Future, fate and free will

The universe surprises itself....

Divination is not just about knowing the future in advance. It’s also about knowing how to manage the present — and perhaps also how to manage the past.

And if we anxiously use divination to see what the future will be like, it’s not clear that — in our own minds at least — we’re asking to know something preordained. Nor do we want to know exactly how things will be.

Instead, we want to know the kind of thing the future will be like. And we want to know how we can offset or avoid the bad stuff and how we can increase the amount of good stuff. We want to play the future to our advantage.

Destiny / density

There’s a difference between determinism and destiny (or fate). Determinism says, “This is how things will unfold, and they couldn’t be otherwise.” Destiny is more like so many centres of gravity towards which we’re pulled.

Oedipus did his best not to sleep with his mother and kill his father. But somehow he was pulled towards this fate regardless. Presumably, he could have sought out entirely different ways of avoiding this unhappy ending. But somehow the gravatational pull of fate would have led him to doing just this by another means.

Navigating in a world governed by the idea of fate is not the same as navigating through a deterministic world. It is more like plotting a course through space between super-dense bodies which exert a gravitational pull, however you choose to move. Destiny is density.

Crashing the party

I’m always annoyed by instrusiveness of metaphysics. You are having a nice, quiet chat about the small, intimate details of how we make decisions, and how much freedom we have in our decision-making (some, seems to be a not unreasonable answer, but not as much as we might hope). Then the big metaphysical questions come lumbering in, like loud, uninvited guests, bellowing their opinions about how everything is determined in advance, or isn’t determined in advance, or someting between the two. And it becomes impossible to continue the conversation.

What you want is to have a conversation about how choice happens. But metaphysics has boorishly shoved everyone to one side, and is hollering about how the universe actually is.

It would be good to be able to talk about how choice happens without having to invite metaphysics to the party.

A more fun way of asking about determinism (if that’s what you want to talk about) might be this: is the universe capable of surprising itself?

Lucretius. The universe surprises itself

Lucretius’s random swerve of an atom, the clinamen, is often seen as a way of patching physics for free will. E.g. Cicero claims that Epicurus ,“saw that if those atoms of his were always falling downwards by their own weight, their motion would be fixed and predetermined, and there would be no room for free will in the world.”

I’m not so sure (though Lucretius may have been first person to explicitly us the term “free will”).

Lucretius claims the clinamen is necessary for free will. But this is not the same as the claim that the swerve itself is somehow free will. Because for Lucretius, the swerve is necessary for there to be anything at all, for there to be a universe in which things happen, freely or otherwise:

If it were not for this swerve, everything would fall downwards like raindrops through the abyss of space. No collision would take place and no impact of atom upon atom would be created. Thus nature would never have created anything

Lucretius’s clinamen is sometimes seen as metaphysical excess. But equally you could see it as something more modest: the smallest possible grain of indeterminacy needed for anything to happen at all. It’s the source of both the order we see in the universe, and the creative fecundity of the universe.

A universe that permits even the smallest grain of indeterminacy is a universe capable of surprising itself.

Free will / a parochial concern

Also, there’s the relative absence of any anxiety over free will in Chinese thought. Kai Marchal and Christian Helmut Wenzel:

We should also notice that some of the questions debated by Western philosophers do not appear to be very meaningful to philosophers in East Asia. (Kai Marchal, Christian Helmut Wenzel, “Chinese Perspectives on Free Will” from: The Routledge Companion to Free Will.)

It’s possible to talk about agency, responsibility and so on without thinking in terms of free will — without inviting metaphysics to the party.

See also