In Alan Moore's Watchmen, Doctor Manhattan is a superhero with godlike powers, including the ability to view his past, present, and future simultaneously. Manhattan believes that everything that happens and everything that will happen has been predetermined, and cannot be changed.

My memories of the comic show him to be almost passively compliant with what he's seen and what he's "supposed to" do. Earlier in the series, when he's building his city on Mars, he does question "A world grows up around me. Am I shaping it, or do its predetermined contours guide my hand?" (Watchmen, chapter IV), implying that he's uncertain about the predetermination of his own actions.
However, I think that he later changes his mind, and completely believes that his actions are predetermined. This is supported by several later quotes throughout the story, like the ones below (also on Mars):

Why does my perception of time distress you? [...] Everything is preordained. Even my responses.


We're all puppets, Laurie. I'm just a puppet who can see the strings.

Watchmen, chapter IX

He does seem to change his mind several times about his willingness to get involved in the affairs of humanity during that conversation, implying that he has (or believes himself to have) the freedom to choose, but that could simply be because he doesn't know everything all the time (either usually, or now because of the tachyon interference).

Most people read Doctor Manhattan as a god, partly because of his powers and partly because of his detachment and separation from humanity. (There's also that whole creation of life thing going on there at the end.) However, I think it's possible that Manhattan is simply a confused human being with more knowledge and power than he really knows what to do with. I think he's really Jon Osterman underneath his blue skin, but I'm not sure if he thinks that anymore.

Has Doctor Manhattan ever attempted to do anything differently from how he foresaw it? Has he tested his puppet strings? What makes him certain that he lacks free will?

Doctor Manhattan seems to believe that all of his actions have been preordained. Is there any support for this, or its negation, in the story?

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    Wow! Now that's a fine start for our graphic novel questions! Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 6:01
  • There are kind of two questions here. "Can Dr. Manhattan do things that aren't preordained?" and "Does Dr. Manhattan have free will?" There's a long history of philosophical debate over the relationship between free will and determinism, and a large number of philosophers have claimed that you can have free will even if your actions are preordained. This is called "compatibilism", and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a nice article about it: plato.stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 17:28
  • @DietrichEpp Oh! I was unaware of compatibilism. I'm no expert of philosophy, but I was using those terms in the sense that (I believe) most people use them, where they are directly related to each other, as in these dictionary definitions: merriam-webster.com/dictionary/determinism + merriam-webster.com/dictionary/free%20will
    – Shokhet
    Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 17:37
  • One of the issues here is that if you believe that Dr. Manhattan can see the future, then it's not just his actions which are deterministic, but everyone's actions which are deterministic. Dr. Manhattan wouldn't really be a special case. Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 17:54
  • 1
    Here's a great PBS short about compatibilism (check the previous episode for the other two free will extremes: hard determinism and libertarian free will):
    – Nick T
    Commented Feb 16, 2017 at 0:17

3 Answers 3


My answer is no by his own design.

My understanding is that he deliberately created a universe where all of his actions stay fixed, while other people have some free will. Note that my answer is based on Before Watchmen comics, and very little on Alan Moore's words.

But firstly, he does not see himself as Jon Osterman anymore. Remember the line from Watchmen #12 (emphasis respected):

It didn't kill Osterman... Did you think it would kill me?

Or from Dr. Manhattan #1 (emphasis respected):

Doctor Manhattan's inner monologue

I am not Jon, but Jon became me. His perspective informed me, his perspective--

-- created me? Is that possible? What happened in that moment, that surge of energy that resulted in my birth? If I am a quantum effect, what was the quantum cause?

Whatever it was, did it happen before the incident, or during the incident?

But my main argument comes from Before Watchmen: Doctor Manhattan. In this prequel, there existed multiple quantum realities, each of them being a reflection of different choices people made.

It all starts Dr. Manhattan going back in time to the point Jon Osterman was destroyed in the intrinsic field chamber. Manhattan expected to see his creation, but instead Osterman left the chamber unharmed. Apparently, Dr. Manhattan had somehow caused a disturbance in the timeline, causing the reality to splinter.

