Fate and Free Will

Fate: Predetermined outcome that cannot be controlled or changed.

Free Will: The ability to make choices which can change and/or determine an outcome.

The Robert Frost Argument

In “The Road Not Taken,” poet Robert Frost writes about a split in the road. The narrator in poem is forced to make a decision as to which road to travel; he chooses the road that appears to be less traveled and argues that it made an impact on his life. “I took the one less traveled by,” the poem ends, “And that has made all the difference.”

Frost argues through his symbolic poem that free will is what controls mankind’s existence. The choice of the road less traveled makes a difference as the choice influences the outcome.

The Argument for Free Will

The argument in favor of free will asserts that life is not a journey from point A to point B, but a journey from point A to any point we choose. The choices we make have a direct effect on path of our lives; each choice affects an ultimate outcome.

Free Will Illustration
Note: In the illustration above, points B, C, and D, are examples. The number of actual outcomes in the free will argument is infinite.

This argument begets an important question: If each decision we make sends us to a different outcome, do those decisions affect the outcomes of others, and vice versa? If this is the case, then we are not solely in control of our fate, it also rests on the actions of others.

When examining this argument from a philosophy-of-religion point of view, God’s plan comes into question. If free will determines our outcomes, then either God already knows our outcome, or He has one in mind for us.

If God already knows a person will end at point C, then free will is an illusion as the outcome is never really in question.

However, God may have an outcome in mind for each person, but He allows each of us to choose our own. For example, God might have a plan for a person to become a teacher, but the person chooses a life of drug use and dies of an overdose. Since an all-loving God would likely desire happiness for His people, the teaching option would have made this person the happiest in life. In addition, it is unlikely God wants any of His creation to lead an immoral life and die of a drug overdose.

The Argument for Fate

This argument asserts that man has no control over the outcome, it is predetermined in spite of any action man might take. In the Argument for fate life is a journey from point A to point B. Though there may be many paths and choices along the way, the outcome will always be point B. All roads lead to point B.

Fate Illustration

While three paths are illustrated above, an infinite number of paths leads from point A to point B if Fate is in control.

Examining the Argument for fate from a religious standpoint, we must consider that fate is likely God’s will. So, if our lives are controlled by fate, then even immoral lives and tragic deaths are the will of God. This takes us back to our discussion about God and the Problem of Evil. See lecture notes on that topic.

Even if we separate the concept of fate from religion, a belief in fate still presupposes the existence of a higher power. If fate is a predetermined outcome, then someone or something must do the predetermining.

The Argument for Neither

Many argue that while fate is not in control of man’s actions, he still does not have free will. Many philosophers, sociologists, and scientists agree that our actions and decisions are so heavily influenced by external factors that our will cannot truly be free. These factors include the actions of others, genetics, social norms, and biology.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s position on the issue:

Because human action is causally determined, Schopenhauer denies that humans can freely choose how they respond to motives. In any course of events, one and only one course of action is available to the agent, and the agent performs that action with necessity.

Let us consider an example. Paul is hungry and on a reasonably tight schedule because of work-related commitments. His next meeting is near a shopping center where there is a pizza shop, Burger King, and Subway. A vegan, Paul opts for a veggie sandwich at Subway. At first glance, this appears to be an act of free will.

Now consider the external factors at play. Paul’s schedule and physical location were determined by his employer. His obedience to his employer is likely due to a sense of loyalty and/or an economic need for cash flow. As a result, his dining options are limited. Paul’s vegan diet is due in part to a strong morality instilled in him during his upbringing and a physical intolerance for lactose. His awareness of Subway’s vegan option is a result of a successful marketing campaign carried out by the franchise. His hunger is cause by a biological need for nutrition.

Paul’s apparently free-will decision was forced by all the factors above. It was–arguably–his only decision, due to numerous factors out of his control.

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