Billions of dollars are spent each year in an attempt to live longer lives. We are told that, with the right diet and dietary supplement, medication, exercise regimen, attitude, and body weight, we can extend our lives beyond our wildest dreams. Aging and death are the failed outcomes of a poor longevity strategy.
Then you hear about someone following all the proper protocols for long life who die at a young age from cancer or some other disease. It almost shakes your faith in your ability to live longer by doing all the right things. But you assume that that person must have somehow gotten off the health bandwagon. Maybe it was genetic.
Then you hear about people who are over 100 years old who still smoke and drink and eat all the wrong foods. How could they survive their lifestyle, and even thrive? By all rights and reason, you insist, they should be dead.
Few things are more demoralizing to dedicated health enthusiasts than hearing about apparently healthy people dying young and apparently sick people living to be very old. We assume that living a healthy lifestyle will extend your life. Are our assumptions about a healthy lifestyle all wrong, or is there something more to longevity than health?
Is fate a factor in fatality?
Despite modern science and rationality, many people still believe in fate. People like to believe that their lives have meaning and purpose that is defined by a deity. So long as that deity is considered to be benevolent, one can take solace in the belief that everything that happens is meant to happen. Thus, when someone dies, calling it a fatality conjures up the thought of a fate that is determined by some deity.
The concept of fate is an old one, which precedes modern rationalism and self-determination. Are we masters of our own fate, able to affect how long we live? Or has a deity already sealed our fate and the moment our lives will end?
Answering these questions scientifically is not easy. For example, you can take a group of people and feed them health food and supplements for the rest of their lives and compare them to another group which gets no supplements, and see which group lives longer. You may find that the supplement group indeed lived longer. But, to those who believe in fate, that does not prove that the cause of the increased longevity was the better diet. It could be that the individuals in that group were meant to live longer, and were therefore selected for that study’s group by fate.
The only way to prove that we can lengthen life by adopting certain health strategies is to study one person as both the test subject and the control subject. Take that person and give him the longevity treatment, and follow him his entire life to see exactly how long he lives. This is the
test result. You would then need to bring that person back to life, send him back in a time machine to the exact time the first treatment was started, but this time give him no special treatment. This is the control result. Does he die at exactly the same time the second time around?
Of course, if you have a time machine you could theoretically avoid this issue of longevity by going back in time over and over. On the other hand, if fate is a fact, then your repeated lives would be the same. You wouldn’t be able to change your life each time you lived it because its path and outcome are pre-determined.
That’s the problem with the concept of fate. Whatever happens can be called fateful, and you can’t argue about it because there are no alternative paths to relive to test for alternative outcomes. You can’t really go back in time to try to test fate, unless, of course, you were fated to go back in time to test fate, in which case your results would have been fated.
However, the concept of fate has some benefits. Whenever something bad happens, it is comforting to conclude that it was meant to happen, that we could not have stopped it from happening. We don’t have to feel responsible. Cause and effect need not apply when fate lends a hand.
Indeed, fate can challenge the chain of causality. While science can try to determine the sequential link between certain outcomes and their causes, fate can break that chain and deliver a shocking and surprising outcome. There are always variables which have not been considered when conducting an experiment on cause and effect, leading to an unexpected result.
For example, we know that applying the brake should slow down a car and make it stop. That’s a simple cause and effect relationship. But if the brakes fail, and the car hits somebody, we can either assume there was another causal factor that was not considered, or we can assume that it was fate that caused the person to be hit.
Scientists would argue that fate had nothing to do with the brakes failing, and would look for physical explanations for the brake failure. But fatalists would conclude that the failure, regardless of the physical cause, was meant to happen at exactly that time because it was fated.
This means that the cause and effect of science is really operating along different lines than the issue of fate. Science can explain the mechanism by which things happen, but fate explains why they happen.
Science is very bad at giving answers to the questions of why things happen. “Why” is a term that implies purpose and meaning. Science explains how, not why. Scientists live in a physical world of cause and effect, where things happen according to universal laws of reality. Why those laws exist, or why existence exists, is not a scientific question. It’s answer assumes a purposefulness and consciousness outside of the reality scientists study.
Why do people die when they do? Healthcare science can tell you how they died. It can propose mechanisms for letting people live longer lives, based on scientific understanding of cause and effect. But when things don’t go the way they were expected to go, scientists cannot
tell you why. They will just assume that there were variables they did not consider, or that their knowledge is not yet developed enough to know.
But people want to know why. They want to know why, when they do all the right things, things can still go horribly wrong. And they want to know why, when they do all the wrong things, things can still go surprisingly well. Fate is a convenient answer.
The problem, though, is that believing in fate can have fatal consequences. There are cases of religious fanatics allowing their children to choke to death because they believed it was God’s will. Why struggle against fate and God’s will? More generally, if our lives are determined by fate, then what purpose is there for self-directed action?
If we are fated to live long lives, then theoretically we could do anything and still live. We could eat bad food, risk our lives doing dangerous things, and still live another day because our time to die has not yet come. While this may seem as tempting fate, a true fatalist would see that fate is not something you can tempt, since fate is already signed, sealed, and delivered by God. If you could tempt fate, then fate would be mutable, and no longer fate.
While there seems to be a conflict between fate and science, ironically science has shown that those who believe in fate have greater longevity. Having faith and belonging to a faith-based group has been scientifically shown to add years to one’s life. Letting go and letting God lead the way by having faith in one’s fate is a successful longevity strategy.
Who has a greater lifespan, a person following a scientifically-defined healthcare regimen, or a person who believes that it’s all in God’s hands? The answer is unclear, but whatever strategy you choose may already be determined, or not.
Mr. Singer, you always play the devil’s advocate and that’s a good thing.
Re your comment about the ” 100 years old who still smoke and drink and eat all the wrong foods” there is an explanation. My friend Brad Willcox has done research here in Hawaii on the so called “longevity gene” FOXO 3 which seems to protect people from all kinds of bad behavior (if you have the right variant).
Just a thought.
Hi Robert. Of course, the question is whether it is a matter of fate that one has the longevity gene variant.
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