The Important Place of Free Will in Destiny

The Important Place of Free Will in Destiny
Fidelia and Speranza (Faith and Hope)'', oil on canvas painting by Benjamin West, 1776, Timken Museum of Art
Fidelia and Speranza (Faith and Hope)”, oil on canvas painting by Benjamin West, 1776, Timken Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons

After he read my post about Destiny, Toseland accused me of being depressing. Not exactly the reaction I was hoping for, but it does lead rather nicely into a somewhat philosophical discussion about the place of free will/autonomy/human agency in destiny.

My Ancient Greek Stoics had the opinion that we make our own choices, choosing our own destinations. However, they also believed that the universe moves in cycles of big bang birth and destruction in which each cycle is exactly the same as all those preceding and following it. Nothing that you can do will change the outcome.

And if we return to the Christian background, we are taught that while we have free will God already knows what decisions we are going to make. Technically, you are damned (or not) before you are even a twinkle in your great-grandfather’s eye.

So these two seeming contradictory philosophical outlooks agree on this; it doesn’t really matter what choices you make because the end result is predetermined whether you are Theseus or the Minotaur. Or Anakin Skywalker or Ben Solo – sorry, just watched Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.

I’m not sure whether that’s a comfort or not, but there’s a place here for you to make the best decision that you can at the time you have to make it. You don’t need to stay paralysed by indecision; you can make any choice that you like because you probably also believe that fortune favours the bold/brave/daring/strong/etc. Regardless of whether it is a “good” or “bad” decision, it will get you where you are going anyway. And if it doesn’t look like you are going to end up where you want to be, you can decide to change direction.

So along those lines, I want to share Paul Foxton’s story of a hopeful choice, involving the search for beauty, friendship and wisdom and achievement of the impossible. It’s a very personal story involving his decision to adopt a child with severe learning difficulties. According to his paediatrician, the child was destined to live a life of dependence, almost completely lacking in the kinds of skills that people need to get by. And even worse, that there was next to no hope of improving the child’s condition.

Paul’s wife was furious that this small person’s potential could be written off so easily, so they did some research. And they discovered something that a lot of people still don’t know; that any given doctor knows a lot about their own field and next to nothing about any other. They discovered neuroscience and its concept of “brain plasticity”; the brain’s ability to adapt to changing circumstances, for better or worse. (I glossed over this in my initial planning for wisdom, in the context of battling a family history of Alzheimer’s).

Despite their almost overwhelming fear, he and his wife decided to go ahead. They spent a lot of time developing their “new” son’s mental and physical capability and within four years their “sunshine boy” no longer needed intensive support from the health authorities. No only has he brought them incredible joy; he has taught them that nothing is impossible.

Paul says that too often we set boundaries on our abilities, limiting ourselves by our assumptions. We declare that we don’t have talent when talent is largely the product of time spent developing skill. He suggests that rather than limit yourself, you should try things because your brain keeps growing and developing as long as you keep giving it new things to accomplish. It’s not too late to learn to draw, or speak another language. The only thing that limits you is your fear of being crap at it. And of course, you are going to be crap at it. You have to give yourself the opportunity and make the time to develop the skill required. To defeat your self-imposed destiny.

Does this make you happier about your seemingly inescapable destiny? Leave a comment below and let us know.


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