Fate and determinism can be a tricky idea to tackle (unless it is already determined that you will do so, then relax and just go with the flow, you’ll get there!). By nature we tend to believe in two things:
We have free will do make any decisions or actions that we please.
That there is something greater than ourselves.
The real problem is being able to reconcile our desires for free will while simultaneously putting the necessity of our actions on some greater source. This source can either be natural law and our own neurological makeup, or what we perceive as God. In his USA Today article, Jerry Coyne claims that our minds are simply “meat computers” and that we have no more control on our decisions than that of the very laptop I am typing with right now. He essentially says that a computer is a slave to its own programming, and we are a slave to natural law. The same claim can be made in regards to religion or a divine entity. The necessity of our actions will come from a form of divine will and not from ourselves. This is the kind of hard determinism that Skinner talks about, but is there any way to reconcile our free will with any form of divine or natural law? Compatibilists (i.e. Anselm, Aquinas, James, Hume, etc) operate under the assumption that our actions are not entirely enslaved by determinism. They seek to describe a world in which Divine Providence is able to exist with our free will.
We see a form of compatibilism in the film Minority Report with the character of John Anderton. He learns of his so called fate, and even the discrepancy that Agatha sees in his future. The idea is that the precogs can see the future, but Anderton can choose not to go through with the crime. This would show that PreCrime is actually flawed and that free will is still a factor, despite the existence of beings that can see the future. We see proof of this flaw in the ending of the film. The precogs predict that Anderton will be killed by Burgess. Burgess is then confronted with his so called fate, and instead chooses to kill himself. The free will had been present (and functioning) all along, despite the existence of the determinism created by the precogs. This action mirrors the idea of soft determinism set forth by James. Your fate is set out in front of you by the precogs, but you can still choose to act differently. This is allowed by the minority reports and the alternate visions that Agatha sees. This can only be possible if time is planar. This allowed Burgess to come to a crossroads in his point of time. Picture it this way; make his confrontation with Anderton a stop light at an intersection. He has three choices: killing Anderton, letting Anderton live, or killing himself. Each of these choices are a road that he can turn on, but each road had to have existed prior to his reaching that point in time (or atleast the potential for the road). This is why a minority report happens. Now, in order for the system to be perfect, time would have to be entirely linear. This would allow the precogs to take your choices into account and adjust for them in their visions. We can see an example of this if we look at the incident where Anderton fulfills the precog’s vision of the murder he commits. Try as he might, every decision he makes just continues the chain of events that leads him right into the hotel room where the victim was at, just as Oedipus was unable to escape his own prophecy no matter how hard he tried. They would have been able to predict this with complete accuracy because there would be no alternate timelines to take into account. We see this line of reasoning in Aquinas’ presentation of divine foreknowledge. He suggests that God is temporally displaced from us. He illustrates his point by saying that God is up on a hill watching us. Up on this hill he is able to see the road that we walk on all at once, which makes our past, present, and future God’s present. However, through his displacement all future contingents are known by God, but they still remain unknown to us, which allows us to keep our free will, since we are unable to see our own future. Based on this new found infallibility, the only way Anderton would have been able to have chosen not to kill the victim, was for it to have happened in an alternate or parallel timeline. By making this jump he would have not only changed his future, but it would have changed his past as well in order to conform to the new timeline. Then it can be imagined that the prediction of the murder would have never even taken place in the new past.
Agatha explains at one point that knowing your future opens up possibilities and choices that otherwise would not have existed. We see this same sort of mentality in The Matrix when the Oracle tells Neo not to worry about a vase, and then he knocks it over. She responds and asks if she had no mentioned the vase, would he still have knocked it over? We see this same sort of parapsychology in the Oracle of Delphi. She tells Croesus that an empire will be destroyed when he asks if he should assault Persia. After learning of this, he then goes to Persia and loses. The prophecy was not wrong, it was only vague enough to illicit a response from Croesus and create the destruction of an empire. Even though there is the prophecy, he still creates his own destiny. Croesus could just as easily of stayed home and left Persia alone, just as Neo could have taken the blue pill despite being the one. In the trilogy, Neo represents free will and choice. He is a tangible illustration of how our choice and natural law are separate. They are driven by different sources. Free will has no need of necessity, whereas natural law has to be caused by some force. Aristotle would applaud this idea of anti-fatalism or the idea that Neo is able to create his own future without any necessity or contingents. If natural law were the cause Neo’s actions, then that would show that his actions take place out of necessity and not of his own free will, which he represents.
