1. About fate and free will

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,”predestination” and our hopeless quest for certainty …

This is a chapter of The Practical Buddha, the self-titled guide for a good life.  The Practical Buddha guides you through life’s big questions.  For instance, how to contemplate and deal with questions such as, “mother why do we live;”  “Is money really so important;” “Does heaven exist and what is nirvana;” Or even everyday concerns such as “Do we have the right to kill animals;” “Is there guiltless ambition.”  Here is a reflection on the topic:  doom and success, is it fate or just coincidence?

If you have had some time to browse through the topic, you probably have heard everything ranging from “you make your own destiny, so do something about it,” to “you are your brain, so everything is predetermined and free choice is just an illusion.” The latter quote comes from neurobiologists, Dick Swaab.  But it’s also commonly heard from sociological and philosophical arguments where common deterministic statements tell us our opinions and actions are determined by where we are born, where we grow up and live.

This has severe repercussions on our view of society, its law, and how we organize our personal lives.

Most deterministic ideologues often emphasize on one hand the responsibility of the social environment, but on the other hand points out that our actions and welfare are dictated by how our brains are programmed.  This often degenerates into two extreme and opposite proposition, a plea for no or mild punishment, or severe penalties because we are full responsibility for our actions

If neurobiologists venture outside their field of experts, as Swaab does, and venturing into deducting of ethical conclusion, they are arrogant in doing so.  The same happens when psychologists, such as Paul Verhaeghe, overly extend their know-how by extrapolating socio-economics conclusions.  These so called experts come with, at best, very one-sided politically colored propositions. Yet we let them get away with it because they are learned gentlemen.  Though I certainly am not behind everything he claims, I find Jean-Paul Van Bendegem’s theories far more agreeable, as he is able to combines two wonderful disciplines: mathematics and philosophy.

By writing this guide, it might seem that I myself am guilty of what I have reproached others.  But I plead you to note the differences: First of all, I attempt to bring together diverse views.  Secondly, I don’t exclaim that I speak “the” truth, only “my” truth, expressed through the Practical Buddha.

You will also notice that though I don’t trivialize the significance of fate and destiny, I still manage to defend the important role which personal responsibility plays, and thus confirm the relevance of “free will”.

If we take fatalism to extremes, then there’s no point in any initiatives or efforts.  Just imagine: the man himself is a gigantic coincidence within a universe in which we have an infinitesimally small impact.  We descend from the universe to our world whereas our opinions, attitudes and actions are very strongly determined by where we are born.  If you are born with a particular brain abnormality that predisposes you to hoarding, then it’s easy to exert that in this particular case, you brain to a very large extend, determines your actions. Even in normal circumstances, there are limits to what we can change.  We will never run as fast as horses, never be as strong as bears, and if you were born in Dakha and you have to go to work in sweathshops when you turn 13, the chance of you making an exciting career is infinitely smaller than if you are born in a two-income family in the developed countries.  So when I read statements like the following: “I would rather aim for the moon and miss than aim for the gutter and make it. – Danny Trejo” (temporarily borrowed from a facebook friend), it sounds quite personal, doesn’t it? Or does it really?!

The major problem of fatalism is that it is often used to remove the responsibilities of the participating individual, even in striations where it is not applicable, as in most cases in the developing countries. The majority of citizens are born with ample choices, and when acted upon and fully utilized, such choices can have a huge impact on the course of life.

Thus in such situation, on the social level, I have problems with the term disadvantaged and the frequency that it has been used.  Of course I advocate that governments should always do their best to ensure maximum access to opportunities, education, housing, and healthcare. However, anyone who is granted such opportunities should be grateful for the opportunity and rise up to the occasion to take up their personal responsibility.  In other words, the recipient should feel and act obliged, whether it is to their families to their community.  But you should never take what you are given for granted.

Take education as an example, it should really be “costless”, though it is not today. I deliberately did not use the term free, as there is no such thing as free services.  Someone always has to pay the bill.  The society collectively takes up the responsibility of education in order to break a piece of predestination, and afford its citizens the opportunity to take on an entirely different and richer path in life.  As return, the society should be allowed to demand its citizens to show respect and gratitude for such an endeavor.

As an individual it is important to know that impact of predestination is very large, which helps one to have compassion for the less “fortunate.” On the other hand, it makes no sense to focus on what is fixed, but rather one should focus on what one can influence, which can still make a huge difference in a person’s life.  A much worthier and more rewarding course of action thus is to take full responsibility for your own life, and take advantage of its seemingly tiny margin of freedom to do “better” and achieve more.

“Shit happens”, but good things happen too.

People often have tendency to use all types of reasoning, even opposite extremes, to facilitate their arguments, such as to maximize their ego.  If something goes well then that is due to their sustained efforts, their mental and physical abilities and their purposeful work.  If something goes wrong then it is due to unforeseen circumstances and to the external environment. We internalize success and push away failure.

I have argued above that we should maximize what’s left for us outside our predestination, but it is utterly nonsense that success is only attributable to ourselves, while failures to predestination.  Nonetheless we often see very successful businessmen, managers, athletes  doing exactly that.  They assume their great merits are the primary cause of their success, a conclusion that usually leads to overconfidence. The behavior of bankers in the trading rooms, their responsibility and their exuberant bonuses are perfect examples.  Although the attentive readers already must have understood that I am not stating everyone is equal, we must still dare to recognize that chances are as important to succeed as our own effort.  Such acknowledgement will ultimately help us to avoid ridiculous decision purely out of our own hubris. To quote the management guru Tom Peeters, “you could not have screwed up a Fortune 500 company in the 70′ies if you wanted to!”  In our current affairs: Thys and Bellens are undoubtedly excellent managers, and I’m sure Tintin (of Belgocontrol) also give the Post and Belgacom a boost.  But it surely cannot be argued that their success are only due to their merits: they neither established nor grew the Post and Belgacom single-handedly, not without your and my investment and backing of the firms. (Of course, I am not talking about the wages they earn).

In my personal experience, lots of “trying” is necessary to be occasionally lucky.   But I sometimes also have the luxury to see unexpected and impossible situations turns out to be just fine.  This is the exact reason why when something fails, I remain humble in accepting my responsibility, and at the same time remain conscientious of “circumstances” beyond my control.  After all, both I and my ego should be allowed to survive!

Accept instability

Stability and continuity are an illusion.  We can pursue sustainability. (Must we?)  But it is not feasible, nothing is really durable.

Men are in constant quest to acquired status and assets.  We have an insatiable appetite for securities / certainty.   This is perfectly demonstrated by our giant insurance industry who stubbornly repeats the same uninspired slogans.   We have an insatiable appetite for security.  We want secure jobs, permanent homes, steady partners, and long-term relationship.  There is nothing wrong with any of the above, except that they are all trivial and meaningless.  There is no such thing as inalienable achievements.  Everything is unstable and uncertain, even who you are.  Obviously I would like my share of certainty, but the realization of the fragility of it saves a lot of unnecessary frustration and resentment.

In the balance between protecting what we have, and being open minded to create what will be new, the weight is tilled towards the former.  At the end, our conservatism always inhibits us from changes.

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