HUMAN DESTINY – PART I – INTRODUCTION

“Let it be laid down in the first place, that humanity is destined to remain as it is.” – Pope Leo XIII.

Beyond individual freedom and the experience of fate, but critical to thinking about the meaning of life is the larger question of the destiny of humanity. Over the next few posts, we will investigate the thoughts of scientists, historians, philosophers, and theologians on this question. Of course any theory about the distant future of our species is highly speculative, but the conjectures of experts in these fields offer fascinating perspectives in which to frame one’s life and actions as a participant in that destiny.

My analysis shows five possibility futures for humanity:

  1. Self-destruction – nuclear war, climactic change, biologic agent, artificial intelligence.
  2. External destruction – cosmologic, extraterrestrial intelligent life (including assimilation).
  3. Gradual spread beyond earth.
  4. Evolution to one or more new species.
  5. Divine eschatology.

I will start with the thoughts of the great Richard Leakey, the famous paleoanthropologist, who helps us see how the trajectory of hominid evolution reveals the framework in which to consider human destiny.  We will follow this with the biologic view of George Gaylord Simpson and the general science view of Fred Kohler. Our last scientific viewpoint will be the cosmological speculations of Fred Hoyle.

Then we will evaluate the thoughts of three great historians, John Fiske, Will Durant, and Arnold Toynbee; followed by the philosophical views of Immanuel Kant, Karl Jaspers, and Lecomte de Nouy; and the theologian’s view of Saint John (Revelation) and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. For those who wish to look still further out and do not believe in a personal God, we will review  possible cyber-destinies and the cosmological understanding of the destiny of the universe.

Hopefully we will be able to distill from these sources a sense of the likely destiny of mankind and the adversity that must be overcome. This journey may be longer than the reader expected, but I hope it will permit us to clarify the role of the individual in the expansive future of homo sapiens and the universe.

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EXISTENTIALIST FREEDOM – PART II – SARTRE

“There is no justification for present existence other than its expansion into an indefinitely open future.”  – Simone de Beauvoir.

Last time we looked at existential freedom in the thoughts of Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. Today we will examine the utterly sweeping view of freedom advanced by Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre’s argument is quite simple: historically man was imagined as created by God with an essence or nature; but for the atheist, man is “nothing else but what he makes of himself,”1 that is, essence does not precede existence, rather existence precedes essence. Man is complete subjectivity.

In this view, man hurls himself toward a future and imagines himself within it. Man is condemned to be free and carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. There are no excuses regarding the world, emotions, actions, or inaction. The response that “I did not ask to be born” is a naïve way of dealing with our facticity. In truth, the real facticity is “I am condemned to be wholly responsible for myself.”2. One is not distinct from one’s epoch, and no one is an innocent victim. To continue to exist is a choice not to desert one’s circumstances or to commit suicide.

As for emotions and passions, he disagrees with William James who claims emotions are a set of sensations caused by a physiologic disturbance in turn caused by a disturbed perception or image. Sartre feels emotions require intentionality or a direction towards the world and are thus not simple sensations. Emotions have a finality or purpose; they are a strategy for dealing with the world. He also rejects Sigmund Freud’s notion of the unconscious and psychic determinism; emotions are conscious tactics, knowingly and willingly undertaken.3

He refers to the individual as the for-itself choosing its own destiny. The absolute freedom of man implies responsibility, not by way of resignation, but as the consequence of our freedom. “My situation is mine…the free choice of myself.”4 There are no accidents. The end result for us is we are “compelled to decide the meaning of being.”5

Perhaps Sartre is exaggerating in his complete disavowal of worldly circumstances, biologically determined human nature, and uncontrollability of emotions, but it is a refreshing viewpoint, challenging us to live as if we are totally free to accomplish whatever we wish in life and to find the ultimate meaning of our existence, impervious to determinism, fate, and fortune. It certainly justifies extended reflection by the serious philosopher.

 

1 Sartre, Jean-Paul, Existentialistm and Human Emotions, The Philosophical Library, New York, 1957. Page 19.

2Ibid, page 65.

