Thursday, February 26, 2009



For the last two years, I have grappled with the concepts “fate” and “destiny.” I always heard these words in movies and on television: “It’s your destiny;” “I was fated to do this;” “You can’t escape fate;” “You were destined for greatness.” I never really paid much attention to them. They did not make any sense to me because I believed that I had total control over my life. I made decisions and those decisions led me places. I did not grow up with religion. My father was an engineer and I learned that reason solved problems, not faith. In fact, my family rejected churches and I cultivated a strong distaste for religious institutions. By the time I was 13, I was already calling priests hypocrites and laughing at invitations to “let us pray.” In my world, study and sense yielded real results. Life seemed to be discernible. I felt like I had control.

But things changed as I got older. Through no choice of my own, I met people who took my life in different directions. I created plans and abandoned them, even after I thought my plans would never change. Calamities struck with no reasonable explanation. When I was 28, my father developed cancer and died virtually overnight. A few months later, I lost all desire to practice law after I saw what really motivated lawyers. The next year, my life partner suffered a devastating accident and almost died, leaving me to care for him for the rest of his life. During these trials, I began to wonder whether reason and study really could affect my life’s course. After all, I felt that I always made reasonable decisions in life, yet these calamities struck anyway. I began to reflect deeply on my assumptions about life. Maybe I had been wrong all along. No matter the ultimate answer, my thinking changed. I still trusted my reason in many circumstances. But I did not give it full authority anymore. Life had shown me that things happen for no apparent reason. And I began to approach life with a new openness about truth.

“Destiny” refers to a belief that all events in life have been preordained. For example, if you get up one morning and meet the person with whom you will spend your life, a believer in “destiny” would say that the meeting was “destined;” your choices or “luck” had nothing to do with it. In “destiny,” nothing is incidental. “Fate” refers to a similar belief that events have been planned in advance, leaving us to experience them as the plan unfolds. To a believer in reason, these concepts sound absurd. Reason implies that all truth flows from human sense and the inferences we can make based upon our senses. A reasonable person would reject destiny because there is no way to verify whether some “higher power” planned or ordained events. Reason requires verification. When something cannot be verified, it cannot be believed. To that extent, reason and destiny cannot coexist. Destiny posits that something beyond our senses controls the course of our lives and the world. Reason cannot perceive this “controlling power,” so reason rejects destiny as “superstition” or “irrationality.”

Yet if something cannot be perceived, does that mean it does not exist? This is the core weakness of reason. Reason works only to the extent we assume that all truth must be perceptible to the senses. But suppose there are powers that cannot be perceived. Reason has nothing to say about them. Destiny is an appealing idea because the senses can neither prove nor disprove it. A reasonable man can freely say: “Destiny does not exist because I cannot perceive it.” Still, the same reasonable man cannot counter an argument that destiny exists beyond human sense. If human sense is the only language reason can use to counter arguments, then it has nothing at all to say about phenomena that may exist beyond human sense. That is the reason why I cannot confidently say that destiny is nonsense. I cannot say for certain whether it does or does not exist. My senses do not provide the answer. For a man who once fully trusted reason to answer life’s quandaries, this was a very disturbing thought.

My confusion deepens when I consider my life’s course. Looking back over the years, events seem to have occurred with seamless precision, as in a crafted theatrical plot. I met a person with whom I’ve spent my life. I studied law. I had encounters and experiences that changed my perspective, even though I did not choose to have them. My father died suddenly and I had to reevaluate what life really meant. My values shifted. I began to think that perhaps I really was not in control after all. Perhaps something planned this course beyond my knowledge. What did I know? My senses could not tell me one way or the other. Yet life keeps moving forward with some vague design. I like to think that my choices have an influence on its course. But how do I know whether I was not “destined” to make certain choices? I may or may not believe that. No matter what I believe, I cannot disprove it.

Destiny both comforts and confounds. It comforts because it removes our responsibility for choices. After all, if everything is planned in advance, then nothing we choose will alter the result. Thus, if we accidentally kill someone while driving, nothing we could have done would have changed the outcome. How can we be responsible if it was our “destiny” to kill this person? In a less severe example, suppose we do not get a job we want. How can we blame ourselves for the result if destiny mandates that we do not achieve the goals we intend to achieve?

Destiny confounds because it undermines responsibility and choice. Our society relishes blame. We constantly search for “culprits,” “wrongdoers,” “negligence” and “fault.” Yet fault implies that someone made an improper choice. Because he had the opportunity to choose correctly, we can justifiably punish him when he chooses incorrectly. But if destiny applies, then the “culprit” really had no choice at all; he was “destined” to make the wrong choice. How can we punish someone who simply does what fate intended? How can responsibility exist if a person is destined to be irresponsible? Destiny confounds social order. Social order depends upon enforcing “proper choices” that accord with dominant values. Yet destiny teaches that choice is an illusion. If people have no real capacity to make choices, then it would be perverse to punish them for merely following their allotted course. How could we justify condemning a murderer for “choosing to kill a man” if he really had no choice to make? He was “destined to kill that man.” That was his “allotted course.” Can we punish him for fulfilling his allotted course? Obviously our society cannot countenance this idea, even if it is true. For administrative convenience, the law punishes people for “wrong choices,” even though it cannot verify whether destiny controls people’s choices.

