The Double Agent of Change

“Guil: It was chance, then?
Player: Chance?
Guil: You found us.
Player: Oh yes.
Guil: You were looking?
Player: Oh no.
Guil: Chance, then
Player: Or fate.
Guil: Yours or ours?
Player: It could hardly be one without the other.
Guil: Fate, then.
Player: Oh yes.  We have no control. Tonight we play to the court. Or the night after. Or to the tavern. Or not.” – Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, Tom Stoppard

Thoughts on Fate, Chance, and Free Will

The Universe is made up of energy. I don’t intend to dwell on that because there is a large body of work in both the Spiritual and Scientific spaces that explains this concept far better than I can.[1] Instead, this post is simply going to start from that premise; the Universe is made up of energy.

Matter is a particular organization structure of energy. Like the previous premise, this may either sound strange or be staggering in its statement of the obvious. If you think about it, this understanding is really the heart of all the natural sciences – physics and chemistry most blatantly, but biology is rooted in this concept as well. The periodic table of elements, which many are familiar with from school, literally details energetic organization. From such a perspective, all solid matter is really just energy that has been ‘fixed’ into a particular form.

That idea leads into our next premise; Energy can be either fixed or fluid. Fixed energy is matter and fluid energy is – well – a myriad of energy types that are more mutable in nature; heat, light, sound, weather, electricity, thoughts[2] etc. I use the terms “fixed” and “fluid” to refer to the form and mobility of the particles, not to suggest that “fluid” energy can transition from one type of energy to another. Energetic organization structures can transition between a fixed and fluid state. Some do this more easily than others – for example water.[3] [4] Water can be fixed – as ice – or fluid – as a liquid or vapor.

All energy moves and, because it moves, the various individual pieces move in a particular way (sometimes even as a group as when energy is ‘fixed’ into a corporeal form). We live on a planet that revolves and rotates around the sun, in a solar system that rotates around the galaxy, in a galaxy that rotates around the universe; any perceived stillness is relative, not absolute.

Because everything moves, energy – whether fixed or fluid – has a flow and a trajectory. Units of energy move at different speeds and have varying amounts of momentum along a particular path. Fixed energy moving quickly is more difficult to stop or re-direct than fluid energy that has not gathered much momentum. Your windbreaker will stop some wind from reaching you, but it won’t stop a bus and it definitely won’t stop a tornado.

Wait, What was this Post about?

You may be wondering at this point what all this talk about energy and movement has to do with the fate vs. free will debate. That’s a fair question. Let me just note that my intention in this post is to explain (based on my understanding) how the physical properties of the universe work together in a way that resolves this apparent opposition. In order to do that, however, I wanted to lay out the basic premises my argument is built on in as logical and straightforward a way as possible.

From the debates I have participated in or read about on the subject of Free Will and Fate, people seem to hold the two in opposition; either our lives are governed by Fate or we have Free Will and our lives are governed by us. But this is a false dichotomy; the opposite of fate is not free-will, it is chance. After all, the definition of fate[5] is “the universal principle… by which the order of things is presumably prescribed” and the definition of chance is “the occurrence and development of events in the absence of any obvious design.”[6]

Fate says that everything is predetermined and chance says that nothing is. In contrast, free will says, “that the conduct of human beings expresses personal choice and is not simply determined by physical or divine forces.” So Free Will is not synonymous with chance, it is yet some third thing. [7] Free Will requires us to be able to ’read’ our world and make decisions.

The post Everything Is Now laid out an argument that time does not exist apart from motion. The implication of this, of course, is that there is no such ’place’ as the past or the future, there is only the now. So although energy has a flow and a direction, energy (regardless of form) only ever actually exists in the now. At the crossroads of the past (which is ‘determined’ by virtue of having already happened) and the future (which is governed by chance because it has not happened yet) we have the Now – where things are actually happening.

But wait, you say, this seems like sleight of hand because one of the key questions on the table is whether or not the future is governed by chance. True. Let’s dig into that a bit deeper.  Since we have established that there is no such thing as a “future” that exists in its own right, there is nothing for predetermination to be based on. Pre-determination requires a knowable outcome, but how can an outcome be known if it doesn’t exist to be known? It can’t, it can only be predicted.

Does Not Compute?

