The Argument from Free Will and Watchmen
There are many different arguments against the existence of God that have been put forward throughout the millennia. In the author’s view, the most convincing one is the argument from free will, which posits that the claim of God’s omniscience contradicts the assertion that He has free will. If it is not present, then He cannot exist as described in the Bible but only as an impersonal entity similar to chance. The movie Watchmen supports this argument by supplying the omniscient and likely omnipotent figure of Dr. Manhattan and demonstrating his limitations. This essay will focus on the scene where he declares that his actions are predetermined after failing to prevent a needless murder in his sight to illustrate the argument.
The free will argument has been explored by the atheist activist Dan Barker, who provided a formulation for it. Per Keltz and Scribner, it is that, as God knows what choice he will make in any decision-making process, he cannot make any choices, as all of his actions have been predetermined from the beginning (93-94). Uncertainty is a critical component of free will, as it creates the opportunity to exercise it. However, if God does not have free will, He cannot exist in His Biblical conception, and questions about his nature as the supreme entity arise. Moreover, further questions regarding the existence of evil and humanity’s free will create further complications that make the idea of a Christian God untenable.
The scene discussed in this paper takes place in Vietnam, where a woman attacks the Comedian, with whose child she is pregnant, and slashes his face. The injured man then takes out his gun and kills her despite her being defenseless and terrified. Dr. Manhattan is present and has the opportunity and ability to react in numerous ways, but chooses not to do anything. He recognizes the act as wrong, which is shown through his chastisement of the Comedian afterward. The man responds by pointing out Dr. Manhattan’s inaction despite his ability to easily resolve the situation without hurting anyone. He asserts that the reason for Dr. Manhattan’s inaction is that he was gradually losing his concern for human beings.
However, the reason is different, as later put into context by another scene in the movie. On Mars, Dr. Manhattan claims: “I have no choice. Everything is preordained, even my responses. […] I’m just a puppet who can see the strings” (Watchmen). Despite knowing both the past and the future and possessing powers that seem to have no limit, he has no choice but to feign surprise when his wife reveals her affair despite acknowledging it earlier. He claims that the reason is his different perception of time, in which all moments are the present and, therefore, the future has already taken place. This idea is similar to Barker’s argument, as an omniscient God would also know all of His future choices, and Dr. Manhattan supports it through his lack of free will.
Dr. Manhattan was likely a conscious argument against the existence of God on the part of Alan Moore, the author of the Watchmen graphical novel. Free will is a major theme in the story, for both humans and the superhuman character of Dr. Manhattan. He believes himself to have no free will and does not interact with humanity unless prompted by its members. Many of the same conceptions apply to God, and a similar argument can be used to argue against His existence. As such, the film serves as an excellent illustration of the discussion and how it may develop.
Watchmen. Directed by Zack Snyder, performances by Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson, and Carla Gugino. Paramount Pictures, 2009.
Keltz, Kyle B. and Tricia Scribner, editors. Answering the Music Man: Dan Barker’s Arguments against Christianity. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2020.