Do you believe in fate? Do you believe that outside (or inside) forces determine the course of your life? Do you believe that supernatural powers direct your actions and behaviors? Do you believe that your destiny is written in stone and that it will play itself out, regardless of what you do?
Few will admit it but many people believe in fate. It seems like an innocent enough belief, like believing in Santa Claus.
But, ask yourself this: how does your belief in fate influence the way you conduct your life.
Researchers in Australia studied the question in relation to people who were in serious need of weight reduction.All of the participants knew that the only way to lose weight, and to save their lives, was to change their personal habits. They needed, as everyone knows, to exercise more and to eat less.
The study wanted to find out why some people are perfectly capable of changing their conduct while others resist change. Why can some people become motivated to lose weight while others seem resigned to their obesity?
The study discovered that subjects who believed in fate were less likely to undertake the necessary behavior changes. Fatalistic to a fault, they were less likely to believe that they could change. Why try to make significant changes in the way you conduct your life when you believe that it will not make any difference anyway?
Professor Deborah Cobb-Clark led the study. She emphasized that the difference between the two groups had nothing to do with whether or not they were well-informed about the dangers of obesity and about what they needed to do to help themselves.
In her words:
The main policy response to the obesity epidemic has been the provision of better information, but information alone is insufficient to change people’s eating habits.
More and better information did not influence people who believed in fate. Their belief system, their ideology made overrode their knowledge of what needed to be done and stifled their will to change.
By their lights it was futile to change because they knew that they could not fight destiny.
People who believe in fate or destiny, or who hold to doctrines of predestination, tend to disparage the concept of free will. Those who believe in free will accept that their choices and decisions can alter the direction of their lives, so they are far more likely to work on changing the way they conduct themselves.
Some reject free will on religious grounds. Some reject it because they believe that science can disprove it. In either case they will be leaving the course of their lives in the hands of powers they cannot control, cannot even hope to control: God’s will or brain chemistry.
As you know, the argument about free will and predestination goes back at least to the time of Augustine of Hippo. Since free will itself dates to the story of Adam and Eve, it is fair to consider it the moral cornerstone of Judeo-Christianity, thus of Western Civilization.
If free will is a metaphysical concept, it cannot be proved or disproved by empirical research. Even if we imagine that brain scans can highlight the temptations that influence our decision, this does not-- and did not, even in the time of Adam and Eve-- eliminate anyone’s free will or responsibility.
Many psychologists further undermine free will by insisting that your life is an unfolding narrative. They tell us that it’s all about the story—as though stories were scientific facts.
If life is a story we are all condemned to play out roles in a script. If that is true—and even if it is not—believing it will drain your initiative about changing the course or outcome of the narrative.
Strangely, sophisticate modern scientists are promoting an idea that very closely resembles Freud’s. Keep in mind, Freud believed that free will was an illusion. He had to. If we have free will we are not be condemned to live out our lives according to this or that Greek tragedy… the story of Oedipus or the story of Narcissus.
The alternative to the life-is-a-narrative theory is the idea that life is like a game. Modern proponents of this idea include Ludwig Wittgenstein and Gilbert Ryle.
True enough, games like football, baseball, chess and solitaire have rules, but the course of any game and its outcome are not predetermined. If your play can influence the outcome of a game decisively, you have every incentive to improve. If you are losing more than winning, you will not believe that fate has it in for you, but that you should work harder.
If life is a game you will not only be more likely to follow a healthy diet but you will be less likely to turn to the astrology charts to find out what fate has in store for you today.
Since PET scans and brain chemistry cannot tell us whether or not we have free will, we do better to ask, as the Australian researchers did, what consequences befall those who believe in free will and what consequences befall those who believe in fate.
Apparently, it is a better bet to believe in free will than to believe in fate. It's healthier, to boot.