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Free Will, Fatalism and Determinism

by Martin O'Hagan

Traditionally the distinction between the concepts implies that fatalism (or lazy sophism as it is nicknamed) has a religious even magical connotation, That there is something out there beyond mankind conducting the entire operation. It perhaps reaches its high point in theological fatalism that God knows all about our future actions and can lead to the worse kind of quietism.

For example if we are ill there is no point in seeking help; for if the individual is going to get better then he will and if he or she is going to die then the will of God will make any medical care futile. Compare the Jehovah's Witnesses objection to blood transfusion and other medical interventions because they flaunt God's will.

Let us divest this notion of its theological trappings and fatalism still remains. Examine the tautology and 1950s popular Doris Day song 'What will be will be'. Atheists are even known to have accepted this idea. Consider the proposition that atomic war between the former Soviet Union and modern China is inevitable. If it is true there is no point in worrying about it since we will all be dead. But if it is false why bother worrying since it won't happen.

It is logically necessary that any statement about the future must be either true or false. But the events that determine tomorrow are not logical truths. Logical truths about propositions are not causes of events. The future state of the world is determined by the present state but is not influenced by necessary truth about propositions.

It follows that the fatalists who argue what will be will be and there's nothing that can be done about it are in fact arguing that human actions never produce any changes in the world. From a harmless tautology which tells nothing about the world the fatalists constructs a dangerous set of ideas that something or someone outside humanity and the nature is causing the future. They are saying that whatever it is that causes the future to be what it will be, that our own actions can never have any part in it. It brings to mind the dangerous situation a few years ago involving Nancy Reagan the wife of the US President. Mrs Reagan consulted astrologers before policy decisions were made and enacted.

This is magical thinking that forces the fatalist down an impasse. Everyone knows that human beings spend their lives in all sorts of activities that quite obviously influence events. Human effort is not always doomed to frustration.

The Minister for Transport's latest plans for less cars on Britain's road will have an impact. Whether it's the particular effect expected has yet to be seem. The future will be but there is no justification for saying it will be what it will in spite of anything that is now done.

It is casual factors such as human thoughts desires and actions that shape the future. In the words of Marx, 'Men [and presumably women] make their own history but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstance chosen by themselves but under circumstance directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past' (Feuer p360).

According to Roy Bhaskar (ed. Bottomore p139-141) this and other passages in Marx has been interpreted in different ways. The debate centres around whether the future is inevitable as some of those in the Second International would have argued. Or whether it was perhaps fated, that no matter what anyone did or didn't do the socialism dawn would be a reality.

Bhaskar rubbishes the notion of Marx being a fatalist concluding that Gramsci was right to suggest that 1917 was a 'Revolution against Karl Marx's Capital.' Bhaskar accepts that what happens in the future will happen because or at least in virtue of, not despite, whatever men and woman do; any other view would constitute a gross reification of the historical process and be contrary to Marx's repeated assertions that it is men who make history.

The fatalist — unlike his apparent determinist opposite — believes that human actions are not to be found among the factors that determine the world. They accept as logical necessity that the future will be what it will be. Indeed they may deduce that the relationship between events is similar to that between the premise and the conclusion in logic. that is to deduce that human actions have no effect.

In contrast, the determinist believes events are determined by other events and not by logical relationship between propositions. The 'What will be will be'' tautology contains nothing of relevance to the world.

On the other hand, if we look to the state of the world and beyond and say, 'what is was to be', this is not a tautology but expresses the determinist's position in its essence. The state of the world — how it is — has been determined by previous states of the world — what was.

This relationship is clearly not a logical one as the fatalists might have us believe. But it is contingent on observation and scientific laws — that is, laws that describe how things work. Human input, which the fatalist denies, is among the causes. The fatalist would have us believe that the Book of Destiny was written at the beginning of time containing everything that is to happen. But the determinist would look to its current pages in use and see human actions holding pride of place.

The positivistic world view had input from the fatalist perception. It is based on an analogy with the mechanistic description of the solar system had profound effects on philosophy and the social sciences. Laplace (1749-1824) was once asked where does God fit into his mechanistic world and replied that he had no need for that hypothesis. (Stroll and Popkin p 204). The notion of anyone determining future events was foreign to his particular paradigm.

