Rowling on Destiny

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J.K. Rowling did an interview recently with a Dutch newspaper, and it included (among a lot of other things) her thoughts on destiny and free will. (For those who care about spoilers, you might not want to look at the interview or read the rest of this post.)

I have to confess that I'm a little disappointed in her response. She's very smart and well-informed about intellectual matters. But I have to wonder if she presents a false dilemma on this issue, and I'm not even sure the view she expresses here fits well with the books she wrote.

Your books are about the battle between good and evil. Harry is good. But is Voldemort pure Evil? He is also a victim.

He is a victim, indeed. He is a victim, and he has made choices. He was conceived by force and under the influence of a silly infatuation, While Harry was conceived in love; I think the conditions under which you were born form an important fundament of your existence. But Voldemort chose evil. I've been trying to point that out in the books; I gave him choices.

So far so good. It's important to distinguish between being forced into good or evil because of what happens to be true about your conception and making choices. This still doesn't say anything about the metaphysical status of free will. A libertarian will hold that these choices can't be caused by prior events if they're to be free, and a compatibilist will allow that they might be caused by prior events while still being free, because the distinction here is between being forced into something no matter what your own choices would be (merely because of the circumstances of your conception) and making choices (which doesn't yet say anything about whether those choices have explanations and if so what the explanations are).

But where she goes from here is what I find problematic: 

 

That's what it constantly about: Do things go the way they are destined, or do you make your own choices?

I believe in free will. Of those that, like us, are in a privileged situation at least. For you, for me; people who are living in western society, people who are not repressed, who are free. We can choose. The things go largely like you want them to go. You control your own life. Your own will is extremely powerful. The way I write about professor Trelawney the particularly inadequate divination teacher, say a lot about how I think about destiny. I did a lot of research into astrology for her character. I found it all highly amusing, but I don't believe in it.

Now one point she's making here is pretty insightful. Those who have more privileges have more options. That's not exactly a deep metaphysical point about free will, though. It again doesn't separate libertarians and compatibilists. What she doesn't say is that she has a lot more options than most of us (and than she used to before she hit paydirt with this series).

But I think she takes it a bit too far when she says that we can pretty much decide how things will go. Really? There are quite a lot of things that aren't remotely in my control that significantly affect the course of my life. I can do what I can to try to get a good philosophy job, but if the schools I'm applying to don't think my project is as good as I and my adviser and committee do, then they may not be interested in my research, and if there just happen to be enough more-qualified people I'm simply out of luck. I can be pretty good at predicting the consequences of my actions and still get it wrong, even so wrong that I end up causing a huge disaster without ever having been able to predict that I would do so. We have some control over things that affect our health but very little over whether we have a genetic predisposition to some nasty ailment that will seriously affect our health for half of our live. There's a narrow range of things we can control, but I wouldn't say that we can pretty much guarantee how our lives are going to go.

You can say everything I just said while accepting a libertarian view of freedom. The problem I'm raising isn't about the metaphysics of free will. It's simply an observation that we don't have freedom about a lot of things that can seriously affect the course of our lives. The metaphysical debate about free will is over what it amounts to. Compatibilists think we make choices that can be explained in terms of prior states of ourselves, and libertarians think such an explanation means we're not free. Both accept that we make real choices, and both can allow that there are lots of things that affect our lives that aren't really up to us. So I'm not sure why even a radical libertarian view would lead her to take such an unrealistic view of our autonomy.

Furthermore, I think her Trelawney example is inapt. Professor Trelawney is a superstitious woman who regularly makes vague predictions based on silly things that really have nothing to do with why people act. It's clear from how it's presented that Rowling doesn't think much of astrology and such things. But the problem with those things is that what the predictions are based on is simply unrelated to why people act. Her negative portrayal of that kind of thing is consistent with thinking that there is one correct outcome and with someone actually knowing what that outcome is. She points out her presentation of Trelawney as if it demonstrates the silliness of prophecy in general (at least prophecy taken as a genuine indicator of what will happen). But it does no such thing. What she spoofs there is a certain kind of method of knowing the truth about the future, not the very idea of it.

Now she does have the Dumbledore character indicate that he doesn't think even genuine prophecies are guaranteed to happen. We now find out that this is her own view (as I suspected it was when I first read that from Dumbledore):

But the fact that the prophecy from book five becomes true in the end is because Voldemort and Harry chose to let it come true. Not because it is destined to. The Macbeth idea: the witches tell Macbeth what will happen and he then continues to make it happen.

But it's not clear at all within the text that Rowling works things out to fit with the Dumbledore view. One reason I say this is that the one instance we see of time travel actually fulfills the past. The characters who time travel seem to think they can change the past by saving the life of two other characters, but there's no reason to think they actually change anything. When you read the section describing the events "the first time around", there's nothing inconsistent with what you know from "the second time around". What this seems to present is a case where it's already true what the time travelers are going to do (because it already happened) and yet they make choices to do those things. This doesn't seem to me to fit well with Rowling's way of describing destiny and free will. She speaks as if making choices is mutually exclusive from there being some destiny that you have, but in a time travel case when you fufill what already happened it seems you are fulfilling a destiny and choosing to do so.

The MacBeth analogy seems to me also to reveal the same false dilemma. It's as if the only options are free choice without destiny and destiny without free choice. That is indeed one way to read MacBeth, that the prophecy didn't make anything true but the choices of people did. But here's another way to read MacBeth. The witches manipulate people by giving prophecies that lead people to choose to do various things that will achieve the prophecy eventually. Then here's a third way. The witches really do see the future, and their prophetic message happens to be both a cause of MacBeth's actions and an effect of them (because his actions caused what happened, which caused what they saw when they glanced into the future).

