Fate vs. Free Will

Posted by Michael Dennin on 5/5/16 7:00 AM

Image: The story of the Eden Garden. The temptation of Adam & Eve by the devil. Pedestal of the statue of Madonna with Child, western portal (of the Virgin), of Notre-Dame de Paris, France.

One of the central debates in human history is the question of fate versus free will. For example, most ancient Greek mythology sends the clear message: you have no ultimate choice, fate always wins out. Recall poor Oedipus who tries his best to avoid prophesy that says he will kill his father and marry his mother on to have it all come true.

In contrast, Jewish tradition assumes ultimate choice by humans, especially in their relationship to God. God may cajole, and even occasionally punish, but ultimately, we are free to decide our fate.

At times, people even go so far as to negotiate with God and win, as Abraham does when he negotiates for the conditions under which Sodom and Gomorrah might be saved. He bargains God down from 50 just people to only 10 just people. Christianity has continued this debate over its history, with predestination versus free will.

Ask anyone for their gut feeling, and you almost always get the response that they do have the ability to make choices. It is certainly our everyday feeling. Our societal structures are grounded in the belief that we have choices, and should suffer the consequences and rewards of those choices.

But, the Laws of Physics prevents many choices we would like to make—like turning time backwards when we knock a valuable vase off its pedestal! And despite the American myth that anyone can grow up to be President (or any person can be anything they want), many aspects in our lives do limit our choices. We can each only run so fast, are so strong, or are only so smart.

Though we can always take courses of action that improve these situations, there is always that upper limit somewhere. As science progresses, we discover even more situations where choice seems to be an illusion – and many decisions are identifiable as the result of physics and chemistry in our brain resulting in us selecting action A over action B.

This is better described as instinct rather than true choice.

So, if physics precludes true choice, but our instinct suggests we have it, is seems reasonable that examples of the exercise of free will are rare and must involve an element of non-physical reality. For me, that reality is God, and the Grace that God gifts each person with to make choices.

Learn about Albert the Great, patron saint of scientists!

What does this mean in practical terms? Consider the case of someone struggling with addiction. There is biology, chemistry, and physics at work in the brain that leads to many of their decisions.

But, there seems to be many examples of people in essentially the same circumstances who come to an extreme point in their life—and then make a true choice between fighting addiction and continuing to be controlled by it. Perhaps the most striking thing to me is the fact that the choice to fight addiction (as with many moments of true choice) involves a significant commitment to a path and set of activities that are necessary to overcome the deeply ingrained instincts.

And, this is where I see grace at work. There is something happening at the moment of surrender and acceptance coupled with the decision to do something different, something unexpected.

This moment of choice is not always as dramatic as a struggle with addiction, but I think the key elements are often the same. There is a moment of desiring change. There is an element of surrender or letting Grace enter.

There is also the dedication to a set of activities that retrain the instincts that need to change to achieve the new goal.

Minute Meditations

Topics: free will, fate vs. free will