01 March, 2009

Determinism, fate, randomness, or free will... who the hell knows?

I've told you about how tiny strips of paper with phone numbers at bus stops can lead to cross-country treks, PhDs, life-long friendships, and rock-and-roll stardom. The butterfly flaps its wings in China, and it rains in New York City. And if you look carefully, you can always find these types of seemingly disjointed, yet causal connections. Everything leads to everything else. Unless it leads to nothing, of course. But then I don't write a blog about it.

I was talking about this subject with a friend of mine the other day, and they said they couldn't really think of any examples of such things happening to them. Makes me wonder if I am more perceptive, seeing these causal connections all going back to single points in time? Or am I delusional, and always trying to see interrelationships when there are none? 

You know, if you look for something, you will always find it. 

I remember in Psychology class in 12th grade, with Mr. Something (damn, I can't even remember his name - ah yes - Mr. McCormick), we were talking about advertising, and subminal messages. And one of the things they said in that class was that in printed ads, there would often be sexually suggestive imagery hidden in an ice cube. Or that sometimes something like the word "sex" would be hidden in the fabric of a woman's blouse, looking like nothing more than a squiggly pattern. So, of course, being teenagers, we started looking for sex everywhere. And of course, we found it. Written in the magazines, in the TV Guide, in our text books, on the concrete walls of the building, on the bath towel. You name it. And eventually, one day, my friend Rich found sex on the back of his hand. It was difficult to make it out, but upon careful inspection, there it was. Etched into the 18 years of creases in the skin of his hand. "Sex". It really was everywhere. And that is when I should have realized that you can find anything if you look for it hard enough. End aside.

That brings me back to connections and causality.

Are things really connected? I don't know. Chaos theory obviously applies to countless physical systems. It's the reason that weather is so hard to predict. It's the reason that a waterfall doesn't produce the same exact visual pattern from one second to the next. Tiny perturbations accumulate to yield massive changes in outcome. But does chaos, the theory, apply to human behavior? Or does our free will, conscious or otherwise, general take precedence over the tiny perturbations. 

One day you go to a different coffee shop because you needed to drop off your car to get some work done, and you bump into a beautiful girl who is buying a muffin, and you make a mental note that she likes the same kind of muffins as you. She smiles at you. You smile back, and then look away quickly, because you feel like you were staring. Three months later, you're at a Sheryl Crow concert at The Gorge, and you're waiting in line to buy a $9 Rolling Rock, and the coffee-shop girl is standing in line right in front of you. Sixteen months later, you're married to the coffee-shop girl. 

Chaos theory? Free will? Fate? Randomness? Who the fuck knows? 

We like to call attention to the positives, but I am sure there are many who are sadly forced to call attention to the similar negatives. Losing a loved one, it can be easy to spend the rest of your lonely life revisiting every step of the day or days that led up to the tragedy, trying to figure out what could have been different to explain why things happened the way they did. And it's interesting to note that while it's the same process: feel, experience, observe, collect, evaluate, revise, explain, connect, etc. It is clearly not the same feeling surrounding it. Whereas the negative is a painful sore in our minds that we always reopen, unable to just walk away and accept that "Shit Happens" as the saying goes, when it's a positive thing, we cling to it dearly, revisiting it like a favorite old movie, replaying the scenes in our mind, because it makes it more special to be able to rationalize how fortunate and unlikely such things actually are.

The human brain, and all of its hundreds of billions of neurons and their trillions (?) of synapses, is specialized for precisely that type of processing. Making connections between information we collect in our environment. 

So which is it?

If one ever utters the words "meant to be" it starts to become a religion. I don't want to believe things are meant to be because of an external force that governs. I would rather say that things come to be because of explainable scientific phenomena, or because of the act of choice - whether it be conscious, or unconscious. Coffee-shop guy wasn't led by the hand of Shiva into Fuel, instead of Essential. And the fact that he went there on that day is only relevant because it happened. The fact that there was a connection with coffee-shop girl was a function of a choice that guy and girl both made. The situation occurs, randomly, but then humans choose to make something of it. It is romantic to say that if his car mechanic had not rescheduled him for Wednesday instead of Tuesday, that he would not be married to coffee-shop girl today. And that is true. But it is also irrelevant. He did go. They did meet. And they did marry. 

All of our situations are always based on conditional probabilities: What is the probability of "A" given that "B" has occurred? That is the only question that matters. If I said to you, "What is the probability of me dying in a plane crash?", all you can do is cite statistics from websites, agencies, or news reels. But if I say to you, "What is the probability of me dying in a plane crash, given that I am in a plane that just ran out of fuel at 35,000 feet?" then the number changes a bit, and probably gets very close to 100%.

And that's how we need to think of things. The winds of randomness, which we can attribute to butterfly wings, or whatever, are always blowing situations into our laps. Those are the "conditions" that govern the probabilities that we then face.

There is a flip side to this, of course.

Another thing humans are really good at is telling stories. And it makes a much better story to say that our coffee-shop couple has Rick's Chevron to thank for their life of happiness, than to blame it on random chance. 

That, my friends, is called "romance".


  1. on what do you base your assumption that coffee shop boy and coffee shop girl would not have met (and subsequently married) at all, had they not met at fuel on this one particular day?

  2. i base it on the fact that there's no evidence, other than non-scientific, that things are "meant to be". things just happen. nobody wants to say it's meant to be when their 4 year old gets run over by a steamroller. so it can't be that it's meant to be that two people are brought together. i think that *after* the event happens, it has been meant to have been, in an absolute sense of causality. once an event happens, you cannot undo it. therefore fate is sort of like the video camera rolling behind you and capturing the memory of everything that just happened, and playing it back as if it were a preview. it's beautifully romantic to say that things are meant to be. and believe me, i *want* to believe they are. but i think that we choose our outcomes, based on the circumstances that come before us. that's why we should feel goddamn fortunate when something great falls into our path.

  3. Some people alo attribute this shit to God. Religion. Destiny. Yaddy ya. I've always hated the term 'Loved one.'