philosophy is for everyone
and not just philosophers

philosophers should know lots
of things besides philosophy

Philosophical Connections

Electronic Philosopher

Feature Articles

University of London BA

Philosophy Lovers Gallery

PhiloSophos Home

International Society for Philosophers

Fatalism and determinism compared


To: Francis W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Fatalism and determinism compared
Date: 2 March 2007 12:53

Dear Francis,

Thank you for your email of 25 February, with your third essay for the Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'Compare the theory of fatalism with the thesis of determinism. Is there any way that one could consistently hold a determinist view while denying fatalism, or hold a fatalist view while denying determinism?'

I have to say that I am disappointed in the Stanford Encyclopedia definition of Fatalism. This is the first time I have found myself disagreeing with one of its articles.

What this highlights is that there is a 'wide' and 'narrow' way of understanding Fatalism. The 'wide' understanding includes all the possible ways in which we could feel powerless to have any effect on the future. So this includes belief in causal determinism.

The 'narrow' understanding, however, is the one which I would strictly identify with 'fatalism', which is a view about the nature of truth. According the fatalist, there are truths about the future. The fact that I have not yet taken the philosophy exam, scheduled in two week's time, has no effect on the question whether 'GK passes the exam' is true. Either 'GK passes the exam' is true or it false. I won't know until I get the results, but that is just because I can't see into the future. That statement HAS a truth value whether i know that truth value or not. It had a truth value a million years ago, and it will still have the same truth value in a million years time, when the human race has been annihilated. Truth is truth, it does not alter with time.

I hope you can see where this might be heading.

If 'truth is truth', then it is irrelevant whether determinism holds or not. If it is true that the subatomic particle will go left, then it will go left, irrespective of whether it was caused to go left or not. If it is true that it will go right then it will go right. Of course we won't know until it happens, but the truth is the truth.

This would be an argument for the view that 'one can consistently hod a fatalist view while denying determinism'.

But is it necessary to be a fatalist about truth? The alternative view (which was favoured by the Greek philosopher Aristotle) is that the future is 'open', not 'closed'. There are no facts about the future. A fact is something that only exists when the event in question happens or after it happens. So the statement 'the particle will go left' has no truth value, true or false, until the event happens.

It would be perfectly possible to hold that determinism is true, but still reject the fatalist view of truth. One way to see how this might make a difference is to imagine that the universe HAS always been determinist and IS determinist, but that at some time in the future there will be a cataclysmic event as a result of which the universe will CEASE to be determinist.

That would be an argument for the view that 'one can consistently hold a determinist view while denying fatalism'.

So what?

I you are a fatalist or a determinist, you don't have to be both. Either way, you have a problem reconciling your philosophical belief with your belief in free will. That is the topic for another essay.

There are one or two things more I would like to say about fatalism in response to what you said in your essay.

'Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother' said the Oracle at Delphi. When he heard this, Oedipus decided that the only safe thing to do was to run away, to get as far away from his father and mother as possible. What he didn't know was that his father and mother weren't who he thought they were. On the road he met a man whom he killed. That man turned out to be his father. He made his home in another city, and married the Queen. It turned out that the Queen was his mother.

In other words, just like the story in unit 2, the Black Box, the Oracle knew what Oedipus was going to do as a result of hearing its prediction, and included that fact in making the prediction. If he hadn't heard the prediction Oedipus would have stayed where he was and his father would have lived.

However, there is an alternative, 'cruder' version of fatalism whereby the Gods, having decided what will happen, arrange things so that the event happens no matter what we do. In this scenario, even if Oedipus had stayed where he was, the Gods would have fixed things so that he killed his father and married his mother.

Crude fatalism is not very interesting unless you believe in the existence of the Greek gods.

The argument, 'I might as well stay home and not go to work because if I am going to get my promotion I will get it no matter what I do' is sometimes known as the 'lazy sophism'. It is not implied by the truth of fatalism. The explanation why it is a 'sophism', i.e. invalid is interesting and you could do some research on the internet to find out why.

All the best,