Thursday, January 02, 2014

Can we cheat fate?

Nowadays, fate is generally reserved for fantasy and science fiction movies. On one scenario, the protagonist has a dream about the future. But that poses a dilemma. If he can truly foresee the future, then that seems to mean the future was written in advance, in which case there's nothing he can do to alter the future. Usually, though, the protagonist is defiant. He views the premonition as a challenge or opportunity to deflect the foreseen outcome.
But what about real life? Is there such a thing as fate in real life? 
i) Epistemological fate
Some events are inevitable due to our ignorance of the future. Our ignorance of the causes leading up to the outcome. Take a fatal traffic accident. In principle, that's easily avoidable. Usually, a traffic accident is all about timing. Change a single variable in the chain of events, and you escape. If the driver leaves the house a minute sooner or a minute later, he avoids the accident. If he stops at the yellow light rather than speeding through the yellow light, at the intersection three blocks from the scene of the impending accident, he avoids the accident. If he turns left instead of right, he avoids the accident. If he stops to buy his wife flowers, he avoids the accident. He never crossed a line of no return. Every step of the way there was an out. 
Starting with the accident, we can systematically trace it back through a series of links in the chain. From the moment he left home (or left work for the return trip), he was fated to die in the traffic accident. But that's something we can only see after the fact. Because he can't see it coming, it's too late for him to step out of the way. 
ii) Ontologial fate
Some events are inevitable despite our knowledge of the future. Medical science may be close to telling you ahead of time if you will develop an incurable degenerative illness, like Parkinson's, Huntington's, or multiple sclerosis. That's very much like fate in the Classical sense. You are doomed. You know you are doomed. And there's nothing you can do, short of suicide, to avoid it. 
This also raises the question of whether it's better to know your medical fate, or remain in blissful ignorance. That's a dilemma, for there are tradeoffs on both scenarios. 
On the one hand, if you knew that you were going to develop a degenerative illness, then you might well make better use of your time. Make the most of your opportunities. Not take friends and family for granted. Not fritter away your best years on trivia. 
On the other hand, knowing how the story ends, if it ends badly, casts a shadow over your life long before you develop the disease. It robs you of hope. It's hard to enjoy the present when you know what awaits you just around the corner.  Lurking in the shadows.


  1. Personally, I'd rather know when I was going to die. It would be easier to plan. Say for example you were 60 years old and had $111,111 in your bank account and God told you that you had only 6 more months to live. Then you'd know that you have more than enough money to live off that $111,111 for the rest of your life. You could (and probably would) quit your job immediately. You wouldn't have to worry about retirement and could spend your time and money on those things you really cared about like missions, evangelism or something.

    But if you were 30 years old and God told you that you have 70 more years to live , $111,111 wouldn't be enough to live on. You would have to plan for retirement and maybe think about a career change in order to make enough money that will last.

    It's like the old joke, "I have enough money to last me the rest of my life. If I die by 5 PM."

    1. That's why one of Steve's recent posts is so insightful.

      Biblical "fatalism"