Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Freedom vs. Fate

In In Defense of the Accidental, the German Odo Marquard addresses the perennial question of human freedom. What is freedom? Is it possible? Doesn't causality or necessity, by God or nature, preclude human choice? Doesn't Fate determine us? Marquard says no:

What makes a human being free is not zero determination--the absence of all determinants--or the superior force of a single determinant, but a super-abundance of determinants...By codetermining man, each of them--so to speak--guarantees him latitude (distance) in relations to the others, and protects him from the sole determining clutches of a single power, in the face of which he would be powerless, on his own. The principle is: "[Divide and escape!]."
In the sense that there is not one fate for each of us, but rather many conflicting fates--many chains of causation, interacting with one another--human freedom exists in overdetermination.

American philosopher Daniel Dennett agrees, sort of, maybe. In Freedom Evolves, Dennett attempts to reconcile causal-determination (e.g. the laws of physics) with human agency. He does so partly by arguing that real-world causation is so complex that it might as well be indeterministic.*

*(This is a simplification of Dennett's argument, and in any event, he also claims that indeterminism doesn't help get you to freedom. The essence of his position rests on a categorical distinction between talking about stuff qua agents vs. talking about stuff qua stuff.)

Fate vs. freedom seems like an important subject. I don't mean capital-F Fate, with the three old crones on their spinning wheel of Destiny as in Greek fables, or the unidentified force for good which guides Scott Bacula through history on Quantum Leap, or the Force of Luke and Darth. I think we can meaningfully talk about "fate" without assuming authorial metaphysics. All I mean by "fate" is the vast set of events which lie outside my control, the fact that very nearly everything which happens in my life happens in spite me rather than because of me. (I.e. Marquard's titular "accidental.")

Like, what could be more relevant to my life than the question of whether my life could--or can--be different than how it is now? Where things get tricky on this question is when you think about how the very answer I give to this question--"I am free," "I am fated"--affects the answer. Because it does: fate-believing people act fatalistic, and freedom-believing people behave freeishly. As Henry Ford said, "Whether you believe you can do something or you believe you can't, you're probably right." The self-referential nature of this pickle is kind of like the weird, logical slipperiness of the paradox "This statement is false."

Per psychologist Julian Rotter ("row-ter"), this is pretty much what happens with most people: "People with an internal locus of control believe that life outcomes are largely under personal control and depend on their own behavior. In contrast, people with an external locus of control believe that their fate has less to do with their own efforts than with the influence of external factors." This is part of a principle known as "reciprocal determinism," according to which a person, their behavior, and their environment all interfere with one another, like bumper cars running into each other. Like Marquard's overdetermination, reciprocal determinism creates indeterminacy through conflicting determinisms. Whether or not indeterminacy is helpful to those who hanker for human freedom is a separate question, but it's certainly comforting to think about.

My own suggestion on all of this is that we don't know whether we're free--not necessarily because freedom is inherently unknowable or anything, but just because we don't really seem to be clear about what "freedom" means per se, outside of specific contexts like prison. But what seems most useful, if maybe not true, is the advice of an old teacher: "Fate governs, but broadly." Maybe like the false choice between nature vs. nurture as the determinant of who a person is, the choice between free will and fate is an illusion: fate sets the rules and limits, and human freedom navigates within them.

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