Tit for Tat
Bay City Bound


Fate_50 What is fate? Are our ultimate destinies pre-determined, the natural consequence of cause and effect while we are merely carried along for the ride, and if so what does it mean to talk of ‘free will’? And whether or not our destiny is already fixed, who or what can be understood as the author of our fate?

There has been a sharp decline in the use of the word ‘fate’ (or ‘destiny’, or ‘kismet’) in recent years, reflecting the popularisation of materialistic worldviews and the marginalisation of mysticism. It does not seem that we have discarded our mystic notions so much as it appears we want to limit their discussion in public, perhaps because it supervenes the prevailing scientific dogma, perhaps as a matter of simple politeness. Yet there are clearly ways in which ‘fate’ can be applied, even within an intentionally limited viewpoint such as materialism.

Fate and destiny have a mystic element only when projected into the future, a process requiring some accurate means of prognostication or divination, now widely considered doubtful, impossible or, at the very least, rare and imperfect. If we constrain our focus to the past, fate and destiny become descriptions of what has already occurred – and obtain their connotation of immutability naturally.

For example, it was Ghandi’s fate to be instrumental in earning India its independence from British colonial rule, and also his fate to be assassinated by a Hindu extremist. It was Hitler’s fate to found a brutal fascist regime, instigate abominable racist exterminations, and to commit suicide in abject despair in a bunker beneath Berlin. It was Mother Teresa’s fate to help many in need, to be celebrated for that charity, and to die of old age, beloved by the world.

One may argue against claiming these past histories are fate – we can make claims that the individuals could have chosen differently, that there were other paths that could be taken, that what happened was not fate, but merely what happened to occur. But we cannot alter the past. These events have happened. They do not change. An argument that states things could have transpired differently is inherently metaphysical – how could we prove a hypothesis that depends upon the alteration of the past for its premise? Multiversists may assert their belief in branching time lines, but we only get to see one such history.

Within this perspective, many notions we would often discard can become meaningful. For example, modern materialism generally rejects the idea that a person can be ‘lucky’ – but if random factors consistently favour an individual, such that at the end of their life one can look back at the effects of chance on them and perceive a net balance of benefit, is this not wholly consistent with the notion of the term ‘lucky’? 

One may make theoretical assertions, such as the idea that all random factors balance themselves out in the statistical average, and so the claim of an individual being ‘lucky’ is meaningless – but still, if we examine that one individual whose life is charmed in respect to chance, we cannot deny their claim to the term ‘lucky’ as a descriptor once their life is over – there is no more evidence to collect, and their life history is the whole of the facts of the matter. To make a contrary assertion on the basis of theory is assume the primacy of theory over fact – an available choice, for sure, but one with neither inherent superiority, nor relevance to the matter at hand.

One of the key metaphysical arguments surrounding the concept of fate, is the notion of determinism. If the universe is deterministic, then each state follows necessarily from its previous state, with no possibility of change. A common view in the past was that determinism invalidated free will, and therefore had to be resisted or it would destroy any notion of morality. Baruch Spinoza and David Hume both argued that determinism was inherently required – Hume argues that if there was no determinism then our actions would be random, and that this would be incompatible with morality. His position is one of compatibilism – that there is no contradiction between determinism and free will. 

Modern studies of quantum mechanics re-opened this debate, but insubstantially. It transpires that the mathematical models inherent to quantum mechanics can be interpreted in myriad different ways – there are deterministic interpretations to quantum mechanics (such as Bohm theory) as well as indeterministic interpretations (such as the Copenhagen interpretation). This reiterates the point that quantum interpretations are part of the metaphysics of science, and we are free to choose between them.

As it happens, notions of determinism and indeterminism are always metaphysical in nature. We can see that we deal with only one past, and in that respect determinism has a slight upper hand in the evidence, but whether multiple futures are viable (we have many possible fates - indeterminism) or only one future can occur (we have but one fate - determinism) are misleading perspectives on the nature of the problem. 

We experience time linearly; so engrained is this perspective that we think of ourselves as travelling in time, moving forward one second per second into the future. But from a perspective exterior to time (a God’s-eye-view, if you will) there is just a pattern of states from one corner of the space-time continuum to the other, and connections may go back or forward in time according to how one chooses to view the specific events and elements.

