Destiny: "Determinism" Versus "Free Will"

Which one is it?

Posted Feb 27, 2014

"A consistent man believes in destiny, a capricious man in chance." So replied Benjamin Disraeli, the distinguished British statesman and writer, when asked which of the above two life-directing factors had played a major role in determining his destiny as a politician and statesman. If asked the same question as to the course of your own life, how would you respond? Well, the Greek philosopher Hippocrates’ answer to the question was: "Life is short, the art long, opportunity fleeting, experience treacherous, judgment difficult." Which is really just another way of saying "It’s a hell of a psychological conundrum…and what can one do about it anyway?"

Of all the psychological and philosophical reasoning that human beings have conjured up to try and explain, and justify, their brief hold on life on this planet…one early supposition in the early Greek world of the Odyssey—say, somewhat before 500 B.C.—was that the pattern and inescapable destiny of each individual life is preordained by the supernatural powers known as the "Gods." However, during the later years of Classical Greek philosophy—while lip service may still be paid to the belief that the Gods had a hand in influencing one’s personal fate—other more worldly factors were seen to play the major role. After the influence of scientific philosophers such as Democritus and Aristotle, a more rational view prevailed, based on the theory of Determinism: which held that human being—like all forms of being in the Universe—is just one phenomenological manifestation of existence…in a continuous series of ongoing cosmic creations taking place on this planet…all the result of sheer causal necessity in an evolving Universe.

In other words You yourself—in all your physiological and psychological complexity—are just a part of such a cosmogony…one (perhaps unique) bio-living entity occupying the earth. As such, the course of your life will basically be Determined (i), by the positive or negative factors built-in to your genetic inheritance; and (ii), by the good and bad consequences of everything that happens to you as you go through life.

So what’s all this then about Free Will—those impulses of thought and feeling that allow one to make choices, decisions, directly affecting, shaping the course of one’s life…and this in the face of all the Deterministic factors at work? For without this inner psychological authority of self-determination that releases one from both the mechanistic tyranny of biological determinants…and from every random happening that the world can throw at us, we would have but little chance to shape our own Destiny.

Some years ago, Professor George Steiner (essayist, critic and fiction writer: The Death of Tragedy, etc), and Distinguished Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, stated in a public lecture: "There is too much of our cortex. We could do with far fewer cells and synapses and still have an excellent information system. Something much deeper is going on. Man has a marvelous excess of invention. He can say ‘No’ to reality." During the writing of What the Hell Are The Neurons Up To? I corresponded with George Steiner, and he concurred that this "something much deeper…" was more a psychical manifestation of the creative energy loosely thought of as the human ‘spirit,’ rather than than the physiological workings of biology—that to describe someone as a free spirit, is just another way of saying he or she exercises a strong Free Will. Psychologically, I’ve always considered that the force we call the Will, is the operational side of the force we think of as spirit: that they are partners in a mental process operating beyond the normal sensory and rational workings of consciousness. The human spirit yields insights of surpassing importance, while the Will provides the drive to act.

Sir Ernest Shackleton remains for me the supreme example of a man threatened by overwhelming events…Determined by natural events over which he had no control, yet who managed to accomplish the seemingly impossible. On his 1914 Expedition to Antarctica his ship, "Endurance", was crushed by the ice and sank. He kept his 27-man crew alive and hopeful for well over 122 months living on unstable ice floes, before getting them off in two small lifeboats to a remote strip of beach on desolate Elephant Island some 400 miles to the Northwest. Leaving 22 men on Elephant Island, he and four others set out in one small lifeboat to sail for South Georgia—in the roughest storm-wracked seas in the world—where there was a whaling Station in the South Atlantic some 800 miles to the Northeast. The story of this epic voyage is now legend: not to mention his scaling of the Allardyce Range on South Georgia, from West to East, never before accomplished. (A more complete account is given in the Neurons… book previously mentioned.)

Writing "in appreciation for whatever it is that makes men accomplish impossible," Raoul Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole, said of Shackleton: "…his name will for evermore be engraved with letters of fire in the history of Antarctic exploration. Courage and willpower can make miracles. I know of no better example than what that man has accomplished."

Free Will, Free Spirit…whatever…overcoming that which is Determined by events.

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