Orí, Soft-Determinism, and the Preacher’s Dilemma (Series Part 4, Finale)

Third Scholarly Approach: Soft-Determinism

Another approach that scholars have taken to make sense of the Yoruba worldview through a metaphysical lens is soft-determinism. Hard determinism (or determinism) is the view that all events are completely determined by antecedent causes. This view holds that all things are in causal relations so that if we know sufficiently about a cause, we can know the future effect. It is commonly held that this view excludes freedom and that we cannot do other than we do. We are compelled to do what we do by factors beyond our control. Soft-determinism argues to the contrary. It maintains that determinism allows for freedom. Also known as compatibilism, soft determinism argues that determinism is compatible with freedom. The “freedom” in compatibilism is crucially different from what we normally mean by freedom. It is akin to the freedom of the example of armed robbers on Lagos streets discussed earlier.

One scholar who takes this approach is Oladele Balogun (2007). For Balogun, fatalism (and hard determinism) does not give a coherent interpretation of the Yoruba worldview when it posits that a chosen Ori determines every detail of an individual’s life, implying that humans have no free will or ability to change things. Crucially, Balogun asserts that “Ori is limited to issues of material success (i.e. things like wealth, riches and success in one’s profession). Ori has nothing to do with moral character, and it does not affect all of human actions and/or inactions” (125). He gives a two-fold support for this proclamation. First, Balogun argues that “no where [sic] in any of the ancient Yoruba scriptures (i.e. the Ifa literary corpus, Ijala and IwiEgungun, and Esa Egungun) is there the claim that moral character can be pre-determined by one’s earlier choice of Ori” (125). Second, Balogun observes that Yoruba also believe in the doctrine of Àfọwọ́fà, self-caused calamities (126). Together, these two bits of support are strong. Àfọwọ́fà is meaningless in a world that is fated. Although Balogun seems to take the absence of explicit verses in Yoruba scriptures claiming that Ori can determine character as a definitive proof that Ori does not reach into the world of characters, there are verses in Ifá literary corpus, for instance, that seem to undermine the thrust of Ori such as the following (quoted by Ekanola, 49):

Iwa nikan I’osoro o

Iwa nikan I’osoro,

Ori kan ki buru n’ile ife

Iwa nikan I’osoro o

(Character is all that is requisite

Character is all that is requisite

There is no destiny to be called unhappy in Ife city

Character is all that is requisite)

This passage juxtaposes individual responsibility via character with destiny. One can easily extract the doctrine of Àfọwọ́fà from this passage. Last, Balogun claims that “It is only inexplicable traits of a person either towards evil or good that the Yoruba explain through appeal to destiny” (127).

Balogun’s soft determinism comes closest in meaningfully weaving together the relevant threads of thought in Yoruba worldview while avoiding the problems of fatalism and naturalism. However, it too has some issues that should be spelt out. First, if soft determinism is true, the freedom that it promises is a much more restrained kind of freedom; it would not be libertarian freedom. It is arguable that though individuals have (what seems like) the freedom to choose, the Ori that they chose might still determine the eventual choices that humans would make; Olódùmarè (and possibly Àjàlá) also would a priori know these eventual choices too.

Second, Balogun’s claim that Ori does not affect the character of a person but only the material wealth and well-being of individuals is also—at least, practically—problematic. It is not clear how we might cleanly divorce the acquisition of wealth from (good) character in Yoruba thought. For instance, someone’s Ori may destine him for great wealth. But the Yoruba believe that wealth often requires great traits like hard work, honesty, prudence, and patience to build. So, if an Ori for wealth does not cover character traits to bring the wealth into manifestation, there would be no guarantee that the individual will make wealth since it would then be left to chance, through the instruments of heredity and environment, for the individual to develop necessary characters. And if Balogun were to grant that an Ori does not guarantee the manifestation of its content, in what real sense can we then say that an Ori relates to destiny since by “destiny”—under soft determinism—we often mean what cannot but happen. So, it seems like a tough ask to divorce character from Ori under soft determinism.

Besides, Balogun’s claim that “It is only inexplicable traits of a person either towards evil or good that the Yoruba explain through appeal to destiny” is contradictory. He claims that “Ori has nothing to do with moral character” (125). But the claim that Yoruba explain “inexplicable” proclivity of a person towards evil or good would seem to contradict the earlier claim since “evil or good” is squarely in the realm of morality. If the Yoruba explain an unusually good person’s character by appealing to destiny, why can they not do the same for someone who is half as good? It would seem that soft determinism falls short of perfectly making sense of the Yoruba worldview.

The Yoruba Christian Preacher and Destiny

Ebenezer Obey epitomizes a prevalent view among African preachers; theirs is a Christianized view of destiny forged from an unholy syncretism of two worldviews resulting in metaphysical adultery. (I say “unholy” because, as I have argued in my Divine Foreknowledge and Human Free Will series, the amalgamation does not work. If one wants to derive a doctrine of destiny from the Bible, it would be a fatalist-determinist kind. This implies that the African preacher has no justification for preaching on alterable destiny unless he is supposing the potentiality approach. But as already mentioned, the Bible does not recognize such a view at all.) When the legendary musician asserts that his destiny is good, he takes that supposition from a Christian view. It is highly doubtful that one can assuringly derive a good-only view of destiny from the Yorùbá worldview especially considering that, as several scholars have noted, it is only with the benefit of hindsight when one’s life is coming (or has come) to an end that we can declare with certainty what an individual’s destiny is. In contrast, one can, at least, in principle, hold to a view of a personal good-destiny within the Christian view earlier in life. As Ebenezer Obey sings elsewhere, 

rere l’Olúwa ń ṣe o, rere l’Olúwa ń ṣe, ma mi ‘kan.

(God only does good; do not waver)

Undoubtedly, the Christian worldview informs this lyric. It is very plausible that a complete historical assessment of how Yorùbá people came to accept Christianity may reveal that Yorùbá ancestors saw how Christianity could answer questions that their metaphysical narrative was too pallid to address.

The End

Works Cited in this Series

Abimbola, Wande. Ifá: An Exposition of Ifá Literary Corpus. Ibadan: Oxford University Press Nigeria, 1976. Print.

Balogun, Oladele Abiodun. “The Concepts of Ori and Human Destiny in Traditional Yoruba Thought: A Soft-Deterministic Interpretation.” Nordic Journal of African Studies, vol. 16, no. 1, 2007, pp. 116—130. JSTOR. Accessed 9 Sept. 2018.

Ekanola, Adebola Babatunde. “A Naturalistic Interpretation of the Concept of Ori.” Philosophia Africana, vol. 9, no. 1, 2006, pp. 41—52. JSTOR. Accessed 9 Sept. 2018.

Enaikele, M. D, and A. T. Adeleke. “Yorubas’ Ifa System and Human Destiny: An Oral Narrative Account.” Fourth World Journal. No issue info. 5—15. JSTOR. Accessed 9 Sept. 2018.

Lawal, Babatunde. “Orí: The Significance of the Head in Yoruba Sculpture.” Journal of Anthropological Research, vol. 41, no. 1, 1985, pp. 91–103. JSTOR. www.jstor.org/stable/3630272. Accessed 15 Oct. 2018.

Makinde, Moses Akin. “An African Concept of Human Personality: The Yoruba Example.” Ultimate Reality and Meaning, vol. 7, no. 3, 1984, pp. 189-200. University of Toronto Press. https://www.utpjournals.press/doi/abs/10.3138/uram.7.3.189. Accessed 9 Sept. 2018.

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