In Next, Nicolas Cage plays a man who is able to see exactly two minutes into his future, and adjust these visions according to his intended choices. In the Coyne article he says that: “A practical test of free will would be this: If you were put in the same position twice — if the tape of your life could be rewound to the exact moment when you made a decision, with every circumstance leading up to that moment the same and all the molecules in the universe aligned in the same way — you could have chosen differently.” Anything short of an Einstein-Rosen Bridge won’t exactly grant you a way to pop you back into your past to change your decisions (all paradoxes aside), but Cris is a much more “practical” example of this test. He is able to change his decision while being controlled by the same laws of nature (or divine law) each time he looks into his future or changes his mind. Like Neo, he is able to shape his own destiny, but unfortunately, his choices are not purely his free will. Cris’ choices derive from his visions as opposed to being free from necessity entirely.
In a sense, Cris is the ultimate version of Aquinas’ illustration of compatibilism. He is God on the hill, being able to view past, present, and future, and is also able to enact his own choices. Of course he is limited because unlike God, his view of what we think of as the future is not eternally extending, since he can only see two minutes into the future. It brings up an interesting point though. If God has eternal view of time, and our lives and actions, and in certain orthodoxies it is believed that God is in control and everything happens because it is “God’s will”. Now let us assume that the hard determinism that the Merovingian presents in The Matrix Trilogy is in place, but in regards to divine law and not natural law (which is closer to Al-Ghazali). If God has infallible foreknowledge, and is the cause for all of our actions, that would mean that God is a slave to determinism himself. Like Cris, he has power over both will and foreknowledge, but their actions will still be derived from determinism. God would not be acting out of His own accord, but because He has already seen that it will be so. This suggests God’s actions may also be derived from another source, in the same way that our actions come necessarily from Him. This could mean that either determinism is a force that is independent of God (like morality in The Euthyphro), or that God is not eternal and has an origin (having to come necessarily from something else).
Determinism can be seen as the line between being trapped inside of a chain of cause and effect outside of your control, and living a life in which your choices are your own. Making your own destiny is seen as somewhat ideal for most. Neo represents the notion of self-determinism, that we are our own masters and instigate the outcome of our own personal universe. He is able to bend the world around him so that even natural law is unable to determine anything. Contrary to all of this, is the hard determinism presented by the Merovingian. He believes that natural law and chemical reactions (like we see in the film What the Bleep Do We Know) dictate our every move and each “choice” that we make. Between these two extremes there is the middle ground of determinism that we see in Minority Report. This would be the soft determinism present in the life of John Anderton. The precogs see a possible future contingent, but the outcome still relies on your own free will. Natural law or cause and effect are able to create a chain of causality that may lead up to a certain event, like with Anderton and his victim, but the outcome will still play out in whatever way that you wish for it to. What does all of this mean for us? In our everyday life things happen that seem to be outside of our control. If you are driving on the interstate and the car in front of you tries to switch lanes and hits someone, then one of those two cars may collide with your own car, a causal chain that you had no control over. However, just because you had no control in the situation, does not mean that there was no element of human control present at all. The individual in car number one made the ill-advised decision to change into an occupied lane. That is an act of free will. Now due to natural law and physical cause and effect, another car was sent into your direction. Car number two and its occupants do not have control of the natural forces that have no taken over them in the initial collision, but you now have the choice to swerve or stay on course. With this simple example we see a mixture of natural law and our own free will. This shows that soft determinism seems to be most compatible with our own lives, that is, if you choose to believe so.