Let me begin this piece by introducing two technical terms, guzen and hitsuzen. Both are stolen from Japanese, and their translations come out to being something like coincidence or chance and fate or destiny, respectively. While I could simply repurpose the English terms “coincidence” and “fate” I think they are already too loaded with meaning, and thus that our intuitions about them are bound to get in the way. So, as an aid in avoiding confusion with our intuitive conceptual scheme, I introduce guzen and hitsuzen. By guzen I will designate things that happen by chance, not in the sense that occur probabilistically, but in the sense that they occur by happenstance and aren’t part of some larger scheme. Thus events that fall in the domain of guzen are meaningless, in the sense that that they are unconnected to other events and thus signify nothing beyond themselves, certainly not some larger scheme or goal. In contrast hitsuzen is the opposite of guzen. Events that fall under the domain of hitsuzen happen in accordance with some scheme, plan, or design. Thus hitsuzen is meaningful in exactly the way that guzen isn’t. Events that fall under hitsuzen can be understood as connected to other events within that scheme, and thus signify the scheme and its ends as a whole. To speak in philosophical terms for a moment: hitsuzen manifests teleology, i.e. goals or ends, while guzen does not.
Once the categories are defined the next question to consider is how to deploy them. Three possibilities immediately present themselves. First everything, or at least everything important might be hitsuzen, i.e. part of some larger plan. Secondly the world could be a mixture of hitsuzen and guzen. Finally, there may only be guzen; with any appearance of hitsuzen being simply a kind of delusion or illusion.
If everything, or everything significant, is hitsuzen then the natural question to ask is: what is the overarching plan? The obvious religious answer is that the overarching plan is a divine one. In fact a religious perspective would seem to necessitate that everything is hitsuzen. If god is omnipotent and interested in what happens in the world then the idea that some things go against god’s intent contradicts his supposed omnipotence (since omnipotence cannot be opposed). Or, if god falls short of being omnipotent because he is opposed by some equally powerful, but evil, divinity, then it would seem that everything is still hitsuzen, although whose plan an event is in accordance with becomes an open question. I don’t, however, think the implicature in the other direction holds; it is not necessary to have a religious perspective in order to believe that hitsuzen dominates. It is possible to look at the natural laws as a kind of hitsuzen, for example. More plausibly, some see large-scale events as being the work of historical, social, or evolutionary forces that are beyond the control of individuals. These forces can be seen as creating a kind of hitsuzen connecting major events.
Of course not everyone finds the idea of universal, or near universal, hitsuzen plausible. There is something undeniably compelling about seeing the natural world as being devoid of hitsuzen. Sure, there are natural laws that determine which events occur, but those laws are devoid of meaning. They don’t appear to stitch together the events into a plan. Meaning, it would seem, is a purely human construction. But the world is not composed simply of things bumping up against one another in the dark. People do exist, and people can impose meaning on the world. Thus under this view the world is naturally all guzen, but in this world of guzen people create hitsuzen though their choices. Naturally this view sparks further questions. What happens when the domains of hitsuzen generated by individual lives come into contact with each other? Do they come together to form a unified hitsuzen, one that structures society as a whole? Or do they conflict, reducing the areas where they rub up against each other to guzen again? Such questions are beyond the scope of this piece.
Finally, we are brought to the third possibility. Like the previous picture it accepts the idea that fundamentally the natural world is nothing more than guzen. However, it rejects the idea that people can create hitsuzen. After all, there is nothing ultimately supernatural about people, and so, if nature cannot create hitsuzen, neither can individuals. Of course people see themselves as living in a world of hitsuzen, but that hitsuzen is not real, it is all in the mind. And this view may seem vindicated when things don’t go as they should or events escape control. Such occurrences may seem to demonstrate that hitsuzen is really an illusion.
I advocate the idea that philosophical theories, such as the three that were just mentioned, are really philosophical perspectives, and that there isn’t a definitive answer about which is right and which is wrong; they can only be more or less useful. However, under that view I am obligated to say a bit about how they might be useful, to who, and why. But to do that an additional element needs to be introduced: the human element. Because it is not clear, at least under the first and third perspective, how people fit into the picture, and thus it isn’t clear what implications accepting one of them would have, either in terms of how we go about our business or live our lives. The missing human element, I think, is free will or free choice.
But is free human choice a manifestation of guzen or hitsuzen? The answer will depend on which perspective the question is asked in. The “obvious” answer is that hitsuzen excludes free will, that when events fit into a larger picture the individual is no longer free to choose. Certainly that seems like the kind of answer that would have to be given under the first perspective discussed, where most events are attributed to hitsuzen. Exactly what the significance of this is depends on the precise variation. If hitsuzen is essentially god’s plan then being deprived of free choice can be comforting, because it implies that really everything is directed towards some good end and that it is impossible for individuals to make mistakes or interfere with that end. Thus, even if you make a mistake and do something that appears wrong from a human perspective, it was really all part of hitsuzen, and in the long run will turn out to be good. Alternately, if everything is hitsuzen because of two or more competing divine plans, then there may be room for guzen, and thus free choice, where the two plans rub up against each other. Specifically, it could be the case that under one plan some event is supposed to occur but under the other it is supposed to be prevented. Then, the omnipotence of both agents canceling out, which occurs is guzen, and so might be affected by free human choice. Thus under this perspective free choice plays a small but crucial role in deciding between the two divine plans. Finally, if, under the last version of this perspective, the large-scale events are all directed by hitsuzen, then free choice, and guzen, remains only in the small things. This justifies the view that what is really important is the small things, since only over them do we have a measure of control.
