Fate Without Providence

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It's pretty common to find unlikely occurrences in fiction, where the one-in-a-million chance just happens to occur, and our heroes are saved. Terry Pratchett makes fun of this in one of his Discworld novels, where the characters assume that something that unlikely has to happen precisely because it is a one-in-a-million chance.

J.J. Abrams was recently asked about such an occurrence in the latest Star Trek movie. I think his response is revealing. Kirk ends up being beamed down to the same ice world that the future Spock from the original Trek reality happened to have been exiled on, and he happens to be beamed to a spot on that world right near where Spock happened to be, which also happened to be right near a Federation facility that Scotty was on, and Scotty just happened to have been the person doing the research Spock with his future knowledge could capitalize on to get Kirk and Scotty to the Enterprise.

Abrams accepts the radical unlikelihood. His excuse? He says it's the timeline attempting to repair itself and that the movie is about fate. The kind of friendship that these people (or rather their counterparts) in the original timeline had been part of somehow created itself again (actually not again but simply in parallel) in this other timeline.

It's hard to know how to respond to this. One the one hand, this is so ludicrous as to be unworthy of comment. Does Abrams really think it's plausible to respond to the claim that something is incredibly unlikely by asserting that his audience should just accept it as fate? If so, what mechanism of fate does he imagine here? What he seems to be saying is that the friendship itself is making itself happen, when at the time of these events there is no friendship yet. Or maybe he means the friendship in the original reality is causing the new friendship among these different individuals who are very similar, in which case it's backward causation from some future alternate reality. What he's saying just sounds crazy.

On the other hand, there is something that could make sense of this, something he's resisting bringing in. What wants is something like providence. He wants something that could only occur with intelligent guidance of events. When it's writers who have some level of intelligence who are guiding the events, you can get things like this, but Abrams seems to want to accept something like this as if it's plausible, and I have trouble seeing how that could be without a providential hand guiding things along. He apparently doesn't allow for that and has to attribute it to being caused by the friendship or something. I wonder sometimes if the desire for fate without providence is really a longing for providence or perhaps even an assumption that there is such a thing without an admission that there's any such thing.

[cross-posted at Evangel]


I think that the idea of fate for the non-christian comes from implausible series of events that we all run into at times. I am sure that most, if not all, people have had experiences were things seem to happen, for good or ill, in an inexplicable series. We are left dumb founded by the shear improbability of "x series of events", and intuitively think there is some purpose to it. Just my two cents.

As a side note, another series that has a lot of "fate"/"God" talk is Heroes. My wife and I have been watching the first few seasons, and the explicit grappling over questions about God/god is pretty overt.

Heroes does invoke such talk a lot. The two characters I can think of who do this are Peter Petrelli, who believes in God (and thus isn't subject to this criticism), and Hiro Nakamura, who does seem to believe in some kind of impersonal fate or destiny (at least he never mentions God), but he does have the background of Japanese philosophy that involves purpose in nature without a designer, having to do with impersonal forces at work like the Force in Star Wars. It's not really like the naturalistic framework that Abrams seems to be assuming for Star Trek. Nathan Petrelli had a few episodes of talking this way, but it was also very much in the context of thinking he had a mission from God.

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