September 2015

Do we create our own destiny or is it previously determined?

Author: Barry Kaufman & Courtney Hampson | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

Barry Kaufman

I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes the points of contentions over which Courtney and I grapple are somewhat less than earth-shattering. While I still feel passionately about every subject we’ve covered, it’s a rare occasion in which we bubble above mere trivialities and address anything nearing true importance, at least on a cosmic scale.

Until now.

This month, as a lark, I was doing as I always do: spit balling topics to see which one bothered Courtney the most. Ultimately, I wound up firing off the following grapeshot of random subjects: “Baseball Hall of fame inductions? Affleck as Batman? A predetermined universe, or does mankind have free will? Was New Coke really just a conspiracy to introduce HFCS without anyone noticing?”

She could have given us both an easy month and chosen to debate the merits of Batfleck, but instead Courtney decided to go all existential on me and she chose to discuss whether or not we live in a predetermined universe. You know, the usual coffee table fodder. I should have been surprised, but then of course I shouldn’t have, because of course destiny exists. And what’s more, I can prove it scientifically.
Let me put it like this: You’re either a religious person or you’re not. I’m not judging either way, but it’s fair to say you could easily split the world into those two camps and find few stragglers (in fact, I’d be right there with the stragglers, but that’s just because I’m a dashingly roguish loner).

If you’re a religious person, you grapple with the subject of free will, but you probably also ultimately accept that God has a plan. He works in mysterious ways—all that stuff. There’s a whole subgenre of religious writing devoted to free will, but if you consider yourself religious, you eventually cede the point that the guy upstairs has a plan and not a whole lot you do is going to stop it. If you do anything that could be perceived as free will, and it works, it’s simply God working through you. (If you screw it up, the devil made you do it).

But what if you’re not a religious person? What if you put your stock more in the realm of science, in things that you can perceive, understand, quantify, measure and broadcast on PBS? For example, say you’re a hardcore atheist who believes that there is no God—that we’re all just free-formed blobs of electrons, protons and gases formed through a long evolutionary process into men, women and ruggedly handsome magazine columnists. There’s no fate there, just random chance and the free-willed decisions of people bumping into the free-willed decisions of other people.

That could be, but let me ask you this: That free will in your head, it’s just electrical impulses firing between neurons, right? It’s not like there’s a soul there; it’s all particles interacting with one another. To prove that those subatomic particles you call free are proof of a predetermined universe, let me introduce you to something I call The Cheeseburger Example (naming things is not my strong suit).

Let’s say you look at a cheeseburger. You can express free will to eat that cheeseburger or you can express free will to not eat that cheeseburger. Either way, that whole decision was just a bunch of particles reacting to each other in a pre-arranged orchestra.

Because here’s the thing. That cheeseburger, the eyes you used to perceive it, the gray matter in your skull that received those impulses from your eyes, and indeed even the electrical impulses that rippled between them leading to the “yay” or “nay” decision, are all made of particles. As Carl Sagan said, we’re all made of star stuff.

And here’s where I take that cluster of star stuff you call a mind and blow it. Because every particle that exists in that example was all in one place billions of years ago in the moments leading up to the Big Bang. In that brief span, your eyes, your mind and the cheeseburger were all essentially one.

Then: Bang.

Across the void of an unwritten universe they sailed, swirling around the gasses of a star forming, plunging ever onward through the void until they coalesced around a gaseous rock that had not yet begun to cool. As the dinosaurs breathed their last, and empires rose and fell, they traversed this planet until finally they wound up as part of this little dance between you and the cheeseburger and your free will.

They were once in one place, and now they are your thoughts. Also a cheeseburger. And that’s all they were ever going to be. Had their trajectory altered one fraction of an inch, you might be looking at a burrito. Or you might be looking at them through eyes on stalks growing out of your head. Or you might be seeing a cheeseburger, but you’d really be thinking about the upcoming college football season.

If they hadn’t popped out of the Big Bang at precisely that time, velocity and orientation, these particles would not have landed in the right order for you to have decided to eat that cheeseburger (you decided to eat the cheeseburger, didn’t you? Another diet shot to hell). But this is exactly how it happened, and further it’s the only way it could have happened. Because it’s the only way that it did. Any other situation is entirely theoretical.

So if a handful of particles sailing in a predetermined course across billions of miles of space to land in a skull, on a face, and on a plate isn’t destiny, what is it?

Maybe it’s God’s will. Maybe it’s all star stuff blasted across the universe and coming together in the only way it ever could have. Either way, it sounds a lot like a predetermined universe.

