I was recently asked on Quora whether there is some kind of a grand scheme to things: a destiny that we all share, a guiding hand that acts according to some kind of moral rules.
This is a great question, and one that we’re all worried about. While there’s no way to know for sure, the evidence points against this kind of fate-biased thinking – as a forecasting experiment funded by the US Department of Defense recently showed.
In 2011, the US Department of Defense began funding an unusual project: the Good Judgement Project. In this project, led by Philip E. Tetlock, Barbara Mellers and Don Moore, people were asked to volunteer their time and rate the chance of occurence for certain events. Overall, thousands of people took part in the exercise, and answered hundreds of questions over a time period of two years. Their answers were checked constantly, as soon as the events actually occurred.
After two years, the directors of the project identified a sub-type of people they called Superforecasters. These top forecasters were doing so well, that their predictions were 30% more accurate than those of intelligence officials who had access to highly classified information!
(and yes, for the statistics-lovers among us: the researchers absolutely did run statistical tests that showed the chances of those people being accidentally so accurate were miniscule. The superforecasters kept doing well, over and over again)
Once the researchers identified this subset of people, they began analyzing their personalities and methods of thinking. You can read about it in some of the papers about the research (attached at the end of this answer), as well as in the great book – Superforecasting: the Art and Science of Prediction. For this answer, the important thing to note is that those superforecasters were also tested for what I call “the fate bias”.
The Fate Bias
There’s no denying that most people believe in fate of some sort: a guiding hand that makes everything happen for a reason, in accordance with some grand scheme or moral rules. This tendency seems to manifest itself most strongly in children, and in God-believers (84.8 percent of whom believe in fate), but even 54.3 percent of atheists believe in fate.
It’s obvious why we want to believe in fate. It gives our woes, and the sufferings of others, a special meaning. It justifies our pains, and makes us think that “it’s all for a reason”. Our belief in fate helps us deal with bereavement and with physical and mental pain.
But it also makes us lousy forecasters.
Fate is Incompatible with Accurate Forecasting
In the Good Judgement Project, the researchers ran tests on the participants to check for their belief in fate. They found out that the superforecasters utterly rejected fate. Even more significantly, the better an individual was at forecasting, the more inclined he was to reject fate. And the more he rejected fate, the more accurate he was at forecasting the future.
Fate is Incompatible with the Evidence
And so, it seems that fate is simply incompatible with the evidence. People who try to predict the occurrence of events in a ‘fateful’ way, as if they obeying a certain guiding hand, are prone to failure. On the other hand, those who believe there is no ‘higher order to things’ and plan accordingly, turn out to be usually right.
Does that mean there is no such thing as fate, or a grand scheme? Of course not. We can never disprove the existence of such a ‘grand plan’. What we can say with some certainty, however, is that human beings who claim to know what that plan actually is, seem to be constantly wrong – whereas those who don’t bother explaining things via fate, find out that reality agrees with them time and time again.
So there may be a grand plan. We may be in a movie, or God may be looking down on us from up above. But if that’s the case, it’s a god we don’t understand, and the plan – if there actually is one – is completely undecipherable to us. As Neil Gaiman and the late Terry Pratchett beautifully wrote –
God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of His own devising… an obscure and complex version of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.
And if that’s the case, I’d rather just say outloud – “I don’t believe in fate”, and plan and invest accordingly.
You’ll simply have better success that way. And when the universe is cheating at poker with blank cards, Heaven knows you need all the help you can get.
For further reading, here are links to some interesting papers about the Good Judgement Project and the insights derived from it –
Bringing probability judgments into policy debates via forecasting tournaments
Superforecasting: How to Upgrade Your Company’s Judgment
Identifying and Cultivating Superforecasters as a Method of Improving Probabilistic Predictions
Psychological Strategies for Winning a Geopolitical Forecasting Tournament
Rethinking the training of intelligence analysts