Fate or Free Will?

By T. Henry

Is there such a thing as destiny? If so, is it an irrevocable fate, or does man have the power to resist it? Scientific speculation often tends toward a rigid, mechanical interpretation of the laws of nature based on very narrow mathematical principles; and we attempt to apply the same rigid scheme to human life. Some have sought to represent nature as a system of linked causes and effects which, once started (who knows how?), goes on automatically like a machine without the interposition of any influences from outside the system. But we note that the soul in the plant, for example, sets aside the inertia of physical matter and superimposes an entirely new set of laws upon it, resulting in the life and beauty we see all about us. And in the animal a still freer will comes into play introducing still higher, less predictable, laws. In man there is a far greater power of independence, and it may be infinitely greater than most of us think. Not only does his intellect set him above all lower kingdoms, but there is that within him which even transcends the intellect.

One man may meet a handicap with relative ease, while another might be crushed by the same circumstance. Does this mean that there is no such thing as fate? I doubt if we shall ever solve the problem of free will completely, for we can solve nothing absolutely, but we can do so relatively. It would appear that the animal is free with regard to certain laws that limit the kingdoms below him; yet the animal is subject to laws that limit his own kingdom. Similarly man is free with respect to much that holds the animal in bondage, yet bound by what governs the human kingdom. We cannot stop at this point of argument, however, for our illustration is very imperfect. Human nature is not rigid but extremely elastic, and man's character is made up of a great many possibilities, high and low. There are various grades of intelligence, and consequently as many grades of independence, ranging from the most elementary type of person who moves in a narrow circle of habits and customs, up to the most developed and self-cultured individual who can subject many of his habits and powers to the force of his will as directed by inner principles. Thus while an absolutely free will -- one restricted by no law whatever -- cannot be conceived of short of absolute chaos, it is easy enough to picture a will which, following a higher law, thereby controls all lesser laws. It is like a charioteer who, instead of sitting in abject inaction while the horses drag him where they please, guides and drives them where he will. He is ruled by his own plan, not by the caprice of his steeds.

Fatalists, while admitting the relative freedom of man's will as compared with the animals, say he is nevertheless bound by an endless chain of his ideas and propensities, which generate each other and thus form a network of causes and effects from which he cannot escape. I would take issue with this viewpoint. The fact that man is able to contemplate such an idea, to state such a proposition -- does not this suggest that his mind possesses an attribute which places it, partially at least, outside of that network? Has not the self-conscious mind an indeterminate value which prevents us from using it as a mere factor in a scientific equation or from making it an inert link in such a chain of causation? If this be so, then the mind must have the potential of unfolding at any moment new and unforeseen capabilities that would upset any calculation. A scientist devises formulae and equations which express what he knows of natural forces; but when he discovers new sources, he must readjust his calculations and make them square once more. In the same way a fatalist may predict a scheme, but he would have to be ready to change it whenever new factors made this necessary -- which would be frequently!

From the preceding, it seems logical to assume that destiny is merely the name we assign to that legion of strong forces that we ourselves have set in motion, a net consisting of our accumulated motives, desires, and actions from out of the past. We have woven this net for ourselves, but it is not absolutely binding, for the same will which set the forces in motion can resist them; the same mind which planned them can encompass their results. Besides, the chain of causation or karma works on many planes. A man has physical karma, mental, psychic, moral, and spiritual karma. Thus predetermining a person's future conduct or destiny resembles a mathematical problem of bewildering complexity. A seer might be able to approximate what one's conduct would likely be in a given set of circumstances, especially if the individual were a simple character with the bulk of his mental powers latent; but the difficulties increase infinitely in proportion as one's latent faculties become unfolded.

Some may aver that our destiny is written in the stars, but even the most devout astrologer has to admit that man is to a great extent uncompelled by these influences -- otherwise why warn him? If the signs were binding, advice would likewise be of no use. To give advice is to admit that the indications are not binding, that they can be resisted. Pythagoras suggested that we study mathematics, and one of the things I find there is that a point, free to move where it likes so long as it never strays nearer or further than a certain distance from another point, will generate a spherical surface around that point. But if the restriction should be removed and some other condition imposed, then the curve generated would no longer be a sphere. So with man: before we can predict his conduct or fate, we must know the laws under which he is moving.

A larger knowledge reveals to man other laws different from those he has been following; his power of choice enables him to follow these new laws and rise above many things that may have been holding him. The general principle involved is that, whatever the forces ruling us, we can escape their thralldom by calling in the aid of higher forces within ourselves. We can, for example, invoke the nobler quality of the will so as to overcome our baser tendencies and find our strength in the grander part of our natures. True, there is a danger that in seeking help from within we shall merely call up a more subtle form of self-centeredness. Those who are not careful about their basic motives and seek purely personal advantages will find they are shackled by the very tendencies from which the sincere seeker wishes to free himself. For it is selfishness in its many and varied forms that binds man down in a chain of fate; and it is by stepping out of it that he allies himself with a higher law and refuses domination by the lower laws.

Every day, every minute, man is constantly in a process of change and growth and, rising above yesterday's conditions that restricted him, he finds himself to that extent in a continuously expanding area of "freedom." I therefore believe that man is not irrevocably bound by any destiny that can be calculated. And whether or not he is governed by a spiritual destiny is a question that may seem too remote to be of any practical consequence, yet it deserves our careful attention.

 (From Sunrise magazine, October/November 2002; copyright © 2002 Theosophical University Press)

Karma Menu

The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. It is more important than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than whatever anyone may say or do. It is more important than appearances, giftedness or skill. The remarkable thing is that we have the choice to create the attitude we have for that day.
We cannot change our past. We cannot change the way people act. We cannot change the inevitable. The one thing we can change is the only thing we have any control over, and that is our attitude. I'm convinced that life is 10% what actually happens to us, and 90% how we react to it. -- Charles Swindall