Fate or Free Will?

By David Pratt

Gerard Croiset was a remarkable Dutch psychic. He devised an experiment known as the "chair test," in which he would try to describe in advance the person who would sit in a randomly chosen chair at an upcoming public event, without knowing either the nature of the event or its location. In one experiment Croiset said that the person who would sit in the chair selected would be a man five foot nine inches tall, who brushed his black hair straight back, had a gold tooth in his lower jaw, a scar on his big toe, who worked in both science and industry, and sometimes got his lab coat stained by a greenish chemical. Two weeks later the meeting took place (in Denver, Colorado), and the person who sat down in the chair concerned was a man who fitted Croiset's description in every respect except one -- instead of being five foot nine, he was five foot nine and three-quarters. (1) Croiset performed the chair test over a period of 25 years with notable success. Such an experiment raises the question of just how free we really are.

There are three basic positions we can adopt on the question of free will: either we have absolute free will, or we have no free will at all, or we have a certain measure of free will. The idea that we are absolutely free is clearly farfetched, for there are certain obvious restrictions on our freedom: we are not free to do anything that we are physically incapable of doing. For example, we cannot change the past, breathe under water, or fly like a bird. In addition to these physical limitations, there are also psychological limitations on our freedom: our mental conditioning and our numerous habits and instincts play a major role in determining our actions. Some people might say that all these constraints are so powerful that we have no control over them whatsoever and have no free will at all. This extreme position is known as fatalism, predeterminism, or "hard" determinism. According to fatalism, we cannot choose to do anything other than what we do choose to do; everything we do is predestined, and our feeling of being free is an illusion. Fatalism is impossible to prove, but it's also impossible to disprove, because a fatalist would say that whatever we do or say to try to disprove fatalism is itself determined by fate!

It is certainly impossible to deny that we sometimes lose control of ourselves and succumb to irresistible urges, and we are sometimes impelled by unconscious motives and desires we don't even know we have. But most of us feel that we do freely choose our own actions at least some of the time, and that at least some of our impulses can be resisted if we really put our minds to it. The view that our actions are determined partly by forces beyond our control and partly by our own free will is sometimes called "soft" determinism.

Free will means that our self-conscious minds can act upon and control our brains and our behavior. Experiments have shown that just before we perform a voluntary act, certain regions of the brain are activated. But what does the activating? According to the orthodox scientific theory of the mind, mental states are identical with brain states -- that is, the mind is the brain. This would mean either that one part of our brain activates another part, which then activates another part, etc., or that a particular region of the brain is activated spontaneously, without any cause, and it's hard to see how either alternative would provide a basis for a conscious self or free will.

But the orthodox theory of the mind does have its opponents. One of them is the distinguished neuroscientist and Nobel Prize winner Sir John Eccles, who dismisses the official view as "a superstition held by dogmatic materialists." He calls his alternative approach dualist interactionism: he says that we have a nonmaterial mind or self which acts on our material brain and determines our actions by causing selected brain cells to fire. (2) Biologist Rupert Sheldrake goes a step further: he identifies several nonmaterial (or rather nonphysical) levels of our constitution. He says that our physical bodies are organized by morphogenetic fields, our habits by behavioral morphic fields, and our thoughts and ideas by mental morphic fields, and he suggests that our conscious self may be an even higher level, which interacts with the lower fields and, through them, with the physical brain and body. (3)

The view that we are multileveled beings is echoed in the world's mystical and religious traditions. Christianity, for example, speaks of body, soul, and spirit. The Hindu Vedanta speaks of five kosas or sheaths of consciousness; and theosophy speaks of seven "principles." Exactly how many levels we wish to distinguish is of secondary importance. The crucial point is that we are not our physical bodies; we have a physical body, which is the vehicle or instrument through which our real self gains experience in the material world.

We have two types of will: a passive or automatic will, associated with our habits and instincts, and an active or free will. Most of our bodily functions -- such as our breathing, the beating of the heart, digestion, and growth -- are normally controlled unconsciously by our autonomic nervous system, in other words by our passive will. Our passive will also plays a major role in determining our actions, especially when we act instinctively, without thinking. Our free will, on the other hand, allows us to carry out deliberate, intentional actions; it is a form of self-conscious self-determination, and carries with it moral responsibility.

