“Between the stimulus and response, there is a space and in that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
– Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Having been in the concentration camp during World War II, Viktor Frankl, in his search for an answer to “What makes a person human?” wrote the following : “ The question to ask is what life expects from us not what we expect from life. ” In his view, the answer does not lie in theories on life or meditative thoughts; rather it is found in our conduct –in our actions and the way we handle our duties. Physics, in researching the physical reality and the creation of the cosmos, is also looking for answers to this question through scientific experiments. Einstein, while establishing his theory of General Relativity, he said to his colleague, Bohr on the limited nature of knowledge[i] : ” Alas! Our theory is too poor for experience” and Bohr replied: “No, no! Experience is too rich for theory.”
Einstein argued that for a theory of physics to be complete, it had to correspond to reality on one-to-one basis. Finkelstein, made a similar argument : “Symbols do not follow the same rules as experience; we have to learn to live with the experience”[ii]. The physicists’ in their quest for reality and the beginning of the universe, introduced the variables of freewill and predeterminism in their experiments. The freewill component assumes the choices of the actor involved in the experiment effect the measurements and subsequently the results. Whereas predeterminism assumes that independent of the choices involved, the experiment will follow a predetermined course under any circumstance. For the human being living in the “physical” field between these two extremes, what then would be the role of freewill and predeterminism or fate as one lives through successive experiences at each moment? Frankl argues that “ freewill is used in the space between action and reaction, where and when the person makes a choice and acts accordingly.” Though the stage seemingly ends with the particular choice of action, it is preparing the potential choice of the next stage to come. Just like a game where each move of the player gives way and to an extent determines the choices coming next in line and thus the player follows the given route as determined by his choices. In this game, the question remains as to how the software of choice maps grow progressively like a flowchart design and as next, how is the quality of the game assessed and who ends the game. The mystic’s answer is “Divine Providence”. Nizami explains it so well in the Book of Life metaphor[iii]:
Whatever befalls us has its meaning; though it is often hard to grasp. In the Book of Life every page has two sides. On the upper one, we inscribe our plans, dreams and hopes; the reverse is filled with providence, whose verdicts rarely match our desire. Who can read the handwriting of fate? What we cannot read in the beginning, we have to endure later. Our thoughts and desires project on to the future and if our estimated guesses do not happen to match the actual accounting, then we have to pay. We admire the rose and wish to possess it; but when we reach for it, the thorn pricks and when we withdraw our hand, it starts bleeding. We suffer from hunger, thirst and unfulfilled desires and we forget that their satisfaction will put our salvation in danger. When man’s desire and fate are in conflict, the best is not to revolt but to accept. Do not forget that what looks like vinegar, sometimes happens to be honey.
On the way to become a human being, suppose we had freewill to reason and to discern since the beginning, what then awaits us when freewill and divine providence intersect in our Book of Life ? In the Sufi way, God’s intervention in one’s life is always accepted as His grace; therefore there is good in whatever happens. The Sufi, if in spite of his or her efforts does not attain what s/he expects, s/he tries not to object; what matters more is the effort rather than the result, for the spiritual accounting or judgment is made according to the intention and the effort. Facing life events in this manner, does not imply that one should passively give way to fate; on the contrary, one should actively use all the legitimate means and yet if the result is not to his liking, he should not think that all the efforts are wasted. As every effort is included in the spiritual accounting, it ultimately effects one’s destiny. Life lived with such a conscience and awareness gains meaning. Then we can say that fortunately the human being can impact his/her destiny by the use of freewill in the conduct of everyday life. By observing the consequences of his actions, one can learn to read the “Book of Life”. Both the physicists and the mystics claim that herein lies the difference between “knowledge” and “wisdom.”
On human being’s standing in the universe, Einstein expressed his state of the experience in a letter he wrote to the Queen of Belgium[iv]:
Still there are moments when one feels free from one’s own identification with human limitations and inadequacies. At such moments, one imagines that one stands on some spot of a small planet, gazing in amazement at the cold yet profoundly moving beauty of the eternal, the unfathomable: life and death flow into one, and there is neither evolution nor destiny; only being.
[i] Frankl, V. 2006. Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston: Beacon Press
[ii] Zukav, G. 1991. The Dancing Wu Li Masters. London: Rider.
[iii] Nizami. The Story of Layla and Majnun. NY: Omega Publications. Translated by: Rudolph Gelpke, Zia Inayat Khan & Omid Safi.
[iv] Bernstein, J. 1991. Einstein. London:Fontana Press.