For those familiar with my blog, today’s post is unique. Sometimes I write about mental health issues, sometimes I write about social issues, and sometimes I write about writing. Today, I want to write about my worldview, and I cannot relegate that to one of these areas.
From a mental health perspective, my anxiety and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder largely exists despite this worldview. I can talk about how one aspect of it, irony, may fuel my mental health, but I ought to have better mental health for someone with this worldview.
The worldview generates a certain helplessness, even hopelessness, in me. It prescribes an idea that much of life is beyond our control and that makes deliberate change impossible (I will explain in a moment), so the gap between reality and how I feel about it hurts at times. I believe that goes a long way towards fueling my anxiety even though I recognise it was beyond my control.
This is also where those who read my pieces on writing might observe that I advocate for dense, purposeful writing. If something describes the fictional world to the readers for no purpose other than to create an image, I believe it should be cut. Those details are for the reader to supply. The writer supplies what must be, and good reading involves a series of musts.
Many perspectives begin with a key question, whether implicit or explicit: do we have free will or is everything pre-determined? Some cultures prescribe to a linear sense of time where we look to the future. Others saw time as linear but with humans facing backward, with time overtaking us and becoming known as it crosses into our field of vision. Others might have a more chaotic sense of things – multiple timelines that one crosses based on decisions.
The core of my philosophy is that at the objective level everything is pre-determined. What happens in any given moment is the direct result of all of the conditions present immediately preceding that moment.
From a pragmatic perspective, we do have free will because there is no way to know all of those conditions to affect the outcome. In our ignorance we have the perception that we can choose from several options.
Taking this in a human, decision-making sense: if I were to ask a person, “which number will I roll?” before casting a die, a person technically has six options. In a pragmatic sense, they might choose any of those six numbers equally. In the objective sense, I believe everything happening up to the moment precisely before the decision already determined what number the person will choose.
If they say, “Six,” you might say, “Well, they could have just as easily said five.”
Because the event already occurred, I would say to you, “No, not just as easily. They said six and can only have said six. The odds of that person saying five are zero.”
Yes, this is two different perspectives of the event. You are travelling back to the unknown before the decision to imagine a different outcome while I am looking back from the present at what occurred.
My contention is that all of the conditions present when that person said six would still be true if we went back to that moment (like Ebenezer with the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present). Whatever went through their mind that caused them to settle on six would still be true and they would still settle on six.
Even the act of rolling the die is immutable. Tossing the die with a certain amount of force at an angle with the physical conditions present will result in the same outcome every single time. A different outcome would require at least one condition to change and that is not possible once the thing happens.
To go a little broader with this philosophy, allow me to offer some personal life highlights. I am writing from my office in my house here in the Mid-Atlantic with my wife upstairs and dog nearby.
Yes, I made a series of decisions that led to this moment, which would support the free will position.
What I am suggesting is that if we go backwards, it’s not possible for me to have made any other decisions along that path.
About ten years ago I was working for a vendor, travelling around the globe to train customers on their software. I hated the job because I hated the management, but it was a position open to me because I grew up in the industry and had a financial degree that meant I understood the accounting aspects of their software well.
I hated this job to the point of depression and severe anxiety. I wanted out as soon as possible, but I am a cautious person by nature and prefer to secure a new job before leaving one. One of our customers was eager to bring me onboard, flying me to Florida for a formality of an interview and substantial raise.
After accepting their offer and informing my employer that I would be leaving, they torpedoed the deal but offered me a meager raise to stay.
So, I did something completely out of character – I quit. No new position and no immediate prospect.
My brother informed me that his social services agency had a position that would be well within my qualifications even though it paid relatively poorly (it was non-profit, so that was a matter of necessity). I took the job thinking it meant an income while I could keep searching.
One of the first people I met on our team is the person who became my wife. The niche nature of that role came to define my career from that point to this one: I am a data professional who helps organisations bridge the communication gap between their technical and non-technical operations (that is, I’m not a coder, but I understand coding well enough to take what customers want to coders and explain things in a way that everyone understands).
When we decided to get married, we also decided to move. That set off the chain of events that eventually brought us to the purchase of this house where I now sit.
One of her brother’s friends could no longer keep his corgi, so I offered for us to take him. We had so much fun with that corgi that when the time came to get a second dog, I knew I wanted another corgi. If the timing of any of this had been off, we probably would still have a corgi but not this particular guy.