Clearly, the choices and decisions we make are greatly influenced by the habitual patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior arising from our past. From the moment we are born, we begin to display certain distinctive character traits, which are then developed or modified in the course of our lives as we react to circumstances and interact with the people around us -- partly passively and instinctually, and partly actively and self-consciously. But where does our basic character come from? There are three possible answers to this question.

Materialists would say that our basic character is determined by the genes we inherit from our parents, and by which of these genes are activated in our bodies. If asked why we have the parents we do have, and what determines which genes are active and which are recessive, they would answer in a single word: chance. But invoking chance explains nothing; it implies in fact that there is no explanation: things just happen to be the way they are. Efforts to reduce the wonders of life and mind to random physico-chemical interactions are grossly inadequate and unsatisfactory.

A second possibility is that there is a God, a divine being, who creates a new human soul for each newborn child. If God gives us our character and decides the circumstances of our birth, he would also bear a major responsibility for all the subsequent events of our lives. It would mean that people suffer because it's God's will that they should suffer. A being capable of such cruelty and injustice would surely be a senseless fiend rather than a "god." An extreme version of this position can be found in the Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith (3.6.016), which states: "By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life and others foreordained to everlasting death." Hardly an inspiring doctrine!

A third possibility, and the most reasonable, is reincarnation. According to this view, our souls are reborn on earth again and again, and in each life we reap what we have sown in previous lives and sow seeds that we shall harvest in future lives. There is no such thing as chance, but rather a web of cause and effect, or karma, whereby the consequences of all our thoughts and deeds ultimately rebound upon ourselves, either in this life or in a future life. When a soul returns to incarnation, it is drawn by affinity to the parents who can provide it with the body and environment best fitted to the tendencies it already possesses. So rather than inheriting our characteristics from our parents, we actually inherit them through our parents from ourselves -- from our own past.

The countless causes we have set in motion in past lives push us inexorably towards the future and limit our current freedom. It is this that explains why much of what we do is fairly predictable and why it is sometimes possible to catch glimpses of the future, as in the chair test. It is estimated that between 10 and 15% of the population has had one or more psychic experiences. About 60% of them occur during dreams, 30% take the form of intuitions or hunches, and the rest are hallucinations or apparitions. More than half of all psychic experiences are precognitive -- they convey information about an event that has not yet taken place. One survey of precognitive experiences found that in about two-thirds of the cases no attempt was made to prevent the event, either because the experience was forgotten, or because the person concerned feared ridicule if the premonition proved false, or for some other reason. In 69% of the cases in which an effort was made to avoid what had been foreseen, the intervention proved at least partially successful, and in the other cases it proved unsuccessful, usually because the information conveyed in the experience was not sufficient to allow adequate steps to be taken. In some instances, people who tried to intervene felt that their attempts to prevent something from happening could actually have contributed to its occurrence. (4)

The following story -- probably untrue -- is told about the Greek tragedian Aeschylus. After discovering from his stars that he would die at a certain time by an object falling on his head, Aeschylus fled to the desert, intending to remain there until the fatal moment had passed. Seating himself in a wide open space, with nothing but the blue sky above him, Aeschylus felt reasonably safe. But a large eagle, carrying a turtle in its beak, flew over, and mistaking the poet's bald head for a rock, dropped the turtle on it to break its shell, thereby killing Aeschylus and fulfilling the prediction that he would die by an object falling on his head!

Another tragic -- but true -- story concerns the French actress Irene Muza, who once took part in an experiment in which she was hypnotized and asked if she could see her future. She replied: "My career will be short; I dare not say what my end will be -- it will be terrible." The experimenters were rather taken aback and decided not to tell Muza what had happened. Instead, they gave her a posthypnotic suggestion to forget everything she had said. A few months later her hairdresser accidentally spilled some mineral spirits on a lighted stove, causing Muza's hair and clothing to be set alight. Within seconds she was engulfed in flames and died in hospital a few hours later. (5) Finally, there are 19 documented cases of people who had forebodings of the sinking of the Titanic on its maiden voyage in 1912. These 19 people included several passengers, some of whom paid attention to their premonitions and survived, while others ignored them and drowned.

