The concept of Fate vs Free Will is a mystery that has pulled at human imagination for millennia. Philosophers and theologians have wrestled with trying to prove one or the other, and more recently psychologists, neuroscientists, and physicists have jumped into the fray as well. At the root of the conflict of Fate vs Free Will is the question: are we agents free to choose our path, or are things predetermined.
This literary conflict is seen in works such as Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, and Macbeth by Shakespeare — and of course, many more since. (Other ways that this theme may be expressed include Person vs. God, Person vs. Destiny, and Person vs. Supernatural.)
I’m exploring this theme in my yet unnamed work-in-progress and have discovered some interesting facets of this unsettled (and unsettling) mystery. Most humans believe that we possess the power and the will to make our own decisions. Religions, societies, and laws are all built around this assumption. For example, if one is forced to commit a crime through coercion by another (e.g., threat of violence) then society views this differently than if one had committed this same crime via their own free will.
But what if free will doesn’t really exist, and we are simply living within the illusion of free will? Perhaps the choices you make today were already decided, even before you were born? How is this possible?
Though it may be tempting to think of this debate as being purely philosophical, there is disagreement within the world of theoretical physics, where it is referred to as determinism vs. indeterminism.
Einstein believed that everything in the universe was driven by cause and effect. In the determinist perspective, everything from the Big Bang onward was set in motion 13 billion years ago, and everything follows the laws of physics even if we don’t understand them all (e.g., Einstein’s unfulfilled goal of uncovering a Unified Field Theory to mathematically explain gravity, electromagnetism, and strong and weak nuclear forces). In the determinist realm, even of our small everyday actions — like choosing which socks to wear every morning — have been predetermined because the atoms in the human brain were once at the core of the Big Bang.
The flip side of the coin, indeterminism, emerged through the understanding of quantum mechanics. Scientists, such as Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, uncovered the strange and counterintuitive behavior of subatomic systems where things just happened. For example, an experiment might yield two completely different, and mutually exclusive, outcomes in a 50:50 distribution with no rhyme or reason as to why these different outcomes happened. To indeterminists like Bohr, quantum mechanics doesn’t try to explain the why and the outcomes are probabilistic because that is just what they are.
This ruffled Einstein and led him to quip, “God does not play dice with the Universe.” He thought that there must be another layer, deeper than quantum mechanics, where physical laws could explain what was observed in subatomic systems.
To this day, the conflict between indeterminism, which allows for free will, and determinism, which does not, has not been resolved. Of course, neither has the philosophical debate.