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Fate or Folly: The Mind of God and Other Known Unknowns

Fate is the most potent weapon in the arsenal of hard determinists. To contend, as hard determinists plainly do, that the outcomes of events are predetermined is essentially the same as saying that the ebbs and flows of history are all dictated by fate. With fate at the helm, actors, whether animate or inanimate, would have no individual-level freedom over the manner in which they influence events. In a fate-filled universe, actors would be nothing more than pawns in a vast drama that is “directed” down to the minutest wobble of sub-atomic particles by the omnipotent intervention of predestination.  

Determinists make much of the intricate twists of fate that, in hindsight, seem to portend the ultimate success or failure of particular events. For example, had John Frederick Parker remained at his post instead of sneaking out to a tavern, he would probably have foiled John Wilkes Booth’s plot to assassinate President Lincoln. However, in a deterministic universe Parker was never in control of his fate, nor for that matter were Booth or Lincoln. In spite of any lamentations to the contrary, determinists (Harris, 2012) would insist that Parker was destined to shirk his responsibilities and, thus, Honest Abe’s fate was sealed long before he, Parker or Booth ever arrived at Ford’s Theater.

In spite of its scientific veneer, fate is a patently unscientific superstition. Determinists admit that in order to predict future events with 100% certainty, an observer would need to be endowed with some form of superhuman omniscience. Once again, Roger Boscovich, argues that “…if the law of forces were known, and the position, velocity and direction of all the points at any given instant, it would be possible for a mind of this type to foresee all the necessary subsequent motions and states, and to predict all the phenomena that necessarily followed from them” (Quoted in Barrow, 2007, p. 63). Setting aside for the moment the intractable challenges associated with quantum uncertainty, what “type of mind” could possibly monitor the infinite complexity of the innumerable variables involved in calculating the deterministic progression of events in the entire universe? Boscovich certainly can’t be referring to a human mind, nor any form of available, or even theoretical, computer technology. Thus, the only way that hard determinism can even begin to make sense is by proposing that humans will somehow be able to achieve god-like omniscience. In the absence of such an absurd claim, hard determinists can’t generate the credible evidence that is required to validate their extravagant knowledge claims.

The simple but crucial distinction between fate vs. prediction is that scientists are disinclined to accept any knowledge claim purely on the basis of faith–or as Feynman states emphatically, “Experiment is the sole judge of scientific ‘truth’” (1963, p. 2). Superstitious, or theologically-inclined true believers might feel compelled to express faith in the supernatural (e.g., omniscient intellects), but science flatly rejects the validity of such superstitions in favor of fact-based logic. Scientists remain dubious of any knowledge claim unless or until the claim successfully undergoes a “risky test” (Popper, 1959). For example, the scientific community treated Einstein’s mind-bending claim that spacetime curves around massive objects as an elegant, but nonetheless, tentative assertion until 1919 when Arthur Eddington detected the distortion of starlight around the sun during a solar eclipse (Crelinsten, 2006).

Thus, scientists are not opponents of imaginative speculation. Far from it. Indeed, if the truth be told, scientists often display as much imaginative inspiration in the process of creating new scientific theories as dreamweavers of any other stripe (McGettigan, 2011). Where scientists diverge from non-scientists is over the matter of empirical evaluation. Scientists are often willing to invest great confidence in truly exotic theoretical constructs, (e.g., Einstein’s relativity, Hutton’s advocacy of deep time, Darwin’s contention of common biological ancestry, Bohr’s claim that quantum particles exhibit bizarre complementarity, etc.), but only insofar as such mind-boggling theories succeed in providing plausible explanations for previously enigmatic phenomena. On the other hand, scientists are inclined to reject any form of imaginative thinking that has no demonstrable connection with empirical reality (e.g., omniscient gods). This is where scientists and devotees of the supernatural differ: scientists demand factual accountability whereas believers in the supernatural are content to subscribe to unsubstantiated faith e.g., Creation in 4004 BCE vs. Darwinian evolution. 

References

Barrow, John D. New Theories of Everything: The Quest for Ultimate Explanation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Crelinsten, Jeffrey. Einstein’s Jury: The Race to Test Relativity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Feynman, R. P., R. B. Leighton, and M. Sands. The Feynman Lectures on Physics: Quantum Mechanics: Volume III. Reading: n.p., 1965.

Harris, Sam. Free Will. New York: Free Press, 2012.

McGettigan, Timothy. Evolution at the Speed of Thought: Agency, Determinism and a New Chapter in the History of Evolution. Los Angeles, CA.: WheelMan Press, 2013.

McGettigan, Timothy. Good Science: The Pursuit of Truth and the Evolution of Reality. Lanham, MD.: Lexington Books, 2011.

Popper, Karl. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. New York: Basic Books, 1959.

About Timothy McGettigan

Tim McGettigan is a professor of sociology at Colorado State University – Pueblo. The Socjournal is an outstanding resource for all things sociological. Too often, the media examines social issues from a singularly economic perspective. If you really want to understand how the social world works, it's better to use a broader, clearer lens. In this column, I will discuss a variety of forces (technological, scientific, political, cultural, and, yeah okay, economic) that are currently reshaping the globe. Whether or not the world is changing for the better is an open question — and, thus, it's a question that I look forward to debating at length in this column.