This essay was originally published at Transhumanity.
They don’t call it fatal for nothing. Infatuation with the fat of fate, duty to destiny, and belief in any sort of preordainity whatsoever – omnipotent deities notwithstanding – constitutes an increase in Existential Risk, albeit indirectly. If we think that events have been predetermined, it follows that we would think that our actions make no difference in the long run and that we have no control over the shape of those futures still fetal. This scales to the perceived ineffectiveness of combating or seeking to mitigate existential risk for those who have believe so fatalistically. Thus to combat belief in fate, and resultant disillusionment in our ability to wreak roiling revisement upon the whorl of the world, is to combat existential risk as well.
It also works to undermine the perceived effectiveness of humanity’s ability to mitigate existential risk along another avenue. Belief in fate usually correlates with the notion that the nature of events is ordered with a reason on purpose in mind, as opposed to being haphazard and lacking a specific projected end. Thus believers-in-fate are not only more likely to doubt the credibility of claims that existential risk could even occur (reasoning that if events have purpose, utility and conform to a mindfully-created order then they would be good things more often than bad things) but also to feel that if they were to occur it would be for a greater underlying reason or purpose.
Thus, belief in fate indirectly increases existential risk both a. by undermining the perceived effectiveness of attempts to mitigate existential risk, deriving from the perceived ineffectiveness of humanity’s ability to shape the course and nature of events and effect change in the world in general, and b. by undermining the perceived likelihood of any existential risks culminating in humanity’s extinction, stemming from connotations of order and purpose associated with fate.
Belief in fate is not only self-curtailing, but also dehumanizing insofar as it stops us from changing, affecting and actualizing the world and causes us think that we can have no impact on the course of events or control over circumstantial circumstances. This anecdotal point is rather ironic considering that Anti-Transhumanists often launch the charge that trying to take fate into our own hands is itself dehumanizing. They’re heading in an ass-forward direction.
While belief in predetermination-of-events is often associated with religion, most often with those who hold their deity to be omnipotent (as in the Abrahamic religious tradition), it can also be easily engendered by the association of scientific materialism (or metaphysical naturalism) with determinism and its connotations of alienation and seeming dehumanization. Memetic connotations of preordainity or predetermination, whether stemming from either religion or scientific-materialism, serve to undermine our perceived autonomy and our perceived ability to enact changes in the world. We must let neither curtail our perceived potential to change the world, both because the thrust towards self-determination and changing the world for the better is the heart of humanity and because perceived ineffectiveness at facilitating change in the world correlates with an indirect increase in existential risk by promoting the perceived ineffectiveness of humanity to shape events so as to mitigate such risks.
Having presented the reasoning behind the claim that belief in fate constitutes an indirect increase in existential risk, the rest of this essay will be concerned with a.) the extent with which ideas can be considered as real as physical entities, processes or “states-of-affairs”, namely for their ability to affect change and determine the nature and circumstance of such physical entities and processes, b.) a few broader charges against fate in general, and c.) possible ideohistorical sources of contemporary belief in fate.
The Ousting of Ousia:
Giddy Fortune’s furious fickle wheel,
That goddess blind, That stands upon
the rolling restless stone.
Henry V, 3.3.27), Pistol to Fluellen — Shakespeare
Ethereal beliefs can have material consequences. We intuitively feel that ideas can have less of an impact on the world for their seeming incorporeality. This may be a but specter of Aristotle’s decision to ground essence in Ousia, or Substance, and the resultant emphasis throughout the following philo-socio-historical development of the Western World on staticity and unchanging materiality as the platform for Truth and Being (i.e. essence) that it arguably promoted. Indeed, the Scholastic Tradition in medieval Europe tried to reconcile their theological system with Aristotle’s philosophic tradition more than any other. But while Aristotle’s emphasis on grounding being in ousia is predominant, Aristotle also has his Telos, working though the distance of time to impart shape and meaning upon the action of the present. Indeed, we do things for a purpose; the concerted actions contributing to my writing these words are not determined in stepwise fashion and inherent in the parts, but with the end goal of communicating and idea to people shaping and to a large extent determining the parts and present actions that proceed along the way to that projected ideal. Aristotle was presumably no stranger to the limitations of parts, as his metaphysical system can be seen in large part as a reaction against Plato’s.
