Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: Fate vs. Free Will

I have noticed something when watching television or movies and reading books or comics: we humans seem never to know if we would rather believe in free will or fate. If I had to pick I would say that we are more inclined to approve of free will, but fate still seems to be a hard and fast concept that we cling to, and it shows up in much of our pop culture.

It seems to mean that any time the concept of fate is really introduced into a story the author tends to quickly subvert fate with free will. Take, for example, Harry Potter. In book five when Harry learns that a prophecy predicted he would be the only one that could defeat Voldemort he was upset, until Dumbledore pointed out that after everything Voldemort put him through Harry would want to kill him anyway, regardless of what any prophecy says. Furthermore, Dumbledore stresses that Voldemort had had to choose between Harry and Neville (as the boy to potentially kill him) and if Voldemort had ignored the prophecy, then Voldemort’s choice would have ensured that the prophecy would never have come to pass. And finally, in book seven, Harry has to freely choose to sacrifice himself or else Harry might not have survived his encounter with Voldemort. Despite the strong sense of fate, the books make it clear that the characters’ choices, their free will, are what’s important and not some higher cosmic power.

In the TV show Heroes, a painter has the power to see the future and his prophecy tends to be accurate. However, the prophecies also tend to change. Isaac, the prophetic painter, predicts something vague enough that can be interpreted in numerous ways. The tag line in season one of Heroes for a while was “Save the Cheerleader, Save the World.” Isaac constantly draws pictures of serial killer Sylar killing Claire, an immortal cheerleader. Isaac’s pictures show a blonde cheerleader with her head sawed off. However, another character, Peter, saves Claire. So doesn’t Isaac’s prediction hold true? Kind of. Sylar mistakes another blonde cheerleader for Claire, so it could be argued that Isaac’s prediction holds true. However, the characters also have often traveled into the future where they see horrible dystopian-like realities, that are later stopped and changed, no matter what Isaac has predicted. In Heroes, the characters act like your fate is inevitable, unless it’s really bad and they decide to change it. The writers couldn’t seem to decide whether to follow fate or free will.

There are many other examples of course (Supernatural, Oedipus, Brave, Thor, Beowulf, Star Wars, Saiyuki, Doctor Who, Into the Woods, Dark Souls), but this theme of fate versus free will is something that consistently comes up in our pop culture. I think it’s because on some level humanity likes fate. We like the idea that God or some other higher power has a plan in which we play a part, maybe even a starring role. However, we find the notion of being bound to a fate, especially one we may not like, distasteful. We like have autonomy, but we also like the idea of being destined for something great or important.

What do you think? Are our lives governed by some kind of fate, free will, or is it a bit of both?

Tune in next week and get some religion.

4 thoughts on “Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: Fate vs. Free Will

  1. The TV show Haven did an episode devoted to the idea of fate vs free will – S01E10 – and the conclusion at the end of the ep was “screw fate”. It’s along the lines of a psychic seeing the deaths of people – how they die – and the psychic not telling anyone or trying to get help to change the scenarios, and should she have. Also, when she does get help and they stop some deaths/murders is it wrong to interfere in the natural process (everyone has to die, right?), but then again is being murdered part of the “natural process” and does it make a difference if you are stopping a murder and letting a victim of a crime live as opposed to extending the life of an elderly person or someone with cancer. It was an interesting episode. And I agree with their conclusion – screw fate. 🙂

    • I have never been a fan of fate so story lines that give fate all this credit always kind of bothered me. I just don’t understand fate, because if you do believe in a higher power it makes that higher power seem like a jerk. The idea that a higher power would allow people to suffer because it’s fate and those people can’t escape that fate is real unsettling to me. So I love when tv shows say, screw fate.

      I have never seen Haven though. Is it any good?

      • I just started watching Haven this past summer and I like it. There are a lot of continuity errors (which as a rule I abhor and even just one can ruin things for me) but I can forgive them here as I find the characters and the story really compelling. (Bonus – The setting is gorgeous!) For the most part the writers treat the audience like we are intelligent. They don’t tell you something, then show you the same thing, then tell you it again, all in the space of 5 minutes. They leave things for us to suss out and piece together. But you still have to leave a lot of your logical/critical thinking at the door and just accept that there will be plot holes big enough to drive a barge through, things are sewn up way too quickly and neatly, and most of all you have to accept things like this: in order for a scene to be filmed how they wanted it filmed – showing all the people in the room without panning – the only way the shrink could be standing where she was when she screamed means that she stepped over the dead bloody body, turned, faced the doorway and then screamed, which then brought Audrey and Nathan into the room. Which allowed all 4 characters in the scene to be seen clearly in one shot from the doorway. I kept waiting for the positioning of the shrink to have some higher/sinister signifigance but it didn’t. Um, yeah. Anyway, as I said, Haven’s not perfect.
        Haven also covers some familiar territory (Wendigos for starters), but they do it differently than SPN, and to me the ramifications of the situation that these Wendigos find themselves to be in is truly horrifying.
        The thing that keeps me hooked is that I think the lead actress (Emily Rose) is doing a fantastic job of playing a woman who doesn’t initally know that she isn’t who or what she thought she was (what exactly she is hasn’t been made known yet but I see Audrey as almost like a programmed robot or replicant – think Sean Young’s role in Blade Runner) and even from the beginning when no one knows – not the audience, not Audrey – that she isn’t actually the real Audrey Parker she has an awkwardness about her that speaks to her being uncomfortable with herself as herself. Emily Rose plays the dichotomy of Audrey being really good at her job as an FBI agent as well as Audrey being a woman unable to connect on a personnal level with people while still keeping Audrey from being unpersonable or unlikeable. Audrey is a smart, independent, engaging, likeable character. She’s like a blank canvas as a woman, but fully formed as an FBI agent. Audrey’s journey to me is just as much about her establishing a personality for herself as Audrey – learning to love, to trust, to have friends, to relax and live a life outside of work, to decide for herself what her personal, and not programmed, likes and dislikes are – as it is about finding out who and what she actually is.
        Every “Troubled” person Audrey connects with and helps in turn help her to form, mould, create, and give life to this version of Audrey Parker. I am enjoying watching Audrey figure out that she is more than just “her purpose/job/programming”.

        And maybe I just overthink things. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Oh, My Pop-Culture Jesus: Free Will and Personal Responsibility | Lady Geek Girl and Friends

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