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.


  1. I realize that I am a complete stranger, and that discussing religion would be totally inappropriate but seeing as this is all done somewhat anonymously on the internet, I feel less worried by all that. However, please don't take personally what I'm about to write [it's never good news when someone begins something with an apology], in no way do I intend to attack you ad hominem. You will, of course, do what you want with this comment, dismiss it if you shall - but that would be a bit of a cop out...

    I suppose, that my biggest issue with all this is the ASSUMPTION that somehow we do have freedom of choice at all. Granted, it FEELS great to believe we are making choice freely, but where is the evidence that choice is not just a set of chemical chain reactions in the brain, by way of causality, due to external stimuli (something totally out of our control) [also, notice how I leave God out of the picture...]?

    The easy way out of this confusion is to do exactly what you have described others to do: create their own version of their religion, by interpretation. One that FEELS like it makes more sense. Though, with God in the picture all things make sense - magic phrase:"it is God's will" (that's sarcasm).

    But hey if people want to believe that women can be impregnated by ghosts, by all means, be my guest.

    It would seem God's will is useless without man's will... you said it yourself: "unless I'm schizophrenic I won't feel that anyone else is influencing that decision" if it is not your "choice" to do something then it won't happen. - God's will as man's will disguised?

    "what, then, is the point of it all?" - Excellent question for Jew, Muslim, Christian, or atheist. I suppose the answer to that question is, there is no point. Or, just as likely, the point is what we believe it is, thus what we make it to be.

    For some that means creating this fictitious character giving it all the power possible and impossible and half following its convoluted will and half making our own choices...

    For others, this means total anarchy - a world without morals.

    For me, though finding a set of morals is difficult without a God, it isn't hard to see what makes people happy or sad, hence getting along in the world is kind of an art - a balance act if you will where I try to keep the people around me (and myself of course; I'm no martyr) pleased. This can be tricky seeing as there is not set truth and not everyone like the same things, so sometimes I may have to optimize - or commit suicide, either way works...

    Some good books on this subject:
    -The Myth of Sisyphus by Camus
    -Beyond Good and Evil by Nietzsche
    -Twilight of the Idols by Nietzsche
    -Or any other title by Nietzsche, Camus, or Sartre.

    Thanx for your patience if you've read all this... ;)

  2. zara's ape,

    Frankly, I'm glad someone has commented at all! It's better than a private complaint saying how complicated my articles are :).

    I've written before how I don't believe there to be an absolute and universal proof of God, and taken in that context there's no real problem in making the assumption you say I'm making.

    My deeper point is that it doesn't really matter, and, further, that this isn't a religious issue. In fact as a mathematician I love the idea that our actions are products of inputs set initially.

    In fact I often toy with the idea of creating a computer so fast that it can predict the future based on the current state of the world. As you say, this leaves out God altogether, but then the question of free will and destiny (in the sense of being predictable) is still there.

    Still as fun thinking about the whole deal is, I don't think it is relevant to our everyday actions, since we can resolve our decision making to far more basic and easier (yet possibly arbitrary) principles like faith or feeling and that these might actually work better than the alternatives.

    Reading back, I don't think I'm really adding anything more to what you're saying :). But thanks again for the comment!

  3. Well then, I'm really glad I didn't insult you to the point of not getting a worthwhile response - I suppose this speaks of your level of faith in organized religion... maybe you're not too different from me?

    I see now your deeper point - about the relevance of God (or non-relevance)- but I was hoping to go one step further, and declare any and all organized religions as false and decadent hopes of an afterlife. Religions across the world all have one thing in common (no, not the idea that there exists a God, but), fundamentally religions require as solid foundation on which it may be built, an innate self-loathing and secret will to destroy all that is natural in this world. There is no religion today that can escape from this criticism that I have just put forth. But I cannot claim to have discovered this on my own. For that, I thank the authors I have mentioned in my previous comment.

    As one mathematician to another, let me warn you, there is decadence in science as well. The scientist too is on his own quest for absolute truth - he too is a slave to his religion: science.
    As for math, the axioms that make up the foundation of all mathematics is unprovable. So it too require some faith.

    This is not to say don't have faith in what cannot be proven (we would otherwise not have faith at all). It is only to say do not be a slave to dogma. Also, put your faith in what is real - not the words written in the Bible, Koran, or Torah, or abstract algebra book, but in yourself the interpreter - and see yourself for what you are; you are the interpreter.

  4. Anonymous10:49

    Quick comment that the dice dont have to be loaded - it's also possible for say, a pack of cards to be randomly shuffled (or indeed stacked), yet if the dealer knows the order it is still a random pack to all others. That's from a statistical POV iirc - not initially intuitive but it bears out, and I woul see that as the best analogy that explains how we can still have choice, with God knowing what we'll choose.