Also, Ben Affleck is going to kill it as Batman. Mark my words. 

Courtney Hampson

Does everything happen for a reason? Does the universe have a plan? Is the universe God? Is there a God? So many questions, and I lack answers. And that drives me crazy.

I’ve gone on record, in print, at least twice, once in this very C2 column (against my previous foe) arguing that there is no master plan, no higher power pulling the strings, and the only reason things happen is because we (you and I) make them happen.

In fact, I said, “If there is a master plan, why does bad stuff happen to good people? Why do planes crash? Why do mad men rush into schools and shoot children? Why do dogs only live for a dozen years? Why? Why? Why?”

I am reminded of the stories of survivors of September 11 attacks. Those who, because something unplanned popped up that morning—he had to run his daughter to daycare; she was stuck in traffic due to an accident; it was his turn to pick-up donuts—were late heading to work at the World Trade Center, and as a result didn’t perish. And how each of these “little things,” was a “blessing” that saved their lives. I have a little trouble with that. It makes me wonder what the other 3,000 people, who did lose their lives, did wrong that day to not be “blessed.”

In 1999, I was rushed to the hospital, after weeks of ignoring the nagging pain in my abdomen. Upon arrival, blood work was taken. I can still remember the nurse saying, “Congratulations. You’re pregnant.” But, I knew that congratulations were not in order. Something was not right.

Soon after, I learned that I had an ectopic pregnancy and had actually been internally bleeding for weeks. At this point, the situation was indeed an emergency. The doctor explained that I would need surgery immediately to stop the bleeding.

I don’t think at the time I quite understood what he was saying, but it quickly sunk in that there is no baby, but we need to save your life. The doctor needed my permission to perform the surgery, and I wouldn’t say yes. As he and my parents and my husband tried to reason with me, there was a commotion in the hallway.
A patient had come in via ambulance, flanked by EMTs, and family, and doctors. It was loud and distracting. I can remember my doctor kept looking over his shoulder at the other patient, and back at me as if waiting for me to agree to surgery so he could see how he could help this other patient.

I finally consented to the surgery. And when I woke up, in the ICU, the first thing I did (according to the nurses) was ask about the guy who came into the emergency room right after me. I was told that he had an aneurysm, had survived surgery and was just a few beds away from me. I was relieved for him and his family. And that is really all I thought about while I lay there. Perhaps it was easier to think about him than me. I thought about him a lot.

A month later my mother’s washing machine went on the fritz. The repair guy came and they were making small talk. He went on to tell her that he was just grateful to be alive, and that he’d had an aneurysm about a month ago. Yes, it was the same guy with whom I had shared the emergency room and the ICU, and my mom was quick to tell him that he was the first person I asked about when I awoke from surgery.

So, was that the universe connecting our families for a second time in a month? And if so, why? To teach me that the world doesn’t revolve around me? To teach him that life is precious? To make sure the dirty laundry didn’t pile up while my mom cursed the busted washer?

I have always believed that free will reigns, and I am not afraid to admit that is because I am a control freak. I’ve also written a lot about God and the difficulty I have with grasping the concept of a higher power, because I can’t see it.

Or can I?

I told the hospital story to a friend recently as I was contemplating this column. I would consider this friend religious (of course, compared to me, who isn’t) and asked him flat out: “If there is a God, why would he let me suffer with infertility while thousands of unwanted babies are born every day?” His reply: “Maybe you losing that baby wasn’t about you. Maybe it was about that child.”

Ay yi yi! Now I have even more questions. But, recently, I had a break in the case.

In July, my friend Carrie’s dad died. He’s been fighting cancer for 18 months. It was a vicious battle, but through it all he and she remained faithful and steadfast in their belief that God had a plan. A few days before his death, Carrie talked about the people (who believed they were being well-intentioned and empathetic) when they asked her, “Why would God give your dad cancer?” Or, “Why did God let this happen to your dad? He is so amazing and has two young grandkids.”

Her response was, “That’s hard. It’s hard to hear. It’s hard to think about, simply because it is easier to blame. We want to be angry at the supposed great and all-knowing God, because if he holds all the power, then dammit, he’s decided that my dad, your dad, your babies, don’t deserve healing? If he’s all powerful, then why doesn’t he just… (fix it?)”

She really made me think.

And, I told her that through her faith, she made me, a non-believer, want to believe. To which she replied, “That’s not me making you want to believe; that’s God.”

And you know what? I believed her.

So, what happens when you choose to believe that maybe you can’t control everything? I guess I’ll find out. 

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