I haven’t studied the distinctions of “fate” and “destiny” in classical philosophy or literature, but fate seems always to devolve to “ultimate” fate, while destiny is more open to interpretation, arrival at success, failure, or other destinations. It was interesting to note that a recent issue of Granta magazine, #129 – Autumn 2014, which posed the theme of “Fate” to an intellectually resistent culture, boiled down mostly to considerations of death, and, somewhat more malleably, gender. Fate, in its finality, is not an interesting functional concept, though it may come as a consolation in hindsight. In keeping with my theory of right, wrong, and functional answers, where it may be the best course to act on a functional, wrong answer, fate is the non-functional, right answer that others ascribe afterward as inescapable.
On this argument, death should not be considered one’s fate. “Apres-moi, le deluge” may be a worry, but not an excuse. How pointless and unfair to think that at death one’s karmic account is closed, and the balance written off. How differently we will behave in this life if we believe the ethical implications of our actions remain with us into the next. The functionality of this belief, wrong as it may be, is obvious. Further, belief about survival of death has functionality only, since it can never be proved wrong to the person who holds it.
However, my belief in survival of death is not based on logical deduction or choice, but on bits and pieces of experience. My mother, and her parents before her, were spiritualists. In light of that, the lead story in that Granta issue, “Domain” by Louise Erdrich, was specially interesting. I had already speculated, without resorting to the geographies of revealed religion or the imponderables of fourth and fifth dimensions, that a metaphor for the realm of surviving spirits is provided by unscientific notions of the internet as a placeless, simultaneous galaxy of connection and communication, like the “cloud” we imagine somewhere that holds our web-pages and e-mail archives. Another suggestive aspect is to remember that the air around us is at all times electric with radio communications, layers and layers of wavelengths carrying a cacaphony of broadcasts and personal messages. As Aldous Huxley adduced in “Doors of Perception”, most of the time our senses are set to filter out the preponderance of this noise that isn’t relevant to our moment-to-moment coping with reality.
In “Domain” this realm is brought down to earth with characteristically human engineering mechanics and capitalist motivations, decanting experience from brain cells at an arranged death and lodging it both personally and cumulatively in computer servers. Trust science-fiction to give concrete form to our most imaginative suspicions.
Metaphor can drift in any direction: it might be argued that our spirits survive in the aggregation of memories of the people that glimpsed, met, or knew us – more reasonable if less reassuring, a kind of psychic minimum position. A reconciliation of those memories may help to establish the appropriateness of our fate. Even if such a judgement is the only residue, it’s still worth it to work toward improving.
Is there a case for disbelieving in survival of death, leaving us free to try to get away with whatever we can in this life without fear of retribution, whether to benefit ourselves or others who may survive our departure? It’s a broader question not addressed in the story “Domain”. Those “others who may survive” whom we care about, constitute a kind of survival for us, on whom we should bestow a more respectable inheritance. And as for acting unethically for our own short-term benefit in this life, we should want to be really sure there is no survival. Certainty about that is witheld by the evidentiary limits on religious belief and secondhand spiritualist testimony. All of it tends the other way, but it is possible to doubt, and in that intellectual space remains the dialectic of ethical choice, and the relegation of fate – as much as “accident” – to a superficial consolation.