Here and further, all images are from Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan #3

Doctor Manhattan's inner monologue, holding the photograph of Jon and Janey

[Dr. Manhattan] The only way this could happen... The only way one quantum reality could splinter and fracture into an infinite number of possibilities with me at the center... Is if I somehow became the quantum observer.
I didn't realize it because I had only followed the stream of my existence up to a certain point, never going back to a moment before the incident the field chamber.
Until I climbed the mountain high enough to see everything around me. At some point I did something, saw or touched something that tore this quantum reality and created another. The effect then rippled back and forth along my timeline from the moment of my re-creation, creating new realities every time I made a decision.
But how? When did I--
[Janey's words from a flashback] "Jon, I think I'd like to go home now, please."

Dr. Manhattan had altered the reality during the first meeting of Crimebusters. When he had to be paired with Rorschach, he paired himself with Silk Spectre.

Doctor Manhattan's internal monologue is shown. Captain Metropolis is holding pieces of paper with symbols of superheroes. The first symbol is Dr. Manhattan's; second belongs to Rorschach. Rorschach's symbols starts transforming into something else

[Dr. Manhattan]: What's in the box?
[Captain Metropolis]: Our first is Dr. Manhattan, whose presence here tonight honors all of us--
[DM]: It's all a matter of perspective.
[CM]: ... and the one he's partnered with tonight is--
[DM]: And perspectives can be changed... with the slightest nudge.
[CM]: --is--

This choice had caused the timeline to fracture at multiple points, with Dr. Manhattan being at the centre - as he is the cause.

What does th' main man do? He goes an fixes the points in time (TM) that would've otherwise lead to nuclear Armageddon. He fixes his own choices, so that "others can still make theirs".

Doctor Manhattan looking at the photograph of Jon and Janey, then at the stars. His face shows sadness, monologue continues

[Jon's father, from flashback] "... There's nothing broken so bad that you can't put it back together again with enough effort."
[Dr. Manhattan]: As I look at the random moment that brought Janey and me together, I know what I must do to fix the delicate clockwork mechanism I have broken.
Once I became the quantum observer, every time I made a choice it fractured reality, over and over. So the only way to reunite the timelines is by erasing all those choices.
The irony is not lost on me.
I am the most powerful being in the known universe. I can do anything.
But for the world to be what it needs to be, what it must be, I must sacrifice my own choices, my own free will, so that they can have choices.

He summarises it all himself in this panel:

Various scenes from Jon's and Dr. Manhattan's life. Scenes include Jon's father smiling, Jon's desctruction, Jon's mother, Janey arguing with him, Dr. Manhattan having sex with Laurie, fighting in Vietnam, Comedian killing a Vietnamese woman; arranged around a picture of Dr. Manhattan's angered face from the TV talk show

Like my mother, I must give up all of my choices so that they can make of this reality what they wish.
In this new, united timeline, whatever I have done in the future is done. The decisions are made, and cannot be changed. they are as irrevocable as the choices I made in the past.
Because all those moments are the same moment, one moment, eternal and simultaneous.
So I must freeze that moment, that eternity, like fly frozen in amber.
I am limitless.
But I must become limited... and thus let this one world, this one reality, survive intact.

Therefore, if we count Before Watchmen continuity as canon, we have a pretty good explanation why Dr. Manhattan doesn't have free will: the universe where he doesn't have free will was the only universe where 1) he prevented nuclear war and 2) other people have free will.

To add an example from Alan Moore's comics, here's a panel from Watchmen #4, page 16: Dr. Manhattan and Janey at home. Dr. Manhattan is looking at a reproduction of Salvador Dali's "Time" painting. Janey holds a newspaper with the news of attempt on President Kennedy's life. Later, Wally arrives with a package.

Janey: So, what you're saying is you knew he'd get shot? Jon, I... I mean, if you're serious, I mean, why didn't you do something?

Dr. Manhattan: I can't prevent the future. To me, it's already happening.

J: Jon, what are you saying? That you know the future? About everything? About us?

DM: In 1959, I could hear you shouting, here, now, in 1963. Soon we make love...

J: Just like that? Like I'm a puppet? Jon, you know how everything in this world fits together except people. Your prediction's way off, mister.

DM: No. We make love right after Wally arrives with the earrings I ordered for you...

J: Shut up! You're messing up my mind, Jon! Sometimes I think you're messing everything up!
I mean, all this new technology, all because of you! Things are happening too fast. Things shouldn't... Was that the doorbell?

Wally: Janey? The mailman delivered this to me by mistake. Sorry I didn't drop it by earlier. Say hi to Jon for me.