It certainly seems logical that the past of each individual makes certain futures more probable than others. The late physicist David Bohm commented:

When people dream of accidents correctly and do not take the plane or ship, it is not the actual future that they were seeing. It was merely something in the present which is implicate and moving toward making that future. In fact, the future they saw differed from the actual future because they altered it. Therefore I think . . . that, if these phenomena exist, there's an anticipation of the future in the implicate order in the present. As they used to say, coming events cast their shadows in the present. Their shadows are being cast deep in the implicate order. -- quoted in The Holographic Universe, p. 212

By "implicate order" Bohm means a deeper, nonmanifest level of reality; it corresponds in some ways to what is known in the theosophic tradition as the astral realm or astral light, which consists of a subtler grade of energy-substance, diffused throughout space. It is in the astral light that a record of all past events is preserved and that future events are foreshadowed. H. P. Blavatsky stated that the birth and destiny of every child are "already traced in the Astral Light -- not fatalistically, but only because the future, like the past, is ever alive in the present" (The Secret Doctrine 1:105). We can think of the future as something that is fluid, but in the process of crystallizing, and the closer it approaches the more it solidifies. The most momentous world events are probably crystallized furthest in advance, along with the most important events in our own lives, such as marriages, major accidents, and death.

When we die, we see a panoramic vision in which all the events of our past life pass before us in review, and we see ourselves as we really are, "unadorned by flattery or self-delusion," and understand the perfect justice of everything that has happened to us. When the period of postmortem rest is over and it is time to return to earth-life, the reincarnating soul sees another vision, this time of the life about to be lived and the causes that have led to it, but we see only its broad outline and are free to fill in the details ourselves.

All the innumerable small choices that we have made, life after life, combine to create a particular karmic current which carries us in a certain direction. This is our destiny, but it is a self-made destiny, created by ourselves, shaped by our desires, and forged by our will. There is no such thing as fate in the sense of our lives being governed by outside forces that we have played no part whatsoever in creating. Every time we think, speak, or act we are generating causes of future happiness or unhappiness for ourselves. Every mean and selfish thought or deed retards our evolution, and every noble thought or unselfish deed advances it. If we indulge every impulse or desire that flits through our minds -- no matter how base -- we are not demonstrating freedom, but slavery. It can be a useful exercise to stand back, as it were, and observe ourselves and how we react in different situations, and then ask ourselves honestly which part of us was really in control. The grooves of habit run deep and cannot be erased overnight, and modifying our behavior is therefore a gradual process. But it is basically up to us whether we try to control our lower nature and transform it into something higher, or whether we allow ourselves to be controlled by it.

Self-consciousness literally means consciousness of our own self as opposed to non-self -- the world around us, including other selves. At our present stage of development, this tends to encourage the impression that we are completely separate and distinct from others. Separateness gives rise to selfishness, and it is the misuse of our free will out of selfishness and ignorance that is the root-cause of most of the world's problems. But separateness is an illusion: we are really more like vortices, or whirlpools, in a river -- each of us unique, but inseparable from the overall flow of nature. Just as physical atoms are constantly passing from body to body, so our thoughts and ideas pass from mind to mind, weaving us all into one interdependent whole. Since we are essentially one humanity and one world, it follows that we should try to use our freedom to live our lives in harmony with nature, in a way that will benefit others. And the more we cultivate our spiritual will and our nobler, altruistic qualities, the more we shall become masters of our destiny.

  • (From Sunrise magazine, August/September 1998. Copyright © 1998 by Theosophical University Press.)

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    1. Michael Talbot, The Holographic Universe, HarperPerennial, 1991, p. 207. (return to text)

    2. See "John Eccles on Mind and Brain," Sunrise, June/July 1995. (return to text)

    3. See "Rupert Sheldrake: A Theosophical Appraisal," parts I & II, Sunrise, June/July & Aug/Sept 1992. (return to text)

    4. Richard S. Broughton, Parapsychology: The Controversial Science, Ballantine Books, 1991, pp. 18-21. (return to text)

    5. The Holographic Universe, p. 210. (return to text)