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Determinism Versus Free Will?

Updated on November 30, 2017
Fredrickvanek profile image

Fredrick Vanek has had a life-long preoccupation with philosophical questions.


“Ethos Anthropoi Daemon.” Heraclitus.

This enigmatic aphorism from almost 2700 years ago continues to bedevil those who try to be formulaic and pin it down. There is something delightfully elfish about that. The Greek terms are straight forward enough separately, yet the phrase is open to several possible translations.

“Character is fate” is the usual modern English translation. It becomes then a terse observation that the characteristic, habitual way of an individual's behaving and reacting will inevitably lead to a certain outcome; a “fate” virtually predictable. Common sense, right? If a person lives a thrill-seeking life of death-defying acts it shouldn't surprise anyone that this person is unlikely to die in bed. Pure mechanics. Pure cause and effect.

Yet this only touches the surface.

The word translated as “fate” is “Daemon”. And the Greeks thought of one's Daemon as a sort of Demi-God, assigned to that individual from before birth and which insisted on that individual fulfilling the destiny assigned to it, even to the point of destroying the individual if he or she held out against its demands. For Heraclitus' contemporary Greeks the sense of the aphorism would really have been: “One's Daemon is one's Character.” The Daemon only intervenes in your life if you are heading off in a different direction than the one your fate decreed.


And it does seem at times there are layers of Free Will and Destiny, an alternating of Chaos and Order, a cosmic play that culminates in a somehow appropriate

When one looks back over one's life with sufficient time and distance, a direction, an irresistible impetus seems to have inexplicably forced our hand in decisions and steps at crucial junctions, making it inevitable we'd wind up where we are. That is much more than simply one's personality creating its own “destiny”. It is the seemingly actual interference in a life of an alien intelligence or Will warping time and space to insist on a change, whether that individual finds it comfortable or not.

That is how it seems to the observer: An effect by an unknown cause. Which is why a cry for explanations arises. The problem is that there are no explanations that are not either Myth, Religion, or Metaphysics: And all those explanations, like the existence of a “Daemon”, are unproveable.

Emerson said "God's dice are always loaded."
Emerson said "God's dice are always loaded." | Source

At heart this is the issue of a Determined Universe versus a Universe of Chance.

Our logic is no help here; once a premise is accepted like an axiom, logic can affirm any proposition. Only experience exists, and that cannot explain, only be noted. Yet our perception of an impetus to our lives is a weight coming down hard on the side of a Determined Universe. The rare, but verifiable, precognitive dreams is another weight settling on that side of the scales. Still another is the testimony of the Near-Death-Experiences people have had. (This should not be misconstrued as an endorsement of a religious belief, for as I stated earlier, those are all based on assumptions.)

The Yin / Yang symbol can be used to visualize the alternation of order and chaos as well as any dualistic concepts.
The Yin / Yang symbol can be used to visualize the alternation of order and chaos as well as any dualistic concepts. | Source

From: “Is this a Determined Universe or one of Chance?” naturally leads to another question.

Is there a purpose then to life, to the Universe? Is there a teleological goal? Or if it is determined, is it the Determinism of blind mechanics, of blind cause and effect? Or is there an end game? Or is it a meaningless play? Lila of the Hindus? Is it organic growth, like a tree’s branching, Tzu Ran of the Taoists? Once again, short of a mystic vision, there is no way to know. And the distinguishing characteristic of a true mystic experience is its in-communicability to others; it must remain a personal



A presumption is a presumption.

To follow it further: The only basis for believing the Universe is one strictly of Chance, is another mental assumption; another axiomatic belief with no contact with experience: In essence it says “I believe it is because it must be.” That is Faith, not a rational conclusion based on experience.

“Science” is at home where it can exercise its characteristic of dismissing whatever does not fit into its preconceived assumptions, and so see the world as one that operates according to the “laws” it claims to discover. In reality, those “laws” are a Procrustean Bed that can simply deny something exists because it cannot be quantified, and so therefore there is no need for explanation. Like the Medieval Scholastics who would accept nothing that did not fit into the parameters set out by their Church. The same mental mechanism is at work, just different initial assumptions.


