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Are There “Small” Choices? Free will versus Fate in “The Adjustment Bureau” and “The Good Place”

Spoiler Alert: This post contains spoilers for “The Adjustment Bureau” and “The Good Place” through season 3. If you haven’t seen either of these shows, I suggest you bookmark this page and return to it after watching them. The article is below the trailers.

In “The Adjustment Bureau,” Senate candidate David Norris, played by Matt Damon, finds himself confronted by a shadowy organization of supernatural beings, who answer to the Chairman. The Chairman has set mankind on a path so that it doesn’t destroy itself. Norris’ burgeoning relationship with Elise, played by Emily Blunt, threatens this plan.

Norris is told that humanity has the illusion of free will. He can choose the brand of toothpaste he wants or what beverage to have with lunch, but some choices are made for him with an adjustment by the shadowy organization. It can be as something as small as spilling coffee or missing keys, or it can be something larger like a mind scan. These things affect what people do and thus affect the path they take in their lives. In this scenario, the type of toothpaste or beverage one chooses has no effect on the outcome of his or her life or the way the world will go.

Flip to “The Good Place,” a surprisingly smart sit-com that deserves a better designation. When people die, they are sent either to the good place or to the bad place based on how points they scored while alive. However, no one has gotten into the good place in 521 years because life and its choices are too complicated to sort out. A good deed can have several bad consequences, that though unintended, count against the person doing the good deed. (For example, a boy scout saves an old lady from being hit by a bus, but the old lady is a serial killer; the boy scout would get negative points, even though he had no way of knowing about her and actually believed he was doing the right thing.) In this world, selecting a toothpaste or choosing the wrong drink to have with lunch could have dire enough consequences to send someone to the bad place.

So, which is it? If we have free will, are there small choices? And if we’re constrained by some master plan? Which of our choices would affect our after-life destination and/or how the world would change as we make them? How would we know?

These questions are hard to answer. The only things we can do are treat each other with kindness and make the best decisions available to us with the information we have at the time we have to make those decisions. That still means we have to overcome our defects and work hard to improve ourselves and our decision-making abilities. With the Internet and media literacy, there’s no excuse for being uninformed. But starting with kindness, compassion and empathy towards others will make those decisions much easier.

Get “Penguinate! Essays and Short Stories” for ideas on how to improve your creativity for better life and world.

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