Character As Fate And Environment As Variability

In reply to this post from late last night in which I took a first pass at trying to sketch out my views on fate, George writes:

Dan,
Again I find myself thanking you for this blog.

Good blogging is all for naught without good readers (and especially without good readers who contribute excellently and actively), so the gratitude is most definitely mutual!

You make me wish that I had have signed up for those philosophy courses in university, although I doubt I would have found such an eloquent professor.

The ideas are what are so interesting, not me so much, so I have confidence many a philosopher can do the job just fine.  Support your local philosophy professors!  :)

I touched a bit on some of your points in my post and I think by you expanding on them you did clarify your position.

I am not entirely sure that an assertion that fate can be described as a sum of your traits and experiences and if either factor was different than you would not be the you that you are isn’t a redefining of the word at best and possibly a bit tautological.

In that there are factors that I believe we have no control over I believe in fate.
1. It seems logical to assume that I could not have had different parents, so all parts of my “whole self” that result from that fact are in a sense “fated”. ie. That I was a Christian
2. In that my relationship with my parents resulted in certain proclivities and aversions, that events that result from those particular traits are to a lesser extent “fated.” ie. As I am inquisitive and questioning of authority, I should find myself at odds with Christianity.
3. That I should gravitate to certain types of persons by virtue of common belief and interests.

Okay, so I’m not sure if I just proved your point in an attempt to disprove it. So now in talking myself through it I completely see your point. Kudos.

Yes, what I am saying is that we do not have power over our parents, our genes, our environments and instruction, etc. All of these things condition us, and I think fate us to be who we are.  Where you warn against tautology, I think that I’m being definitional.  I define myself as the full set of related selves that I have been with each passing moment, all their actions, beliefs, and desires, etc.  I am just all those things.  So, the definition of me is the entirety of what I have done and thought.  I am open to reasons to define the self otherwise, but this is what makes most sense to me in lieu of such reasons.

The only part of me that does not unfold from within me is that the environment gives input which makes my future variable.  That you post your reply to me brings out this post in reply that I would not have written.  This post is exactly what I will write given who I am at this moment.  The provocation though is necessary to open up precisely this expression and articulation of myself.  Then this very process of expressing and articulating myself transforms me yet again and turns me into who I will be when this post is complete.

The input of new information that you (as part of my environment) give me affects how the preexisting set of beliefs, desires, habits, etc. that I am will transform next.  The transformation will be a combination of what I am before your provocation, how what I am is set up to process the new input from you and from other events in the world, what you or other events give me as information, and finally the process of expressing myself in reply to you or other events in the world itself.

So, I already have certain beliefs for example.  The way you put your challenge to me yesterday, the example of running into your friend you gave me, the challenge to relate it to questions of fate and interpretation, etc.  All of this I process in terms of my existing state of beliefs, desires, attitudes, habits, etc.  This process of responding not only reports what my beliefs, desires, etc. think but actualizes them and changes them slightly through making them explicit and through adjusting them to new information.  Modifications occur to my beliefs, desires, attitudes, habits, etc. that would not have happened in precisely the ways they do were it not for your specific challenge.  In this way, you and I are mutually provoking each other to reshape ourselves (which is exciting to realize) but how we can process from each other and how we do that will be from within ourselves.  And the very process of our interaction will effect the determinate shape that the indeterminate possibilities within us take and who we will be in the next instants.

Now the next time I contemplate these issues, it will be as the person who results from this present inquiry and not as the same person who replied yesterday or the one replying right now.  This means that if next week, I bump into someone and we discuss fate and she gives me a story to think about and how it relates to meaning and fate, my reply will be different than I would have given her yesterday had she posted to my blog instead of you.  My reply to her will be influenced by my replied first to you yesterday and today.  And the intervening changes and coalescences in my thought from having talked to you about these things will mean that I will likely process her example differently.  For example, I might take features that were key to understanding your anecdote and be more ready to find them in hers and to interpret hers along that axis, whereas yesterday something more peculiar to her anecdote might have struck me most prominently and spun me off thinking in a different direction.

And had I encountered you not yesterday and today but a week after having shaped my thought around my encounter with her yesterday and today instead, then in that case when I engaged your examples I might have done so quite differently than I have just now, since my categories might have gotten set up somewhat differently through my conversation with her.