Many cling without reflection to a belief, a hope, that Someone is looking out for their personal wishes and hopes.

It is the unenviable lot of philosophers, mystics, and those who reflect, to deal with the fact that it is not so easy as that. Yes; there are those incredible moments when it does seem a Power has altered an outcome in a way that is beyond reason. Many of us have had them. And there is, every once in a while, when some in a very rare group are vouchsafed a glimpse into the Ultimate. But it doesn’t last. Maybe just once in a lifetime. Then there is nothing: No one home when we call. That is the most desolating of feelings: The Dark Night of the Soul. And while the memory of the experience may last; it doesn’t come again. Sometimes for the rest of one’s life. Which is just what happened to Mother Theresa.


Matthew 7:9

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?” That God will. And daily, and often, and at all times and places.

Experience contradicts the very concept of conventional Christianity’s’ insistence on a God who always answers prayers and is only Good. The experience of what we call Evil in this world, the incredible sufferings and crushed lives belies that.

There is the argument that we simply are not wise enough to understand the ways of God. Maybe so. As Paul Simon put it “God makes His plans with information not available to mortal man.”


The Islamic figure of “Al Khidir” figures in a story about that inability of man to see all the ramifications of the actions done by supernatural forces. Moses meets Al Khidir and begs to accompany him. Its agreed that Moses can as long as he does not question. Moses is baffled and horrified by what Al Khidir does three times, and so has to leave. Before he goes, Al Khidir tells him the unseen-by-Moses reasons why he did what he did.

But a story like that too, while exquisite, is scant comfort; once again just a requirement to trust. Which was the same solution offered by the Pre-Christian Stoics. Those who are helped by believing such explanations are welcome to them for their personal comfort, but that does not make such a view binding or valid for anyone else. It is the sage advice of Kurt Vonnegut in “Cat's Cradle”: “Live by the Foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.”


If this results in a Fatalism, it is a fall into fallacy

. One cannot simply sit back and say simplistically “I am either fated to live or fated to die. It is out of my hands.” For there is a third alternative: You may be fated to be saved by your own efforts. But if that results in believing you are the Master of Your Fate, it is a fall into yet another fallacy. For as the ancient Persian Siramnes put it:

“I am sole master of my plans, but of the success of my affairs Fortune is Mistress.”

Time after time reflective people have come to that same conclusion, one based on outcomes, not hope, people such as Schopenhauer, Goethe, Voltaire, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and all the Stoics, Freud, Jung, Cicero, Montaigne; they are legion. It is at the heart of Ecclesiastes, it is what Siduri told Gilgamesh.


Every attempt to delve into this leads one further and further into the forest, like the Hunter in the Fairy Tale pursuing an elusive stag and being led deeper and deeper into an unknown forest until he is completely lost. (Which is where the real adventure begins. So where does this leave those of us like Voltaire's Good Brahmin who are compelled by our natures to seek a definitive answer that doesn't fall back onto a faith?? Where T.S. Elliott's lines from “The Rock” delineate?

“Be not too curious of Good and Evil,

Seek not to count the future waves of time;

But be ye satisfied if you have light

enough to take your step and find your foothold.”

For myself?... “Non fingo hypotheses”.

Newton’s famous: “I don’t make hypotheses.”, while used here in a different context, is appropriate.

It just is.

All explanations fail in my eyes. No Deity to propitiate or curse; and no predictability:

Unser Shicksal ist im Dunkelheit verhüllt.”

(Schopenhauer: “Our fate is hidden in darkness.”)


"While we think we can change the drama of history, and of our own lives, we are not awed by our destiny.

But when the evil is irreparable, when our life is lived, a strong spirit has the sublime resource of standing at bay and of surveying almost from the other world the viscitudes of this."

George Santayana

There is only the Dance.

The precise nature of Whatever there may be out there, or in here, remains unfathomable to me. It takes strength to simply 'be'. It takes strength to simply trust in whatever there is that may be guiding the theater of my life without knowing anything about the Playwright and Director.

So, I'll give the final word to John Lennon:

“Crystal words of wisdom...Let it be.”


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