3Solomon, Robert C. No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life. The Great Courses. Lecture 19.

4 Sartre, Jean-Paul, Existentialistm and Human Emotions, The Philosophical Library, New York, 1957. Page 61.

5Ibid, page 66.

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EXISTENTIALIST FREEDOM – PART I

“Intellect annuls fate. So far as man thinks, he is free.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In this section so far we have investigated the arguments for and against free will and the extenuating factors of fate and fortune. Now I would like to look a little at the most radical presentation of free will; that is the existentialist position.

In this tradition, freedom is the central fact of human existence. Our choices determine our very nature. Every action in life requires choice; inaction is a choice as well. The criteria used in human choosing are themselves chosen; that is they are not deterministic as such and defy traditional modes of causation; therefore determinism is rejected.1

For example in Either/Or,  Soren Kierkegaard sees choice as the only authentic means to self-hood. Action fits into a coherent way of life with three main alternatives: the aesthetic (pleasure-seeking), the ethical, or the religious.2 In Concluding Unscientific Postscript, he reminds us that existence is individual in character, that an existent individual is one in the process of becoming, and that since death is imminent, every choice has infinite worth and every moment is a unique occasion for decisive action. In this way each individual achieves his being through decision.3

Friedrich Nietzsche  grants that we are born with certain abilities, dispositions, and personalities, but this does not mean we must “accept what we are, rather we have the responsibility to make something of ourselves, for each person to “become who you are.” Talents are not self-realizing; it is the responsibility of the individual to cultivate them. The ultimate ethic of human freedom transforms life into the search for self-realization.4

In Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche describes the individual standing alone with his fate in his own hands unable to rely on help from others or the supernatural. He must make himself; life is the ‘will to power’ – the feeling that one is in command of oneself and the future. Virtue then is to be true to oneself and follow where the self leads. 5 In Beyond Good and Evil, he argues the metaphysical debate on free will should yield to a focus on the strength of the will. For Nietzsche, cause and effect are fictitious concepts useful for common understanding, not explanations. Instead of ‘free’ or ‘non-free’ will, we should recognize ‘strong will and weak will.’6

It appears these existentialist philosophers recognize a degree of limitation imposed by human circumstances, but nonetheless assert complete freedom of choice, individual responsibility for one’s actions or inaction, and autonomous creation of one’s own character and destiny. However an even more radical position on freedom  is described by John Paul Sartre. That is the subject of the next blog.

1Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 2, page 149.

2 Magill, Frank. Masterpieces of World Philosophy. HarperCollins Publishers.  1990. ISBN 0-06-270051-0. Pages  612-613.

3Ibid, page 626

4Solomon, Robert C. No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life. The Great Courses. Lecture 12.

5 Magill, Frank. Masterpieces of World Philosophy. HarperCollins Publishers.  1990. ISBN 0-06-270051-0. Pages  686-691.

6Ibid, page 696-698.

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FORTUNE – PART III – SERENDIPITY

“Fortune is powerless to help one who does not exert himself.” – Leonardo Da Vinci

Last time we saw how Boethius analyzed the situation of extreme misfortune, and found the opportunity it offers for reinforcing detachment and self-mastery as well as helping to identify true friends. Fortune can be approached by the philosopher from additional standpoints.

Philosophers offer advice on the role fortune plays in life and our ability to resist it. Diogenes Laertius is skeptical of the importance of fortune when he says, “Chance has a small impact on the wise man, while reasoning has arranged for, is arranging for, and will arrange for the greatest and most important matters throughout the whole of life.”1 Epictetus seems to differ, giving the typical Stoic view which echoes Boethius, “We must make the best of those thing that are in our power, and take the rest as nature gives it.”2 Machiavelli offers a pragmatic analysis: “Fortune is the arbiter of one half of our actions, but still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.”3 Shakespeare challenges passivity in the face of ill fortune when Hamlet asks “Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them.”  His queen, Elizabeth I of England, advises against reliance on chance, “Never think you fortune can bear the sway / Where virtue’s force can cause her to obey.”