One will do well to recall as well that Plato grounded the eternality of being not in sod but in sky. Plato’s Ideal Forms were eternal because they were to be found nowhere in physicality, in contrast to Aristotle’s Ousia, which were eternal and lasting for being material rather than ethereal. Plato’s lofty realm of Ideas were realer than reality for being locatable nowhere therein, save as mere approximation. And while Plato’s conceptual gestalt did indeed gestate throughout certain periods of history, including Neo-Platonism, Idealism, Transcendentalism and Process Philosophy, one can argue that the notion of the reality of ideas failed to impact popular attitudes of fate, destiny and predeterminism to the extent with which Aristotle’s notion of Ousia did.
The Ideal Real or the Real Ideal?
My stars shine darkly over me:
the malignancy of my fate might
perhaps distemper yours.
(Twelfth Night, 2.1.3), Sebastian to Antonio) — Shakespeare
I’ve thus far argued that Artistotle’s notion of Ousia as the grounds for Truth and Essence has promoted the infatuation with fate that seems pretty predominant throughout history, and that Plato’s Ideal Forms have deterred such physics-fat infatuation by emphasizing the reality of ideas, and thereby vicariously promoting the notion that ideas can have as large an impact on reality as substance and real action does.
If we act as though God is watching, are not all the emergent effects (on us) of his existence, which would have been caused were he actually there watching in some sense, instantiated nonetheless or with any less vehemence than if he were not watching? If a tribe refrains from entering a local area for fear of legends about a monster situated there, are they not as controlled and affected by that belief as they would be if such a monster actually existed? The idea of the monster is as real as otherwise because the tribesmen avoid it, just as though it were real. These examples serve to illustrate the point that ideas can be as real as real states-of-affairs because by believing in their reality we can consequently instantiate all the emergent effects that would have been present were such an idea a real “state-of-affairs”.
This notion has the potential to combat the sedentizing effects that belief in fate and destiny can engender because it allows us to see not only our ideas, with which we can affect circumstances and effect changes in the world, can have material impact on the world, and to see that objectives projected into the future can have a decided impact on circumstances in the present insofar as we shape the circumstances of the present in response to that anticipated, projected objective. We do things for projected purposes which shall not exist until the actions carried out under the egis of satisfying that purpose are, indeed, carried out. It doesn’t exist until we make it exist, and we must believe that it shall exist in order to facilitate the process of its creation. This reifies the various possible futures still waiting to be actualized, and legitimizes the reality of such possible futures. Thus Plato’s ideo-embryo of Ideal Forms constitutes a liberating potential not only for making ideas (through which we shape the world) real, but also by reifying Telos and the anticipated ends and fetal futures through which we can enact the translation of such ideas into physical embodiment.
Yet Plato is not completely free of the blame for solidifying lame fate in the eyes of the world. The very eternality of his Forms at once serves to reify fate and promote public acceptance of it as well! Plato’s forms are timeless, changeless. What is time but a loosening of the strings on fortune’s sling? What is eternality but destiny determined and the fine print writ large? While Plato’s firm forms vilify fate they also valorize it by sharing with it memetic connotations of timelessness and changelessness.
So damn you Plato for spaciating time rather than temporalizing space, for making the ideal a form rather than a from and eternal rather than eturnatal, for urning where you should have turned and for grounding the ideal rather that aerating it as you should have. And damn you Aristotle — phlegmy future-forward blowback and simmerred reaction against Ur philosophic father — but a batch of Play-Doh bygone hardy and fissury — for totalizing in ontic aplomb the base base and bawdy body and for siding with ousia rather than insiding within nousia. Your petty chasm has infected the vector of our memetic trajectory with such damnbivalent gravity as to arrest our escapee velocity and hold us fast against the slow down and still to wall the wellness of our will. Your preplundurance with stuff has made your ideational kin seek suchness and understanding in what overlies the series of surfaces all the way down, without any gno of flow or recourse to the coursing middle that shifts its center and lifts its tangentail besides. Aristotle the Ptolemaic totalizer of cosmography by curation rather than creation, each moment a museum to be ripped asunder its supple matrix maternal and molested with scientific rigor-mortis in quiet dustless rooms. Being is but the jail-louse diminutive bastard-kid-brother of Becoming, which Heraclitus in his dark light saw and which Parmenides despite getting more limelight did not. But again, even Aristotle had his retro-causal final causes — the Telos televisualized…
Was Aristotle aristotally wrong, or did he just miss a right turn down the li(n)e?
Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown; Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own. (Hamlet, 3.2.208), Player King — Shakespeare
Then again (…again?), Aristotle may not be as culpable as he was capable. While I argue that his notion of Ousia had predominantly reifying effects on people’s notions of the existence of fate and the irreality of ideas, thereby undermining our perceived ability to determine the conditions of our selves and the world in particular, this may have been a consequence of promiscuous misinterpretation rather than underlying motivation. Aristotle is often allied with Parmenides for deifying Being over the Becoming of Heraclitus, but Aristotle’s notion of Ousia, when considered in contrast to the Plato’s Forms (which it can be seen as a reaction against) may actually bear more similarities with Becoming-as-Being al a Heraclitus than with Being-as-Sole-Being al a Parmenides.
Plato’s Forms may have for Aristotle epitomized resolute eternality and unyielding predetermination. Indeed, essence connotes immateriality, idealism, and possibility; an airyness very easy to conflate with becoming or idealism by various semiotic channels, but for Plato essence – which he locates in his Ideal Forms — was almost antithetical to such attributes: a type of being, eternal and changeless. Aristiotle’s Being or Ousia, however, grounds Truth and Essence in the parted parts, the particulate particular and the singular segment. His Ousia may have been an attempt, in reaction against the unmoving Forms of Plato, to ground truth in the diverse, the particular and the idiosyncratic rather than the airy eternal and skybound ground unflinching. Aristotle’s Ousia then may be more correlative to Becoming-as-Being in the sense in which Heraclitus meant it, and in accordance with the notion’s potential to reify the existence, value/dignity and effectiveness of our autonomy, individuality, and difference. Indeed, the reification of these ideals, threatened by any notions framing essence as changeless, may have been Aristotle’s main gain and underlying motivation.
This brief foray into the semiotic jungles of transhistorical memetics and the ways in which notions formulated in Ancient Greece may have fermented throughout history to help form and shape our attitudes toward fate, destiny, predeterminism, and thereby our ability to affect changes in the world — and to cast away the slings and clutched crutches of fate — serves to illustrate, in a self-reflective fit of meta, how notions wholly immaterial can still matter insofar as they shape our contemporary beliefs, desires, attitudes and ideals. The two notions briefly considered here, of Plato’s Ideal Forms and Aristotle’s Ousia, have been considered in regard to the extent with which they shape contemporary belief in fate and predestination.
Conclusion: Inconclusivity is Key
My fate cries out, And makes each petty artery in this body As hardy as the Nemean lion’s nerve. (Hamlet, 1.4.91), Hamlet — Shakespeare
Indeed, infatuation with fate constitutes an increase in Existential risk by undermining the extent with which we perceive our usefulness and effectiveness in combatting Existential Risks in general, as well as by undermining the perceived likelihood of such existential risks causing serious harm and death or culminating in the extinction of humanity.
Belief in destiny is also dehumanizing and alienating. The only determinism fit for Man is self-determination, the self not in-and-of itself but within-and-for itself. The deterministic connotations inextricably associated with fate, destiny and preordainity are dehumanizing and epitomize the very antithesis of what constitutes humanity as such.
Combatting the dehumanizing and disenfranchising connotations of determinism is also imperative to increasing the public appeal of Transhumanism. It is easy to associate such connotations with technology, through an association of technology with determinism (in regards to both function and aesthetic), and since technology is very much emphasized in Transhumanism, one could even say is central to Transhumanism, this should impel us to re-legitimatize and to explicate the enchanting, mysterious, and wonder-full aspects of technology inherent in Transhumanist thinking and discourse. Technology is our platform for increased self-determination, self-realization and self-liberation. We can do the yet-to-be-possible with technology, and so technology should rightly be associated with the yet-to-be-determined, with the determinedly indeterminatal, the mysterious, the enchanting, and the awe-some. While its use as a tool of disenfranchisement and control is not impossible or nonexistent, its liberating, empowering and enchantment-instilling potentialities shouldn’t be overly undermined, or worse wholly ignored, as a result.
Whether in the form of determinism grounded in scientific materialism, or in the lofty letharge of an omnipotent god with a dogged determination to fix destiny in unflinching resolve, belief in fate increases existential risk by decreasing our perceived ability to effect affects in the world and make changes to the shape of our circumstance, as well as decreasing the perceived likelihood of a source of existential risk culminating in humanity’s extinction.
If all is fixedly viced then where lie room to revise?