. People who claim to have demonstrated the illusory nature of free will still, however, use terms like choice, we, I, think, and so on. “When we make choices, we think we are free, but all our actions are as determined as the plunk and click of billiard balls moving about on a table.”  How can you speak of choice without free will?  Do thermostats make a choice when they go on as the temperature rises?  No, their actions are determined by physical law.  So, unless you think that people and their minds are machines like those we see about us, and unless you think that we never choose, you can’t claim not to believe in free will.

The issue of free will shouldn’t even be discussed – let’s ban it!  It’s a question badly framed at too high a level of abstraction.  First we have to decide what consciousness is, or mentality, because that’s what we think distinguishes us from purely deterministic machines.  Free will is just that question in another form.  And beyond that, there is the deeper question of what is determinism itself, what is causality, and what is time?  Free will is trivial if you can deal with those.

I like to say that the notion of free will requires determinism.  We act for reasons, acts are ‘determined’ by reasons, otherwise they would be random.  And random acts are not what we usually think of as the products of conscious volition.  So without strict determinism, there is no free will because there is no will.  Will is a determinate principle, whatever that means.  David Hume made sort of this argument when he said that the dispute was purely semantic and that our acts were free and determined.  Free in that that were not constrained, determined in that they had reasons.  I happen to agree with this for the most part but I don’t think it goes far enough in explaining why the anti-free will position just makes no sense.  I’m going to start by digressing onto a topic that I usually avoid, quantum physics.

I’ve just been reading an absolutely marvelous little book by Richard Feynman called The Character of Physical Law.  Feynman is brilliant, profound, and funny all at once, and if you think you’re not the type to read treatises by quantum physicists, this is the book for you.  Really – it was actually written for you!  The reason I avoid discussing quantum physics is because I’m sick of hearing people who don’t appear to know any more about about physics than I do say things like, “Of course, this applies to everything except the quantum level,” or “Of course, that only applies at the quantum level.”  I don’t know that much about physics, but it always seems to me that these arguments are kind of like deus ex machina.  And then, I wonder, how valid can an argument about everyday life be if it has to rely on quantum physics for a justification?  Something seems out of whack.

Now thinking again about that beefeater, David Hume, I’ve come up with a new thought: People get all hot and bothered about Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle because they feel it contradicts what they know to be true about life.  What if it were just a confirmation of what we knew to be true?  What if life is not predictable, not determinate, but is sort of random?  And how does that square with what I said earlier?

Hume examined the notion of cause in detail and found that he couldn’t really pin it down.  A causes B because event A always precedes event B.  More than that, there is nothing to say about what cause is, anymore than we say what gravity is.  (Or what is is?)  We arrive at the notion of causality through induction, i.e., by watching and observing the same sequence happen over and over, and then drawing the conclusion that A causes B, but we cannot prove that someday A won’t cause B, or that B will happen without A happening first.  Notice that causality seems to work in one direction, forward in time (whatever that means.)  Hume is rather skeptical about this notion of cause, although he recognizes its utility, and he does not believe that it can be justified in any genuine way other than that it seems to be quite useful.  So, what if cause is an illusion?  Then the notion that we have no free will would be an illusion, wouldn’t it?  And wouldn’t free will be impossible since I claimed that it requires determinism?  No again, causality and determinism are not the same thing.

The conflating of predestination, determinism, and causality is a big problem with all of these discussions, but right now I want to point out that while causes appear, to us, to work forward in time, determinism always seems to be after the fact – something figured out in hindsight.  “Aha,” we say, “Now I see why that happened…because this, then that, then those, then finally this!”  This is exactly how it is with free will:  A person makes a choice; we ask why?  The person gives reasons; the anti-free will philosophers say, “Your choice was determinedby those reasons. You have no free will. It was all determined.”  But discerning determining circumstances is not the same as demonstrating causality.  If we didn’t have reasons for acting, we wouldn’t have a will, but having reasons doesn’t mean our choices were unfree.

Into this rambling discussion I now must vent my wrath against the sizable community of counter-factualists, those people who worry and wonder about what would have happened if Hitler hadn’t overslept on D-Day, if Richard’s horse hadn’t lost a nail, if John Wilkes Booth had missed his target, and so on.  You can wonder, but you can’t make much sense if you try to predict the future of the past as if the past had been different.  I have to fall back on my ironclad law of historical causation: Things happened as they did because that’s how they happened.  It wasn’t predetermined, it wasn’t predictable, it wasn’t predestined, and it only seems deterministic in hindsight.  But it was all caused, one piece at a time, and each free choice was determined by reasons one at a time. We really have to keep these concepts separate since they may not even make all that much sense taken one at a time.