There is an argument, however, that if something has 100% probability then technically the outcome is ‘pre-determined.’ From that we could conclude that our inability to predict everything with 100% certainty is a technological limitation and not indicative of the underlying nature of the universe. If we only had a computer powerful enough to account for all the variables, the argument goes, we could predict everything with 100% certainty and that would essentially prove that everything is pre-determined.

This argument raises what I believe to be one of the fundamental underlying questions of the universe which is; is it possible to observe without influencing? Ironically, this is also one of the biggest challenges I have with the breath meditation. Simple to learn, a lifetime to master, can you observe your breath without influencing it? I believe the answer to the larger question, ultimately, is no.

Let’s take the example of this ‘super-computer’ that accounts for all variables. In order to be able to account for all variables in a system, that system needs to be closed. There has to be a point of observation outside of the system itself. However, in the world at large, there is no such thing as a completely closed system.

Thus, not only would our super-computer have to account for all variables, but it would also have to account for itself – it would have to account for the possibility of its own influence on the system.   Additionally, who outside the system is using this computer? Who is this data being provided to that doesn’t influence things simply by knowing this information? Why know if not to influence? And thus we run into a paradox because the very idea that one can influence based on having this knowledge contradicts the idea that everything is pre-determined.

These arguments ignore the blatantly obvious problems with using a ‘computer’ for such work. For example, the device could malfunction in any number of ways. Anyone who has ever used a computer can surely relate to that. If not a hardware malfunction, there could be a variable unaccounted for somewhere or a flaw in how we calculate outcomes based on input variables and then everything is off. Which raises the question, who is inputting all this variable information and programming this super-computer anyway?

But, what if we don’t use anything so pedestrian as a computer? What if the ‘computer’ is really the ‘mind of God’? Or – to put it in terms more consistent with this post, what if the ‘computer’ is really the pooled knowledge of all the energy in the universe? I have a couple of answers to this.

One, due to differences in form, I don’t actually think that all the energy in the universe is equally contributing knowledge to the collective. For example, most people do not seem to be actively working their connection to the universe and therefore they are not benefitting from that collective knowledge as much as they could be – nor, in some cases, are they contributing to it as much as they could be. I’ll talk about that a lot more in a different post, I promise

Secondly, even assuming that all knowledge is contributed to the collective, we still don’t escape the question of influence. In other words, even if knowledge of all the variables in place is perfect, this concept doesn’t make any sense unless we pre-suppose some entity (“God” or “The Collective Energy”) that has this knowledge.

If that is the case, and we remember that the only time that actually exists is the now, then the entity with this knowledge would still have to account for its own potential influence – and the possibility that that entity even has influence, that the future can be changed, brings us back to our pre-determination paradox.

Take a Chance

I hope I have addressed this argument sufficiently enough to leave your mind open for the rest of this post. However, there are a couple of peculiarities here that bear mentioning before we move on completely. First, I want to put a little more structure around what I mean by ‘governed by chance.’

In using that phrase, I do not literally mean that anything can happen at any time in the now. Fixed & fluid energy comes together in particular ways to create a range of possible outcomes. Uncertainty becomes a factor in determining which outcome, within that range, will be the actual outcome. The possible outcomes are limited by the circumstances that exist in the now.

To illustrate this concept, let’s consider a card game like Euchre, Hearts, Rich Man/ Poor Man, etc. Even if you are one of those admirable people who can count cards, at the beginning of the game you simply don’t know where all the cards are. You know some variables, but not others. This uncertainty increases with the number of players.

At no point before or during the game, however, does anyone expect the cards to magically disappear out of the players’ hands or that one of the players will start using quarters in their pocket to stand in for cards. Postulating such outcomes shows a lack of understanding of the variables ‘in play’ so to speak. Rather, there exists a defined range of possible outcomes based on the variables and rules of the game.

As the game proceeds, depending on how people play, a good card player (which I am not, btw J) can draw conclusions about who has which cards and how play is going to go. The future moments, at every stage, are governed by varying amounts of uncertainty or chance (who will get what cards, once they have cards how each player decides to play their cards, how one person’s play impacts the next person’s play, etc.). Although you may pick the correct outcome of the game – or any situation – beforehand, it is not possible to actually know the outcome before it actualizes. [8]

Secondly, although I maintain that the future is governed by chance, it is still possible to have a high degree of confidence in some outcomes. This is because of our earlier premise about flow and trajectory.

