Philosophy Information

What Is Destiny? Is There Some Thing Called Free Will?


One of the greatest and everlasting debates of humanity has been about the role of destiny in the lives of human beings. There was a time when it was almost an accepted fact of life that each and every event was governed by destiny of human beings. Astrology was considered a science. Then with the advent of modern times the importance of role of destiny as a concept started losing weight. Today, belief in destiny is considered a superstition by majority of people. And rightly so, since there seems to be no evidence for the irrevocability of destiny.

There are three schools of thoughts about fate. The most prevalent these days seems to be the one which says that there is nothing called destiny or fate. This line of thinking says that human beings do possess free will. All our successes, failures and actions are governed by the decisions we take. If we take correct decisions and act accordingly, no one can prevent us from achieving what we want to. If we fail, it must be due to something wrong on our part. We have the option to take decisions using our free will. In this line of thinking, fate is considered a superstition at worst and at best one can regard it as a psychological defense system to cope with the failures in life. Whenever you fail in some endeavor or whenever something happens which is not in accordance of your wish, you use it as a convenient scapegoat. You say, it was your bad luck which caused you to fail. Otherwise, how could you fail? You are never ready to accept that it was you who was responsible for the failure. It may have been due to some bad planning, lack of efforts in the right direction or outright failure to correctly judge the realities of your goal. But since it hurts to accept that you were the one who committed the mistake, you take shelter behind the concept of fate and blame it on your karma. This relieves you of the terrible pain of knowing and accepting the defeat.

This line of thinking has gained currency mainly because of the persons who subscribe to this theory. Among the votaries of this theory, one will hardly ever find people who can be called a failure in their lives. Almost all of the people who are considered as successful in their lives agree with this line of thinking. They say there is nothing called fate, they believe in themselves and in the existence of free will. Other people, looking at the supporters of this theory, grudgingly start accepting it since the logic, that one must be right if he is successful, comes into play.

This theory leaves many a questions of life unanswered. For example, this theory does not even begin to answer the question of differences between different people at the point of their birth. Why one is born to rich parents and another to poor ones? Why are some children born healthy and some sick or crippled in some way? There are many such questions, but for starters such questions suffice. Apart from offering the word "Coincidence", it has no credible sounding answers. There can be many arguments for and against this theory, but the debate is bound to remain inconclusive.

It must be said at this point that once a successful person, who does not believe in destiny, starts experiencing failures, he slowly begins to accept the existence of fate. Perhaps, the experiences of people are the strongest arguments in favor of destiny.

There is another school of thought which seems to be the most logical line of thinking. It says you are free to take the first step, but as soon as you take it, your second step becomes inevitable and predictable. You become bound by the different laws of life which govern the outcome of an act. Let us take an example. Say, you are going to plant a tree. As long as you have not done it, you have plenty of options. You may choose not to plant the seed at all. You may choose the type of tree you wish to grow. But once you have taken that decision and acted upon it, your freedom is curtailed by many degrees. If you plant a mango tree, then no matter what you do you cannot get any other fruit from that tree. Of course, even for reaping the harvest of mangoes you have to keep you fingers crossed. You cannot guarantee that the seed you just planted will grow to a big tree at all. It may also happen that the tree grows, bears fruit, but you cannot taste even a single fruit. There might be plenty of reasons for this. In other words, your freedom is limited to the actions you take but not to the outcome of that act. This sounds logical because the outcome of any act depends on so many factors that one cannot realistically hope to have control over all those factors. That is why even the best laid plans of the mightiest and most intelligent people turn to dust. This concept is called "Law of Karma".

In the eastern philosophies, like Hindu or Buddhist philosophy, there is the concept of reincarnation. It says, we all keep taking birth after birth. This cycle of birth and death has been continuing since eternity, and will keep on repeating itself till a human being attains "Enlightenment". This state of enlightenment has been described differently by different sages. Some have called it Self-Realization, some have called it Self-Actualization. It is also known as attaining Moksha, Nirvana or Kaivalya. Only after one achieves it, one can break out of this relentless cycle of birth and death.

The law of Karma says that all that happens in one's life is result of his own deeds. One can never escape the fruits of whatever he has done. Just like different plants take different time spans to grow up, different actions also take different time spans to bear fruit. It may be that the result of some act may take more time to fructify than the remaining life span of the person who committed that act. In such cases, the person has to bear the results of such actions in his next life.

Now we come to the theory which says that all events are predestined. There is nothing called free will. We are all like instruments in some grand design and nothing else. All our thoughts and actions are predestined. I would give two arguments in favor of this theory.

Let us first examine the subject of Astrology. It has also been a subject of a great and inconclusive debate. Is there some truth in the astrological sciences( see Astrology: A Science or Superstition)? I think that while it is not possible to establish the efficacy of Astrology beyond any doubt, it is perhaps more difficult to deny it altogether. Most of us have had some experience with astrologers where some of their predictions came out to be astonishingly accurate. It can be argued that a majority of astrological predictions fail. But I am not talking of failed predictions. There can be many reasons for that. I am focusing on the predictions which turn out to be true. How can it be possible for someone to predict some event of future?

Let us consider for a moment a journey from one place to another. Someone who knows the route can tell us that city A will come after city B. Now it is only possible if the landscape remains unchangeable. If someone can change the location of cities then it would be impossible to predict this order. Similarly, the very fact that it is at all possible to predict future events, proves that future is unchangeable. And if it is so, then where is the place for free will?

The second argument derives itself from the knowledge of modern science. It says that the whole universe is a continuum. What this means is that there is no part of the universe which is isolated from other parts. Whatever happens in one part of the universe influences the whole of it. This effect might not be detectable, but that it occurs cannot be denied. For example, if I throw a pebble in the Pacific Ocean then the disturbance it will create is bound to travel to the other end of the ocean and affect the water molecules there. It is entirely another matter whether we are capable of measuring that effect or not. Similarly, take the case of stars billions of light years away from us. Since the light from those stars eventually reaches us, it must be influencing us in some way or the other. We also understand that for any event to take place there must be numerous events in the past which make this event possible. Each event is a culmination of innumerable events in the past as well as forerunner of some other event in the future. For example, for me to have taken birth the births of my parents was a necessary precondition and so on. If we start tracing back the turn of events which made my birth possible, we will have to go back to the very beginning of the universe. Now let us consider the insignificance of a human being in the scheme of the universe. Even a drop of water in the largest ocean has more significant presence in the backdrop of that ocean than a human being has in the universe. What this signifies is that it is impossible for a man to change the course of events, since the causes of those events lie not in his domain but in the whole of the past of the universe.

Can one realistically hope to negate the whole tide of the past considering the limits of his much less than insignificant strength, thought or will?

Ashok Kumar Gupta is an engineer by profession, a programmer by hobby and a thinker by nature. He is the webmaster of http://www.akgupta.com


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