As human beings we like to think that we are masters of our own fate. We enjoy thinking that we are autonomous individuals whose personal decisions have made us who we are in life. Philosophers even talk about libertarian free will—defined as the view that an individual who freely made a specific choice could have decided differently (in contrast to some form of determinism). Yet while human volition is a great power in life, there are things that deeply shape our lives that are beyond our control, consent, or wishes.
In fact, upon reflection, it is rather shocking to consider how many critical things in our lives are outside of our control or choice. Specifically, there are five areas in our lives that we have no choice in, yet these greatly influence who we ultimately become.
1. Conception and Birth
We have no say in being conceived and born into the world, so the fact that we exist and have being is totally outside of our control. Our very life itself does not begin with us but rather depends upon the choices and actions of our parents whose lives depend upon their parents and so forth. Before we get to make real choices in life, our lives have to be chosen by others.
Think of the power and responsibility that parents hold over the lives of their children and, in contrast, the vulnerable dependence of children upon their parents. I cannot help but think of the tens of millions of tiny humans in America over the last 43 years who experienced death before birth in the wake of the Roe v. Wade legalization of abortion. These children were denied life in this world without any say. The existence and being of each individual person comes about without our consent.
2. Time of Birth
We have no say as to when we are born. Life span and quality of life could fluctuate significantly depending upon the era in which one lives. Our lives would have doubtless been dissimilar if we were born in ancient times or in the Middle Ages. However, life could also be very different even if a person was born just a few years earlier or later in history.
I recently read that 80 percent of the males born in the Soviet Union in 1923 were killed in World War II.1 These young men turned 18 years old in 1941—the terrible year that Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union. In the first three months of that invasion, 3 million Soviet soldiers were killed. As a Soviet male, if you were born in 1923, the likelihood was great that you were doomed to a short life ending in a violent death. No wonder so many combat soldiers, especially in World War II, viewed life in fatalistic terms. For all of us, the time of our birth and the era of our lives is outside of our control and choice.
3. Place of Birth
We have no say as to the place of our birth and our subsequent upbringing. The location in which one is born and lives has a deep effect upon one’s overall life. Being born in Israel or in Italy or in Iran would likely carry with it very different life encounters and experiences. Depending on the country of birth, one may be exposed to Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.
Building on this point, skeptics sometimes claim that one’s religion is a mere accident of one’s birth. I’ll return to this topic in a follow-up article; but let me say now that if the skeptic’s assessment is correct, then even their secular beliefs are an accident of birth. Where we are born and live can deeply impact our life, yet none of us can decide on our place of birth.
4. Family of Birth
We have no say about our birth parents. Without choice, we are given our family, and with them, our physical traits, socioeconomic class, and basic outlook on life, among many other things. Since much of life seems to come down to either nature or nurture, our family has an incredible, if not incalculable, influence upon the person we become. In fact, it doesn’t seem possible to genuinely understand a person without considering their family connections. As we age we begin to ponder how our parents influenced us, and as we become parents ourselves, we wonder how we will influence our own children.
I recently watched a television interview with the mother of Columbine High School murderer Dylan Klebold. In the years since the terrible shootings, Klebold’s mother agonized over her responsibility in the massacre. She asked if there was something she did or didn’t do that ultimately led her son to become a mass murderer. She eventually concluded that the murders were something her son autonomously chose to do. We are given our family regardless of our approval.
5. Ideas Exposed to upon Birth
We have no say as to the world-and-life view to which we are initially exposed. Worldviews are usually first adopted from one’s parents and then only later personally chosen upon reflection. This grand exposure of ideas upon the young child’s mind includes his or her basic education, religion, philosophy, ethics, and politics, among many other areas. Our crucial and initial intellectual and philosophical mindset is given to us without recourse. What about the people who are seemingly nurtured into radical philosophies of life—people in groups like ISIS, the Ku Klux Klan, or secular totalitarian communism? Even if people later choose to reject these poisonous belief systems, think of the damage that is already inflicted upon the young minds. The initial ideas we are exposed to are given without our assent.
While human choice may still be one of the world’s greatest powers, many profound things happen to us before we are in a position to actually make a genuine choice.
In a follow-up article, I will offer some reflections on how we can think about these things outside our control. I hope you’ll choose to come back and consider those reflections next week.