All elements of the universe are in motion with varying degrees of momentum behind their motion. Outcomes can be predicted more or less accurately based on one’s understanding of how the variable pieces come together and interact.

Take, for example, the motion of the planets around the sun. Because of the gravitational forces at play and the momentum of the planets in motion without much / any resistance in space to slow them down[9] we can predict things like sunrises, sunsets, eclipses, seasons, etc. with a very high degree of confidence.

Thus, in our universe, we simultaneously have outcomes that can be predicted with a high degree of confidence[10] and outcomes which are difficult to predict with any confidence at all (like the weather in Chicago on a given day). Regardless of predictability, however, chance has a hand in all outcomes because there can always be a missed variable somewhere.

To illustrate, you may predict a particular outcome for your card game, but it may turn out that someone messed with your deck and some cards are missing or there are more Aces then there should be, etc. In which case, you will probably void the game and re-deal (using a more thoroughly scrutinized deck this time), starting the cycle of uncertainty all over again.

Or, there may be some external variable unaccounted for (like your toddler grabs the cards and throws them all over the room) that forces play to stop in the middle, in which case the ‘end game’ outcome is never fully realized.

Re:View

If we agree that the future is governed by chance, does that mean the universe, itself, is governed by chance? Not exactly. In fact, a universe governed completely by chance is as bad a condition for free will as a universe governed completely by fate. If we lived in a universe with no order or rules, where literally anything could happen – decisions would be meaningless because we would have no reasonable expectations on which to base them. If the future is governed by chance, but the universe is not, then what is the universe governed by?

Let’s see if we can answer that question.   As established earlier, because energy has a flow and a direction, some things are possible to predict. For example, our planet orbits the sun in a fairly predictable way. Although we already established that there is no such thing as a completely closed system, some groups of objects do move together in relative isolation from enough outside influence to significantly alter their flow and trajectory. Not forever, of course, but for a while.

For this thought exercise, then, let’s consider Earth’s relationship with the Sun from such a perspective. We will call this a ‘”closed” system, utilizing the quotes to signify that we know there is really no such thing as a completely closed system in the universe.[11]

Let’s remember that fate was defined earlier as “the universal principle… by which the order of things is presumably prescribed” and let’s add to that the definition of principle; “a fundamental, primary, or general law or truth from which others are derived.”

So, movement and organization of energy follows some fundamental properties of the universe. I believe we call our limited understanding of these properties the laws of physics. If this is true – is there really a great deal of difference between the laws of physics (admitting we don’t know all of them) and fate?

There may be some who protest that I am ignoring the ‘sacred context’ of Fate. In other words, Fate is typically associated with a supreme being, such as God, who has laid the universe out a certain way. The irony is, my argument doesn’t necessarily disagree with that. For me, the collective source energy is God – and energetic organization is God’s design and the laws of physics are God’s rules.

So the real protest there is not about the sacred context of Fate so much as whether one believes God is a transcendent being removed from the rest of the universe or imminent and part of everything. I will leave that to be a matter of personal faith.

To return to our thought exercise, though, we started with the planets in our solar system rotating around the Sun. Now let’s consider another element, such as a meteoroid, whose trajectory ALSO operates in a relatively predictable way and can be plotted. If we consider our Earth’s planetary orbit and the meteoroid, we have two regular and predictable trajectories operating independently of each other. What happens when their paths cross?

When two “closed,” deterministic systems collide there is an opening created in those systems and the opportunity for dramatic change arises. If the meteroid’s momentum is strong enough it could knock the Earth out of orbit. Even if it is not so large and strong as that, the impact of the meteoroid on the planet could trigger drastic change for the life and climate of this planet (as such occurrences have in our geologic past). The energy leading into the collision is driven by ‘fate’ – or by an ordered set of rules, the outcome of the collision, happening in a series of successive nows – is governed by chance.

These types of interactions are happening at all levels all the time; the planetary level, the complex organism (or corporeal, human) level, the cellular level, and, of course, all of these levels are operating and interacting with each other simultaneously. We have seemingly “closed” systems of matter and energy which can be more or less deterministic in their organization and motion, but when those systems engage with each other – there are interactions, collisions, openings created.[12]

Further, our universe is not limited to “fixed” energy (or matter) interacting with other “fixed” energy; the constant interaction between fixed energy (which tends to change less readily) and fluid energy (which tends to change more readily) cannot be underestimated in terms of contribution to uncertainty.