But Leonardo da Vinci expresses best the use of good fortune in the quote above and in another, “When fortune come, seize her with a firm hand. In front, I counsel you, for behind she is bald.”4 While we must develop detachment in the case of unavoidable misfortune, we must be prepared to seize on good fortune, not waste it. This is particularly well demonstrated in cases of serendipity – the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way. Most of us will experience this as ‘being in the right place at the right time.’ But better examples show the importance of preparation for and openness to lucky events such as when Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, when he came back from a vacation and found that a green mold called Pennicilium notatum had contaminated Petri dishes in his lab and were killing some of the bacteria he’d been growing.

In conclusion, fortune or chance is an inevitable modality of the experience of life. Misfortune often requires detachment and perspective although it can perhaps be combated at times. Good fortune requires preparation, openness, and firm action. However, fortune cannot be forced nor relied upon. Free will and ethical behavior offer more dependable means to achieve the goals of life.

1Inwood, Brad and Gerson, L.P., Hellenistic Philosophy, Hackett Publishing Co., Inc., Indianapolis. ISBN 0-87220-041-8, page 27.

2Adler, Mortimer J, et. al., The Great Ideas – A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, Volume II, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1952, page 185.

3Ibid.

4MacCurdy, Edward (editor), The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, George Braziller, New York, 1955. Page 86 and 1093.

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FORTUNE – PART II – BOETHIUS

“But Fortune, who never forgets her duty, turns her wheel suddenly.” – Marie de France

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius, commonly called Boethius lived from 477-524 CE and was a Roman senator and counselor to the Ostrogothic King of Italy, Theodoric the Great. He was also a philosopher who translated Aristotle into Latin wrote philosophical texts of his own, and was likely a Christian though his “real religion is philosophy.”1 He was convicted (probably unjustly) of high treason and for one year prior to his execution, imprisoned in a dungeon where he wrote one of the great masterpieces of human civilization, The Consolation of Philosophy. Here we can witness the response of a great philosopher to the most extreme of ill fortune.

It opens with Boethius’ lament about the reversal of his circumstances, about injustice in the world, and the fickle nature of Fortune. He is visited by Lady Philosophy and a dialogue ensues. She urges him to cease in complaining and seek healing and courage. She reminds him that philosophers often clash with the ways of men in their opposition to evil and must reconcile themselves to the consequences of this clash, conquer the fear of death, and be unyielding to good and bad fortune alike.

The basic question for Boethius is whether the universe is guided by a rule of reason or by chance?  He concludes that all things have the reason of God as their source. Therein we can analyze the nature of fortune – life cannot stand still, change is integral to living, and fortune may bring one alternately high and low – these are the rules of the game and understanding them prevents unnecessary misery. The solution is detachment from fortune; if one bears everything with a calm mind, one’s lot will be blessed. Happiness lies within not without. The mastery of yourself is the most important of all possessions, and fortune cannot take that from you.

And ill fortune has an upside; it distinguishes true friends from doubtful acquaintances, and true friends are greater than any amount of riches. Dejection is caused by a too limited, too human perspective; philosophy’s job is to raise man’s sights, to give him divine vision. Any individual turn of fortune is not understandable in isolation, but must be placed in the total scheme of things, and to do that is to philosophize. Philosophy does not change events or reverse fortune but it does provide the understanding by which the events of life may not only be accepted, but also enjoyed. When fortune reverses itself, the first cry is for restoration, but philosophy teaches that man’s chief need is not for change, but for understanding. The goal is to seek the highest good and scorn the gifts of fortune.2

In summary, Boethius teaches us that the philosophical approach to chance in life is: (1) acceptance of and detachment from the inevitable cycles of good and bad fortune, (2) maintenance of perspective on individual fortune in the larger picture of the cosmos, (3) identification of enduring goods such as true friendship through changes in fortune, and (4) recognition of the ultimate value of self-mastery and internally-focused contentment. What greater legacy can one man hope to leave to humanity?

 

1Edman, Irwin, Editor, The Consolation of Philosophy; The Modern Library, New York, 1943. Page x.

2MacGill, Frank and McGreal, Ian, Editors, Masterpieces of World Philosophy; Harper-Row Publishers, New York, 1961. Pages 264-268.

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FORTUNE – PART I – INTRODUCTION

“Fortune, Good Night! Smile once more; turn thy wheel.” William Shakespeare, King Lear,  Act II, Scene II.

In this section so far we have looked at two modalities of our experience of the unfolding of life – free will and fate. Today we will look at the third modality – chance or fortune.  Fate refers to deterministic aspects of our existence such as our human form, gender, physical attributes, time, place and family of birth, world events, and so forth – typically considered the necessary aspects of life. Free will represents our ability to choose our future within the limits of the environment and our abilities – that is the contingencies we appear to control. Fortune represents the contingent aspects of life that appear to be outside our control such as weather, people we meet or who influence our life course, or other chance events.

Fortune then is simply the factor of chance in human affairs. Fortune can be good or bad, but very few of the greatest people who have ever lived deny the part serendipity played in their accomplishments. The role of philosophy is to recognize chance as an inescapable factor in life and to guide us in how to use fortune (or overcome it) in living well.

We can start by looking at the phenomenon of chance. Bertrand Russell defines chance as an event whose cause is unknown. Other philosophers such as Aristotle and J.S. Mill think chance is the concurrence of two independent causal chains – coincidence as it were. Alternatively Epicurus, Charles Peirce, and William James all see chance as events that are uncaused.It seems to me that we should accept all three of these facets of fortune.

In Greek myth, Fortune is a goddess who combats against the Fates and like them has power even over the other gods. Aristotle lumps good fortune into the category of external goods. Such goods are beyond man’s power and merit, rather they are unpredictable. But no philosopher or myth of antiquity investigates the human experience of fortune as lucidly as Boethius does in the sixth century. That is the subject of the next blog.

1Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 2, page 73.

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FATE – PART V – PREDESTINATION

” And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.” – Romans 8:30.

Within the mix of fate and determinism is a special variation known as predestination, the doctrine that all events of a man’s life, even one’s immortal destiny, are determined beforehand by Deity.1  In some ways the Greeks belief in fate could be included as the Moerae were goddesses, but for this site, I will use the word only with regard to monotheistic religions, especially Christianity.

The traditional argument for predestination is based on the premise that God is omniscient, that is, God knows absolutely everything including all future events. In that case, anything God knows will happen must happen, implying men’s actions occur by necessity and cannot be considered free. This echoes the arguments discussed in the section on free will and on the metaphysics of fate. Augustine attempts to refute this argument by countering that necessity of foreknowledge by God does not make actions involuntary; God may simply know exactly what actions a man will choose. This is powerfully demonstrated by pointing out that otherwise, anyone’s foreknowledge of a choice makes that choice unfree2 although of course some philosophers will still disagree.

Predestination however usually means something more than necessity due to God’s foreknowledge. Fundamentalists believe all future actions occur due to divine will or order. In that line of thinking, voluntary choice appears less viable. St. Paul seems less fatalistic believing man’s own sinfulness or imperfection makes his salvation utterly dependent upon the sheer grace and election of God even if his actions are freely chosen. John Calvin and Martin Luther go further believing that man does absolutely nothing toward his salvation apart from the good will of the Divine.1 At its extreme man is unable to do good other than through the divine will; all actions chosen by men are otherwise evil.3

Of course these views of predestination are contingent on the existence of an omniscient deity with particular will regarding humans and belief in an afterlife, all of which appear to depend on faith rather than philosophical reasoning. For us predestination is metaphorically represented in the inevitability of human error and the apparent unpredictable consequences of our actions on our own futures and on the chains of causation within the world.

Next time we will begin look at the third modality of the human experience of life – fortune or chance.

 

1Runes, Dagobert D., Dictionary of Philosophy. Philosophical Library, New York, 1960, p.248.

