To what extent do you have “fate?” And no, I’m not talking about free will and determinism. I mean the expectation that your experiences are going to follow a certain trajectory. You can experience a bit of existential dread: you are not the character of a movie or novel, and nothing is going to happen to you just because that’s what happens in a novel, or because it would make a novel more interesting, or to give the novel closure, etc. Furthermore, you are not destined to live some archetypal life; no experience is going to happen to you because it’s a common experience, or seen as an important experience for one’s life, or even necessary. Finally, according to an atheist worldview, nothing is going to happen to you because God has a plan for your life.
Instead, the universe, nature, the physical world, is cruel and heartless down to its core. It does not care if you never get what you want, never accomplish your dreams, never experience a certain thing or go to a certain place, for the rest of your life. It doesn’t care if you get terminal cancer and die in two months, or even if you get a brain aneurysm and die tomorrow. In fact, that happens to many people. And all your screaming that “I should get XYZ, at least a certain amount, because I deserve it”, or all of your planning things out in detail in your mind, is not going to change the universe’s mind, which it doesn’t even have.
But then again, in the modern world, you do kind of have fate, because of statistics. You can rest confidence in the law of large numbers: “if I apply for hundreds of jobs, 2% will give me offers” or “if I apply to a dozen universities, 35% will give me offers” or “if I very skillfully execute ten start-ups, 1% will get to a half-billion-dollar evaluation, which still puts my chances at 10%, but it’s worth it” or “if I talk with / flirt with / ask out hundreds of women, 1% will fall for me” (although that statement will get you labeled a “pickup artist”), or “if I practice [skill XYZ] over the internet 2 hours a day (whether it be a game, a foreign language, whatever), then within a year I’ll be a pro at it,” and so on for showbiz auditions, political power, scientific discoveries, etc.
The above statements only work because they take advantage of scale. The modern world is so large and interconnected that we can treat it as if the number of outlets (job postings, universities, women to approach, etc.) is for all intents and purposes infinite. There are a few notable exceptions related to quality: e.g., the number of top 10 universities in the US is, well, only 10, by definition. But not in other cases, e.g., the number of women who you find attractive is practically infinite. You can take advantage of the size of the world.
So far, I have mainly focused on what I call “mega-games,” or competitions for the basest and most sought-after resources on the planet: money, status, sexual status, power. These things enthrall the world. However, the same logic applies to smaller games, in keeping with the broader definition of “game” as any competitive activity.
Certainly, the chance of success is not the same for all people. For one, there are differences in genetics and upbringing. To stick to more uncontroversial examples: some body types are genetically better for certain sports, or more widely considered attractive, some people are naturally better singers, etc. You may find yourself limited by these constraints, such that increasing scale (number of attempts/applications) has little effect unless you also change your standards. People/groups that do approvals/rejections are not statistically independent variables; they are correlated in their decision-making. You are not going to get accepted to more universities simply by applying to more if you restrict yourself to the types of universities that all have the same criteria for (not) accepting you. Instead, you will have to apply to less selective universities. You use scale to discover your “glass ceiling” with high confidence but not necessarily break it. While this sounds bleak, it at least does not have the existential angst of this essay’s first two paragraphs. You are limited not by pure chance, but by who you are, i.e., by your genetic and physiological limitations, which is something that you can surmise in advance, and therefore adjust your expectations accordingly so as to not be let down with a disappointing life.
The next reasonable thing to ask about is the pre-modern world, when transportation was slower, and therefore the world was limited. My theory is that at that time people were more heavily designated into hereditary roles. Let’s go through each of the four “mega-games” I listed, one by one. Money: it was earned through the family trade in the case of craftsmen, or garnered through inherited land in the case of the aristocracy, or circumscribed by class in the case of peasants. Status: aristocratic titles or other status designations were inherited through families, but family names could also carry prestige (or lack thereof) without official titles attached. Sex: arranged marriages were much more common, and people married within their own classes, with extremely formalized courting customs. Power: largely the same deal as status, as there was less of a separation between economic power (what I call money) and political power (what I just call power) in the past.
Clearly, the mechanism for achieving things was much different between pre-modern and modern society. However, the effect in terms of “destiny” is the same; people could anticipate their achievements to some extent in advance of them happening, either by knowing their family name, or sizing up their genetics, or determining their conviction. This isn’t to say that you ever knew perfectly what was going to happen in either time period, only that it followed from the inputs, rather than being left to chance.
In keeping with the tradition of this blog, I want to address how God plays into this. You might assume that what I have described above could be viewed, or could have been viewed, as destiny as chosen by God. However, I believe the opposite is the case. In my observation, aristocrats and modern people, those whose lives are the most “destined,” are empirically less likely to be religious than common folk and ancient people, whose lives were more dictated by chance according to the logic I’ve given. God, therefore probably more than the alternative, occupies the space of unpredictability. Meaning, He helps people cope with the existential dread arising from randomness and lack of control. Due to the cold and uncaring nature of the universe, with good and bad things happen spontaneously and senselessly, the narratives associated with God can help people make sense of it, e.g., “my broken leg is part of God’s plan for me.” This solution would be most appealing in “intermediate” townships: modern enough that lives are not heavily dictated by birthright, but isolated/small-scale enough (small towns for example) that one cannot easily exploit the effects of scale.