The Free Will of Fate

For millennia, and into modern times, religious scholars and philosophers continue to hotly debate the issue of free will versus fate as though the two positions mutually exclude one another.

According to traditional thinking, either:

You believe that you govern your own destiny, or

You believe that your destiny is preordained.

While rigid ideas like this make for tidy philosophical arguments, spirituality rarely conforms to neatness or order.

Strangely, no one seems to give any thought to the notion that both fate and free will coexist without contradiction.

Let’s start with fate.

No reasonable person denies that our physical bodies die fatefully.   Whether we were preordained or willed into existence, whether the choices we make are destined or of our own making, and whether or not we like it, all our lives eventually end in death.  Period.  This benchmark alone makes an irrefutable case that at least one aspect of life (death) is a predetermined certainty—-or “fate.”

From here, things get murky.

It is more of a leap to say that other moments in our lives are also “fated”—-and it’s hard to say which moments these are.  Perhaps your fate includes meeting the love of your life, making a significant contribution to the field of physics, or becoming a parent.

In a way, to believe that fate already predetermined every moment of your life makes living easy.  From this standpoint, there’s nothing to do but float along the shifting tides, drifting hopelessly from one inevitable event to the next.

And yet, to believe all events in life excluding death are the result of your choices is to hold you and everyone around you is personally responsible for all that befalls them.  Which seems pretty uncharitable to me.

What about the middle ground?  Where does it exist?

Let’s presume, for the sake of our discussion here, that death does not stand alone as the only predetermined event in any given person’s life.

Let’s say that other moments also preordain our course.

And let’s make room for the possibility  that unlike the movies, these moments aren’t always especially significant.

Maybe you weren’t fated to meet the love of your life, kissing cinematically in the rain like two fools in a poorly scripted romantic comedy.

Maybe you were simply fated to step on a train at 6 o’clock in the morning on a Sunday of no particular consequence just because fate chose that benchmark for you.  And let’s say that no matter what you did after you got on that train, three months later you were fated to eat breakfast at a particular diner for no particular reason.

Where does free will come into play?

The answer is, if free will exists, it exists in the time between fated events.  Fate says you step on the train at 6 o’clock in the morning on a Sunday of no particular consequence.  Fate says you eat breakfast three months later at a particular diner for no particular reason.

But you say what happens in between.

Did you get off the train and jump on the first flight to Paris?  Enroll in college?  Paint a canvas?  Go to jail?  Join the circus?  Learn conversational Turkish?

Or did you live every day of that three months going back and forth from your apartment to the job you’ve hated for ten years, so consumed by your routine that every spice of the world around you evaded your taste for living?

Even if death really is the only moment in your existence that binds you to fate, free will still exists within its fated perimeters.

The acceptance that some things happen, and will happen, no matter what, does not necessarily confound the notion that one is free to negotiate the path leading to these events any way one sees fit.

Negotiate, people.


  1. You make a good point about the fate of death being certain, but what should be considered fate should not be “tokenated” but typified, that is, rather than fate being these particular things, it is more apt to say that fate is one’s nature (as I understand it). A passage in the Zhuangzi describes a Cook Ting who no longer cuts meat by feeling but by spirit. He moves around the joints with ease because, within the confines of the carcass, he makes his own room to cut perfectly, like fate and free will.

  2. In New Testament Greek there are two words for time: KAIROS and KHRONOS. In a nutshell, kairos is the fullness of time, those “God moments” that have the Divine’s handwriting all over them. Some may call them fate. Khronos are minutes, hours, etc. They are the day to day choices we make as we go about our lives. They have a connection to free will. Our lives are a dance between kairos and khronos moments, much like the dance between fate and free will. Perhaps it’s our job to discern which one we’re a part of in any given moment. Good post!

    1. Thank you, that’s so interesting! I’ve never heard this before. I really love being part of an open spiritual community, you never know when someone is going to gift you with a little gem like that.

  3. These lines stood out to me: “And yet, to believe all events in life excluding death are the result of your choices is to hold you and everyone around you is personally responsible for all that befalls them. Which seems pretty uncharitable to me.” You summarized one of my most serious issues with the idea of fate and free will. I see it as dangerous to believe in a fated life. It allows us to give up. However, to believe we all have control of everything and must take the credit or blame for each event is to cancel out the agency of those around us. This argument for the middle ground, or even moments of kairos and khronos as David from the comment above feel more useful as a context for a purposeful but graceful life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *