Identity, Fate, and Choice Dr. Ari Santas Fate and Determinism



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Identity, Fate, and Choice

Dr. Ari Santas



Fate and Determinism

  1. Theologically: if we believe that the gods are (or God is) the ultimate author(s) of all that happens, in total control of the world, then our actions would appear to be not really ours, but a determination of their (or His) will

  2. Scientifically: if we believe that the universe obeys universal deterministic laws, and humans are subject to these laws (as they seem to be), then it appears that our actions are not free but mechanically determined

  • Either way, it appears that we are not in control of our own actions. If this is so, why punish or praise anyone for anything they do? These kinds of questions have led thinkers to wonder whether we are free, and if so, to what degree and in what sense

The Positions on Free Will vs. Determinism

  • Free Will: this view basically states that human beings are radically free, completely unconstrained by the laws of nature (when they choose to act)

    • Many of these proponents are dualists, claiming that the mind follows different laws (its own) and cannot be affected by the laws of nature (Rene Descartes discusses this idea in his Meditations—see esp. Meditation IV and my Notes on Meditation IV )

    • But not all free will proponents are dualists— J.P. Sartre argues, for instance, that there is a fixed past, but no fixed future

  • Hard Determinism: (also called strict determinism) this view states that humans are completely bound (mind and body) by the laws of nature, and that all our actions can be accounted for by biological or physical laws

    • The Radical Behaviorism of B.F. Skinner holds this view

  • Soft Determinism: (also called compatibilism), a term coined by William James, states that free will and determinism are ultimately compatible (hence the name)

    • This is the view that David Hume held, that we our actions are consistent with the laws of nature; yet we still have choice (see Hume’s Enquiry, VIII and my Notes on Enquiry VIII)

    • William James, in “The Dilemma of Determinism,” argues that the universe is unfinished and that there is an element of chance that allows humans to choose which way it will end

Self As Defined by an Essence vs. by Choice

  • Aristotle famously described man as having a fixed nature (essence) and that all potential change followed a pattern tied to a preordained design (telos)

  • As such, we have a fixed essence that precedes our existence and determines the parameters of a meaningful life

  • Modern proponents of radical freewill (the existentialists) deny the Aristotelian claim the essence precedes existence and contend that our existence comes first—that it is our life experience and the choices we undertake that define us

  • J.P. Sartre argues in Existentialism and Humanism that our radical freedom is the only thing that defines us as a person, and that our personal identity and definition is never complete until we die

  • He contends also that because of this radical freedom, he have a radical responsibility for what we do and what we accept going on around this

Choice and Fate in Film

One finds this theme of freewill vs. fate and determinism throughout the stories depicted in modern film.



  • The Matrix (Wachowski Brothers, 1999): advances the idea that our destinies are made/completed through tough choices that confront us at critical moments in our lives

  • Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2002), Paycheck (John Woo, 2003), Next (Lee Tamahori, 2007): all center on the concept of foretelling of futures and what that means for choice

  • What the Bleep Do We Know? (2004): advances the thesis that modern Quantum Physics implies radical freedom

  • I Huckabees (David O. Russell, 2004): depicts two competing views (or emphases) existentialism: interconnectivity (joyful world reconstruction) vs. absurdism/nihilism (the despair of being “condemned to be free”—see Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism)


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