Since this is happening all the time, at all levels, opportunities are constantly being created. The definition of opportunity is, “a set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something.” How can we exert personal choice without such a set of circumstances? We can’t. Additionally, since ‘Now’ is the only time that ever exists, it is also the only time we can exert our free will.

Thus, free will arises from the double crossroads of two continuums; one being the crossroads of past and future (the now) and the other the crossroads of “fate” and chance (opportunity). Free will is not in opposition to fate, nor is it in opposition to chance – it requires both to exist.

Hiding in Plain Sight

That the universe is governed by both fate and chance simultaneously may seem like something of a paradox. Enter the Trickster. As I mention in my post Trickster Makes this Road, Trickster is the destroyer of exclusive either-ors, the boundary walker of the paradox. It is perhaps fitting, then, that Trickster is also the god of opportunity.[13] In order to create the conditions necessary for free will, we need the Trickster.

Upon reflection, the Trickster governs opportunity, chance, prediction / divination, and the crossroads. As just noted, he is the boundary walker of the paradox and the mediator between heaven and earth (which might be redefined as matter and spirit – or fixed and fluid energy). Is it really a coincidence we keep running into him? If the only time that ever exists is the now, that means every moment is really a beginning, middle, and end. Perhaps we bump into the Trickster everywhere we turn because we’re all standing at the crossroads every moment of every day.

Is the Trickster the “force” that governs all of these various intersections, then? Or is it the reverse – that this mythological figure is a personified expression of our subconscious understanding of the interplay of these various elements of the universe?  I’m tempted to use my new, default response of ’both,’ but I think to do that is to fall into another trap. So, instead I’ll say, honestly, that I don’t have any answers there. I’m still puzzling my way through that, realizing that the question itself may be a snare.

For more about this slippery Trickster character, please see my post Trickster Makes this Road

Footnotes

[1] From a spiritual perspective books like the Dancing Wu-Li Masters or The Dao of Physics come to mind. From a scientific perspective nearly any book about quantum physics will get you there

[2] I know I sort of snuck this one in here – however, if the first premise is true than what else can thoughts be but some form of fluid energy? Regardless, the premise, as it relates to thoughts specifically, is much more important to arguments about manifestation than it is to this one about free will and fate.

[3] As I write this it occurs to me that this may have been what the Alchemists were after in trying to release the inner ‘spirit’ of a thing…freeing the energy from its fixed state – I can’t vouch for their methods, but I can certainly understand the perspective.

[4] I realize that I’m vastly oversimplifying, and somewhat crossing over fundamental concepts about the states of matter (solid, liquid, gas), but going into detail on complexities of energetic organization would be overkill for the topic at hand (not to mention that I’m no quantum physicist 🙂 )

[5] Dictionary.com

[6] Google search “define chance”. I found the first entry in dictionary.com for chance somewhat confusing after much reflection. It is “the absence of any cause of events that can be predicted, controlled, etc.” but it was unclear if the prediction and controlling was referring to the cause (which is lacking) or to the events themselves. In other words, I couldn’t figure out if the definition was trying to say the events themselves couldn’t be predicted or controlled or the cause couldn’t be.

[7] If you’ve read my Trickster post, Trickster Makes this Road, you probably recognize this reference. It is no coincidence.

[8] We can sometimes confuse good prediction with knowing, but that does not mean they are the same thing. The ability to predict an outcome is not the same as that outcome being pre-determined. To say that we have choice (or free will) is not to say that the choices we DO make are unpredictable. They are predictable – those predictions, like any predictions, will just sometimes be wrong.

[9] As I’ve said before, I’m no physicist and this is a vast oversimplification I’m sure 🙂

[10] most outcomes like this usually involve ‘fixed’ energy interacting with other ‘fixed’ energy which is much easier to predict in motion than ‘fluid’ energy

[11] A simple supply / demand graph can be a helpful aid to understanding supply and demand even though we never get market conditions isolated enough to match the graph. In like fashion, considering these variables in isolation helps make my point.

[12] I put ‘closed’ in quotes because most systems appear to be closed, but as we established – since collisions are happening at all levels at all times they are not, actually, closed systems. However, it is true (I believe) that there is a spectrum and some systems are more closed (or have fewer volatile variables) than others and thus are easier to predict.

[13] From Hyde’s book Trickster Makes this World, “

5 thoughts on “The Double Agent of Change

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