Destiny and fate leave us tantalized. The longer we live, the more it seems that our life’s course follows some prearranged logic. The longer we live, we encounter more and more unexplainable experiences. Why did we have an accident? Why did we meet this person? Why was I standing on that corner that day? Why did my father die? Why did this have to happen NOW? We cannot grasp the reasons. We may vaguely think we have an idea, but our reason cannot supply the answer. And it is difficult to reconcile destiny with social values that tell us we “are in control of our lives” and that we “are responsible for our actions.”

Commercial life embraces the notion that we are in control. Managers’ rhetoric encourages employees to “get out there and make it happen.” Commerce implies purposeful action. It implies that human volition can make a difference in events. On the surface, that appears true. After all, “successful people” all seem to work hard and force their way through to victory. But what about destiny? Was it really their choices that created the result? Or did they make their choices according to a higher power that arranged the sequence? Did they “make it happen,” or were things going to happen in their favor no matter what? Perhaps there was someone with as much drive, intelligence and spirit as Alexander Graham Bell, but destiny chose Bell to invent the telephone, not the unknown man who ended up lonely, misunderstood and forgotten. How do we know? Did Bell’s choices make the difference? Or did destiny intend his choices to make the difference?

Put simply, anyone who believes in destiny must reject the invitation to “go out there and make it happen.” If events and results are preordained, then no frantic effort will alter the course. A successful man may well say: “I got to my position because I worked hard and made all my own choices.” Yet can he also say that he was not destined to make those choices? What placed him in the position to meet the right people and say the right things? What caused his parents to meet and raise him the way they did? Did he control those things, too? In a word, he cannot disprove whether destiny played a role in creating the circumstances that led to his success.

These are truly elusive ideas. True, it is pure speculation whether destiny exists. On the other hand, speculation is our only tool when dealing with imperceptible phenomena. Many people squarely reject destiny because it is a dangerous idea. If they started to believe in destiny, they would lose their vigor for life. They would lose “control,” and people do not like losing control. People cling to the notion that their choices matter because they think their choices define them. Without the power to choose, people cease to be subjects; they become the objects of destiny. Nonetheless, renouncing destiny is more stubbornness than a categorically correct choice. One can reject destiny but not disprove it. By refusing to believe in it, an individual merely manifests his subjective impression that it does not exist; but belief alone does not objectively prove or disprove destiny.

If we even partially embrace destiny, life suddenly seems more bearable. We no longer must blame ourselves when our hopes and dreams do not materialize, for destiny intended a different result. Destiny obviates regret, since it makes no sense to second-guess ourselves for choices we really had no volition to make. Destiny removes the sting from life’s choices because we genuinely have no control over the outcome. If life’s course will be the same no matter what decisions we make, how can we feel bad about our decisions? In short, destiny comforts as much as it confounds.

It is impossible to refute destiny. At the same time, it is extremely difficult to fully embrace it. I try to steer a middle course. I like to think that my choices influence the general course of my life, even if some imperceptible power places me in situations where those choices can make a difference. On the other hand, life’s apparently irrational twists belie the contention that our choices have absolute control over events. Our choices will not save us from life’s inexorable course. Fortune and misfortune follow their own, unknowable path. Experience reveals that we do not have absolute control. And we never will, no matter who tells us to “go make it happen.” I think it best to have faith in our decisions, respect others and try to make ourselves happy, all the while remembering that there are some things we will never know. We can steer that course by at least winking at destiny. In other words, we need not take our hands off the wheel to believe that our final destination may be completely beyond what we reasonably envisioned.

We can try our best to “go make it happen.” But if it doesn’t, we should not regret it.


SteveW said...

You have similar struggles in this concept as I do. I find it difficult to latch onto points of debate and yet I don't want to be a mere cheerleader in the discussion.

I think that reason is two-dimensional where destiny (fate, randomness, whateveer) is a third dimension. A bug crawls around on a piece of paper, and a hand comes flying down from above and squashes him. Did the bug actually control where he was on the paper? Yes. Was his reason real? Of course. And yet, he could not avoid the hand of fate.

Both are real. To maximize your own effectiveness, you must act as though you can control everything. However, you have to realize that, in the end, some things are out of your control.

I don't believe in "destiny" I guess, but there are many things beyond reason even though I am an absolute slave to reason wherever I find it. I have learned over the years though that reason is a processing tool, and that bad inputs lead to bad outputs even if the reason is perfect. I have learned to be more suspicious of my inputs, and therefore not as reliant on my outputs, even as I think my ability to reason has become more precise.

angelshair said...

Someone gave me an example to explain freewill in destiny, and I like it:
a fish in a river.the fish can swim from on part of the river to another, but will not change from one river to another.
I have the same question. I know we can make it happen, but what proves us that this was not part of our destiny? This is the reason why I choose to believe both in destiny and the freewill depending on which of the two is most convinient :).

Balthazar Oesterhoudt said...

Isn't it interesting how malleable the concept is? Because you can't prove or disprove destiny, it always makes a ready excuse or explanation for both good and bad things. You can spring it as it suits you.