So, these are the ways that our lives and our selves are indeed not fated from within.  The environment, including the people within it act upon us in ways that what we already are realizes itself but in an adaptive and self-transformative way through its expression itself.   We always respond only in terms of what we already are, but others’ ideas and actions or things we simply observe can affect what we already are in unforeseen ways, unlocking implicit potentials to see things that were already there within us but just needing to be brought to consciousness through the aid of external input.

So, through all of this, I think that who you really are is what you emerge to be through the interaction of what you “start” as with your perpetual encounters with environments.  Ultimately the environments cannot entirely shape you.  All they can do is refine you by constantly feeding you “information” in which what you are shapes itself.  Through each encounter a new self is shaped.  Since each shaping reflects an input from a previous self’s response to the world, the new self you get is the one you deserve, the one reveals the latency of your previous self, the one which shows what the previous self was really made of through how it responds to its environment.  And so it is with each previous self on back, each one is the result of the previous one’s responses to its environment and each such choice reflects its beliefs, desires, attitudes in a determining way.

In this way, through this chain of successive selves, the dimensions of fate are the dimension in which we will always respond in terms of what we are at the moment and what we are at any moment will reflect the choices of previous selves.  And the bedrock, most fated dimension of ourselves is whatever it is that stays most resilient in persistently making the choice in all of our most fundamental moments of choice.  That within us which is most consistently effective in determining how our successive selves shake out is what we are at our core.

This is why I cannot imagine having remained a Christian.  I try to imagine, “well what if I had not gone to college and not been exposed to philosophy—maybe then I would never have thought too hard about these things and remained devout.”  But to imagine the me that would not have gone to college is already to drastically alter who I was.  Nothing within who I was at 18 would make sense of such a choice.  To imagine that course would be to imagine me as someone entirely different.

The only way I can imagine not having gone to school would be if I had had an illness or financial inability or obligations to a sick parent, etc.  So, maybe then I wind up never in college.  But I know I was already reading C.S. Lewis and other low grade philosophy I was exposed to in high school, so if there was any time to read on my own, it only makes sense to think I would have found my way to philosophy outside of school just as I did within school.  I simply was a philosopher.  I might have become a different one but was just my inevitable core.

This is why when people ask me why I chose to become a philosophy teacher or to study philosophy at all. the question just makes me blink.  I didn’t choose this, I just was this.

As Robert Solomon has pointed out in explicating Nietzsche, fate is not causal determinism.  A fated person or event is not one that has to happen because of any particular chain of causes happens.  A fate is something that has to happen regardless of the route there.  It may be straight or circuitous but what is fated simply must eventually find its way to fruition. Oedipus’ parents could try to leave the kid out to the elements to be destroyed rather than let him grow up with them and kill his father and marry his mother.  That would have been a straighter line to the inevitable but it still got the job done to have them send Oedipus away and have him only coincidentally and unwittingly kill his father and then coincidentally and unwittingly marry his mother.  Either way, it was destiny.

Of course that mythic representation of fate is just myth.  Neither gods nor fates nor the forces of the universe conspire so to assure a consciously intended outcome.  But the core of your character will find its way to expression if not today through this means then tomorrow through that one.  And in that sense you are fated and the key moments in which you actualize your core self are rich with meaning.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://outofthegdwaye.wordpress.com George W.

    So dan,
    A year after this conversation I start to finally internalize these ideas till just this week (1 1/2 years later) I have to flesh it out with the same friend that sparked this conversation between us.
    I’m put to task to describe my views and find out that I believe in causal determinism. Is that what we were describing in this post? Because your wording in the penultimate paragraph seems to caution against it.
    I’m unsure that my views, which admittedly are/were formed at the conclusion of this conversation (and are quite similar to the sentiments you describe) fit neatly into any of the philosophical camps surrounding determinism.
    Also, is environment or external stimuli as variable or undetermined as you say? This may sound like “hard determinism” or “fatalism” but isn’t it probable that these external influences are also determined by “the place where George would be” for example or you as “the person george would talk to who is there because that is place where Dan would be” etc. Am I lazily taking this too far?

  • Daniel Fincke

    Hi George,

    Thanks for revisiting to and reviving this old post, it’s one of the ones that makes me smile to remember every time I see its title anywhere.

    No, I don’t think external stimuli is variable in the ultimate sense. I think it is determined too. I was just trying to contrast the parts of ourselves that are determined from within us—from the things which internally constitute us and drive us—with those things that determine us in a way that is from outside of us. While I am both inevitably going to be influenced by what is within me and by what is outside me, there is something more deeply, more initially, and, obviously, more experientially “me” about those determinations that come from within me.

