The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.1176 Wednesday, 2 June 2004
 From: Pamela Richards <
Date: Tuesday, 1 Jun 2004 10:07:57 -0700 (PDT)
Subj: Fate Vs. Free Will
 From: David Cohen <
Date: Tuesday, 1 Jun 2004 14:54:23 -0500
Subj: Re: SHK 15.1168 The Murder of Gonzago
From: Pamela Richards <
Date: Tuesday, 1 Jun 2004 10:07:57 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: Fate Vs. Free Will
David Cohen has made some interesting observations about fate versus
free will with reference to augury. I realized that in my response to
him, my terminology is probably somewhat confusing, so perhaps it makes
sense for me to attempt to clarify the words I'm using and what I mean
by them in more detail.
I see several viewpoints being represented:
1) Current day thinking on Free Will vs. Fate
2) David's ideas about Free Will vs. Fate
3) My viewpoint on Free Will vs. Fate, which I am attempting to use as
a closer model of the Renaissance viewpoint (since I'm using examples of
my experience of a form of augury practiced during the Renaissance).
I submit that David's viewpoint and mine may be closer than he imagines,
once we get past the rhetoric and examine the mechanics of fate a little
I think we might have to clear up point number one first, since most of
us are probably starting with
these presuppositions; some may take them for granted, and others may
never have thought of them consciously.
This is just a working model, and I'm certainly open to suggestions or
corrections, but it seems most people in our culture currently have this
sort of thinking:
A. "Free will" means, "If I believe it will happen, I can make it
B. If you, using augury, contradict my belief in my ability to bring
about an event by making a contrary prediction, you are preventing the
exercise of my free will.
C. Fate (or at least belief in it, combined with a contradictory
prediction) prevents free will.
D. Augury in itself prevents or causes events.
E. I am no longer accountable for the outcome of predicted events.
I will leave it up to David to define what he means by these terms, and
how he sees them fitting together.
To contrast this with an augerer's thoughts about free will vs. fate:
A. "Free will" is a person's exercise of their ability to make a
choice. It frequently is modulated by a person changing their mind
about a course of action, or deciding to try a different approach.
B. To truly exercise "free will" to the point of bringing an event to
pass, the chooser must maintain constant interest in the event and not
lose intention to carry it out.
C. The outcome of the choice may be other than what the chooser intended.
D. The choice itself and its outcome can normally be predicted with a
high degree of accuracy, allowing for human error.
E. It does not matter if the person for whom you make a prediction
about knows the prediction or not; the outcome will be the same.
F. There is no guarantee that the person exercising "free will" will be
happy once they have what they said they wanted, with or without a
G. The person who uses their free will is responsible for their own
choices in the matter, with or without a prediction.
H. Fate is what makes it possible for us to make predictions. Without
it, predictions would never be valid. Nearly all events are fated.
I. Augury is like looking in a mirror that shows us the past, the
present, and the future. We often use references to events in the
recent past to demonstrate to the person who asked for a prediction that
we have reliable information. This does not make us responsible for
their actions in the past, just as if we had viewed them on a video
monitor would not make us responsible for what they did on the screen.
The same is true of their future actions.
J. "Fate", augury, or prediction can be of some limited value in
deciding whether or not try to do
something. Yet, even if you have an accurate prediction that you will
get what you wanted, you will still need to figure out in detail how to
bring it about, and work at it consistently. No fairy is going to drop
from the ether to wave her wand over you and make it happen. If you
lose interest in the matter, it is highly unlikely to happen. Each of
these choices are yours to make. But they can be predicted.