Viewed from the perspective we conventionally consider forward, smashed glass fragments are the consequence of dropping a goldfish bowl. But viewed from the other direction, a goldfish bowl is the consequence of unsmashing the glass fragments. There is a necessary connection of events, but the interpretation depends upon one’s perspective upon time. Viewed forward, a choice may instigate the smashing of the goldfish bowl – viewed backward, that choice is the result. We cannot square our mental image of this situation with our intuitions because we cannot experience time backwards. Our personal experience of consciousness depends upon the arrow of time for its meaning. 

From the God’s-eye-view there is only one universe, one history. This seems to support determinism, as indeterminism must invoke further metaphysical elements (other universes, for instance) to maintain its case. But either way, the situation experienced by an individual facing a decision remains the same: they have a decision to make. Determinism and indeterminism are opinions on whether in identical circumstances an individual will render a decision identically. But this proposition is never testable, it is always metaphysical.

Free will seems to vanish from the God’s-eye-view, but it is still there on careful examination. Take any one individual, and we will see that they faced decisions throughout their life. At the instant of each decision, this choice was real and meaningful and could go in many different ways, constrained only by our imagination and the nature of the situation. Indeed, the more imaginative we are, the more choices we may find. Each such decision, after it is made, becomes a static element contributing to the fixed history that we can imagine being seen from outside time. 

From the God’s-eye-view the outcome is fixed, but from the perspective of the individual the choice is genuine. You could order pizza or you could order salad – even if you doubt that you can make this choice either way for some esoteric reason, or believe (as Hume did) that you would always make the same choice in any particular instant because set factors influence your ultimate choice deterministically, it still remains the case that at each specific moment in time that you are faced with choosing between pizza or salad, you may end up eating one or other of these two foods. That is the essential nature of choice. It selects between possible futures.

From the God’s-eye-view, all choices are resolved – all the individual states in the universe have been determined. But only from the God’s-eye-view, which we will likely never share. From the individual’s view, only the past has been determined. The future remains contingent upon our choices. 

To put it another way, the past is determined, the future is indeterminate, and choice exists solely in the present. This is how time must appear to any individual constrained to experience linear time in but one direction. This is the very definition of free will – God (or something similar) may get to see our fate “in advance” – from outside of time – but from outside of time there are no actions to take. All states are determined; all choices are made. Conversely, from the perspective of our own experience – which is the relevant viewpoint – our choices are very real, and meaningful. 

If we think of fate as describing what is determined – namely the past – then we see that spending time unravelling our past, picking at the loose threads in the tapestry of our personal histories, is time wasted – except in so much that we might, perhaps, learn from our mistakes. Instead of obsessing with the part of our fate which is already “written”, we should focus on making the choices that will give us a future destiny we might favour.

What fate would you like to hold, when all is said and done, and your time on Earth has passed? This is the story you wish to write, the tale you wish to be told, and this is where free will holds its power – in the capacity to make us each the author of our own story, as much as we are able. Our fate, our destiny, our kismet, is the product of what we inherit from the past coupled with the decisions we make in the present. And while we are still alive, while we face our choices, our fate – from our own perspective, at least - is still unwritten.

Koopa_2 The opening image is Fate by Koopa (the only tortoise to have its artwork hanging in all fifty states of the US), which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked to by Koopa or his agent.


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"From the God’s-eye-view there is only one universe, one history."

I'm not sure why one would assume that this would be the case. If I'm understanding you correctly, you're saying that time/space follows a single "line", starting at the beginning and ending at the end, and that line is set down, immutable. Could it not also be the case that from the God's-eye-view, the entirety of space/time would be seen as moving through some flavor of n-dimensional space? One could imagine a vast array of possibilities leading to and from any given moment, in either direction - it's amusing to think that, from a God's-eye-view, you could follow a space/time-line back from the broken fishbowl to an earlier point where each shard of glass was lovingly hand-crafted and placed in a puddle of water by a wily artist.

