The Fifth Philosophy: Of Fate and Freewill

The Three Fates

Candide

‘There is a chain of events in this best of all possible worlds; for if you had not been turned out of a beautiful mansion at the point of a jackboot for the love of Lady Cunégonde, and if you had not been involved in the Inquisition, and had not wandered over America on foot, and had not struck the Baron with your sword, and lost all the sheep you brought from Eldorado, you would not be here eating candied fruit and pistachio nuts.’

‘That’s true enough,’ said Candide, ‘but we must go and work in the garden.’

~ Voltaire

The notion of freewill is one of the most commonly used and perhaps most commonly misunderstood concept of human ability. Most of us believe that we have the freedom to make choices and that reality is not externally predetermined by forces not under our control. The belief that ‘we make ourselves the individuals we are’ is the cornerstone of many people living in the world today. Freewill and free choice emphasizes that: we are what we ‘choose’ ourselves to be and that everything in the world starts with choice.

“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”

~ Rousseau

The common existentialist formula of choice as stated above holds a widespread appeal to the common masses. It gives an illusion of absolute power in the hands of the individual to choose what he would like to become simply with the use of his freewill. It is rare that our minds look back and reconsider the nature of our ability to choose and the nature of choice itself. The common misconception is that if there is no human ability to make choices, everything is fated.

“God does not play dice.”

~ Albert Einstein

If everything is fated to happen, all our choices and decisions are unalterable and inevitable as an effect of a preceding causes that are already predetermined themselves. Freewill would then simply be an illusion of choice when in reality all things are necessary and unchangeable. The most common argument against fate would be the collapse of moral responsibility if everything is indeed predetermined before hand.

Why should an individual be responsible over an action that he has no control of? If everything is fated and we are merely actors playing a part in God’s script, it would make no sense to condemn a murderer over his crime. Even the act of murder itself would be a predetermine product of a predetermine process of which the murderer is merely a tool and not the perpetrator. Moral responsibility of an individual for his actions would collapse because no one could be held accountable for what he has done.

The argument of the collapse of moral responsibility is the most obvious and also the most irrelevant one against fate. If everything is fated, the fact that someone is held responsible over his actions while others escape judgment might also be predetermined. Hence, there would be no collapse of moral responsibility and no negation of fate as being a true principle of reality. Everything in the world would then be just a preset plan which due to time, unfolds at a preset pace. Even the writing and reading of this article is a fated event that could happen in no other way.

“Einstein, stop telling God what to do!”

~ Niels Bohr

Taking reality as is it, we also realize that it is impossible to be alive without making choices. If everything is fated, why is it we must choose what to do in the near future? Why can we remember just the choices we made in the past but not those we will make in the future? The paradox of choice is that we have no choice when it comes to making choices! In other words, we cannot choose not to choose because in doing so, we have already made a choice.

Yet even the definition above is misleading. We have absolutely no choice in denying our own existence due to hunger and desire. We have no choice in choosing who our parents are even if they disown us. Similarly, we have no choice in determining which era we live in and also which era we would die in. After we omit the factors that we have no control on, we realize that the boundaries in which our freewill is allowed to operate is surprisingly small.

“There is no cure for birth or death save enjoy the interval.”

~ Santayana

In relation to time, we find that choice is only relevant for future events and not for past events. While the past in unchangeable, the future is still uncertain and subject to variation. Thus, one can view events of the past as being subject to fate while events in the future as being subject to freewill. However, bear in mind that it is the past that sets the stage for the future and it is the past that we must build our future upon. We can never ‘choose’ to ignore the past.

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