I hope that helps clarify some of the differences between how an augurer
views fate vs. free will, and how many people I meet seem to view those
From: David Cohen <
Date: Tuesday, 1 Jun 2004 14:54:23 -0500
Subject: 15.1168 The Murder of Gonzago
Comment: Re: SHK 15.1168 The Murder of Gonzago
Pamela Richards <
>David Cohen writes:
>>Consider: Two 30-year-old
>>identical twins separated at birth and raised in
>>different countries were asked about their personal
>>habits. Interviewed separately, they both proved
>>to be compulsively neat . . . In what sense did those twins have free
>>what sense do we? Simply talking about choices is not
>>proof of free will, for we can imagine a far-separated
>>identical twin, adoptively reared in different
>>environments yet making the same choices. Where's the
>>free will in that?"
>Are we to infer that because they follow distinctly similar patterns
>with regard to tidiness and cleanliness, that these two individuals have
>never had to make a choice that will affect their lives?
No, of course not. It's just that this example, used as a model for
thinking about human behavior, more generally, suggests that there may
be far less free will in our choices-not to mention our human qualities,
e.g., personality traits, IQ, and the rest-than we think, or more
direct, that our (common) sense of free will is an illusion.
>cleanliness are only one small part of a person's life. There are many
>other choices human beings are called on to make in addition to this
>one. And although these individuals may seem inflexible in this one
>area, does that necessarily mean they are completely incapable of any
>degree of change in other areas?
You seem to be mixing choices, personality traits (compulsion)
personal(ity) development, and free will. Individuals make all sorts of
choices in response to life's exigencies; they also change as they
mature physically (the brain continues to develop throughout life) and
develop psychologically. Ask any parent of, for example, a sweet child
who, passing through the "puberty pipeline," has turned monster with
drugs, antisocial friends, etc. They also change as a consequence of
the consequences of their choices. Whether any of this, including
choices, indicates free will or determinism is another question and, as
I see it, inconclusive.
On the other hand, the beauty of twin and adoption findings-genetically
identical twins, even if reared apart with different parents in
different social settings, nevertheless wind up so similar in so many
ways, while adoptively related (genetically unrelated) siblings with the
same parents and thus similar parenting nevertheless wind up in many
ways as different as strangers-is that you get quasi-definitive answers
to the question of genetic influence, all of which has an obvious
bearing on the question of free will. (Incidentally, perhaps even more
interesting than evidence of heritability is evidence that differences
in NORMAL parenting make hardly a difference to how children turn out in
many traits of personality, intelligence, talent, interests, addictions,
liabilities, preferences, etc. If any of this interests you, you might
take a look at "Stranger in the Nest" (Wiley, 1999) or for a lighter and
quicker treatment, written for parents, "Where Did THAT Child Come
From!" (Templegate, 2003)
>>"I appreciate the dignity part, but I don't understand
>>the God part. Perhaps the Renaissance Humanists were
>>insufficiently aware of substantial heritability of
>>traits, though the evidence within their own families
>>was right in front of their noses. Incidentally, the
>>heritabilities, though high are not 100%, which leaves
>>room for prenatal influences as well as social
>>conditioning(e.g., from parents) and current
>>exigencies (e.g., from peers). But there is no more
>>free will in such external influences than in the
>>internal (genetic, prenatal)
>I think I must be off the point. Have I made an erroneous assumption?
>Are we talking about what Shakespeare or Hamlet could have believed, or
>are we talking about your own beliefs?
We were talking about your beliefs, at least I thought so, as well as
Renaissance Humanists or perhaps Hamlet.
>Or may we grant that Shakespeare
>and Hamlet lived in a different time of history than you and I do, were
>exposed to different teachings and experiences, and were themselves
>subject to a whole host of environmental factors that no longer exist?
>>"The business of how all this relates to God seems to
>>me an entirely different matter, of faith."
>If this is how you see the matter, or even how you and I both see it, we
>still cannot extrapolate from it how Shakespeare or Hamlet viewed God's
>will, man's free will, and fate in the face of augury.
