On which side do you lean, fate or free will?
One of the greatest and most lasting debates of humanity has been the role of destiny in our lives.
Are we the masters of our fate, or is everything pre-determined by powers beyond our control?
Are we mere puppets or robots, falling in step with what is ordained, or are we free independent humans, with our own free will, “captains of our ships”?
As we watch a turbulent world run by cut-throat politicians, as we almost hear the tom-toms of war as the battle rages on in Washington DC, we are left confused and distraught.
Do we have a world leader? One day it is A vs B — or is it B vs D — it seems to matter less and less, while C for corruption emerges as the winner. This is how the wheel of fortune turns.
Napoleon was the man destined to be great. How many more worthy were left to rot by some deserted country-side? So which is it, our will or our destiny?
In Arabic we have the perfect word: maktoub, meaning written. Is it all written, somewhere, up there, pre-determined beforehand, all cut and dried and we have to go through it, with never a peep, accepting what it offers?
Why then do all religions promise us freedom, free will, free judgment, free choice? Yet simultaneously they tell us it is pre-ordained, out of our control.
It is already written who will be the next president of the world’s most powerful nation, so why the fuss?
Are we not governed by our destiny from childhood? Yes, yes it is our genes, and our billion cells, but they too are our destiny, determining our colour, height, mind and all the diseases we are liable to get. Nothing is a coincidence. Destiny can never be changed. Life is full of ups and downs and they are pre-determined too.
We cannot predict the future, because destiny has the upper hand.
What about our free will? Antonio Baldascini of the University of London believes “We make our own fortunes and call them fate.” Can this be true? We work hard, we take risks, we try to achieve, we do what is good; we fight for what is right, but do we always win the grand prize? The karma was meant for someone else. The element of chance, luck, coincidence, fortune — call it what you will — overrules.
If king Edward VIII of Great Britain had not met the twice-divorced, American, social butterfly, Wally Simpson, he would not have abdicated the throne. Now, was that not his own free decision? Consumed with a burning love, how free was he to make the right decision? His act changed the history of his country, maybe the world.
Was it destiny or fate?
Often used interchangeably, the words fate and destiny have distinct meanings.
Fate cannot be understood by means of casual explanation: “It’s fate that flips the discus when it flings/ Of kings makes peasants and of peasants kings.” Some unknown influences cannot be fully explained.
Destiny leads the person who follows and drags him by force if he resists.
Fatalism links up with religion which asserts pre-determination.
There was a time when it was almost an accepted fact of life that each and every event was governed by destiny. There was also a time when astrology was considered a science. Now, it is a pseudo-science at best and modern thinkers consider destiny a superstition.
The role of destiny as a concept started losing weight and rightly so since there is no evidence for it. It certainly has no place in the scientific world which believes a human being is free in his choice of action. Indeed.
Consider this. A thirsty man races to the fridge, grabs a bottle of cool water to quench his thirst. The bottle slips from his hand; broken glass everywhere, blood flows non-stop. He is rushed to the hospital and may lose a toe. Are these forces beyond or within his control? How can he acknowledge it is free will, he was just thirsty.
This was an accident. Accidents happen every day, everywhere. Be they major or minor, are they pre-determined or the result of our stupidity?
Free will may just be an illusion. Aristotle thought so. “Nothing is or takes place fortuitously either in the present or in the future and there are no alternatives. Everything takes place of necessity.” If one man confirms that an event will happen and another denies it, one of the two must be speaking truly.
The destiny of a whole nation can be in the hands of a crooked judge or a cheating party as events unfold on the world scene. We shall soon find out what was pre-ordained, despite the millions of dollars spent, the billions of lies told and the endless prayers on both sides.
We reap the natural consequences of the decisions we make, but the debate of destiny and free will remains alive as long as there is no proof of one or the other.
We like to think that life is a balance between both. We are not so shallow to believe in luck alone and discard the power of cause and effect.
Still, there remains this suspicion that nothing is a coincidence; love, marriage, success, there is something fate-like, and there is none to blame and none to thank.
“Is our path laid out before us/ Or is it something that we choose/ Or do the choices that we make/ Determine how life goes.”
Sir Thomas Hawkins (1617-1690)
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly