Friday, August 29

On Free Will and Destiny

A confusing issue for many people, particularly Muslims, is that of Written Destiny and our own Free Will and how to reconcile the two. We're taught that certain, if not all, things are written down and how if they're not then they won't happen at all. Events that are predetermined in this way, and there's no way of changing or prompting them to happen sooner or later (the classic example in my case being the time, date and details of my wedding day).

The simple implication which follows from all this is to see ourselves as nothing more than robots following a program written specifically for us. Some people go on to conclude that, since we're not really in control of our actions we no longer need to bear responsibility for them - or at the very least it would be unfair to receive reward or punishment for something we didn't have a choice in doing. In short: what, then, is the point of it all?

Some propose what I like to call the big-small idea: that the "big" things are set in stone and written, while the "small" things aren't and can be changed or done in a different way. I don't really buy this for many reasons: firstly what exactly is big and what exactly is small, and where are these things defined? Secondly, since life's events are all intertwined and related then the small things have an effect on the big and vice versa, and so their importance collapses into one level anyway. Finally, and most importantly I think, by saying that the small things are undefined we're actually claiming that God has no knowledge of them, which could actually be bordering on some kind of blasphemy.

Others try to create a composite idea that subsumes the two concepts - that either we freely choose to follow our destinies or it's our destiny to have free will. I don't think either really make sense though. Still, there's plenty that's been written about this apparent paradox already and I'm both not qualified or inclined to tackle it on a philosophical level at any real depth.

Personally though I see the concept of destiny as a recognition of God's ultimate ability to see all that there is. For us humans, who usually see time as flowing in one direction with ordered causes and effects, it's sometimes difficult to appreciate that from His viewpoint God is able to see it all happening at the same time; it's not like he's waiting patiently for us to live out our lives only to say "I told you so!" at the end of them. Unfortunately we just have to be boring, follow things through and find out what happens in a linear fashion.

But apart from being an interesting yet academic topic to discuss with mates on a boring evening, I don't think "destiny vs free will" is a particularly relevant question to ask really; not on any kind of practical level anyway. But since simply dismissing something as being irrelevant is always a bit of a cop out let me go on and explain what I actually mean. There are two issues here, first of choice and secondly of value.

Let's start with choice. Say I'm standing at the edge of a cliff. The choice is mine to jump or not (even though many of you are currently wishing I would), and unless I'm schizophrenic I won't feel that anyone else is influencing that decision - it would take a weird kind of self reference to convince myself to jump because my destiny is telling me to. Best to just cut the whole thing out.

Another example is how one can definitely say that they won't have kids if they remain celibate - and yes, there are famous precedents of God doing what he wills, but I think that's a different concept to destiny; I don't take direct action of this sort as a correction to our potential ability to decide on our own destinies or anything, but more of a way of God demonstrating his power. But anyway the same analogies can be widened to cover the choosing of what's good and what's bad and what's in between during our everyday lives.

But what of the value of our actions? Well, if we take destiny as a simple way to say that God knows all outcomes, then we can say this knowledge doesn't really matter - in a similar way to a director knowing the ending to his own film not affecting our viewing of it for the first time. Or how using unwittingly loaded dice will not affect your bet, even though the person who gave it to you knows you'll throw sixes.

Or more subtly, how if a couple know each other so well as to predict with great accuracy how the other will act, then this still won't undermine the value of those actions. Just because someone knows what you'll do, that doesn't mean you don't have to do it - the only difference with destiny is that God knows with perfect accuracy and totality what's going to happen (although as I touched on above it's not "going to happen" for God).

But if all that has made your head explode anyway and you find yourself still needing to pick a side, well I find myself more comfortable with the idea that I'm in control of my own actions and so will be rewarded for them in kind at some point. I think stressing this stance for yourself isn't necessarily rejecting the notion of destiny, but more acknowledging what will help you live your life in the best possible manner. If you do that much, well then at the end of the day does it really matter whether it was you or someone else who made you do it?

As always, IANAS.