Fate or Free Will?

What dictates the events of our lives?

Firstly, let me just say I’m not interested in semantically splitting hairs about Fate vs. Destiny. I’m calling it Fate because Destiny sounds a bit more cringey in my opinion, and we’ll leave it at that.

“Ew, ‘Destinies’? Uh, no, we’re the Fates,”

God only knows how long this question has plagued the minds of mankind, but I have to suspect it was one of the first Big Ones™, along with what happens after death, and if our planet is the singular host of life amongst the great expanses of outer space. Personally, I’m pretty convinced of consciousness persisting after death, one way or another, and aliens seem a pretty safe bet, too. But as for this philosophical problem? I don’t think the answer is a simple solution. Counterintuitively, I believe the reality is more of a “both/and” sort of scenario.

At face value, predestination and free will seem as incompatible as oil and water. How can I be held responsible for that which I did not decide? Or rather, how can I choose to do anything other than what I am fated to do? If there truly is Fate and our lives have been decided for us before our births, how can it be so cruel and engage in such apparent favoritism?

Let me be clear: I don’t subscribe to the belief that we are all mere pawns of Fate, helplessly and hopelessly flung into the entropy of this batshit universe. I believe in the power of the individual and freedom of choice. It’s not that we have no control in the events of our lives, so much as the consequences of our decisions are decided before we ever reach the point of making them. Confusing? Maybe. Allow me to make an analogy:

There used to be these books, before portable video games and streaming TV shows, called “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” books. (Good Lord, I sound fucking old.) When you reached the end of a section, you’d be presented with options on what to do next — enter the door on the right and turn to page 17, enter the door on the left and turn to page 29, lick both doorknobs and turn to page 34. Regardless of what you decided to do, those other pages stayed as they were. The resulting effects of whatever choice you made were already decided, but which choice you made remained up to you. This is how I believe all of our lives are laid out; each of us containing an incomprehensibly thick book of options and consequences, but you can’t read the pages you don’t make the decisions for. Or at least, we aren’t supposed to.

Rejecting the premise of free will entirely has some unsettling implications. Reducing ourselves to a series of mindless chemical reactions and surges of neural electricity, illusorily convincing ourselves of our own autonomy, can alleviate some sense of responsibility for one’s actions, but at what cost? Much in the same way that examining cadavers and people in hospice has gotten us no closer to scientifically confirming or refuting the existence of a soul, the question of free will is one that I don’t believe science can answer, nor should it. Social experiments have shown that when people are functioning under the impression that they don’t have free will, they’ll opt for less ethical decisions. This makes a paradoxical bit of sense: someone who believes they “have no choice” can justify pretty much anything, while someone who believes the consequences of their actions are their direct responsibility is likelier to employ more careful consideration in their decision making.

In my own life, I can appreciate a dose of fatefulness here and there. I’ve detailed a fateful incident with an ex-girlfriend in another piece, when the universe tried to warn me that relationship was doomed.

The first time I distinctly felt the tug of Fate, I’ll be honest, I was not a fan. That shit freaked me out. I was operating under my former materialist mindset, in which the universe’s existence was the unintended byproduct of a chaotic explosion of utter chance. It was around 11, maybe a little closer to midnight, on an especially icy Michigan night, and I was foolishly on the road. To be completely honest, I can’t recall where I was going or from where I was coming; the only thing that sticks in my memory about that drive was nearly losing my life.

It wasn’t white-out conditions, but bad enough that I should’ve known better. I was rapidly approaching a stoplight, but admittedly, I was lost in thought and probably stoned. As my focus shifted back to the pressing matter of controlling a few tons of steel as it barreled through the slippery slush, the stoplight turned red.

“Oh! Shitshitshitshitshit!” I stomped on the brake, but too abruptly. I was probably going about 50 mph, so the sudden halt caused my Chrysler Concorde to fishtail, eventually spinning out completely. I did about a 540° spin into the intersection and as my car finally came to stop, the radio chimed in: “-and I almost died!”

What are the odds?

I should’ve been pulling off to the side of the road, or just continuing on my dumbass way, but for a moment, I was stuck, dumbfounded, with my car faced the wrong way in that intersection. Snowflakes peacefully drifted down around my vehicle. I did a double-take at my radio, it was too surreal. I did almost die, but how did Eminem start narrating my life? Fortunately, as mentioned earlier, it was late; hardly anyone else was driving around in that mess of a storm. Nobody t-boned me. Nobody even saw what happened, as far as I could tell. I muttered to myself about how no one would ever believe this shit and carried on my way.

While I believe in free will, I acknowledge that it can be hijacked. People can be placed in circumstances beyond their control, through no fault of their own, and have their range of options severely limited. Addiction, for instance, tosses free will around like a ragdoll. The more opportunities an individual is afforded, the stronger their will, the better the choices they’re empowered to make. If someone has only ever known homelessness, panhandling, and snatching grocery store produce to subsist, turning down a stranger’s offer for something to numb their pain might hardly seem like a reasonable choice to make, even if it would be more damaging in the long-term. Once a chemical dependence is established in the brain, free will takes a backseat. It takes assistance, it takes other people giving a shit; no man is an island.

It’s imperative that we value our willpower and decision-making ability, and exercise them regularly as if they were muscles. Even small, seemingly inconsequential decisions should be paid special attention from time to time; when the stakes are low, it’s easier to weigh pros against cons. Eventually, making beneficial choices will just feel natural.

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