“You Cannot Escape Your Destiny” (Or Can You?)

The first essay in “Star Wars and Philosophy” by Jason T. Eberl (“You Cannot Escape Your Destiny” (Or Can You)?) is an examination of free will and destiny. Both Anakin and Luke Skywalker had many prophecies and attempted prophecies about their lives. Sometimes, seeing their futures is harder than you might think; on a number of occasions, such luminaries as Yoda profess that their futures are clouded, and even he can’t tell what is going to happen. Palpatine himself believes that he has foreseen Luke joining him … and then is killed by Darth Vader before that happens. While the Jedi can get great insights into the future, those insights often are murky or even just plain wrong.

Thus, the Force’s precognitive powers look like a slightly more accurate version of astrology or various psychics: it gives vague perceptions that sometimes turn out to be completely wrong. This is completely different from the sort of completely clear and infallible knowledge that someone like, say, God has. Now, in the latter case many people think it clear that such foreknowledge would mean that there is no free will, and some might be tempted to say that to the extent that the Jedi precognition is accurate it precludes free will in those cases as well. One might argue that the cases where the Force is vague or inaccurate are, in fact, the only cases where free will exists.

Eberl compares these two cases specifically, by using Thomas Aquinas’ view of God being outside of time as an explanation for how God can know the future. Ultimately, if God resides outside of time, then for God all events happen simultaneously. For God, there is no such thing as the past, present or future. All God has is a myraid present, where everything that has ever happened and everything that will ever happen and everything that is happening are all, well, happening. You can think of it like God literally simultaneously watching an infinite number of security cameras all at once. It’s inconceivable to our time-embedded minds how any mind could possibly experience the world like this, but then we aren’t God and are time-embedded, so of course we are incapable of even imagining such a thing.

To see how this relates to free will, though, we can move to the competition, and look at “The Prophets” from Star Trek. They also lived, essentially, out of time, experiencing everything as a universal present. The idea of linear time completely and totally confused them, leading them to, in fact, actually screw up in returning someone far past the time where they started from, and having no idea that that was what they had done. They share prophecies with the people of Bajor, and they turn out to be quite accurate, if a bit vague and flowery.

And yet, it doesn’t seem like this knowledge impacts the free will of people like Sisko, their Emissary. This is because — as seen most clearly in the episode “Destiny” — it isn’t the case that what Sisko will do is predetermined. Quite the contrary; they only know what will happen because of what Sisko freely chose to do, and the actions taken by all parties. The Prophets, from their perspective, don’t have foreknowledge, but in fact only have plain old ordinary knowledge. And plain old ordinary knowledge doesn’t impact free will.

Eberl brings up some of the issues with this, which centre around the future actually already existing at the time Sisko made his choice. If the choice is already made when Sisko makes it, then it doesn’t seem to be a free choice in any interesting sense of the word, does it? But I think this analysis is again trying to apply a linear perspective to a non-linear one. It’s saying that the future has, essentially already happened. Except, of course, from the linear perspective, it hasn’t. The future, at the time Sisko makes his choice, is still wide-open. All the Prophets or all God can see are the results of Sisko’s choice, which for Sisko he hasn’t yet made and for the Prophets and God … well, the idea of having made a choice is kinda incoherent.

The Force, however, is different. It certainly doesn’t seem to be as perfect, and it isn’t as certain. The Force, to me, looks like a way of predicting the most likely outcome, which we do all the time. If everyone acts the way you’d expect them to, then you can predict with fairly good accuracy what they will do. The better you know someone, the better you can predict what they will do. As the Force is tied into all living things, it has access to pretty good information about pretty much every living thing that could impact the outcome. But any outside Force — that is outside of the Force — can bring the whole thing crashing down, and leave a bad prediction. So the Force’s powers of prediction are always limited by random events or even, perhaps, odd choices. As such, it depends on, in fact, predicting what people’s free choices will be. Since, just as above, it relies on free choices, it can’t actually be limiting them through its foreknowledge. And so it also looks like you can have free will and the Force’s form of foreknowledge, especially as it is imperfect.

(Note that determinism would predict that you could do this sort of prediction without any vagueness or error. If the Star Wars universe is deterministic, the Force can’t easily get all of the relevant factors when it makes its prediction.)

Another thing we can note about both forms of prediction is that neither of them actually in any way cause the choices that are being made. God doesn’t as a general rule impose what He sees us doing on us; the Prophets must interfere in the normal manner; the Force generally doesn’t directly cause it. Any causal impact is indirect, and mostly done by telling people what outcome was foreseen and letting that impact their decisions. So these visions don’t causally determine the events themselves, and it is difficult to imagine that something that has no causal link to the events could, in fact, actually change them from being free choices into being non-free. Thus, it must be the case that if foreknowledge means that there is no free will, it is because the possibility of foreknowledge means that the choices have to be predetermined or destined before they’re made, such as determinism implies to anyone who is not a compatibilist.

Thus, it seems to me that the specifics of the method of gaining foreknowledge are crucial to determining if that method means that we don’t have free will, and so you cannot simply say “There is foreknowledge, so we don’t have free will”. I have argued here that in these two cases neither method means that we don’t have free will since both of them rely on the free choice being made before the “foreknowledge” can occur. Thus, the Force, the Prophets, and most importantly for philosophy in general God can have their forms of foreknowledge while we can still make free choices. If Luke Skywalker, Benjamin Sisko, or we ourselves don’t have free will, it’s not due to what the Force, the Prophets, or God know about our future.

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One Response to ““You Cannot Escape Your Destiny” (Or Can You?)”

  1. Tee R Says:

    I don’t think that life mimics a rolling movie, a book or a novel where the outcome will inevitably come as it was made.

    I don’t think that anyone can foresee anything at all, hence what has not happened yet, what it is to come, does not exist.

    I think that the time line progresses as we live it with the only certainly being now and yesterday, there is no way to know what your tomorrow will be.

    Just my personal opinion.

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