Free will and destiny

Larry asked:

What is the difference between free will and destiny?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

This is really simple, Larry. Every human being has free will, and is capable of demonstrating it at a moment’s notice to any interrogator. This is not countered by pointing to limitations on its exercise, i.e. the interrogator might be a member of the Inquisition or my intention to walk out is inhibited by a locked door. Destiny on the other hand is a word we apply in hindsight, when we know what happened to a person or a community or nation. This becomes clear when we inspect the cognate word ‘destination’, which means ‘where we are going’. We can never be 100% sure that we will arrive; and the word ‘destiny’ shares this uncertainty. Hence a sentence like ‘it was Columbus’ destiny to discover America’ is an historically valid assertion; but for anyone to say it before it happened would have been nonsense or at best a wish and a promise. So the only valid use of the word ‘destiny’ is for what you already know to have occurred.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Imagine that you are Oedipus and that the Delphic Oracle has just told you that you will kill your father and marry your mother. The Delphic Oracle is in direct communication with the gods, and never lies. You know, as an indisputable fact, that one way or another you will kill your father and marry your mother. If you flee the city, or if you hide away, or even if you attempt to kill yourself, the result will be the same, even if the details differ. The gods have decided your destiny and there is nothing you can do about it.

The Greek idea of gods moving human beings around like pieces on a chess board has since been replaced by the far more terrifying notion that there is just one God, all-powerful, who knows everything, past, present and future. If it is a fact about the future — a fact that God sees and knows with absolute certainty — that you will kill your father and marry your mother, then that is what will happen, regardless of what you intend. The original Oedipus had some freedom to choose how this terrible destiny would come about, you have none.

Over the centuries, theologians have argued over this problem of ‘free will and God’s foreknowledge’. Various attempts have been made to rescue a notion of free will worth wanting from this mess. I will not throw my two pennyworth in here, as I am not in the least bit tempted by the idea that there is a God who knows my destiny.


One thought on “Free will and destiny

  1. Larry,

    Freedom of the human will is an illusion. Don’t be lulled or misdirected.

    I know you didn’t directly ask about the realities of freewill, you asked a malformed question.

    Freewill and destiny are not comparable in a way that it is meaningful to list differences. One might think you meant to ask, “how can there be freewill and also at the same time can an individuals have a destiny?” You might as well have asked, “what is the difference between happy memories and the realization that nothing can last forever?”

    Freewill is a persistent and pervasive illusion – i.e., it is something that does not really exist.

    Destiny is a thing that exists but is not accessible before it is realized, but undeniable after it has manifested. – i.e. it is something that really exists but is unknowable (with 100% certainty).

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