Passion and Fate (Act 2)

Act 2: Fate

Enter Dick Van Dyke (a personal favorite of mine):

Some of you will remember this tune from the 1968 classic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  What in the world does this amazing song by Robert and Richard Sherman (script by Roald Dahl by the way) have to do with Fate?  Nothing really, the words are nonsensical, but what gets me is what Caractacus Potts says right before he sings.

And don’t you worry…  Things are gonna come right somehow.

It struck me as something we say naturally, instinctively.  Is it true?  Maybe……and sometimes maybe not.  Shouldn’t he have said “Things are gonna come.” We won’t talk about Hope here, because of course that’s why he says it.  We are going to talk just about Fate, because we have to deal with it (and Hope is certainly a good way to).  Jumping straight to optimism doesn’t necessarily allow an examination of the “things” that actually do happen: our Fate.  But what is Fate?

Paul Russell, a Professor of Philosohpy at University of British Columbia

Paul Russell

was recently on the podcast Philosophy Bites and he addressed this question and many others surrounding Fate.  It was a fascinating 17 minutes.  Here is what he said immediately about Fate:

…let me draw a basic distinction.  The intuition that we’ve got when we are worried about fate is that somehow whatever is going to happen in the future, from our practical point of view, there’s nothing we can do – our deliberations aren’t going to make any difference, we don’t have any kind of causal traction or influence in the world – our agency doesn’t matter to the outcome.  So, the moon is going to keep going around the earth, and the earth is going to keep going around the sun, nothing I decide, choose, or deliberate about can change that.  …our practical attitude is whatever is going to happen is fixed our inevitable from our point of view as practical agents.

I can see where this is coming from, this intuition, and it is easy to come at fate from this angle, but this “local fatalism” doesn’t really include much of a free-will element to it.  We won’t go into the difference between determanism and fatalism here, after all this is armchair philosophy!  Throughout the course of the podcast he outlines a possibility of a synthesis between our actions (of which we have ultimate control) and the indeterminate, unavoidable causality around us.  This synthesis is quite tenuous and it reminded me quite a bit of the way Kierkegaard starts his book The Sickness unto Death.  He describes the Self as, “…a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation.”  In a similar fashion, I think Fate is:  your decisions’ relation to itself and all other possible relations between all other possible decisions.  (this relation means everybody and everything…ever).  So nearly an infinite number of factors have led to this moment of Fate, and the next moment of Fate will be effected by another nearly infinite number of decision relationships and your relation to them.  Crazy.  This synthesis does not include things ‘outside’ the structure though, such as death, morals, etc.  which are causal factors that only relate to us, not us to them.

So Fate is perhaps a bit much to grasp.  But lets take it just one step further and talk about Luck.  This is certainly a part of Fate.  Russell says we are subject to Luck.  Intuition says that this is most likely true, because Luck in many ways is simply a set of causal circumstances that we have no way of influencing.  We receive it (even if we think we make it, it still is given to us).  It almost seems like an outlier of normalcy if we took all possible scenarios.  This could potentially mean that to be unlucky is equally possible as to be lucky, and in some strange way they could be exactly the same thing (at least in the way they relate to us).

Imagine the best possible thing that could ever happen to you.  Hmm, sounds good, and Lucky.  Now imagine this thing happening at the worst possible time, and it was impossible to receive or engage in.  Is that still Lucky, or is that being exceptionally Unlucky?  This circumstantial luck leads one to be fairly skeptical of whether we have control over much of anything.

These thoughts lead us to our relationship to ultimacy and a confrontation with human finitude.  Russel says this:

As agents, there are things we can do in the world, and we are responsible, and we are free, but we are confronted with the fact that our freedom and our responsibility is exercised in confrontation with so many things we don’t control.  Its that confrontation that is a universal feature of the the human predicament, which reflects our finitude.  We are not gods, that can simply create the world on whim.  Our agency is exercised in a world where we’re subject to constraints and limitations.

So, we are not gods… but we can do things and make decisions which impact everything around us.  (Note, the way we make these decisions and use our Passion described in Act 1 has an important role to play).  This synthesis most of the time is easy and nearly unnoticeable on a minute to minute basis.  In these cases we don’t even talk about Fate.  We generally talk of Fate when we are greeted with crazy outcomes which were never expected or prepared for.

And in this case whether Lucky, or insanely Unlucky, I think there is only one thing to do, and Caractacus Potts and Truly Scrumptious (the amazing Sally Ann Howes) describe it quite well in this reprise.

Oh, a little nonsense goes a long way to making me feel better about my Fate.