“I live in sin, to kill myself I live; no longer my life my own, but sin’s; my good is given to me by heaven, my evil by myself, by my free will, of which I am deprived” – Michelangelo
The curious concept of free will is typically discussed in a moral context, that is, in particular our capacity to choose evil over good. Frankly, this is because we don’t like to consider the possibility that we are automatons, responding to stimuli in a pre-determined fashion. Oh, we’re self-servingly willing to attribute an abysmal lack of conscious volition to animals, other people, and nature in general, but oddly, the only way we seem to be able to logically prove our mastery of fate to ourselves is laud our own ability to do objectionable things. Gods of fate have never been especially popular, except among gamblers, as we prefer vaguely benevolent celestial critters that nonetheless give us the option to go evil or absent-mindedly allow evil to exist. The closer we get to a scientific “Theory of Everything”, the more it forces us to focus on causal chains of events that starts with the Higgs-Boson and works its way up through atoms, molecules, amino acids, genes, and complex organs to a deterministic universe. And while a more robust understanding of the building blocks of life, the universe, and everything would no doubt have cool repercussions like interstellar spacecraft, teleportation devices, cures to all diseases, and food replicators (I hate cooking, or rather cooking hates me), success in such an endeavor ultimately must lead to the conclusion that choice is an illusion. This is why we mutter so hopefully and reverently about “uncertainty principles”, as if laws of probability were analogous to conscious freedom. An existence dependent on causality is harmonious in the sense that everything is as it should be in a well-ordered and mannerly reality, but ultimately this deprives you of even the possibility of free will. Thus, should you encounter a hairy, scary monstrosity in the deep dark woods, gird your loins and give him a big hug. Refrain from calling the exorcist when ghosts are banging around your house. Love your outliers. Applaud your anomalies. Revel in strangeness. The absurd and the inexplicable are and always have been the last bastions against enthalpy. To put it simply, increasingly orderly systems suck and monsters serve to remind us that, in terms of free will, madness is often preferable to mechanism.
Derivation from first principle must by necessity lead to inevitability, or as Sylvan Barnet noted in assessing Doctor Faustus’ culpability in his own fate, “We can say that Faustus makes a choice, and that he is responsible for his choice, but there is in the play a suggestion—sometimes explicit, sometimes only dimly implicit—that Faustus comes to destruction not merely through his own actions but through the actions of a hostile cosmos that entraps him. In this sense, too, there is something of Everyman in Faustus. The story of Adam, for instance, insists on Adam’s culpability; Adam, like Faustus, made himself, rather than God, the center of his existence. And yet, despite the traditional expositions, one cannot entirely suppress the commonsense response that if the Creator knew Adam would fall, the Creator rather than Adam is responsible for the fall; Adam ought to have been created of better stuff.” Our tacit fear of predetermination and the implication that our own control is absent may be why cross-culturally the mythological incarnation of Fate is rarely a benign personage. The Greek Moirai (goddesses of fate) were depicted as stern and inflexible crones measuring and cutting the thread of your life by some incalculable logic. Similarly, the Norse “Norns” (a vague set of supernatural females related to “destiny”) usually had negative and unsavory associations, mostly with violent death and battle, although they were tasked with pouring water on the roots of Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life, in an effort to forestall the death of our universe. The Roman goddess Fortuna is veiled and blind. The motif of anthropomorphized fate as hideous and arbitrary recurs across cultures and history, yet notions that we cannot escape destiny are omnipresent. Did you notice that the gods of fate are usually women?
The great philosophers such as Spinoza, Hume, and Schopenhauer, who directly engaged the possibility that free will is an illusion, all spoke of our much ballyhooed human consciousness as a coping mechanism. Spinoza pointed out that there is a vast gulf between being conscious of our actions, and understanding the wellspring that was the source of those actions. Hume thought it was pure fantasy based on false sensations. Schopenhauer warned that cravings and desires are what we mistake for conscious volition. The suspicion is of course that while we can explain what we did, attempts to explain why we did it are invariably rooted in a “wish that it were so”. An orderly universe serves our purposes, effectively addressing our very real safety and security concerns, and formulating our approach to existence around the idea that understanding an objective truth equates with a mastery of said truth fills us with a sense of power. The anomalistic, the strange, and the non-causal threaten disorder, and ultimately chaos which we have striven to escape through the creation of our own cage.
I was recently asked if I thought science had any utility in the investigation of strange phenomena, to which I could only respond in the affirmative, but as I reflected on the matter I came to realize that neither the scientist, nor the anomalist may be comfortable with the answers the application of science to the heretofore noumenal uncover. If all anomalies are brought beneath the scientific umbrella, we will have created an orderly, but empty clockwork universe. We may rejoice at such an intellectual triumph, celebrate our acumen, and presume to control our fate as our freedom slips away. Personally, I prefer to blow a kiss to the monstrosities and aberrations. They may be all that stands between free will and fate.