Monday, July 10, 2006

Digression on "fate" (1 of 2)

I haven’t had much chance to delve into the intricacies of The Fatalist since my last post, so I’ll use this one to record more reflections in response to the idea of fate Hejinian’s book sketches out. This is partly a response to D.R. Israel, who doesn’t buy the idea that the poem (as I’ve described it so far) solves the problems arising from a consideration of “fate.”

Last time I mentioned some views of fate one might find ethically problematic; here I’ll begin by outlining one that is, I think, ultimately insignificant.

Fate is usually conceived in an “objective” way—as the “law of fate” that dictates all that will happen. Whether philosophical/religious or scientific, the idea here is that everything is set out in advance. Fate exists in this view, and it exists as something outside of us, outside time, as time’s ultimate organizing principle. It’s the book in which all events are written, or it’s the total chain of causation from the beginning of the universe to its end. Since I’ve thought about this more in the context of the modern problem of “freedom and determinism,” I’ll address it in that sense. The problem, which comes up especially in Anglo-American ethical philosophy dealing with human agency, runs something like this: Physical science suggests that all events in time and space are determined by the interactions of strict causal laws (and maybe some statistical ones, though many would claim that the causal laws are fundamental, and the statistical laws are based on these, or that the phenomena covered by the latter are “second-order;” there are thought to be statistical laws governing social phenomena—no-one’s been able to get anywhere near proving this—but humans are ultimately a bunch of atomic particles, and so it all boils down to physics). If one knew enough about the “initial conditions,” one could, in accordance with these laws, predict every event. This means that everything is set out in advance. There are no violations of the laws of physics, so there is no chance that anything could happen that isn’t already causally determined by what’s gone before. Therefore, though we may feel like free human agents who make choices that affect our lives and the world around us, this is an illusion. This is thought to be a serious problem for ethics and the philosophy of action for at least two reasons. First, it means that all our choices and our attempts at affecting reality are futile, and that a resigned going-along-with whatever happens is the only fully rational way to act. Second, it takes away the very substance of ethics, the idea that we are responsible for our actions. In this view, we can’t be responsible for anything, since everything results from some initial events and conditions in the distant past. Morality is empty, false.

But I don’t think it’s a serious problem at all. If absolutely everything is predestined, then the experience of choice, of freedom, of consequences following from our actions, of wishing that things had been different and thinking that they could have, is also fully determined. My thought and acceptance of the consequences of physical determinism would also be fated. If I decided to become resigned in the face of these consequences, that would be determined as well. This problem was basically solved ages ago in debates over the idea of predestination in Christianity:
“If the names of the elect are already written, why should I be virtuous, since it won’t determine whether I’m saved or punished eternally?” “If you’re among the elect, you will act virtuously; otherwise you wouldn’t be among the elect.” In a substantial sense, fate thought of this way has absolutely no consequences. Nothing changes. The problem that remains for a person who has these thoughts is the problem of the “falsehood” of experienced freedom. But even this doesn’t stand up when the matter is fully thought through. In an absolutely determined universe, “freedom” becomes the name for something that happens, is experienced, and is fully real. My choices have exactly the same relation to other events as they did when I “believed” in freedom. These relations can simply no longer be rationally described in terms of causality as it’s usually understood. I still make a choice, and it still has the character of “could have been different.”

It does take away some of the “magic” of fate, of course. If somebody says, “it was fated that we meet,” one can reply, “well, everything is fated, so what’s so special about that?” (I once had a love affair—a brief one—with somebody who said things like, “I was trying to decide whether to move to New York next year, when I passed New York Avenue, and knew it was a sign that I should go.” I replied that driving on any street with STOP signs must be lethal for her self-confidence).

Incidentally, the idea (in some theories of physics) of a “spacetime” in which all events already exist in some sense leads to the same conclusions as the “physical determinism” thesis.

Well, even this post—intended already as a tangent to the main job—will come in two parts; I want to get something up, so I’ll return shortly with the “positive” side of this: a description of a way of viewing fate that bases itself not on the “objective” view of time and fate examined above, but on analysis of temporal experience.

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  • At July 10, 2006 at 2:35 PM, Blogger david raphael israel said…

    Interesting Andy. I feel that one thing lacking from the ideas about fate that you sketch, is a sort of middle order of granularity regarding fate and causation. That is, from some p.o.v.'s that I find sensible, there can be said to be many coorinated and intervening levels of existence -- within each of which certain laws of causation apply; then, supervening orders ultimately determine the sweep of causation within subsidiary orders. There are no doubt more complexities; and I'm not setting this out very well, but it touches on some of it. In other words, the ultimate causation from a first cause, is the final layer of the multi-layered mechanism. But subsidiary layers of causation (including those that relate in various ways to human acts of volition) can continue to prevail, just as the laws of physics & gravity that determine the apple will hit the ground if Newton releases it from his hand (or hit his head if the twig releases it from the bough), exists as a sub-routine (within larger routines tracing back to the creation of earth, etc).

    My impression of Lyn Hijinian's book so far (from the few lines read) is that she is perhaps especially concerned with emotional consequences related to grappling with allowing for the idea of fate, or, in a sense, the emotional correlates of an intellectual recognition of the ineluctability of the frozen-lake quality of the past -- and of how the future inevitably is converted (when passing through the zone of the present) into such a frozen (and seemingly fated) thing. ...

    At any rate, I await your part 2.


  • At July 10, 2006 at 6:04 PM, Blogger andy gricevich said…

    Sure, David.

    This wasn't meant to imply that I fully support the picture I set out; I've just used it as an example of what happens if one accepts a total determinism.

    Though I am sort of delighted by it, I have to admit (and, though I can't currently remember what they were, I remember being pretty convinced by arguments for the untenability of the "various causalities" kind of picture... or they were at least asserting that this ends you up in the same boat).

    I think it'll become pretty clear as I go on with this that the question of emotional consequences is actually pretty minor (Hejinian tends, if anything, toward an interesting brand of optimism in her writing)... though I certainly see why what I've written so far would make it seem that way.

    morse oon,


  • At July 14, 2006 at 6:25 AM, Blogger david raphael israel said…

    haven't yet read the subsequent installments (but will).
    A note: by mention of "emotional consequences," I didn't have in mind a presumption of negativity (sometimes linked with "fatalism" by some) nor pessimism per se.


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