Well, I disagree. For instance, Shakespeare's belief that nobility of
character is highly heritable-of course, he would not have put it this
way-is evident in the two "adoption studies" (I hope you note the
quotation marks around those words, adoption studies), one in
"Cymbelene," and one in "The Winter's Tale." However, even if you were
right, then it would be appropriate that we try to understand and
appreciate each other's views on the really big questions like free will
versus determinism that Shakespeare's work raises. Thus my poor attempt
at clarifying points and specific questions.
>>"I would love to know how you know what is "clearly
>>fated" (choice is not evidence of fate or free will),
>>or what you mean by :"permitted a choice"? Permitted
>>by what: genes, circumstances, God?"
>I think perhaps I would be more fair to you to withdraw that statement,
>as it is based on an experience which you do not share. Just as your
>understanding of psychology and sociology is based on experiences which
>I do not share, and is not pertinent to the issue at hand.
I like to think that my understanding is based not just on personal
experience, but on empirical evidence and falsifiable ideas ("theories,"
if you like)-ideas that, if false, can be discovered to be false-in
other words, ideas that are objectively testable. I admit, there is a
certain satisfaction that may seem like arrogance in a belief that one's
ideas are rooted in objective evidence, but also, I hasten to say, a
proper humility in knowing that those ideas are vulnerable.
>But, on the other hand, perhaps it would be cowardly of me to back down
>on that statement now, and unfair to you in another sense. Since the
>topic is augury and not psychology, I will put my short-lived reputation
>as a person who loves logic on this august list right on the line and
>tell you what I meant.
>I practice astrology, of the variety that was most commonly used in the
>time of Shakespeare. I consider it a form of augury. By looking at the
>positions of the planets on the chart . . .
I assume that, by astrology, you include the description of personality
as well as the art of prediction. I also assume that the validity of
the one depends on the validity of the other, or put it another way,
that both personality description and prediction are two legs upon which
astrology stands. I don't know about the astrological augury you do, so
let me ask you to resolve a problem I've had about the astrological
approach to personality: Fifteen centuries ago Saint Augustine
challenged the belief that personality can be read in the planetary
alignment at a person's birth. The great fifth-century theologian had
his hands full, for as historian Will Durant notes, people accepted, for
example, that, "persons born under the ascendancy of Saturn would be
cold, cheerless, saturnine; those born under Jupiter, temperate and
jovial . . . ." Thus, to have a proper horoscope, to observe the hour,
required knowing the precise moment of birth and the precise position of
But, argued Augustine, if astrological alignments were truly important,
how can fraternal twins born at almost the same moment be as different
as any two siblings born in different seasons? [The Church father was
correct, according to everything we know about fraternal twins.] Citing
the biblical case of Esau and Jacob, he wrote: "Now there was such a
difference in their lives and characters, such divergence in their
actions, such disparity in the affection of their parents, that these
discrepancies turned them into mutual enemies. [Furthermore,] one of
those twins was a paid servant, the other was not; one was loved by his
mother, the other was not; one lost that position which in those days
was counted a great honor, while the other acquired it. Besides, what a
vast difference between their wives, their sons, the whole setting of
How does an astrologer deal with the logic of St Augustine's argument?
>In working with figures of the stars, my experience is that in our day
>and age, most people seem to believe that their "free will" means that
>they can decide what they want . . .
Actually, this is indeed one meaning of free will-being free of other
people's will. But someone who has free will in this sense (the
psychopath has the most, given his indifference to others), does not
necessarily have free will in the sense of freedom from the determinism
of inner and external influences on the brain development that underlies
an individual's qualities. In this sense, a psychopath has no more free
will-or no less-than anyone else.
>. . . and as long as they want it intensely
>enough, they will get it, and live happily ever after. I'm not sure how
>this idea has crept into our society. It's like a little sister to the
>"fairy tale ending." I think you and I would be in agreement that this
>resembles some sort of delusion: I don't know what the psychological
>description of this is, but "magical thinking" comes to mind.
I agree with this, and yes, magical is correct. It IS a kind of
delusional thinking, but quite common.
