Fate vs. Free Will

© 1996, 2002 Curtis Manwaring

The fate versus free will controversy has been around as long as there has been philosophy and organized religion. Astrologers of the past were historically stoics, believing in a divine plan for each individual. However, stoicism has been misunderstood by most modern people; as we tend to think of stoicism as a philosophy that is "resigned to fate". The reality is that the stoics had many variations of the fate concept. It would be an oversimplification to say that they believed that fate was absolute, determinate and immutable. For instance, the stoics had 3 main fate concepts called: heimarmene, anangke and pronoia. Heimarmene is probably the closest to immutable fate but it is the kind of fate present within (for instance) the seed to become a tree or a tomato. The other two modes of fate are really almost opposites of eachother. Pronoia is often described as providence and foresight, whereas anangke is the ignorance that leads us to choose one path over another. These three fate concepts actually can compete with eachother which from a stoic point of view could be seen as leading to a level of indeterminism.

The fate concept in the west has given rise to many controversies between the Church and astrology. Even within the Church there were proponents for and against fate. The problem is that there is a dilemma between God's omnipotence and the nature of the freedom of choice. The problem is this: If we truly have the freedom to choose, then God cannot be omnipotent. In fact, to the extent that he gives man freedom of choice, he has relinquished his power. If however, God is all powerful and all knowing then this would indicate complete lack of freedom in man. The crux of it is this: If man is not free, then how is it that God can blame man for making the wrong choice in the taking of the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge? The sin then would be in God and not man indicating an unjust God. Of course, the Church would not accept that answer. Near the beginning of the renaissance, Calvinism became the solution to this dilemma. John Calvin argued that we were saved or damned from birth due to God's omniscience and omnipotence, and that good works were just signs of the road that we are on.

Astrology naturally argues for fate and determinism, otherwise the predictions of astrologers would be of no use. At least this was what the Church believed. During the time that predetermination was the position of the Church, astrology and the clergy got along fairly well. At that time, astrology was merely the messenger of God's will for mankind. At some point, the Church abandoned Calvinism (at least partially) and the idea that choice was vitally important took hold. This was the beginning of a falling out between astrologers and the Church. Thomas Aquinas argued against astrology having an effect on destiny because it was said that the Lord gave us the ability to choose.

Currently astrologers tend to believe in freedom of choice. We have all heard the phrase "The stars impel, but do not compel". I should digress a bit and tell you that "free will" is an oxymoron. For this reason I prefer the term free choice. If you think about it, the will is not really free, but is a source of determination. If it could not be a source of determination then it would not be a will at all. Bonatti in his treatise Liber Astronimae, book I, spoke of the church's objections to astrology and framed the issue of choice within a process which varies over time. He said then that initially we have to choose, then it becomes our direction of will and we become determined depending upon how strong we intend it. For instance, before marriage we choose, afterwards, it has been decided, and fate has taken over because some of the possibilities have been borne off from it. This is not an all or nothing proposition in my opinion. Having said this, I do believe that much of the time we are subject to the whims of competing interests and it often looks as though the strongest interest wins. The point is that some of this determination appears to come from outside and some comes from within. However, we do not have absolute free will. If you think you have absolute free will, try forcing the Sun to stop moving across the sky. I should point out that most of us would not want absolute free choice. It leads to infinite possibilities and infinite complications as well as no inherent destination in life. A famous aphorism of Rob Hand's is: 'Pretium arbitrii liberi est nullam destinationem habere' which means: 'the price of free will is having no destiny'.

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