Ineffable: Fate vs Free Will

Ineffable: Fate vs Free Will

Ineffable: adjective.  in·ef·fa·ble | \ (ˌ)i-ˈne-fə-bəl.  Definition of ineffable:

1) incapable of being expressed in words:

a) INDESCRIBABLE.  Ex: ineffable joy

b) UNSPEAKABLE.  Ex: ineffable disgust

2) not to be uttered :

a) TABOO.  Ex: the ineffable name of Jehovah

As per the above definition, provided by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the ineffable is broadly defined as something too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words; but more specifically, the term is used almost exclusively to talk about matters of God.  The ineffable, in religious contexts, is by nature unknowable; that which cannot be communicated cannot be shared. As part of that, if there is a higher power out there with a plan for us all, we are destined to never know or understand it.

Destined--it’s a good word.  Whether or not you believe in God or any other higher being, discussions of fate, of destiny, vs our own free will are important philosophical exercises when it comes to self-determination and carving our own paths.  Everything may happen for a reason, but is that reason in our control, or not?

I want to note that the purpose of this particular blog post is not to convince readers of or against the existence of God, or of fate or destiny or even free will.  Rather, it is an examination of how great thinkers have argued both sides of this debate from a variety of contexts, and what new, applicable knowledge we may be able to glean from their wisdom.  Without coming to any conclusions (I’ll leave that to you), I hope the arguments I describe herein regarding the question of few will vs fate will generate theories that will resonate with you and help guide you in your daily life.  I will also be using “God” and “fate” fairly interchangeably, as representation of an entity or power that puts our decisions outside of our own control.

Aristotle and Fatalism

        The question of fate vs. free will is one of the oldest and most hotly debated in philosophical history.  Modern thinkers can trace the question all the way back to Ancient Greece, with Plato and Aristotle.[1]

        Aristotle popularized the concept of “logical fatalism.”  Unlike your garden-variety fatalism, which is most often used to describe resignation at an avoidable future, logical fatalism is the acknowledgment that, as events happen in the future, we are powerless to change those events from coming to pass.

        Aristotle’s theory is rooted in a simple base thought: every statement describing a human action is either true or false, including those about the future.   The negation of those statements is also either true or false. Take, for example, the following two sentences:

        In three years, you will decide to get a Master’s Degree.

        In three years, you will not decide to get a Master’s Degree.

        In his argument, Aristotle states that, by default, one of these statements would be true and the other would be false.  The language he uses is “necessarily,” which in this context means something more like “inevitably.” If an action is to come to pass, then it does so necessarily.  If an action is not to come to pass, then it necessarily does not. Using the example above, in three years, you will either decide to get a Master’s Degree, or you will not decide to get a Master’s Degree; whatever the result, based on Aristotle’s logical fatalism, it will be inevitable.

Thomas Hobbes and Actional Liberty

        Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century English philosopher whose work was a vital influence on the modern theory of social contracts, argued that not only did free will exist, but that it was a necessary part of any moral society.  For Hobbes, free will was found in the actions that resulted from it. He defined “actional liberty” as actions taken as a direct result of the free will of an individual, without any intervention from outside influences. As he wrote in his masterpiece, Leviathan, “I conceive liberty to be right defined in this manner: Liberty is the absence of all the impediments to action, that is not contained in the nature, and in the intrinsical quality of the agent.”[2]

        That said, it is important to note that Hobbes also believed the existence of the causal will exert onto those actions, is, in turn, caused by something else, out of the control of the individual.  Even so, he argued, the choice is ultimately in our hands. Even if the factors leading up to our decisions are controlled by some outside power, the actual decision is the result of our own wills.

The Neuroscientific Argument for the Existence of Fate

        Science and religion are often framed as opposing sides in any number of debates about humankind and the rest of the natural world.  Why should the argument about free-will be any different? Against all expectations, however, there is a strong argument based on brain science that free will is an illusion, and that our decisions are all predetermined.

        The theory, in a nutshell, is this: all human behavior is governed by our brains.  Our brains are formed before we are born, and built based on the genetic blueprints of our DNA.  While life experiences may change our perspectives, at a molecular level, our brains stay the same from the day we are born to the day we die.  We are fated to follow the building blocks we were born with.

        To go ever further, a 2007 study found that our decision-making skills are influenced by neurological processes that we never consciously recognize.[3]  The existence of certain mental illnesses like addictions, which are defined by the lack of control an afflicted person has over their own decision-making abilities, demonstrates how strong an effect these hidden processes have on the human capacity to choose.

        Deus ex machina: God is in the machine, and the machine is our brains.

The Neuroscientific Argument for Free Will

        On the other hand, some scientists argue that these neurological processes are indeed the defense of the concept of free will.  Instead of being unchangeable causes of the decisions we make, they argue, these processes represent the externalization of our wills once those decisions have been made.  The mechanisms of our brains don’t cause us to make decisions; they are our decisions.

        Hilary Bok, an associate professor at John Hopkins University, argues that neuroscience can explain how we come to decisions, but not why.  In her own words, “Neuroscience can answer [questions about the human capacity to self-govern], and it can provide causal explanations of human action, but it can't resolve the question of whether or not such explanations are compatible with free will.”[4]

Daniel Wegner and Thalia Wheatley proposed that the very definition of free will as used by neuroscientists is wrong right down to its very concept.  Rather than defining our choices as the result of neurological processes, they propose that free will is the conscious acknowledgment of those processes as humans interpret their own thoughts as the cause of their actions.[5]  By this theory, humans exert their wills over their own decisions, independent of neurological causes leading up to them.

So Why Does It Matter?

        The question of whether we have free will or are destined to follow a path laid out by us by some other force has a direct relation to questions of morality and ethics.  It all comes down to accountability.

        A rock falls down in a mudslide after a storm and blocks the highway beneath, creating an accident.  Without question, the rock is the cause of the accident, but we would never call it “wrong” for causing it.  It’s a rock--it didn’t make the choice to fall, nor did it have the capacity to do so.

        Likewise, if our actions are not truly our own, can any of us being held responsible for wrongdoing?

        The answer, in my opinion, is a resounding yes.  Regardless of whether or not someone or something else is ultimately pulling the strings, it is the moral responsibility of every living human to try to be the best person they can be.  If we have free will, then we alone are accountable for our actions. If we are all following a predestined path--whether the creator of the path is God, fate, or just synapses firing in our brains in specific, unchangeable patterns--we are still conscious enough to do right from wrong.

No matter the case, it is our responsibility to behave in moral and ethical ways.  At the very least, that’s what I’m choosing!

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