Janey: Uh... Uh, sure. Thanks, Wally.

As further reading, I suggest A Timely Encounter: Dr. Manhattan and Henri Bergson by Christopher M. Drohan, Free Will and Foreknowledge: Does Jon Really Know What Laurie Will Do Next, and Can She Do Otherwise? by Arthur Ward, and I'm just a Puppet Who Can See the Strings: Dr. Manhattan as a Stoic Sage by Andrew Terjesen, all collected in Watchmen and Philosophy, edited by William Irwin and Mark D. White.

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    It's difficult to fault your reasoning, but I personally don't feel that Before Watchmen is relevant here. The ideas it contains aren't Alan Moore's, and almost certainly weren't a consideration when the story was being written. At very least, if it contradicts Watchmen (and as you'll see from my answer, I believe it does), I feel that Watchmen should take precedence, since the question is specifically about Alan Moore's Watchmen. Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 12:47
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    "No by his own design", means "yes". It's not that he couldn't choose, he did choose, by his own free will he chose a specific path, make all his decisions at once, and now lives only with the consequences. Rather than giving up his free will, he made a plan that he follows to the letter with no deviation.
    – Separatrix
    Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 15:15
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    @TheTermiteSociety hence the "if we count". Personally, I thought that Dr. Manhattan's arc was very well written, and respected his character and even art. To counter your argument, I'd say that it is hard to find evidence either way in Watchmen, because there he is already 'in the box', as you point out in your answer. I felt like this is a nice addition to your answer, since it provides a (if you like, semi-) canon explanation as to how he got there. Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 16:03
  • @Separatrix you are correct; by saying no I was referring to Watchmen, while he obviously had a choice in Before Watchmen. My answer was written on my lap in a rush before a lecture, so I didn't include a point or two :P I'll elaborate now that I'm at home. Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 16:05

I think the answer is probably no.

The following is a quote by Alan Moore about his novel Jerusalem (emphasis mine):

I like that idea because when we talk about history we talk about the history of church of state and maybe a dozen families. What about the rest of us? Weren't we doing anything while all that was going on, or were we minor players in their drama? This is insisting that everybody has their own drama and mythology and story, and it is also insisting that if eternalism is a real thing that changes everything.

This suggests to me that Alan Moore is at least very interested in eternalism, and most likely believes in it. (Note: I believe he has actually explicitly stated that he does, but since I can't find the relevant quotes, we'll go with "probably".)

Of course, just because Alan Moore sees things this way, it doesn't mean his stories have to agree with him, but it does make it more likely. Now, consider the following quote from Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen:

There is no future. There is no past. Do you see? Time is simultaneous, an intricately structured jewel that humans insist on viewing one edge at a time, when the whole design is visible in every facet.

It seems pretty clear from this that (as you point out in your question) Dr. Manhattan doesn't believe he has free will. He sees a deterministic universe in which time is "finished" and all actions are predetermined. Ozymandias also doesn't appear to believe in free will, since he sets up events that are designed to have consequences in the past. As far as I remember, everyone in the story (Ozymandias included) takes it for granted that Dr. Manhattan can predict the future accurately. The possibility of exercising free will and creating an alternative future is never even considered.

Since most (if not all) of the characters appear not to believe in free will, since absolutely nothing in the book appears to contradict this hypothesis (consider, there are some things Dr. Manhattan isn't able to know about the future, but none that he's wrong about), and since the author of the book also appears to believe it, I'd say it's reasonable to say that none of the characters in Watchmen have free will.

This will necessarily include Dr. Manhattan.


of course he does he proves this .he did everything he wanted in doomsday clock. not having free will turned out to be fake case. he was only stopping himself from creating universes in watchmen universe and at the end of doomsday clock he showed that he has free will.

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    Do you have references to back up your claims?
    – bobble
    Commented Jul 25, 2022 at 3:06
  • Hi and welcome to Literature Stack Exchange. On this site, we like answers that provide evidence for their claims. For example, you write "at the end of doomsday clock he showed that he has free will": how did he do this? Please edit your answer to illustrate what you mean.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Jul 25, 2022 at 9:26
  • doomsday clock storyline was all about manhattan having free will and deciding to use it. he recreated new 52 by his own will. he also tried to fix the multiverse on his own will. even in before watchmen comics we see manhattan having free will.
    – marnovu
    Commented Jan 8 at 3:20

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