From time immemorial the inquisitive among us have spent innumerable hours philosophizing about existence. Is “life,” the integrated and unitary flavor of conscious mental experience, under our volitional control? Or are conscious intentions and perceived acts of will of unconscious origin? Are goal-directed actions, perceived by me, you, and others as being initiated voluntarily, predetermined or not? Are we masters of our own destiny, or is that an epiphenomenon of wishful thinking, fabricated at the behest of a dominant brain hemisphere wishing to present the self in the best possible light?
This million dollar question transcends time, cultural milieu and discipline. It has been asked in variant forms, and has spawned heterogeneous conclusions. Ultimately espoused beliefs concerning the “fate vs. free will” debate are indivisible from ingrained epistemic frameworks through which the whole of human life and the cosmos are perceived. This suggests that deterministic perspectives are bound to reflect reductionist evaluations of the human condition, and that non-deterministic perspectives would reflect holistic equivalents. Of course there’s always exceptions to the rule.
At first glance the two theoretical lenses bequeathed by traditional philosophy—the notion of “fate” and the notion of “free will” —seem diametrically opposed. “Fate” constitutes a conviction that events of our lives are “predetermined.” We are colorful puppets which extracerebral puppeteers or “intelligences” manipulate, manage, and maneuver without our choosing. More florid descriptions of fate liken humans to fallen auburn and yellow leaves churning within the vortices of a torrent, to utensils swept up around the funnel of a tornado, and to sea lions caught in the barbed jaws of a ravenous white pointer shark. These subjects are at the mercy of phenomenally extraordinary forces, never quite knowing when or if they might be released from lamentable strangleholds and relieved of their helpless states. Fate, it seems, is all about sobering climaxes and conclusions. Nonetheless, its dreaded ability to conjure and facilitate collective feelings of disempowerment have not dampened its popularity. For many, the allure of being absolved of personal responsibilities for having made irrational or unethical choices is justified by displacing accountability to “external” forces, which makes it a preferred weltanschauung. Indeed, the notion of fate makes blame games feasible where dubitable choices, or choices perceived as less than honorable, can be offloaded onto unassuming others. All politicians do it so why shouldn’t we?
Opposing the deterministic view is “free will,” the idea that incarnate subjects equipped with a metaphorical mind-space can formulate, co-ordinate, and execute goal-directed actions within environmental niches. These actions reflect explicit consequences over chance expectation. We posit that at some stage during our archaic evolutionary history, permanent increases in neural complexity created a functionally self-organizing brain cortex able to support processing systems with emergent properties. Alongside this new cerebral assembly came subjective mental experience—a curious phenomenon void of “scientific objectivity” but nevertheless able to surmount the substrate of quantum indeterminacies and modulate movement of energy and information across time.
Some would call this “mind,” and information exchange, a “group mind.” Such a robust countercurrent to entropy meant that we, Homo sapiens, could now nurse our way through quantum states and disorder by manipulating interaction patterns and external affairs according to our acquired cognitive-affective programs and the like.
I suppose maintaining internal order against the disordering and chaotic forces of the external environment, along with an informed flow-through of micro-events via the proactive selection or rejection of quantum states, in a way is an expression of “will.”
Our latitudes may not be infinite, easy, or parsimonious, nonetheless, even the most punitive critic of “free will” cannot deny our in-built potentiality for extricating ourselves from unconscious reflexive strings when our patterns and narratives become excruciating, maladaptive, and creatively stagnant. If this were not fact, how else would we advance scientifically and technologically, achieve feats documented in the Guinness Book of Records, or transcend and defeat chronic and terminal illnesses? More and more, it seems that in a brave new world where scientific accounts have finally impinged upon epistemological territories under philosophical jurisdiction, there is still room for non-determination responses to the “fate vs. free-will” debate. There is still a dignified place for notions of a human mind working its will on Nature, bending Nature in certain directions—a possibility of the dice being loaded.
So which of the two stands on firmer empirical ground?
The wise and conscientious may be hesitant to draw definitive conclusions and instead find their intellectual solace by making theoretical syntheses between the two. When it comes to all the possible trajectories that human life can take, there is something veridical about deterministic and something veridical about non-deterministic standpoints. Both may be empirically valid or “true.” Why should we capitulate to the fallacy of inflexible either-or logic when the human condition (microcosm) and the cosmos (macrocosm) persistently reveal themselves as an agglomeration of paradoxes to our trained Cartesian eyes?
For instance, we can engage in passive fantasy and active imagination. We can attend to perceptual information and sensory stimuli selectively or we can be mindfully aware of our immediate surroundings without focalizing attention. We can conjure long-term goals and dreams, enacting sequential baby steps necessary to accomplish them, or we can perambulate aimlessly about like mindless automatons, never quite knowing where we’re going or what we’re doing. And, we can deceive socially with a cartoon-like smile and concurrently be seething with envy and loathing for another’s serendipitous encounters and good fortune. Moreover, we are forever vacillating between active participation in a co-created sociocultural world and consensus reality, and antisocial withdrawal into artificial worlds fashioned by our vivid imaginations. Nature sometimes tells us where to go, and sometimes we tell Nature where to go. The dice of life are loaded, but sometimes not it seems.