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Bewildering Stories

Challenge 401 Response

“To the Meadow’s Edge”

by Stefan Brenner

Challenge 401, #3: In A. R. Norris’ “To the Meadow’s Edge,” does the story promote a fatalistic world view?

The meadow represents the past, its edge represents the present, the boundary from which the future appears:

“Okay, so the paths represent life choices I made, right?”

“Whatever are you talking about? These are ahead of you, not behind you like the choices you made in life.”

Whether the future is created or merely discovered will decide the issue at stake. If it is simply discovered, the story is fatalistic. What can we know about our future?

Certainly, if the future hasn’t yet been made or fixed, it seems impossible that we should have knowledge about it and this seems the case in “To the Meadow’s Edge.”

Peter pointed to an old blistering sign. Its shape was etched into a left-facing arrow and held no information.

Georgia cannot know the implications of choosing the left or right path. That, broadly speaking, fits our intuitive position about the future, although it’s also generally accepted that our knowledge of similar past situations may guide us in assessing present choices.

However, leaving aside the near impossibility of obtaining a perfect match between present- and past-choice scenarios, such “knowledge by induction” can and has been challenged, notably by the philosopher David Hume.

Hume claims that future predictions based on an assumed “regularity in nature” are open to a charge of circularity: such regularity may indeed have been observed in the past, but nothing guarantees that it will hold in the future.

So, if by “knowledge” we mean infallibility, knowledge of the future can be ruled out. Moreover, epistemic fallibility about the future (and thus the outcome of our present choices) is closely tied to a rejection of fatalism: for if I am free to influence the future, I cannot know (for certain) how my interventions will affect it. The cost of freedom is (at least a degree of) ignorance.

But epistemological worries about the future are commonplace. What counts is its metaphysical status. If time and tense are nothing more than “viewpoints” on reality, today’s so-called “choice” represents no more than a milestone on an already existing road. This is the position advanced in “To the Meadow’s Edge”: Georgia knows nothing about a pre-ordained future, but must blindly accept the left-hand path.

“The sign only points to the left but doesn’t state where it leads. The right has nothing. I can’t decide based on this.”

“Why?” Peter asked. I refused to answer. “Does the sign have to tell you? It’s pointing the way; isn’t that enough?”

No wonder Georgia “can’t decide”! It would be one thing for Peter to repeat the intuitive position that we cannot know where our present choices will lead but must make them nonetheless. It’s asking considerably more to expect us to embrace these pseudo-choices having just discovered we were never free to make them. Our only choice is the “existential” one of how to approach the inevitable.

In sadness and comfort, he smiled and touched my arm. “You have to show belief in fate, my dear. The destination is already decided. You just have to choose whether to follow with faith and courage, or fear and trepidation.”

Fear built inside. “What if it’s...?”

Georgia might be scared on any scenario: trepidation about the future seems more often linked to its uncertainty than the fact that it’s set in stone. Instead, her fear is linked to the fact that she’s suffered the illusion of control where none was available. It’s the fear of a harsh and unforgiving truth.

“I’m scared,” I admitted ... Looking at the paths, I understood the choice was out of my hands. In all reality, it was never there to begin with, just an illusion of control.

Was there another way? Given metaphysical fatalism, what else might the sign have offered Georgia, and would it have been any more palatable?

Well, suppose the future was metaphysically fixed but the sign had revealed her fate... Would that have been more comforting?

I contend that it would not. Fatalism combined with (partial) fore-knowledge is precisely the situation explored by many Classical works. Typically, we find that the informed hero’s fruitless struggles to evade or alter impending fate lie at the core of their tragedy. The moral must surely be: if it’s going to happen anyway, better not to know!

Copyright © 2010 by Stefan Brenner

Thank you for a very thought-provoking and insightful essay, Stefan!

Speaking of Classical discussions of fate, it’s practically impossible to top Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex for sheer irony.

The Oracle tells Oedipus that he’ll kill his father and marry his mother. Now, the Oracle is authoritative and must be heeded very seriously. But its pronouncements need a qualifier. What is the Oracle really saying?

  1. “You’re doomed, Oedipus. Even if you just lie down and do nothing, your fate is engraved in stone.” — That would be pure fatalism.

  2. “Knowing you, Oedipus, I’m telling you to watch out, or this is what’s going to happen.” — That’s not fatalism, it’s sage advice that Oedipus makes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

With a warning like that, you’d think Oedipus would be very careful about whom he kills and whom he marries. But no, Oedipus is like an automobile driver who thinks, “Oh, there’s no traffic on the road tonight; I’ll just run this stop sign...”

Hence the classic — and Classic — mistake: thinking one knows everything. And that accounts for all the mistakes in all the arts, be they medicine, politics or art itself. The lesson: heed the Oracle, shun hubris, and keep your head about you.


Responses welcome!

Copyright © 2010 by Bewildering Stories
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