    While the external determinations may be as unavoidable as the internal ones, the internal ones are less accidental in nature. I mean that my being philosophical is core to who I am. Even if my meeting you was also (quite happily) determined by the inevitable course of the universe, there is a certain sense in which it is less an expression of something necessary about me and who I am. Even though meeting you then affects who I am and contributes to it, this seems in some ways not as logically, internally necessary as the development of my internal dispositions, habits, and attitudes are.

    There are more possible worlds in which I could be the me I am in most respects and never happen to meet you than there could be worlds in which I happen to meet you but be so very different in beliefs, dispositions, etc. that I barely am recognized as me. While both are determined in this world we live in, my internal unfolding characteristics seem more essential in kind to who I am, even were it a different world with a different set of determinations.

  • Daniel Fincke

    (and, for the record, I am a soft determinist, not a hard determinist, if anyone cares to classify me)

  • http://outofthegdwaye.wordpress.com George W.

    We seem to be in agreement then. As usual, I came to this conclusion well after having the seed planted by you. I love how that happens for me. That I absorb information, let it germinate, then come to a conclusion based on a true internalization of the concept.

    I realized this whole thing from roughly first principles and that makes it so much easier to understand.

    I do still struggle to find the correct philosophical terminology, as I am not trained. When I try to hash out agreement with the definitions of hard vs. soft, determinism vs. fatalism, predestination vs. causal determinism, I find it hard to make a direct and easy fit with my own beliefs. I agree and disagree with some of all these classifications. Before I read the definitions, I was explaining it as a “causal continuum”, and was describing it, unsurprisingly, in similar language to your own.

    I do want to take slight issue with your last few comments. I have struggled in my mind a bit with this very subject. Are there really other possible worlds where something could have been different? Would that theory not necessitate an intervening agency? Else we are hypothesizing (unnecessarily, I think) that you could have been different or your stimulus might have been different. I don’t buy it. Not without some agency changing the course, which I presently consider an impossibility.
    Thoughts?

  • Daniel Fincke

    Yes, I chafe against some of the standard language choices of the philosophical community too and have done my share of developing ideas on my own only to late discover that they already had names and conceptual frameworks worked out for them long before I ever got there.

    And, yes, you really know you’re learning when you start deriving from first principles all the theories you only half grasped before and then go back to your sources and only then recognize it was all there already. This is why reading Plato is such a joyous experience for me. It’s just all in there and it blows me away. Everything I “discover” turns up somewhere in Plato when I read him again.

    But as to your question about possible worlds—I do not refer to other possible versions of this world as though it could have gone differently because of some completely undetermined agency, I mean other logically possible worlds where the causal networks are themselves different.

  • http://outofthegdwaye.wordpress.com George W.

    Oh boy,

    But as to your question about possible worlds—I do not refer to other possible versions of this world as though it could have gone differently because of some completely undetermined agency, I mean other logically possible worlds where the causal networks are themselves different.

    You’re going to have to flesh this out…
    I don’t doubt that there might be other “logically possible” worlds, where for instance, I decided to skip work to go to a life changing event. I might have logically come to that different decision instead of going to work, but is that not a bit of a ridiculous hypothetical? It might make entertaining fiction, but it is far from causally possible. I really would only make the decision I would make, assuming all variables being equal. There has to be an intervening agency to change variables, no? If we isolate all causal networks, do these rules not always apply? It will always go the way it will always go unless some variable changes. How do you change a variable in a “causal continuum” without hypothetically transcending it?
    I’m glad I stand to learn something today.

  • Daniel Fincke

    I’m glad I stand to learn something today.

    Oh boy, do I feel set up for embarrassment here, but really this is not my area of specialization and I don’t feel comfortable wading in on this at this point. I do see what you’re saying and have a few considerations to offer, but not the technical expertise with possible worlds metaphysics to adequately address your objections.

  • http://outofthegdwaye.wordpress.com/ George W.

    I’m glad you are as unsure about this as I am, though I hold to a certain degree of certainty that I interpret causation to be a closed system that can only be changed by a transcendent agency. This is an intuitive certainty, not a dogmatic one. Any considerations you have would be helpful, if you don’t want to be held to them in the public domain you are welcome to e-mail me.


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