The same can be said of Trelawney's prophecy. There is a clear distinction between most of her sayings and the two real ones she gives. There's a suggestion that she has some connection with reality in giving the two real prophecies, when she doesn't with most of her day-to-day predictions. So what does that distinction amount to? Given what she says, I suspect she thinks real prophecies have some connection with what might be true without guaranteeing it. Then she points out that the prophecy had a role in causing its fulfillment, as did Harry and Voldemort's choices. This is all consistent with a sort of open view of the future.

But I don't think the text as she wrote it requires such an interpretation, and I'm not sure it's even the most plausible interpretation of the events she describes, even if it's what she intended. She describes someone giving a prediction, a character with her own view of destiny calling it a real prophecy, and the same character saying that the prophecy was only fulfilled because of the choices of the characters involved.

Does this require a libertarian view of freedom? I don't think so. A compatibilist can also say that if someone had chosen to do something different they would have, and that might have led to very different consequences. So of course a compatibilist can say that if Harry or Voldemort had acted differently the prophecy wouldn't have come true. It's just that either the entire history of the world would have had to have been different for Harry or Voldemort to have done something different or else some divine would have to interfere to prevent things going as they're causally determined to go. But if they'd done something different, the prophecy wouldn't have come true.

I don't see how any of that is inconsistent with a fairly strong view of destiny. Suppose you have a strong view of God's sovereignty. God has an overarching plan for history, and it includes the choices that humans will make. This sort of view doesn't require determinism in the physical world. It might be that God interferes to produce effects through his knowledge of how people will respond to various situations. It might be that God allows things to happen without causing them, but the things God allows are exactly the ones that fit into the overall plan. This is the traditional Christian position on God's sovereignty.

Such a view actually seems to me to make much more sense of the overall plot of Rowling's novels than the view she explicitly says in this interview. It may well be that Harry and Voldemort's actions are what brought about the fulfillment of the prophecy, but that's because the prophecy was taking their actions into account. It may well be that they chose to do these things, but their choices are part of the future that a prophet will be taking into account when making a prediction. The reason I have a really hard time accepting the real openness in Rowling's position is that so many things could have gone wrong along the way throughout the seven-part series, and they happened to go right. Things could never have worked out the way they did if people had chosen differently or if chance events had gone differently.

Until I saw this interview, I was actually pretty sure that Rowling was working with a much stronger view of destiny, perhaps with the idea that a divine being was ensuring that just the right things happen to ensure the right outcome, even when it doesn't seem as if that's what's going on. It's little things in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings novels that make all the difference, and it's unbelievable how close Sauron comes to winning. The exact same things seemed to me to be true of the Harry Potter storyline, and I couldn't imagine writing all of that without the idea that a divine being is guiding things alone, ensuring that things will work out through little bitty events that seem like chances, some of them even free choices of characters.

So I was very disappointed to find out that Rowling doesn't actually hold such a view. I still want to maintain that the fiction supports such a view, and that brings me to a question I'd like to save for a separate post, even though I've already written a draft of most of that post. I'd like to take the fiction to be assuming a view that the author herself doesn't attribute to the fiction. Does that violate authorial intent? Doesn't her interpretation of what she wrote trump other considerations? I think the issue is a lot messier than you might expect, and some of the other parts of the interview deal with other aspects of this question to complicate it even further, but I think there are clear cases when the author's interpretation of what she wrote (including certain ones of this author) are simply wrong interpretations.

[Rebuttal to an anticipated objection to one of the above points: Rowling does mention cases of when people change the past as a ground for why time travel is strictly controlled, but within the fictional world we also have indications not to trust every reason the Ministry of Magic gives for restricting something, and the suggestion from what actually happens is that you can't change the past. These pieces of information do seem to conflict. One resolution of the tension is that the Ministry of Magic wasn't telling the truth. Another is that they could have changed the past but didn't in this case, as improbable as that might be. But I do think the actual events in the novel suggest the former.]

2 Comments

An alternative interpretation might be that Rowling has not attributed the happy ending of her plot to divine guidance for the same reason as Tony Blair has kept quiet about his faith, 'for fear of being labelled "a nutter"'.

But then it is not just Tolkien and Rowling whose plots depend "just the right things happen[ing] to ensure the right outcome". Every Hollywood blockbuster with a happy ending has it depending on all kinds of knife-edge outcomes working out. That's what makes a good suspense plot. It doesn't imply that the scriptwriters believe that there is divine guidance behind their plots.

Right, but there are two other factors going on her not in Hollywood standards:

1. It was her claim to be a Christian that led me to think she might have had some sense of providence behind this.

2. Either there's a prophecy that seems overwhelmingly likely not to come true but nevertheless does because of a whole number of chance events, or something else is explaining why the prophecy happens to come true. The latter seems more likely to me given the tremendous deal she makes about the difference between this prophecy and the fake ones Professor Trelawney usually makes.

As for Rowling lying about her intentions, I don't expect that's true. She may not always say what she has in mind, but I don't see her as the type to say the opposite of what she had in mind just to keep from looking like an extremist. It's easy enough for her to avoid looking like an extremist, because all she has to do is point to those who think she's downright evil to contrast herself with extremists.

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