2Brody, Baruch A. Readings in the Philosophy of Religion. Prentice-Hall, Inc. Englewood Cliffs, NJ. 1974. ISBN 0-13-759340-6, pages. 384-389.

3Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 2, page 363.

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FATE – PART IV – THE MYTHICAL AND PHILOSOPHICAL

” Dreadful is the mysterious power of Fate: there is no escape from it by wealth or war, by walled city, or dark, sea-beaten ships.” – Sophocles, Antigone.

 

We have discussed how humans experience life as fated and the metaphysical argument for fate. Now I would like to examine some mythical and philosophical traditions that employ fate in its various forms.

In ancient Greece, three Goddesses, cohorts of Ilithyia, the goddess of birth, were identified as the Fates or Moerae:  Clotho (The Spinner) who spins the thread of life, Lachesis (Disposer of Lots), who determines its length, and Atropos (Inevitable), who carried the shears which cut the thread at death.1 Sophocles’ play, Oedipus the King, is the epitome of the Greek sense of the unfolding of fate. Oedipus’ father abandons him as a baby after learning his son will kill him and marry his wife. Oedipus is found and adopted, and in adulthood learns of his fate to kill his father and marry his mother. Hoping to avoid this fate, he leaves his adopted family only to kill his biological father in a scuffle on the road and later marry his mother.  Fate in this tradition is predominately tragic; it seems the ancient Greeks used fate as a means to console themselves in tragic circumstances.

Fatalism reappears later in the Hellenistic philosophy of the Stoics who suggest the best approach is a calm acceptance and disinterest in one’s future, a stance they called apatheia. This approach is later incorporated in the philosophical foundations of Christianity where it was transformed into predestination which is the subject of the next post.

The Eastern world has two alternate conceptions of fate – karma and quietism – both of which are less absolute than the Greek tradition. In Hinduism, karma, or The Law of the Deed, assures causality in the spiritual world. Since rewards and punishments cannot occur within a mortal lifetime, they are stretched out over other lives. The good or bad in the present life then is based on events from prior (unremembered) lives and cannot be avoided by actions in this life. Like Greek fate, this law is above gods and men.2 Karma then is a metaphysical explanation of the unequal situations and inevitable helplessness in the present life, and suggests a continuing unpredictability of the actions of this life on the next. This dogma extends to other Eastern religions including  Buddhism.

Lao-Tzu, the great Taoist sage embraces fate more optimistically with the ethic of quietism. This philosophy encourages a man to shun human society and artificial complexity and embrace a “Stoic obedience to nature, and abandonment of all artifice and intellect, a trustful acceptance of nature’s imperatives in instinct and feeling…Quiescence, a kind of philosophical inaction, a refusal to interfere with the natural course of things, is the mark of a wise man in every field.”3 Taoism then not only refuses to resist natural fate, but finds wisdom in a detached acceptance. Here is an opportunity to see fate as beneficent rather than malevolent.

The study of myth and philosophy allow us to see that free will ultimately means our subjective experience of fate need not be absolute nor seen as  good or evil. And at least man has the good fortune to be the one earthly creature capable of recognizing, accepting, affecting, and embracing it.

 

1Seyffert, Oskar, Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, The World Publishing Company, Cleveland, Ohio, 1961, pages 397-398.

2Durant, Will, Our Oriental Heritage, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1954, page 514.

3Ibid, pages 654-656.

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FATE – PART III – THE METAPHYSICAL ARGUMENT

” Perhaps the most majestic feature of our whole existence is that while our intelligences are powerful enough to penetrate deeply into the evolution of this quite incredible Universe, we still have not the smallest clue to our own fate.” – Fred Hoyle.

We noted in the last post that despite good arguments in favor of free will, subjective experiences of situational limitations, helplessness, and unpredictability of personal action drive the human notion of fate. Today we will examine the metaphysical argument for fate.

