What the Oracle said to Oedipus

For Lynn

Oedipus: Tell me about my future, Oracle. What is going to happen with me?

Oracle: For what reason should I tell you, Oedipus? What relevance does it have for you what I could tell you about your future?

Oedipus: People say that you can predict the future… so I want to know about mine. I want to know what mistakes I have to avoid in life therewith I will have a a pleasent life.

Oracle: What would it change if I tell you now? Wouldn’t it happen anyway, if the people are right and I really can predict the future? And if I can not, why should I bother with a tale?

Oedipus: I believe in your ability to predict future. And I’m curious to know about mine. If I know what will happen, I could make different decisions from those I would make without knowing the consequences of my actions.

Oracle: I’m really surprised about you, Oedipus... you seem to contradict yourself.

Oedipus: I know it sounds weird...

Oracle: Do you really think that life is predictable? Do you believe that future is determined?

Oedipus: In some sense, yes. I know that after each winter spring will return, for example.

Oracle: You know nothing. You just observe some regularity, and you assume that they will hold in the future. That’s all. You believe that the sun will rise every day again, and a stone you throw in the sky will always fall down to earth, a river will always flow towards the sea. But why do you think you know all that? Who told you?

Oedipus: Nobody told me, it’s obvious that there are things happening over and over again. It’s the destination of the stars to move around the earth, and the destination of some birds to move to the south for winter. Only the gods know the reason behind all this… but you are allowed to have a glimpse on these truths in your visions.

Oracle: Gawky man! Without any regularity, you wouldn’t be able to perceive anything; [1]  your mind wouldn’t exist at all, because you couldn’t make sense out of what is happening in the world. But this does not prove that these regularities really persist. They only exist in your mind.[2]  They are constructed.

Oedipus: So there is no destination behind the phenomena?

Oracle: Nobody told the stars to move on a spherical orbit. Nobody told the blossoms to open in the morning and to close in the evening. They just do.

Oedipus: Stop! I don’t buy that. What about causation? Perhaps there is no primary reason behind all these phenomena, perhaps it’s not the destination of the flowers to bloom, and there is none at all. But it is not by chance that they finally do. They are forced to do so by something else. The blossoms for instance seem to be influenced by the sun, since they always look at her...

Oracle: Oh, so what you are really talking about is causation, not destination. Fine. But be aware that we changed our subject now: causation is a very different concept. There doesn’t need to be any regularity at all to have a causal world. The principle of causation is just that every event is grounded in an event that preceded it. Everything is caused. But this does not have to be necessarily law-like.

Oedipus: Yes, I believe that everything is caused by something, although it is difficult for me to understand what you mean by saying that it does not need to be grounded on regularities.

Oracle: To bewilder your mind a bit more: even the law of causality is just such a thing assumed by your mind to make experience more reasonable. However: Since you believe in causation, you must also believe that future is already determined, since the causes determine the actions. Let us also assume that I really have this obscure ability to predict future – perhaps I have some mysterious method to calculate it. Of course, this would also involve our talk and what I might tell you about your future. I would have to take into account that you might act differently from what I supposed you to act. Therefore there are only two consistent possibilities under which I really were able to predict the future: either I wouldn’t tell you what is going to happen with you so that you cannot change your mind and my predictions, which I keep for myself, really come true. Or I tell you, but you are not able to make any changes... perhaps you simply don’t know how to avoid your fate and therefore do the wrong things... and so my prediction becomes also true. Perhaps it wouldn’t happen without telling you, so that my prediction was one of the causes of your action. But there is no contradiction, since my decision to tell or not to tell you was also caused by something else…

Oedipus: Sounds persuasive…

Oracle: ... In any other case, if you were really able to change future by knowing it, my prediction would be wrong and I didn’t tell you about future, but fiction. So you didn’t change the future, but I was just unable to predict it. In this case you shouldn’t waste your time here with me but just do what you thought would be best for you.

Oedipus: I don’t agree with you. Of course it does affect me what you are telling me. And I believe that I have a free choice in what I am doing, and that I can influence my future.

Oracle: Of course you believe that, otherwise you wouldn’t be here… You believe that you can make free choices. And there is nothing wrong with it, as long as you don’t believe at the same time, that future is determined. Let me put it this way: If we really could influence our future, future wouldn’t be just the sum of all events happening in the future, but some structure of events that might happen in the future, without distinction between what will and what will not happen. But this picture of future is misleading or at least paradox: remember the Cretian guy Empedokles, who told us that all Cretians are liars? We are simply not able to say if he told us a lie or not. Similar logical problems arise in how we use to talk about future.[3]

Oedipus: Mhhh… Maybe you are right. I admit my error... So tell me, shall I believe in determinism or freedom of choice?

Oracle: That is a very difficult question, and you have to find the answer on your own, since otherwise you won’t understand it. But let’s begin in analyzing the notions you made up: what do you understand under determinism and freedom?

Oedipus: Determinism is the view that the future is already determined by the past. Freedom, how I understand it, presupposes in contrast that the future is not yet determined, and human beings can influence it.

Oracle: Very well. But what do you understand under freedom: I can imagine at least three meanings: freedom of mind, freedom of choice, and freedom of will. Let me explain the differences: Freedom of mind would presuppose that the mind is a totally independent substance that does not fall under the causalities that rules matter. Freedom of choice does not need to presuppose mind as an independent entity, but at least admit that choices human can make are real choices and not determined through causality.[4]  But freedom of will is also possible in a deterministic world, since you can want whatever you like– but you cannot decide to want something. You are free in your will, but you cannot control it. Got it?

