#45 Destiny and free will – Part 1 (Humans)
Got into a half-heated debate today with my friend Kasper about free will. Do humans have free will or is everything set in stone while we live our lives according to some destined future, all our choices laid out and predetermined for us? Kasper believes in destiny and I believe in free will, although I might believe in destiny parallelly if there exist specific constants, as I explain later. Note that both of us believe in our respective positions because no one really knows what our reality construct is, that is to say, how reality really works and the physical and philosophical nuts and bolts that hold it together.
Kasper thinks that all life choices and actions are already determined for us whether we like it or not. He says that each life experience, each decision we have ever made, everything that we have experienced from life to dreams to non-choices has led each of us to where we are now and will be later in our lives. He doesn’t actually call the above “destiny,” but some kind of cosmic order slowly unraveling over time and throughout events. He is correct when he says that a simple word doesn’t describe exactly what he’s talking about because language is such an inadequate way to describe that which he’s thinking about. For argument’s sake and to be able to speak of something from some foundation, let’s just call his position destiny. (I have a hunch Kasper is a post-modernist, unbeknown to himself. There’s always one floating around screwing with people.)
There is the possibility of the so-called butterfly effect at play. The butterfly effect basically says that a butterfly flapping its wings far away can have an escalating effect through a series of connected events that lead to the development of a hurricane on the other side of the planet. It’s an interesting theory, making one wonder about the causal chain of events in one’s own life. How have I affected other people, did my good deed for that day lead to a catastrophic event or vice versa; my bad deed leading to other bad or good deeds by me or others? Who knows?
Another friend (you know who you are) is obsessed by the idea of “sliding doors” theory, inspired by the rom-com film Sliding Doors (1998) starring Gwyneth Paltrow. I haven’t seen the film yet but have been briefed extensively on its philosophical premise: how do we know which choices we make in life are the right ones considering we cannot go back in time to see where an alternative choice would have led. When considering all doors available prior to making any decision, how do we know which door is the right door not only at that moment but for my future self? My present self could ask: would my future self be pleased with the choices of sliding doors through which I have passed? In another (private) stream I think I figured out the sliding doors theory, however, as with most fleeting things I get out of my head through stream of consciousness writing, I forgot what I wrote about.
While the above points are valid and worthwhile to ponder over, I believe in free will. I have the power to make whatever decision I want, within reason of course; I don’t have the money to buy a $30 million penthouse in New York (first thing that popped into my head; waste of money in my opinion), but I can do many things according to the life I have built for myself and with the means available to me. I said to Kasper: I have the free will to punch you in the face right now, but I choose not to. It is my choice or non-choice to knock those silly ideas out of your head. He said, no, that it’s not my choice whether I punch him in the face or not because everything leading up to this conversation will determine whether I (inevitably) punch him in the face. That is a possibility no doubt. We are dealing with polarized beliefs here and both of us are right and wrong, both are possible. Regarding free will, I still can’t shake this idea that I can choose to live the life I want; I manifest whatever reality that I want for myself by making it happen on my terms as best as possible. If one avenue or contact doesn’t work out, I try different means to get to where I want to go. It is my choice. If you like playing video games, riding horses, painting, singing, etc., as a hobby or career, then great, do it. I like to read academic texts from science, philosophy, technology studies, and psychedelics, so I do that. Not only do I do it, I’m laying the foundations to build a personal platform and brand around a philosophy of psychedelics, psychedelic technologies, and my “online business card” (my website), so to speak, by having a home on the net, a place where I can post all my thoughts, publications and media content.
The reason I said that free will and destiny can co-exist simultaneously, for me anyway, is if Nick Bostrom’s (2003) theory that we are living in a simulation is correct. I don’t want to get into the details of the theory; the only thing that concerns this stream is that we could be in a simulation, that is, the reality in which we find ourselves might be a simulated environment and is not baseline reality. If our reality construct is simulated and housed on an artificial/technological substrate, then we can further assume that the simulation already ran its course, it is complete. Even though the simulated reality could be finished, and its creators or engineers can go anywhere in the simulated universe and have god-like powers, humans wouldn’t know any better, and so, we live out our lives, day by day, time moving at the same felt speed. The point is that a simulated reality on some supercomputer would be a single file with multiple sliding scales for the user/engineer/creator to go to any point in time and at varying dimensions of space. Think about a song or video file on your device: you can slide through the song or video to access different points, but it is still all the same song. Even an analog book is similar to this idea: you have the whole book in your hand but can flip to any chapter/page you want.
The reason simulation theory is relevant for the present conversation is because if the simulation has run its course and comprises a single file, then, this would suggest that everything we will do in our lives is predetermined or destined to be that way; put another way, there is no free will according to simulation theory. But this is where I disagree. Even IF the simulation is completed and all my life’s choices are set in stone (or silicon), I was the one who chiseled my block of stone. Fine, I accept the idea that everything is already known about my life and how the universe turns out on a grander scale, according to simulation theory assumptions; however, I get to decide for myself what is going to be set in stone. It is ludicrous, in my opinion, to say that I do not have a choice how circumstances turn out. With respect to believers in destiny, this sounds like a cop out excuse to passively waffle through life, not making any important decisions because who cares, it’s all known, you can’t change what will happen anyway. Do us a favor and throw in the towel, just end your life because it doesn’t matter, right? I mean, this is the mentality I imagine destiny people to have.
By not acting or deciding what kind of life you want, you accept such inaction, and thus, you get back whatever you put in. If you put in or try little, you get little back. Believing in destiny cripples humankind. Destiny seduces people to not act because it does not matter what action they take; their future history is already written for them, not by them. Again, I do not accept such a premise for my life. I will write my future history. The believer in destiny would then say after I die that my life was going to end like this anyway. True, but that is because I decided what I wanted to do in my life. Of course, there are anomalies, Black Swan events, that no one can predict such as 9/11 or the current Covid-19 pandemic. Instead of feeling hopeless, I ask how I can maneuver around these obstacles or turn them into opportunities regarding the plans I had already made. As well, unexpected events might affect others’ lives in good and bad ways that will affect my life and plans in good and bad ways. We just don’t know. On a final note, I subscribe to taking action and deciding how my life will play out. I will write my own destiny (I know, this sounds paradoxical), not accepting that whatever happens will happen or would have happened. I make it happen, with some occasional mishaps that were out of my control, and that I actively manage in my best interest to maximize meaningfulness, enjoyment, and self-fulfillment in my life.
Bostrom, N. (2003). Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?. The Philosophical Quarterly, 53(211), 243-255.