The point of all of this is that I can point to major moments and say, “My current situation does not happen if those events do not happen.”
More to the point of the worldview, I’m suggesting it could happen no other way.
While at the time I could have made any one of several decisions, I made the choice to quit that job. It required, among other things, feeling so emotionally and psychologically distressed that I was able to override one of my most predictable tendencies: caution.
At virtually any point in my life I would have continued to live with my situation until I found a new job. The thought of unemployment and fear of where that might lead would easily outweigh the known stress of a current job. That employer stressed me to the point that it changed the calculus enough for me to say, “I will take the unknown.”
I could not have chosen to stay with that employer. “But you could have.” No, I could not. If I could, I would. That is the decision I would make 99.9% of the time. The only way I could have chosen anything other than resignation in that moment would be for other variables to change. A funny conversation with a coworker right before that to boost my mood enough that I decided to fight another day. A good song on the radio. Something.
Where this starts to go wild is when one recognises that every one of those conditions is itself the culmination of conditions.
Suppose I did have a good conversation with a coworker right before that moment. We run into each other at the bathroom because we both “decided” to go at the same time. “Decided” in the sense that we each had an urge to go that could no longer wait (or we did not want to wait) and nothing else prevented us from going, like being on a phone call. We were going because we had eaten/drank a certain time before that with our respective metabolisms.
The point is, there are a lot of factors beyond our control that, in that precise moment, meant a particular event must follow.
“He could have waited a little longer to visit the bathroom.”
But he didn’t, because all of the conditions that brought him to that decision were true and always will be.
If you are reading this and thinking, “This is all truism” – I would agree. That’s at the heart of this worldview. Things are cosmically banal. The universe is cold and apathetic. Even things as complex as the human nervous system are forces playing out to their natural ends. They remain complex to our perspective because we cannot see all of the conditions that go into it.
So – key thing here – I am not taking away from the wonder and splendor of the universe. It’s that difference in the objective and the pragmatic. The universe will run things like a 1s and 0s computer program that we will observe with awe.
It’s also why, philosophically, I would fit in best with what existentialism or absurdism. You assign value to things based on what matters. The universe does not care. Things will spin on regardless.
That is where things get messy with people because I do also believe that life is objectively pre-determined. That person who believes so many ignorant things is going to continue believing those things. You will never convince them otherwise because you cannot breach the wall of conditions that made their believing in it originally happen.
Do some people change their mind on a matter? Yes. Those people are open to the change at the moment it presented itself, as I was with quitting a job despite having no replacement position.
The conditions must exist, and they only exist based on all of the relevant conditions that are necessary for that – and each of those have relevant, necessary conditions back through time.
Pragmatically, that means that I will absolutely feel disappointment, frustration, and anger at people who express certain perspectives and perhaps even feel an urge to try and convince them to change. Those are sets of conditions. My psychology will compel me to that even though I know it may have zero impact.
It also determines a lot about my writing process. Unlike life, which can seem chaotic at times, fiction has to adhere to stricter rules even when being fanciful. A particular work establishes an order to what may or may not happen, and the author is stuck to that order. We recognise this as readers because if the writer deviates too far it will take us out of our suspension of disbelief and ruin the experience.
When I write (I do not apply this rule to all writers), I seek for everything to align as a must. The character must take a particular course of action because that is what their character and the circumstances dictate. If I as the author desire a particular course of action and it does not match the character and circumstances, readers will fast note the plot hole or contrivance and feel disappointed.
Writing begins with a central idea, a protagonist who will challenge that idea, and an antagonist that will challenge that idea from a place of opposition (sometimes they are mirrors, sometimes foils that are the same in every respect except one). Then the reading experience becomes something of a science with the characters subjected to the tests of the plot and followed through to a natural conclusion.
A writer does not have to do this, but I feel that a deviation from this method amounts to writing propaganda for whatever the central idea is (as it implies one conclusion and then forces all action in that direction).
(Propaganda feels like a heavy word there – kind of like selfish. A bit of it can be fine. You want to write that fun romance or exciting spy thriller to entertain readers? Go for it!)
The trouble with this worldview is that it’s a truism. Short of some physics breakthrough that explains the universe to an adequate extent, there is little in the way of evidence that would seem to counter this and yet that does not make the worldview true. It casts it in a category with religion where it becomes a question of faith.
So what are your thoughts on fate and free will?