Aruba sunset

Predetermination issues

Meaningful coincidences can be the result of a script. A script implies the absence of a free will. Whether or not we have free will, is an ancient philosophical question. We feel that we make our own choices. If I went out to buy a garden gnome yesterday, I am inclined to think that I could as well have decided not to go out or to buy something more useful instead. So if I could go back in time, I might have done something different, or so I believe. That is unless I felt an uncontrollable urge to buy a garden gnome. In that case, I would have considered myself subjected to forces beyond my control.

Arguments against free will are thousands of years old. Biology and culture limit our options. For instance, you cannot simply stop breathing. And it is hard to do things that go against the prevailing will of society or your family and friends. But you still have options, it appears. Other choices, such as buying a garden gnome or not, do not raise controversy, and you appear free to make them.

Recent advances in neuroscience allow scientists to observe brain activity associated with making decisions. Our choices seem to originate in our brains several milliseconds or even longer before we become aware of them.1 It indicates that there is no free will in the traditional sense.

This traditional idea of the will is that our will is a force of its own. Nothing else is causing it. It is rooted in the belief that we have a mind, a spirit or a soul separable from our bodies. This idea is at odds with scientific findings that our minds are chemical processes in the brains. That does not rule out that we can make different choices if we go back in time, but some scientists and philosophers claim that even that is not possible because the laws of physics do not permit it.

At least we experience that we make choices. These choices could be illusions, but the feelings are not. It is the experience of choice that we commonly understand as free will. For instance, if you go through an emotional struggle before buying a garden gnome, the outcome may be predetermined, but the accompanying emotions are real. And so, free will as experience exists, even when our choices are predetermined.

Predetermination raises several questions. The first is about good and evil. Religions and ideologies often come with a clear distinction between good and evil. It is often not so obvious who is good and who is evil. A proverb says that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And people usually ignore the cruelty of their own group in a conflict while stressing the inhumanity of the other. Good and evil have a biological origin. Good is what benefits the group one belongs to, and evil is what harms this group. As long as the group is not humanity in its entirety, these concepts remain relative. Predetermination adds another dimension to this question: what is the meaning of good and evil if you have no free will?

This issue affects the punishment of criminals as a form of retribution rather than to protect the public. A desire for reprisal is a human emotion, but it might be an injustice to hold people responsible for actions they cannot control. In our experience, moral rules and punishment do matter, just like free will, and we experience choice. That is the point of punishing criminals. And for that reason, it can deter others from engaging in criminal activities. It may be a good idea to address social problems and prevent crime from happening, but not addressing feelings of justice and the desire for reprisal can undermine the moral fabric of society.

The second question deals with fate. If you are going to die on a preset day, then what is the point in seeing a doctor? Alternatively, you could opt for a dangerous hobby like mountaineering. Only, you do not know the date. So if you go to a doctor and he or she cures you of an illness that would otherwise have been fatal, that would be predetermined. If you choose not to go and die, that would be predetermined too. The same applies to abandoning a hobby such as mountaineering or dying on the slopes of Mount Everest.

Predetermination does make it possible to do predictions that are more accurate than chance allows for. These predictions should be vague enough so that it is not possible to prevent them from happening. Actions taken to prevent it from happening may even help to make it come true. For instance, Oedipus fulfilled a prophecy that he would end up killing his father and marrying his mother and bring disaster to his city and family. Oedipus didn’t know that the couple he believed to be his parents weren’t his true parents. Fearing the prophecy he fled, leading to a sequence of events in which the prediction came true. And many prophesies of ancient Greek oracles only made sense in hindsight.

The third deals with premonitions and accurate predictions insofar they are not attributable to fraud or chance. Why can fortune-tellers sometimes make accurate predictions? And why are these predictions unreliable at the same time? The obvious answer is that it is not possible to know the future. For instance, if I know that I will have a car accident tomorrow, I will remain at home, and the accident will not happen. Predictions can influence the future unless they are vague or hidden. In 1914, no one could guess that the licence plate number on Franz Ferdinand’s car referred to the end date of the upcoming world war.

Premonitions and accurate predictions require something more than just predestination. They presuppose foreknowledge of future events, but not necessarily by the persons having these premonitions or making predictions. A script allows for predictions that are more accurate than mere guessing. Actions taken to prevent these predictions from being fulfilled must not succeed. That requires a lack of precise information on the part of the actors involved. For instance, Oedipus fulfilled the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. He did not know that the couple he believed to be his parents were not his true parents. Fearing the prediction, he fled, leading to a sequence of events that made the prediction come true. Many of the prophecies of ancient Greek oracles only made sense in hindsight. These oracles probably did not know the future either.

Latest revision: 30 April 2022

Featured image: Aruba sunset. English Wikipedia.

1. The clockwork universe: Is free will an illusion? Oliver Burkeman. The Guardian (2021).

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