Wednesday, November 11, 2009


I'm sitting in the DRAGON counting room at TRIUMF, my eyes drooping from the jetlag which tries, somewhat successfully, to convince me that it is 5:30 in the morning. Travelling west is always easier than travelling east - for me, anyway - but an 8 hour time difference is enough to smite the best of us. My British colleagues were actively impressed that I slept until nearly 6am Vancouver time the first morning. Add to the changing time zones the unfortunate fact of my cold, which has moved from sinuses to chest in an effort to render me useless, and you're left with one red-eyed, coughing, irritated individual.
In spite of all this, I feel at home being back in the lab, haphazardly stringing lemo cables across the experimental hall, babysitting the data acquisition, spending countless hours wasting time on shift trying to locate people I know on personals websites. There is a certain atmosphere to an experiment that isn't present when I'm working on my own in a lab on campus, and I've missed it.
A few days ago, as I approached the black mental abyss of getting through a 9-hour transatlantic flight (direct from Heathrow to Vancouver), I began to struggle actively with my phobia, which inevitably leads to questions as to the nature (and existence) of fate. I am told by others that the universe, or God, could never be so cruel as to allow you the full knowledge of your own fate; that, if anything, my fear of dying in a plane crash means precisely that I won't. But I cannot believe that fate works only in our favor - I reply that what we must be left with is no fate, just the infinite possibilities of any outcome. That there cannot truly be such a thing as fate, but only coincidence and chance and randomness onto which we project (either forward or backward) our own hopes, fears, dreams and fables. We make our own fate, in that sense, not because we control the outcomes, but because we control the way we view those outcomes.
Because my phobia convinces me that I will not survive my flight, I feel fated to die in a plane crash, but since the logical portion of my brain can't accept such a viewpoint, it instead fights to convince me that all is random and there is no fate whatsoever. But it is fate that we met, he says. That you first came to Oak Ridge when you did. Is this fate, though, or merely wishful thinking? Are we writing our own fairytales after the fact, seeing the path the story took once we've walked it? In truth, I see nothing harmful in that sort of thing - it gives our lives a fuller, richer hue. But it can sometimes seem like willful ignorance. We can live as though we are lucky, but we mustn't believe in luck.
In the end, as always (so far, anyway), I get on the plane, I freak out a little bit and watch the wings flex and the ground pass by silently below, and when we land I feel sheepish for having believed the voice in my head. But was it fate that I survived? If I was so convinced that it was my fate to die, then I cannot turn around and say just as glibly that it was my fate to live instead. But such is the nature of fate - we cannot say what it is until it has passed, and yet, in that context alone, it is worthless. To know our fate beforehand is torture, to know it after the fact is mere selective history. And so the answer seems as though it must be no; fate is not real, it does not truly exist except within our minds. But when my next flight rolls around (this Thursday, in fact), I will revert to the superstitious phobe, hoping I have not tempted fate by saying such things about it.


  1. Perhaps fate is our lack of free will- that we can not do otherwise than we do, try as we might. Only in distant retrospect do our motivations become clearer, after the haze of rationalization and self-mythology has cleared away. We are tied to the rack of life, suffering or enjoying without the least real free agency, subject to our situation and inborn character- that is fate.

    That is sort of the view that Tolstoy took at the somewhat turgid end of War and Peace, as well as the staple of tragedy. Enjoy collecting!

  2. Whatever one's view of fate, I think it is a fatal mode of thinking to consider us destined irrecoverably to some specific way of living, thinking and viewing the world. Of course, we are strongly shaped by our environment, but such a viewpoint does justice to neither the environment itself, or the astonishing potential of the conscious human will. For sure, we have thus far been conditioned by our surroundings, like the tree arched by the prevailing coastal winds; a crone's spidery fingers beckoning those inland out to sea. But we know not of whom we have yet to meet. Thus, throughout the entirety of our lives, we are dynamically sculpted by our surroundings, and we have no way of knowing from what direction the next abrasion will come.

    There is a spectrum of possible interpretations of the concept of fate, from complete predestination (which renders all things mechanistic and devoid of meaning) to bestowing our personal meaning upon events retrospectively. Between these extremes lies some subtle ground in which fate could be in some way active, but not restrictive - perhaps more akin to a conductor of an orchestral score than to a piano-roll.

    However, fate can only ever be viewed and interpreted in retrospect, so any hypotheses we have on the subject can never be reliably tested by any rigourous means. In this sense, it is supernatural, much like God is said to be supernatural - for our natural world is temporal, and thus fate must be external to it.

    The description of fate that I find most helpful is one for which I sadly cannot recall the original words or reference (I think it may have been quoted by Pollard, in Chance and Providence). My paraphrased version is this: fate manifests itself in the nebulous but very tangible sense that, reterospectively, events can seem utterly inevitable - that things somehow had to turn out precisely the way that they did. It is interesting that (in my experience) this sensation can occur equally strongly for negative events as positive events - even while they are actually occurring (that is, before any particular manifestation of hope, of a silver-lining, of "things turning out for the best" has materialised).

    Of course, it is utterly possible (one could argue most likely) that fate is entirely in the mind - that it is not real in any functional sense of predestination. Instead, it is merely us seeking on some level a coherent story, a plot for our lives. The very fact that we wish to find meaning and purpose should tell us something - for we'd be far more effective creatures at survival if we were not plagued by the preoccupation with our own existence.

    However, we can never prove this either way - and I think, once again, our ignorance is our salvation. There is great benefit to thinking in terms of fate, for the concept of fate is a catalyst for finding meaning in events - for usually, wherever we actively seek meaning, we shall find it in some form. Where there is meaning, there is purpose. And where there is purpose, there is passion for life.

    Various virtues manifest themselves in different temporal regimes. In the past we seek meaning. In the present, we find purpose, passion and initiative. And in the future, we are (or should be) awed by the unimagined (and even unimaginable) possibility of the genuinely unknown.


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