Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Are you really really really really free?

Warning: non-stop spoilers from here on.

On the flight back from Vegas I got to watch The Adjustment Bureau, which I had wanted to see since Jean Kazez mentioned it. (The link goes to where she discusses the movie, not to the post I read about it, which I think only mentioned that she wanted to see it or blog about it.) The film presents a view of God as the good-but-not-perfect head of an understaffed bureaucracy, which might seem Kafkaesque (in a good way) to some people, but mostly seemed stupid (in way that accurately reflects the stupidity of some real believers) to me. But mostly it's a chase movie about free will and love (or a philosophical love story about a chase). It all seemed pretty clumsy and PHIL 101-ish at first, but I think it manages to raise interesting questions even if it doesn't really have anything interesting to say in answer to them.

Here are some of the questions:

  • Is it (or would it be) good for human beings to have free will if they/we use it to fight world wars, commit genocide, develop weapons of mass destruction, and so on?
  • How valuable would free will be if we only had genuine freedom with regard to trivial choices?
  • Are we really free if some agent can make us do what they want should we turn out not to freely choose that option (i.e. what should we make of Frankfurt cases)? 
  • Is 'being all that you can be' more important than love?
  • Is the good of humanity (or the United States) more important than the love of two people for each other? (The Adjustment Bureau suggests not, Casablanca suggests so.) 

Basically the film pits two mentalities against each other, one of them totalitarian, bureaucratic, deterministic, and consequentialistic, the other being romantic and libertarian (in an evaluative sense of the metaphysical sense of that word). I say 'mentalities' because it doesn't pit theories against each other and show one to be better supported or truer than the other. In a sense it tries to show rather than say that its values are better than the others, that humanity requires free will and an evaluation of love above pretty much anything else. It would be inhuman, that is, the movie suggests, to prevent a Barack Obama from being with his Michelle even if that were necessary to ensure that Obama and not some "tool" became President of the most powerful nation on Earth. (I take it, perhaps wrongly, that Matt Damon's character is meant to be a white Obama or non-adulterous JFK.) 

The film doesn't do philosophy in the sense of making arguments (if it does this it does not do it well), but it certainly addresses philosophical issues and makes what might be called a narrative case for particular humanistic/romantic/Catholic kind of view of life. That is, the story (not as written down but as presented in film) engages you (or it did me) and inclines you to think that free will and love are very good things, and that interfering with them would be wrong. Even for the sake of some other good. Perhaps even for a very great good. (Others will call what I'm calling "making a narrative case" either appealing to emotions or pumping intuitions, but I think it's more rational than that.) 

This isn't the same as saying that one thing is more important than another. The film really says nothing about whether love or the greater good or individual development is best. What it 'says' is that a freely made choice to put love first should not be interfered with. So primarily it's saying something about the value of free will. But it uses the value of love to help make its point.

(Then last night I watched A Matter of Life and Death, which is different, but similar enough that it must have influenced The Adjustment Bureau. Again we have a confrontation of human love and an otherworldly, bureaucratic plan that has gone awry. Incidentally, I watched it because it was so high up (number 6) on this list of the best British films. I would say it is good rather than great, but anyone who thinks there have been no great Brtitish films should watch The Third Man and Kes (warning: the accents might be hard work for Americans). For more on Kes see here. The few descriptions I've read of it emphasize its bleakness, but some of them also mention how realistic it is, and the one I've linked to talks about its hope, warmth, and humour. Not that it's a happy story, exactly, but (some) people in England love it (for its sympathetic qualities, not because they love misery), so it isn't all doom and gloom. Just mostly.)    

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