I think that unless you're just saying a priori that there is one set space/time-line, this God's-eye-view is a somewhat limited one. I may be misunderstanding, but it seems that a more robust view re-opens the question of determinism vs. indeterminism. I could ramble on a bit longer, but it seems that I've used up my quota of hyphens for the day, so I'll just stop there.

I find nothing to disagree with in this view :)

In fact, it reconciles almost perfectly with how I understand the concept of 'predestination' (the idea tha God decides whom he will save) combined with free will.

Even if what I decisions I make have been planned out from infinity, from my point of view, it sure seems like I'm making them.

I can decide what I'll do - even if from another POV it was inevitable.

I think 'Free Will' is entirely a matter of perspective.

Thanks for the great post!

Marc: I believe I understand your issue here, and it is certainly as viable to postulate a "multiversal Gods-eye-view" (as you suggest) as a "single universe Gods-eye-view" (as I did). Since both are metaphysical constructs, they are both effectively unrestricted.

However, pragmatically we only get to deal with a single past. Given that this element is fixed, I project from this to a single future - it's practically an absurd appeal to Occam's razor applied to metaphysics, and as such need not hold. Nonetheless, intuitively, I favour the application of only one metaphysical entity at a time (Gods-eye-view or multiversalism, but not both).

Does choosing to take the multiversalism reopen determinism versus indeterminism? I don't believe it does. My point in this piece is that either view is a metaphysical (untestable) proposition - and adding an equally untestable multiverse to the scenario cannot change that! :)

(What I find particularly interesting - although utterly tangential - is the idea that in a multiversal solution, there is no need for any two people to be in the same "solution to the wave-function" - that is, my universe and yours need not match, even if they briefly intersect! Here, however, I have gone off the metaphysical deep end into total imaginative speculation!)

Thank you for challenging me on this issue though - there's plenty of room for discussion!


RodeoClown: your comment uncovers some of the thoughts that set this piece in motion. For quite some time, I've held the view about the notion 'lucky' expressed in this piece, which leads to a certain way of thinking, but I never fully explored it because I became distracted with various quantum interpretations instead.

Recently, thinking about the Lutheran notion of predestination put me in a strange place, as I could not understand how any religion could relegate 'free will' to a secondary concern (or eliminate it entirely). But putting aside quantum weirdness, it became apparent that free will is an experiential property of being *in time* - from outside of time, everything is a static state (at least on the premise I used here); predestination is therefore a product of an extra-temporal perspective - something that we, as humans, don't get to share. :)

Best wishes!

I think that there is a strong flavour of materialism in this post, and that it affects the reasoning (if not the ultimate argument).

We are talking about the arrow of time, but directional time itself is a meta-physical property, since it is completely reversible under every physical law except the second law of thermodynamics, which is not actually a law but a probability, sort of like sock drawers. It is also possible to show it to be directional under certain circumstances in some quantum physical interpretations, but as you said these are a matter of interpretation, or belief. So it is necessary to pick a belief system in order to support the notion of linear directional time. I'd like to ask then, can we entertain the idea of mis-believing the absolute value of the arrow of time?
1. Reversal - the ancient greeks believed time flowed, but in the opposite direction to what we believe. They stood with their backs to the future, looking at the past stretch out before them. Since their outlook went a long way toward shaping our own, I can't imagine they had any greater insights into time that we've missed. But since we followed almost solely in the Aristotlean tradition, who knows what might we have missed?
2. Schrodinger - if time is evident by the increase in entropy in the physical universe, how is time acting when we don't observe it? Can we say that there is anything outside of our own lightcone? Clearly, this is untestable unless our science is superseded by some FTL methods of communication - which is exactly what is offered by certain post-quantum theories, but so far convergence on these theories is totally reticent. In fact, as investigation continues the diversity of all the theories increases, just like entropy under time. Does this imply that relativity is the ultimate destination of sub-atomic physics?
3. Enlightenment - can we entertain the possibility of having a relative, rather than absolute position with respect to the time dimension, so that our coordinate reference changes with our perspective? This must entail the ability to act accordingly - i.e. to reduce entropy without expending energy. This doesn't contradict the 2nd law of thermodynamics - but that law only applies over the 'forward' direction of time.

