Free Will and Destiny

In Sophocles’ famous ancient Athenian tragedy Oedipus the King, Oedipus is a man who receives a warning from an oracle that he is destined to kill his father and marry his mother. In trying to escape his fate, he unknowingly fulfills the prophecy and suffers terribly for it. He gouges out his own eyes and his mother, irreversibly traumatized by the fact that she has not only slept with her own son but has also borne his children, commits suicide by hanging herself. Oedipus the King is told in many different versions, but its underlying question remains the same: can we truly escape our fate? If we can’t, then it doesn’t matter what we do. Free will is irrelevant. We are who we are always meant to be. We have no control.

To that I say: bullshit. Bullshit, bullshit, BULLSHIT!

The only thing we have no real control over are the choices available to us. Why? Because we’re mortal, fallible and limited, and we live in a limited world. But there is always a choice. Oedipus heard the prophecy and he chose to run away from home, he chose to kill that drunk, raving lunatic who was really his father, he chose to marry a woman old enough to be his mother. No one controlled him. He chose it.

Now I know what you’re thinking. But the oracle knew his fate and Oedipus fulfilled the prophecy of his own doom! The oracle knew the future and there was no escape for Oedipus! Correction, the oracle knew a potential future, not the only future. In fact, his wording was “do not go back home. If you do, you will kill your father and marry your mother.” He never said “you will kill your father and marry your mother no matter what.”

So if someone knows a potential future, that automatically erases our free will? Well, I’m someone, and if I warn myself “do not jump off that  thousand-foot-high cliff with nothing and no one to break your fall. You will die,” does that mean I have to start whining about how my destiny is set in stone and I will jump off that cliff no matter how I try to defy my fate?

Do you see how ridiculous that sounds?

But in a way, destiny is set in stone. There are so many choices available to us, and we are destined to make some of those choices. I can choose to make something of my life or sit on my ass in front of the TV all day. I can choose to eat a salad or a chicken sandwich for dinner. It comes down to the same thing. The only thing we are destined to do is make choices. The kind of choices (and by that I mean the choices available to us) are entirely up to us.

“The future is not determined by a throw of the dice. It is determined by the conscious decisions of you and me.”

–Phong (Reboot)


5 responses to “Free Will and Destiny

  1. I am with you until you get to the word “entirely.” Are choices aren’t entirely up to us–agency has to be distributed across spectrums of networks that make choices possible, they have to be conditioned by contingencies that can’t be controlled. If the power goes out, then I’m guessing you aren’t eating bacon anymore… In fact, our reliance upon such networks is one of the themes of many zombie apocalypse narratives–look how much we couldn’t do if our underlying network suddenly stopped working. I’m framing this carefully–since the network needs humans to run, but humans, to “run” in the normal sense that we consider humanity, also need the network. It has become symbiotic.

    This is not to say that individual motivation, ability, and desire aren’t important. We can, if we work hard enough, make changes, open opportunities, or even impact the structure of the entire network. But I think we have to be weary of philosophical and political stances routed in a robust individualism, as if the only reason people are poor is that they are lazy. Not everyone begins in the same position within the network, not everyone has access to the same level of opportunities, and not everyone will be lucky enough–even under the circumstances where they try hard–to have the dice come up 7.

    The future is an interesting concept. I tend to think that the thought of the future–as unknown–often tends to paralyze us. We come to recognize that every action might be judged. We (especially those of us trained in rhetoric) come to recognize that every decision will be an imperfect decision–that there is no way to account for every contingency and constituent in every decision. The best we can do is to take account, marshall some courage, maintain perspective, and do our best.

    • Hello, Professor. Thanks for commenting!

      Yeah, the bacon thing was kind of weak so I changed it. Then again, even if the power does go out the choice of eating bacon is still there except the choice now has an added consequence: I risk getting salmonella. My main point was that because we are a limited species and live in a limited world we can never have complete control over the choices available to us. But there are always choices and which ones we pick are entirely up to us.

  2. Good post.

    I think one needs to be careful here. Certainly we have the capacity for choice, but why should that mean that the choices we make are free?

    A choice is down to us in the very simplest sense that it takes place inside our heads, but as to whether or not we have enough control over proceedings to make the choice freely, well that’s a whole different ball game entirely. And yes, I’m afraid I’m talking about determinism, that old chestnut…

    • Thanks for commenting!

      One does need to be careful with philosophical discussions like this because they’re so complex. In fact, I just modified this post because the bacon idea was weak. I believe that all choices are free so long as they are made by sentient creatures. The only way they’re not free is if someone slaps a mind control device on them. But that’s a discussion for another post methinks.

  3. And yet … free will plays a larger role than some would credit. Beethoven was deaf. People born into poverty have risen above it. George Washington Carver was born a slave. It really is a complex issue, yet each of us does have a choice as to how we react to the circumstances around us. And often that choice can determine whether we rise above those conditions – or fall victim to them.

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