Each of these variations will appeal to different people in different circumstances. The first, where there effective is no free human choice, may be appealing to those who feel powerless; the idea of a divine plan directing things may be comforting. Such a perspective may also be necessary for someone who is being destroyed by guilt, since it assures them that, in the long run, everything will turn out all right. Finally, the perspective may be useful to someone who has rejected conventional morality altogether, since it effectively justifies them doing whatever they please (since whatever they do must necessarily be part of the divine plan). The second variation, in contrast to the first, suits those who want to be empowered rather than disempowered. Some believe that for something to be meaningful it has to be meaningful in a grand way, to contribute to some humanity or universe spanning picture. And this perspective gives them just that, in the form of a role in deciding between divine plans. What could be more important than that? The third variation seems aimed at those who have come to realize how little their life means in the grand scheme of things and are depressed by it. Consider Bob the office worker. Bob realizes that he is nothing more than a cog in the machine at his work. He is easily replaceable. And, more distressingly, the company he works for isn’t even doing something really important. For a long time Bob had his own private ambitions to write the great American novel. However, after a series of disappointments, he has come to realize that he doesn’t have the necessary genius. To feel better about himself he tells himself that what becomes the great American novel is determined by social forces and luck; that it is outside of the control of individual people. Thus Bob comes to think of the world as dominated by hitsuzen; social forces, of which his company is part of, guide what happens, and Bob is simply swept along by them. Naturally this makes Bob unhappy. However, Bob comes to realize that not everything is controlled by these social forces. The details of Bob’s life, for example his choice to maintain a small garden out back, are his and his alone. Bob thus comes to believe that this is the most anyone could ask for; everyone is subject to hitsuzen when it comes to the big things, even the great American novelist. We can only control the small things, and thus to us they are what should really matter. And Bob is making the most out of the small things that he can through his garden. So Bob is leading the best life that can be lived, given the prevalence of hitsuzen.
However, under the second perspective the connection between free choice and hitsuzen is reversed. Instead of excluding free choice hitsuzen is most naturally understood as the consequence of free choice. Meaning is essentially tied to people, because only people have the kinds of goals and plans that can produce hitsuzen. And these goals are manifested through their free choices (in contrast to their unfree actions, which they are unable to direct towards their own ends). Thus, logically, through a series of free choices hitsuzen is imposed on the world. Now who would this perspective appeal to? Consider James. Unlike Bob, James is a successful author. James is still employed, in a loose sense, by other people, but he has the ability to decide what he wants to write for himself. Moreover James likes being an author; he finds fulfillment in being an author. Perhaps James seems better off than Bob (although I think that natural assumption is highly questionable), but that doesn’t mean he isn’t faced with his own set of issues. Like Bob, the question of what matters and why presents itself to James. James does not want to surrender his life to an all encompassing hitsuzen, as under the first perspective, because that would diminish what he thinks of as most important (his being an author), by subjugating it to some larger purpose. But yet he still wants to find meaning somewhere, in part to justify his being an author and spending so much effort on being an author. Thus this perspective is a perfect fit for James. It tells him that the things he has devoted much of his life to, his being an author, are a kind of hitsuzen, a personal kind of hitsuzen that is centered around the things that he is most devoted to.
Finally, under the third perspective, which says that everything is guzen, free choice can be associated either with guzen or hitsuzen. To associate free choice with hitsuzen under this perspective is to turn it into a kind of nihilism. Specifically it is to assert, as under the previous perspective discussed, that free choices would be a kind of imposition of hitsuzen on the world. However, this perspective denies that the world can manifest hitsuzen, and thus it denies the possibility of free choice, so conceived. And so, under this version of the perspective, there is nothing we can do but be moved by chance from one meaningless event to another. However, we don’t have to be so negative. Free choice could also be associated with guzen under this perspective. What that amounts to is an assertion of absolute freedom. If there is no hitsuzen, no structure, then the freedom we have is complete freedom; every choice can be made as if it was the first choice, independently of any other choices that we have made or will make. While that won’t appeal to Bob, who sees an obvious, and sometimes oppressive, hitsuzen and wants to be able to live well within it, or to James, whose life is centered around a few important things and wants to understand how they can be meaningful, it may suit John. Unlike Bob and James, John’s life is not strongly ordered. He does not keep one job for years on end. Instead John moves from job to job, and many of his jobs are unconventional. And, unlike James, he does not have a single dominating interest. Many things interest John, and even though he is most interested in playing the trombone now he might be big into painting next year. John has a different problem than Bob and James; John probably thinks that his life should have some meaning, but because of his nature to go from one thing to another it is hard for him to interpret his own life as describing some plan or being part of one. Adopting this third perspective allows John to give up those expectations; it’s not that John’s life is falling short by being meaningless, it’s that everything is meaningless. And, moreover, it also picks out John’s life as something special: under this perspective Bob and James are fooling themselves to an extent, to the extent that they see the world as containing hitsuzen. However, free choice is in the domain of guzen, and so their false belief in the existence of hitsuzen is blinding them to their own freedom. Bob doesn’t realize that he is free to leave his boring job for something else, and James won’t allow himself to see that he is free to give up being an author for something else, at any time, without suffering any loss. John, in contrast to those two, is making full use of his freedom.
Thus I have shown how at least one variation on each of the perspectives on guzen and hitsuzen presented may be attractive. But is that enough? My position on philosophy, discussed previously, is that philosophical perspectives are a kind of conceptual/intellectual tool and should be judged accordingly. And it would seem that we could draw a distinction between being attractive and being useful. If I have shown only how these perspectives may be attractive then I haven’t done enough. But I think I have done more than show that they can be attractive, I think I have shown how they can make life better, or at least more tolerable, and that their attractiveness results from that. The perspectives discussed help Bob, James, and John be satisfied with their own lives. And, since dissatisfaction with ones life is a problem, these perspectives are thus demonstrated to be useful, inasmuch as they help deal with that problem. And with that I rest my case.