So I have reservations about the direction of the argumentation, even if on the whole it has merit and the final argument is one I generally agree with.
In that light, I need to bring up your earlier rejection of nihilism as an attention-worthy belief-system, because if you reject it then you have a problem talking about mis-belief in general. I think that you simply find it an unhelpful metaphysics (which is fine as a personal position), but if you're going further, this is to say that misbelief is not a viable philosophical position. That is logically problematic as it requires any non-believer in one metaphysics to have an alternative to hand.

"Indeed, the more imaginative we are, the more choices we may find."

I'm not sure about this either. I would be in favour of an inverse-proportionality rule between imagination and attention, which might mitigate against the imaginative information-processor. If that is the case, can we really say that the person who sees more choices but spends longer taking them has more options than the person who quickly makes binary decisions? This is a practical, utilitarian way of looking at it I suppose.

zenBen: a strong flavour of materialism - from me? You must surely be mistaken! :) If anything there's a strong dose of phenomenalism (ontological idealism) at root in my position here - I'm assuming mental phenomena, not physical.

Your analysis here is interesting, but I think it mistakes a fundamental tenet of the argument as presented. Your commentary presumes we can assess this matter from an objective, theoretical position - that is, without taking into account the experience of the individual. But my argument is advanced precisely on this account - it hinges upon the direct experience of an individual.

No individual experience, no time. Without this point of perspective, there is no reason to assume "an arrow of time" at all (even in the context of apparently time-directed phenomena such as entropy) - indeed, outside of this position is the "Gods-eye-view". All states specified. Time is an illusion created by experiencing a succession of mental states - it is, at least in the sense discussed here, a *cognitive* phenomena. This is further underlined by general relativity which shows that time can be seen as part of a wider spatial set of dimensions, and does not on this account enjoy the special status we usually afford to it.

I reject nihilism as a belief system worthy of attention in the same way as I reject solipsism - by a dose of pragmatism. No matter how much one may philosophically object to this and that, one still must go to the supermarket and buy bread and milk. ;) Which is to say, we need belief systems compatible with being an individual living in a society, and positions incompatible with (or unhelpful to) this are intellectually narcissistic indulgences.

People are free to choose such paths, but I can and will judge them negatively for getting stuck in "intellectual local maxima" instead of pulling their weight and helping with the real problems.

My claim is that anyone intelligent enough to reach a position of solipsism or nihilism is smart enough to go further.

The solipsist asserts only they exist, the nihilist asserts that there is no objective meaning, purpose, truth or value. Well of course anyone of sufficient intelligence can reach these positions, but why *choose* these positions over other more useful positions. Nihilism practically states: "you have a free hand". Given that premise, why choose nihilism, which goes nowhere, over philosophical positions that could actively contribute to a better life for the individual and a better world for all?

Finally, while I agree that one can get lost in the decision making process, my claim was only in respect of the choices available, not the practical mechanics of acting upon those choices, where your caution is quite apposite. :)

Many thanks for the thoughtful response!

This is a really dumb question, but hey, I'm only the child of a philosopher, so let's ask it: have you ever seen a connection between early video games and Buddhism (many lives, levelling up, different scoring systems like different sects)? Is this just idiotic and flip, or could there be something to it?

Hi Constructivist: is it a really dumb question? It's a really strange question, but they are surely the most fun! :)

The difference between early videogames and Buddhist rebirth is that in rebirth, one does not re-enter the same situation, nor does one (under normal circumstances) remember previous lives. In early videogames, one re-enters the same situation and replays it with full knowledge of what transpired.

However, the parallel does hold up in a more abstract sense... The doctrine behind rebirth is that each soul tries to free itself of that which holds it to this endless cycle (thus achieving Nirvana). In some sense, then, although the player is aware of being placed in the same situations repeatedly (unlike the soul in orthodox Buddhist doctrine), the player is trying to make the right choices in order to complete the game and end the cycle of rebirth - hence completing the game becomes Nirvana in your parallel.

Now I'm quite sure that what one learns from completing an early videogame is not what one would need to find to reach Buddhist Nirvana, but there is still quite clearly a parallel to be drawn, however flippantly. ;)

Best wishes!

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