The Stoic tradition starting with Zeno of Citium and continuing at least until the reign of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius 500 years later understood the world as divinely ordered and humans as having free will, but accepted that the actual outcome of action is determined by providence. The Stoic premise for fate as the truth content of future statements is outlined by Simplicius in his discussion, On Aristotle’s Categories:

“concerning [pairs of] contradictories which bear on the future the Stoics accept the same principle as they do for other statements. For what is true of [pairs of] contradictories concerning things present and past is also true, they say, for future contradictories themselves and their parts. For either ‘it will be’ or ‘it will not be’ is true if they must be either true or false. For they are fixed by the future events themselves. And if there will be a sea-battle tomorrow, it is true to say that there will be. But if there will not be a sea-battle, it is false to say that there will be. Whether there will or there will not be a battle; therefore each statement is either true of false.”1

If the Stoics are correct that future statements can have a truth value, it follows that the future is fixed by virtue of that truth. Our actions may be free, but future truth implies we will simply choose the action that leads to the outcome or our choice of action will not affect the outcome.

Richard Taylor presents the case methodically:

1.   Statements are true or false; there is no ‘excluded middle.’

2.  Truth has nothing to do with time.

3. There exists a set of true statements about my life past and future.

4.  The future of my life is fixed by those truths.

He then goes on to refute the counter-arguments. The absence of our ability to foresee the truth and the fact that true statements are not the cause of events are irrelevant in his opinion. The argument that this proof conflates fact and necessity is erroneous as no one has ever changed a true statement. Last the argument that facts are not true in advance is, he believes, arbitrary, resorted to only in an effort to eliminate fatalism.2

Here we find a fascinating and exceptional example of metaphysical and empirical concordance. Our subjective sense of fatalism is substantiated by our concept of truth. This conundrum is not easily escaped, but I think most likely rests on the fact that the truth of future statements is fundamentally different from those of past and present statements, but it is up to the reader to decide for himself. Next time we will look at some mythical and philosophical expressions of fate.

1Inwood, Brad and Gerson, L.P., Hellenistic Philosophy, Hackett Publishing Co., Inc., Indianapolis. ISBN 0-87220-041-8, page 129.

2Taylor, Richard, Metaphysics, Prentice-Hall, Inc., New Jersey, 1974. ISBN 0-13-578468-9, pages 62-71.

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FATE – PART II – THE SUBJECTIVE EXPERIENCE

“It is as though a dog is tied behind a cart. If he wants to follow, he is both dragged and follows, exercising his autonomy in conjunction with necessity. But if he does not wish to follow, he will nevertheless be forced to. The same thing happens in the case of man.” – Hippolytus Philosophoumenia

It seems inexplicable that even though we believe in free will, we still have at least transient feelings that our future in life is fixed or unavoidable. Today I will explore this subjective experience while future blogs will look at the objective arguments for fate.

There are three reasons we naturally embrace fatalism. The first is situational. We simply are born in a certain place at a certain time to specific parents, and with instinctive drives, variable talents, and  a largely preset psychological structure. Almost all events in the world, including those that affect us play out without our meaningful input, leaving us as if precariously balanced on a piece of wood floating on the ocean.

The second reason we consider life fateful is instances of helplessness. At many times in life we sense that what is happening is unavoidable or that we are powerless to prevent it. The habitual experience of powerlessness leads to what psychologists call learned helplessness, wherein the person no longer can imagine fixing his problems or seizing control of his life. The consequent depression and defeatism in these cases is in fact a pathological form of fatalism.

The third reason for a fatalistic view of life is unpredictability. Even well thought out actions freely chosen often lead to unexpected and undesired consequences, often the very consequences or outcome we struggled to avoid or overcome. In a world with so many moving parts, the calculus of human action is imperfect for most of us.

In conclusion we come to know that even if we are free, that “freedom is at best exercised within exceedingly narrow paths.”1 The human experience of situational constraints, episodic helplessness, and unpredictability of effects of action are subconsciously reconceived as fate. Extreme experiences of this nature can lead to a pathological conception of it.

1Taylor, Richard, Metaphysics, Prentice-Hall, Inc., New Jersey, 1974. ISBN 0-13-578468-9, page 58.

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