If Hitler hadn’t overslept, perhaps NOTHING would have changed.  And if Hitler had died in that bomb plot, perhaps NOTHING would have changed, except he would have died.  We can’t even begin to say something sensible about this, except to carefully speculate on what the possibilities were.  (It was not possible that Martians would lead the Nazis to victory!)  And no matter how much data we have on what the situation was, and what the possible choices were (what is an impossible choice?) we can’t make any sensible statement (determination) about what counter-factual thing might have happened.  Call it Lichanos’ Historical Uncertainty Principle if you like.

So finally, I get back to Richard Feynman, who was explaining in his little book the well known puzzler about the electrons shooting through the sheet of metal with two holes in it, and interference patterns and all that, and it comes down to the simple inexplicable fact that you just can’t tell which hole an electron is going to come through as they pop out toward the sheet.  Just no way to predict, no matter what you know about the total situation.  Might be this one, might be that one.  “Nature herself does not know,” is how Feynman quotes one physicist.  Now this reminds me of another situation, much more familiar to readers of magazines and newspapers:

Two boys growing up next door to one another in a very poor, crime ridden neighborhood.  Same age, same family status, same education, same…everything!  One goes on to become a hood, and ends up badly, in jail for murder.  No surprise, it was a foregone conclusion, social determinism, environmental determinism, etc. etc.  The other one goes on to become a doctor and spends his life setting up free clinics for children all over the world, has a beautiful, brilliant doctor wife, and five lovely children.

Why one, and not the other?  Now, I’m not saying the environment doesn’t count, because it obviously changes and can constrict the choices available to one, but one still has choices.  Even with a gun to your head you can choose to obey your torturer or to die – it’s a bad set of choices, but you have a choice.  But maybe life is not deterministic as we usually take that word, and this is just one more example of it.  And maybe the world is not deterministic in the way that we think our notions of causation make us see it, and Feynman’s puzzler is just one little example of that.  Maybe…the electron…and the poor boys…are behaving in much the same manner.  (I don’t mean the electrons choose, but that both are not deterministic in the simple, can-be-predicted way we think of it usually.)  You see, we covet choice in the world, and want to get rid of it too.  Choice for people, causality and determinism for thermostats.  Maybe causality and determinism aren’t quite what we think for all and everyone.  Freedom for all!

[A simple thought-experiment: A man faces two doors; which will he pick?  He picks the red one: Aha, it was determined because of this, that, and the other thing, including his childhood experiences with … But if he had picked the blue door, we would have made the same comments mutatis mutandi, we would have found a string of determining circumstances, so what does this tell us about anything?]

And what about randomness?  Huh, what about it?  What the hell is that?  Does anyone even try to explain why if I take 10,000 ball bearings and drop them in the top of a device with a grid of pegs over which they bounce as gravity pulls them down they will fall out the bottom and always make a bell-shaped distribution as they pile up?  Even if I drop each one in exactly the same way?  Is randomness some sort of effect of hidden causes, or, could it be, like those electrons? Just some irreducible fact of nature?  It seems that with ball bearings, as with poor boys, the same determining factors can lead to different outcomes.  (That’s not choice, but surely it leaves room for choice.  But what makes the choice?  What is the will after all?  Arrrrgghh!!)  Which would mean that our notion of cause should probably be more like David Hume’s than the rock-solid axiom we think it is.  Which means that free will isn’t so odd in the context of a ‘deterministic’ universe, and quantum effects are not so odd either.

The best book I ever read on this topic, before Feynman, was by Erwin Schrodinger, who certainly knew this stuff.  A wonderful little book, in which he said that when your ideas lead you to conclude that matter acts simultaneously as a particle and a wave, and that this causes contradictions, then it’s time to come up with a different notion of matter.

Sometimes I wonder if all these questions aren’t just a problem of scale.  As the scale of things changes, some things disappear.  As we walk around, we are not aware of quantum effects at the sub-atomic level; we aren’t even aware of molecules, not to mention that we are oblivious to the fact that matter is mostly empty space.  What if the same sort of effects relate to time – what would that do to our notion of causality and determinism?  As we ‘zoom’ our time-scale out to the enormous, everything would appear to be happening at more or less the same time, wouldn’t it?  Events that seem of long duration now become an eye-blink. Stretches of intervening time between events become eye-blinks. (Remember that eye blinking as Dave makes his descent to Jupiter in 2001?)  And finally, everything is happening simultaneously. What came before what? If you don’t know, you can’t talk about causes. And if an event is always happening, or has always happened, e.g. the universe has always been here, then it was never caused at all, which is how some medieval philosophers demonstrated that there could be an event without a cause, which might or might not have been God…

I don’t pretend to know the meaning of what I just wrote there, but I do think our notions of time are very crude, and have only changed slightly in the last 100 years since Einstein gave them a jolt. Things may change a lot more in very many ways. Meanwhile,

It’s my life and I’ll do what I want
It’s my mind and I’ll think what I want
Show me I’m wrong…