Monday, December 30, 2013

Fatalistic about Fat?

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.


Anonymous said...

A good astrologer acknowledges free will. Astrology is used like a weather forecast. Finding the optimal time for events and activities is not fatalistic.
Planning is an exercise of free will.

Geneticists and sociologists are fatalistic. They say that the genes and or family you are born with determines all.

Patricia K. said...

I think that they want an excuse to justify not taking the necessary steps for weight loss. I suppose that it is possible that they truly have a fatalistic world view and that it affects them in all sorts of ways ... but I think it is more likely that they need to justify not exercising and modifying how or what they eat.

Ares Olympus said...

I didn't know Freud disbelieved in free will, but perhaps that's why I always liked Jung better?

I don't think recognizing a narrative nature to our life takes away free will, or at least not if you recognize there are many competing narratives going on, and recognize there are bifurcation points where change is easy, if you're paying attention, and keep an open mind that those stakes you couldn't pull out as a baby elephant might not always be so deep as they seemed.

For instance, I don't know which is worse, women who spend their wholes lives obsessed about fat and dieting, and deprive themselves and in their resentment against their bodies, they act out in other more destructive ways. While another who accepts she's overweight, but stays active, and does what makes her feel better.

You could imagine life is a river and fighting the current is the path to misery, while understanding the current means you can use it to your advantage, and not obsess that all rivers lead to the sea, and we're all going to die.

Memphis said...

Don't tell the Calvinists this or they might get upset.

Unknown said...

The real question is why do some people believe they have no control over their lives, while others believe they have complete control? Of course, you have everyone else who falls somewhere between these two extremes.

There is no generalized answer to that question. What we believe is part genetics and part life experience. And there are as many answers to the question above as there are people who are living and have lived.

Dennis said...

I am not sure where I read this, but I believe it stated that all time exists at the same moment. The present, the past and the future. It is rather like a decision tree where your free will selects which path is now available with its attendant decision points. At each decision point one is using their free will to move on to the possibilities inherent on that path. This continues on until one cannot make decisions.
It is somewhat like a chess game where each move has a path that will ultimately lead to checkmate.
I believe that Patricia K is correct that much of the argument against free will is a justification for not taking responsibility for the decisions one make. How nice is it that one can blame all their failures on fate.
That does not mean that I don't think "karma" has an affect. Though I have often wondered if this is one of the levels of Hell or purgatory where we either go up or done a level given how we live life.