Monday, August 13, 2018

No Fate But What We Make

One of the more obnoxious things about contemporary literature is how every MFA grad thinks they're the first to break the fourth wall or mix philosophy with satire. You can probably find a best-seller in Barnes & Noble right now, celebrated by all the respectable rags for being bold and experimental when really it's an overwritten shaggy dog story that does the "Dear Reader..." thing you forgot Dickens put into every single novel he ever wrote.

Truth is fiction has always been much more wild and experimental than the best-selling beach reads. Case in point: Denis Diderot. A contemporary of Voltaire, you didn't hear about him in AP English because his philosophy is too complex and self-critical to fit as neatly into the American "common sense" dogma. Also he's French and Americans have long failed to appreciate the nation that midwived their own.

What sets Diderot apart from more acceptable thinkers like Voltaire are two things antithetical to American sentiment: his material atheism and his determinism. Now this might seem contradictory on the face - how can a totally godless cosmos still be determined? - but that confuses determinism with Fate.

Determinism simply posits that A leads to B leads to C. That cause leads to effect. Fate, on the other hand, holds that a certain outcome has already been pre-determined. Or rather pre-ordained, as Fate can only exist in a metaphysical framework as posited by religion, whether modern iterations or the pagan pantheons of the Axial Age.

Thus, a Deterministic cosmos is compatible with a metaphysics of material atheism, however this framework is still incompatible with Fate.

The debate between Fate and Determinism matters because both imply - indeed require - their own ethos that are fundamentally opposed to one another. If Fate, the Will of Heaven, then there is comfort that even misfortune has a good reason but also implies said misfortune may be deserved. Illness and poverty are divine judgements, or at the very least tests, and mass political action to alleviate this suffering becomes a defiance of that same conscious, almighty Will. That is in fact where the Protestant Work Ethic comes from - Calvin's doctrine of predestination and Adam Smith's Invisible Hand are opposite sides of the same idea that there is an order, a purpose to the world which is reflected in material wealth.

However, if events are determined but not pre-determined, if there is still a reason but not a transcendent or at least benevolent one, the ethical implications change entirely. Misfortune is not a test or punishment but a hazard of existence faced by all. This raises the issue of how a people or a society should manage these misfortunes, a moral imperative in a deterministic cosmos that can turn on all of us.

Diderot communicated this Determinism through comic vignettes, often to the point of self-parody. The title character of Jacques the Fatalist argues that all is pre-determined, written up above on a great scroll ("tout ce qui nous arrive de bien et de mal ici-bas était écrit là-haut") but his examples from his own life are all clearly the products of his own foolishness and incompetence. Fate would make a great comfort to a fool, as it absolves him of the moral responsibility for his own foolish actions.

But can the fool still be held accountable under Determinism? Does he bring the angry cuckolded husbands on himself or is it again the indifferent cosmic winds? That's a question no physicist can answer so it falls back to the philosophers and there is indeed a long philosophical tradition of grappling with how to improve the human condition. Karl Marx himself even cited Diderot as his "favourite prose-writer."

Because if the world is Determined but not ruled by Fate, we can shape the causes to gain beneficial effects. We can "hack" our lives, in the jargon of douchebags, achieving greater happiness and tranquility. But only if we can get over the primitive prejudice that Fate makes you rich or poor.

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