Oedipus: I understand that in a deterministic world freedom of mind and choice is impossible. But I still do not understand why freedom of will can be possible. The strange thing about will is, that everybody feels intuitively that he has a free will. But how can will be free if choice is not?

Oracle: I imgained that you would have difficulties with that. When you talk about freedom, keep in mind that you talk about a negative concept: the absence of constraint, in our casethe constraint of causality.[5] 

Oedipus: That may help: so what is absent in freedom of the will?

Oracle: There is simply nothing that forces you to want things you don’t want. It is the nature of the will that you only want what you want. You never want what you don’t want. Therefore will is free. Nevertheless it is still determined what you will want in the future. But this lies beyond your sphere of wants and wishes. We can put it even more general: tell me, is the will an entity or a faculty?

Oedipus: Certainly a faculty. It is the faculty to do one thing or the opposite. Why do you ask?

Oracle: I agree with you. But tell me, what do you mean then by saying that man's will is free? How can a faculty be free?

Oedipus: It cannot! It is the man himself who is free, not his will.[6] 

Oracle: Very well. So we should rather say that "free will" is a meaningless notion, and we conclude that the freedom of the man is not in contradiction with the determinism of volitions. A man is then free if he has the opportunity to choose an action among others. If he has no alternative, he is not free. We might call this freedom of action, which replaces freedom of will and which is very different from freedom of choice.

Oedipus: If you are right, this might explain a lot. I wished to know about my future but didn’t notice that every advice from you is useless. It was already determined that I would come to you and that I had that wish to know about my future, and even now, although I know that everything is determined, I still feel that my will is free – it seems to me that all my wishes are uncaused and free. Mhhh.... we still don’t know if we live in a deterministic world, you didn’t prove it.

Oracle: That’s right, I only demonstrated, what is consistent with determinism and what is not. But we didn’t get that far yet. So for the sake of the argument let us consider that you have not only a free will, but also free choice and an independent mind. Let us assume that your mind is an entity different from matter.

Oedipus: That is easy to imagine, since many savant people made us believe that our souls will live onwards, even when our mortal bodies already decayed.

Oracle: But I guess nobody of these savant people would deny that matter affects mind and also mind affects matter.

Oedipus: How could they deny? How elsae could mind control the body? And how could our mind perceive sensations without the body and its sense organs?

Oracle: But don’t we talk about causation then?

Oedipus: Sure.

Oracle: Isn’t it strange? A thought shall be a cause of an action, and events in nature might be the cause of thoughts… So what is the difference between the entities mind and matter, if they are bound together through causation?

Oedipus: Maybe there are different kinds of causation…

Oracle: No. You cannot say that there is causation that rules matter, and another causation that rules the influence of mind on matter and the other way around, but mind itself is not causal. You would need to explain what causes this influence, or you have to deny the law of causality… which you can do, but let us talk about this later… The conclusion should be: there are no two different entities, just one. Mind and matter are not distinguished; they are two sides of the same reality.

Oedipus: But what about if the gods arrange the causation between mind and matter? Wouldn’t this be a different type of causation, since the gods are beyond the laws of nature?

Oracle: What causation would that be: A predestined conformity between the human minds and their wills on the one side, and the deterministic nature on the other side?[7]  This would be an unnecessary doubling into two worlds, although just one is enough. Again, we would have to conclude that there is only one entity.

Oedipus: So far I agree with you. But what if I deny the law of causality?

Oracle: As I pointed out in the beginning of our talk, causality and destination, that is finalism, are very different concepts. Both reveal a deterministic view, causality from the initations and finalism from the ends. In causality, you might need to presuppose a first cause that  initiate the causal chain.[8] In finalism, you need to presuppose final ends. Both is very problematic. You can also be determinist without believing in causality or finalism. But this would lead to a metaphysical determinism, since you cannot argue or find evidence for it.[9] 

Oedipus: A metaphysical determinism doesn’t make sense to me. But since I cannot believe in causality any longer, should I become an indeterminist now?

Oracle: If you want to insist that you have a free mind, you should. But do you really understand what indeterminism shall be? Can you imagine a world that is indeterministic?

Oedipus: Maybe it is difficult, since we are so used to causal laws and regularities. I suppose, it is important to understand that from indeterminism it does not follow that everything happens totally arbitrary. There must be a kind of mechanism that creates the regularities at least approximately.

Oracle: But such a mechanism would presuppose causality of a higher order again.

Oedipus: I’m not sure… we should discuss this point another time… but let me ask you a final question: what does this all mean for me, for my life, for my fate? Is there something like fate?

Oracle: Maybe there is… but we cannot know. Actually there is not a big difference between somebody who believes in fate and somebody who does not. Both try to make the right decisions, pursuing felicity and avoiding harm. People that believe in fate because they are causal determinists are calm and balanced about their future, since they know that they cannot control it. People that believe in fate because they are finalists (in fact they believe in destiny) apply all incidents happening to them to have a meaning, they suggest harm to be a penalty and luck to be gratification, in some sense. I don’t think that this attitude makes them happier. At last, people who don’t believe in fate experience and sense life as a consecutive surprise.

Oedipus: So perhaps I should become an indeterminist…