>Now I know these individuals cannot buy into this fairy tale entirely,
>or why would they ask me for a prediction? So perhaps on a different
>level of consciousness they know this "if I want it bad enough, my 'free
>will' will make it happen" wish is not true. But people in our culture
>certainly seem to want to believe it.
>Now I will grant you that I see a far greater number of charts which
>involve "percieved" free will than I see charts which involve actual
>free will. The conditions that indicate actual free will in the stars
>simply do not happen very often. I'd say about 1% of the time. Perhaps
>that's not even statistically significant.
Perhaps it is an illusion. In any case, what you have just said
suggests that free will is almost non-existent, unless you are talking
about something I never heard of: "actual free will in the stars." I
mean, is there free will not in the stars? It is always helpful to give
an example of what you mean. Exactly what indicators in your charts
would suggest that a person has free will or not, and why would you
think that some people have more of it than others? Of course, it would
seem important at first to define what you mean by free will. I have
suggested that there are two kinds: one we might call "psychopathic
"-freedom from others' wills-the other a "seraphic" kind-freedom from
the internal/biological influences that shape brain function, and
external/social influences that condition behavior. The common sense of
the one is that we can do what we want, despite all; the common sense of
the other is that we are free spirits.
>The point I am making about "free will" is this: just because a
>decision is made and something is ardently hoped for, does not guarantee
>that even if it happens, the outcome will be desirable . . .
I don't see how these two additional factors-desirability of outcome and
my (or your) feelings about all this-advance our understanding of our or
the Humanists' view of free will.
>. . . At the same
>time, although you may think what I am saying sounds "grim", it was a
>commonly-held belief in the time of Renaissance Humanism that it was the
>act of making the decision itself that ennobles us--not its outcome, or
>how pleased we are with it. And we all make many, many choices, the
>outcome of which may be fated, or not. If we can apply that thinking,
>it's a no-lose situation. That's why the Renaissance Humanist finds
>mankind so inspiring; and why, even in the face of what is likely to be
>a poor outcome, he can find serenity.
You seem to agree with the Renaissance Humanists (forgive me if you
don't agree with them) that making choices is a sign of free will, and
thus of human dignity, when making choices may be highly determined by
inner (genetic; prenatal) and external; (parenting, peer influence,
etc.) influences of which the individual has no consciousness. Yet, I
see nothing in any of this that should diminish one's awe regarding
human nature, one's perception of dignity in choice-making, and of
course, the inspiration that comes from discovering Shakespeare's
capacity to illuminate human experience.
>A Humanist believes that to make a choice is to be given the power to
>transform our very selves.
Yes, but we are still ourselves despite our choices and the consequences
that change us.
>To his great consolation, if Hamlet was a Humanist, he probably thought
>of the afterlife in a very different way than most of us do. With all
>of his talk about vengance, damning, and killing without shriving, if
>Hamlet was a true Humanist, he believed that humans are capable of
>choice, change, and transformation even in the afterlife.
>As for Macbeth, . . . he would have made the same choices with the
witches, or without
>them. Inevitability does not negate responsibility: either way, they
>were still his choices to make. The workings of his conscience and
>will, however faulty those instruments were nor how inflated by pleasing
>prediction, happened in his own soul, not in anyone else's. No one else
>needs to be responsible for them.
I agree with all of this, which is consistent with the evidence I
mentioned above. Still, we must have the witches!
>There was a famous astrologer who published a prediction of the Great
>Fire of London (1666) about twenty years in advance, down to the year
>and month . . .
How many people predicted otherwise? Without knowing the answer, the
"prediction" can just as well be considered a fluke as a true "hit."
Here's a little thought experiment. One hundred astrologers make a
prediction that there will be a big fire in London (a no brainer, given
all the wooden buildings), each picking a date from 1656 to 1676. Isn't
one of them likely to get the right date? Imagine the same "experiment"
with physicians or professors. The point: anecdotes illuminate ideas
and stimulate thought; they can't prove anything.
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