Like “The Secret”, only different

The Center for Naturalism has a nicely written book on the subject (which I’ve just finished reading): Encountering Naturalism: A Worldview and its Uses.

One of the themes of the book is determinism, and although I’ve written an essay touching on this topic, I’ve not thought much about how, in a deterministic framework, we should view the future. It’s very tempting to conclude that since our actions are all determined, we should take a fatalistic approach to life. We should, as Leary and McLuhan’s misconstrued slogan suggests, “turn on, tune in, drop out”.

As Thomas W. Clark, the author of Encountering Naturalism, points out, fatalism is (according to one common interpretation anyway) the idea that the future will end up being the same no matter what actions you take. And if this were really the case, then we might indeed be justified in losing all motivation for action.

But this interpretation of fatalism is false, even under determinism. It is a matter of fact that our actions influence the future, even if those actions are causally determined. The only part of fatalism that reveals a glimmer of truth is that the future is, in principle, set. There is only going to be one future, and we could reveal this future (or at least some limited aspects of it) if we had sufficient information and computing power*.

But that is where the crux of the matter lies: we don’t have sufficient information and computing power, so we can’t see the future. We do not know, for instance, whether we’ll be successful and fulfilled ten years from now, or whether we’ll be completely miserable.

We do know one important thing, though: we know from observation that people who are successful and fulfilled generally reach that point because of certain things they do, and certain attitudes they take. I won’t try to make an extensive list, but I’m pretty sure it includes things like hard work, a positive attitude, and perseverance.

It seems to me that the only sensible way forward, then, is to assume that your future will be filled with success and fulfillment, and to behave in a way that you know, from observing others, is associated with success and fulfillment.

This attitude should not be confused with the theme of The Secret and other recent self-help manuals, namely that the sheer power of wishful thinking is enough to make wishes come true. Rather, what I’m prescribing is really just good old optimism.

In a nutshell, imagine that you can see the future, and that it includes you working hard to make a difference in the world. Aim to fulfill that future, rather than the one that has you turning on, tuning in, and dropping out.

* There are at least two sources of uncertainty about the future that persist regardless of our predictive capabilities. First, there is quantum indeterminacy which, although generally negligible on the macroscopic scale, might nonetheless effect this scale through long term knock-on effects of some kind.

Second, there is the idea that knowledge of future events might prompt us to change our course of action, thereby  leading to a future at odds with the original vision. This only applies to the knowledge of future events that we have some sort of influence over. For example, consider someone who is taking a walk through the forest. She believes she has suddenly glimpsed her short term future, and that it involves her walking off a cliff and falling to her death in the next ten minutes. Horrified, she immediately sits down where she is, waits for half an hour or so, and then carefully walks back to her car, holding onto branches as she goes, and drives home. It therefore follows that she did not actually see her future, because the cliff scenario did not actually occur. Indeed, only if she had not seen her future would she have continued her walk through the forest and fallen over the ledge.


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