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Fate and free will in a fucked up world

2021 2022 2023 2024 has been rough, man. I’m not going to sugarcoat it.

The world seems to be spinning out of control faster than ever. Global events hit like a consecutive and relentless punch below the belt. The political landscape is shifting further to the right. Technological advances are changing the rules of society with every passing day. It's easy to feel like a leaf caught in a hurricane - tossed about by forces far beyond our control. 

Even as we grapple with a growing sense of powerlessness, we cling to the idea of free will. We make choices, big and small, every day. We vote in elections, we decide what to eat for breakfast, we choose our careers. We fall in and out of love, etc. These decisions feel intensely personal, the product of our unique thoughts, experiences, and desires. 

But are they really?

The tension between determinism and free will is not an abstract philosophical concept. It's a lived experience, and it colours every aspect of our lives. It influences how we view our successes and failures, how we judge the actions of others, how we approach the ethical dilemmas that confront us in an increasingly terrifying (read: fucked up) and tangled world.

We are born into circumstances we didn't choose - our genetics, our families, our cultural backgrounds. We grow up in societies shaped by historical forces that long predate us. We make decisions based on information filtered through media landscapes we didn't create. In many ways, we seem to be playing a game whose rules were written long before we arrived at the table.

In democracies around the world, citizens exercise their right to vote, ostensibly shaping the course of their nations. But how free are these choices really? Our political views are influenced by our upbringing, our education, our social circles, and increasingly, by algorithms that curate our online experiences. The candidates we choose from are selected through processes often opaque to the average voter. And once elected, our leaders operate within systems constrained by historical precedents, international agreements, economic realities, and the human tenure trap.

In the face of climate change, pandemics, and bleak economic inequality, individual actions feel frustratingly inconsequential. Recycling your plastic bottles seems a paltry gesture when set against the backdrop of industrial-scale pollution. Your careful adherence to public health guidelines during a pandemic feels futile when others flout the rules. Your ethical consumer choices make barely a dent in a global economy built on exploitation and unsustainable practices.

We find ourselves buffeted by circumstances beyond our control. The economy takes a downturn, and suddenly, despite years of hard work and careful planning, you're facing unemployment. A global pandemic hits, and your carefully laid travel plans or business strategies crumble to dust. A loved one falls ill, medical bills mount, bankruptcy looms, and your life pivots on an axis you never chose.

Even our most personal choices are shaped by forces we may not fully comprehend. The foods we crave, the people we're attracted to, the careers we pursue - all of these are influenced by a complex interplay of genetics, upbringing, cultural conditioning and digital advertising. The very thoughts we think are shaped by the language we speak, a tool we inherited rather than chose.

When you take all of this together, the notion of free will can seem like a comforting illusion. 

If all our choices are predetermined, what meaning do we find in our struggles, our triumphs, our moral decisions? Why strive for anything if the outcome is already written in the stars?

But to fully embrace determinism is to court despair. And despair isn’t much good to anyone.

The truth - as is often the case - is somewhere in the middle. 

The course of the river is shaped by the landscape it flows through - the mountains, valleys, and plains it encounters. These represent the circumstances of our lives that we don't choose. But within that course, the water finds countless paths, swirling in eddies, carving new channels, shaping the very landscape that contains it. This is our free will, operating within the constraints of our circumstances but still capable of effecting change.

This perspective doesn't solve the philosophical debate, but it does offer a pragmatic approach to living. Yes, there are very real constraints and influences on our choices, but we still have the capacity for decision-making and change.

It relieves the crushing weight of total personal responsibility - the idea that every aspect of our lives is solely the result of our choices. At the same time, it preserves the dignity of agency, the belief that our decisions matter.

Yes, global forces shape the political landscape, but our collective choices still matter. A single vote may not change the world, but millions of votes, driven by millions of individual decisions to engage with the political process, can shift the course of history.

No, your individual choices alone won't solve the climate crisis. But collectively, millions of individual choices create market trends, shift cultural norms, and ultimately influence policy decisions. Your choice to reduce meat consumption, use public transport, or support sustainable businesses is a drop in the ocean - but oceans are made of drops.

You didn't choose the economy you were born into, but you can choose how to navigate it. You didn't cause a pandemic, but you can decide how to adapt to it.

This middle ground between fate and free will has profound implications for how we view others. It encourages empathy - an understanding that people's choices are shaped by circumstances we may not fully comprehend. At the same time, it preserves the notion of reasonable personal responsibility, the idea that despite our constraints, we are still accountable for our decisions.

There are complex factors that influence our behaviour but they don’t negate the importance of choice. 

Holding this tension between fate and free will allows us to engage with the world in a more nuanced and effective way, to educate ourselves about the forces shaping our choices - whether they’re psychological, social, economic, or political.

If our decisions are shaped by our circumstances, then changing those circumstances can open up new possibilities. This could mean advocating for policies that reduce economic inequality, working to dismantle systemic biases, or supporting education initiatives that empower people to make more informed choices.

The world is not black and white, and neither are our choices. We are neither purely free agents or helpless puppets of destiny. We are, instead, co-authors of our stories, working within the constraints of our circumstances but always with the power to influence the next word, the next sentence, the next chapter.

The debate between fate and free will may never be definitively resolved. But perhaps that's not the point. The value is in the exploration itself - in grappling with these questions and allowing them to inform how we live our lives and interact with the world around us.

The choice - to whatever degree it is a choice - is ours.

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