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Determinism vs fatalism, and truths about the past


To: Jeffrey D.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Determinism and fatalism compared
Date: 6th June 2008 12:07

Dear Jeffrey,

Thank you for your email of 25 May with your third essay for Possible World Machine, entitled, 'The maximum likelihood of fatal determinism,' 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?', and your email of 1 June, with your notes on unit 8.

Fatalism and determinism

I remember seeing a film 'Outback' where a young schoolteacher on his way to visit his girlfriend breaks down in the outback and loses all his money (as you do) in a game of two-up in the local bar. To cut a long story short, his life goes downhill from that point and he ends up miraculously surviving a suicide attempt.

Undoubtedly, a fatalist or a determinist in this situation would have a particular kind of *attitude* to what is happening to them, but it is not so clear that any practical course of action follows if you are for, or against, fatalism or determinism. It could be argued that as a fatalist (or a determinist) he might be more philosophical about his circumstances, and this has practical benefits. But the options facing him are the same irrespective of his philosophical view.

In your account of the different attitudes towards playing two-up, I could readily understand the debate between the classic equiprobabilist who holds that each throw is independent, and the Bayesian who takes the more pragmatic attitude that one should allow previous results to influence the probability assignment. In favour of the Bayesian approach, it could be said that we don't *know* that the coins are fair. If they are not, then the Bayes approach has a better chance of success.

(Of course, the organizers of the two-up event might know that the teacher is a Bayesian and deliberately manipulate the results so that a Bayesian is more likely to lose.)

What has this got to do with fatalism and/ or determinism? Not much, really. The choices for the gambler are very limited: bet on two heads, two tails or a head and a tails. It doesn't take a mathematical genius to calculate the odds. I don't think that a determinist would, as you suggest, try to predict the outcome on the basis of prior conditions because there are too many variables. If you tried to make a machine which tossed two heads every time, you would need to have incredibly precise control which I don't think is practically achievable. The point here is the same one as Lorenz made about the butterfly flapping its wings in Japan.

However, as I indicated above, if you are a fatalist you might be more philosophical about the outcome, less anxious as the coins fly through the air, resigned when you lose and so on.

What is the difference between determinism and fatalism?

Briefly: fatalism, as the philosophical view that statements about the future 'already have' a truth value, or are 'true now or false now', can hold even in a universe where determinism doesn't hold. On the other hand, you can be a determinist who rejects the idea of there being 'future truths' or 'future facts' in the sense held by the fatalist. Either way, the future is 'closed' rather than 'open', but for the determinist it isn't quite so closed as for the fatalist, because there is always the logical possibility that the laws of nature might change, or that determinism, which has been true at every time up to the present, might, at some time in the future, cease to be true.

You talk about assigning a probability of I. There is a sense in which, for the fatalist or the determinist, the 'objective' probability of any event is 1 or 0. However, such notion of probability isn't really much use. The point of probability judgements is that they are a guide to action. In order to assign a probability of 1 you have to be absolutely certain that a particular event will occur. If you are not certain, then the probability (from your perspective) is less than 1, regardless of whether or not you are a fatalist and/ or determinist.

Unit 8

It is agreed by all sides that to believe that P is to believe that P is true, or that it is true that P. This is what you would define as a 'relative truth' in the sense that it doesn't follow from the fact that I believe that P is true, that P *is* true, because my belief can be true *or* false. It is true for me, but only so long as I do not encounter any evidence that tells against my belief.

One could go on to describe the 'world' of my belief system, which corresponds at various points to the actual world (where my beliefs are true) and fails to correspond at other points. The actual world is the world of 'absolute truth', because it doesn't depend on what people believe, or indeed whether there are people at all.

The question, however, is why we need the idea of an 'actual world', conceived of as something absolute and existing for all time as the 'final set of answers' to every question. As you say, every judgement is made against a background of what you term 'boundary conditions', agreed methods of investigation, theories, methods of proof and so on. Whereas the notion of an absolute truth, the final set of answers, doesn't depend on any 'conditions' but only on itself.

Once again, as with the question of fatalism/ determinism, we seem to have a debate which does not have any obvious practical consequences. What difference is it going to make to you, as an investigator of 'truths', whether you believe in the existence of the 'absolute set of truths' (which no-one can ever know). All you can ever know, is what you learn by pursuing the methods of investigation that are available to you.

This is the peculiar thing about philosophy, that it raises questions which seem very important yet do not have an obvious practical application. It seems important, somehow, that the truth is 'out there' irrespective of our beliefs or assumptions, yet it is hard to see what practical difference it makes to hold this belief.

It could be objected to what I have said here that there is a kind of 'relativism' about truth which very definitely does have practical consequences, and that is the idea that you can 'control' or 'create' the truth, as in the world of 1984 where old editions of newspapers are edited and rewritten. Or you could be the kind of 'relativist' who holds that in a debate over abortion or religion or cosmology both sides are right. The 'truth' is just what anyone happens to believe. In that case, we might as well give up on talking of truth. There is no point in every arguing about anything, because everyone is always right.

This kind of 'lazy' relativism comes a bit unstuck, however, when you consider practical things like 'how strong the girders need to be for this bridge'. However, I suppose that if the bridge collapses it is still open to the designer to insist that nothing of the sort has happened everything is just fine.

All the best,