His more modern representatives included B.F. Skinner, an American psychologist, argued that human actions is based on genetic fingerprints or social reinforcing. The free will debate, he insisted, was not based on reason but on a primitive superstition. (Vivian p 42) The more sinister analogy of human society with insects was a form of social Darwinism that led directly to the gas chambers.

Baruch Spinoza, who was in the metaphysical tradition of the Stoics and Descartes, pulled few punches when he insisted that free will didn't exist. All events were determined by natural laws so that people are not free. Nothing is good nor is it bad in themselves. But the good life consists in possession of an attitude towards the world (Hampton).

Yet clearly human volition does exist by virtue of the fact that 1 have chosen to ask, 'Where does free will fit into a deterministic universe?'

The problem of free will in a determined universe deals with the human factor. Augustine was tormented by the paradox that a perfect God could not be the author of so much evil. He concluded free will is necessary if sin and evil in the world was to have any meaning. He was then able to reconcile — albeit not as satisfactorily as he would like — a supremely good God with the more mundane.

Historically there is a duality which on the one hand allows free choice and the ability to act and deliberate. Human Beings are conscious of freedom in this sense. On the other hand, there is also the realisation that what we take as free will is the result of personal and social factors. It could be argued that the more we learn about human nature the more we realise that the social, material, psychological chemical, biological and now genetic factors have a serious input.

Despite the above some of the presuppositions that we employ in our moral life seems to require that we accept some degree of free agency on the human level. The libertarian can show that determinism is incompatible with certain aspects of our experience and belief. Many point to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. This asserts that there is a fundamental indeterminacy in our knowledge about particles. It is not possible to determine both quantities of velocity and position of a particle without uncertainty.

The interpretation of this scientific law is that there is an element of indeterminacy in nature. If this exists on the most basic level of nature therefore by analogy such freedom must occur on a higher levels such as the human. This is fanciful since no serious analogy between the results of' modern physical science and the basis of human volition seem possible,

According to Berger freedom is not empirically available; in other words it is not open to scientific methods. We can not produce a scientific proof of the reality of freedom. Empirical science operates within certain assumptions, one of which is universal causality: That is an object or an event that is its own cause lies outside the scientific universe of discourse.

Hume's approach to the problem dismisses the antithesis of freedom of will and determinism. He insisted that one is compatible with the other. Human beings can only make choices in a world governed by causation. This was a mental habit caused by frequent repetitions. If the world was not predictable we could not choose; to choose is to anticipate an outcome. It is this outcome that one causes. He insisted that a world without caused choices would have no effects. Kant on the other hand thought that the idea of causation is embedded in the mind a priori. Expectation of regularities is prior to the events themselves.

But it seems that both might be right because they may be speaking about different things. It is possible to accept Hume's basic tenet that a young child gradually realises that certain causes produce certain effects because of regular association. The youngster uses this to make further explorations of the environment bringing in Kant's notion of cause to work upon various successions of events which are presented to the mind.

Kant was in no doubt that human beings impose regularity upon events rather than the reverse. We actively look for causes rather than observe nature passively.

The notion of free will is necessary for modern legalistic systems since they are based on the concept of individual choice. A person can choose between committing a crime or not.

This notion of freedom does not mean unpredictability for as Weber insisted that if it did then the madman would be the freest person of all. The person who is conscious of his own volition doesn't stand outside the world of causality but rather perceives his own freedom as a special category of cause.

It is in this sense that men and women are free to accept or reject a course of action. For example the two young men who planted the car bomb at Omagh would argue that they had no choice but to do what they did because of the numbers of uniformed police officers about.

They would claim that difficult communications made it impossible for them to inform the authorities of the new location of the deadly device. The slaughter was not their fault but the problem lay at the feet of those in charge. It was an horrific consequence of war.

In fact there was choice and the terrorists are using such excuses as alibis for personal cowardice. Sartre would argue that they could have said 'no.' They could have put their hands up and surrendered allowing vital minutes to defuse the device. Sartre would describe the terrorist refusal to take such a course of action as 'bad faith.' This is to pretend something is necessary that is in fact voluntary, 'Bad faith' is running away from freedom, a fraudulent avoidance of the 'agony of choice.'

'Bad faith' expresses itself in many situations ranging from the common place to the worst disaster. Sartre uses the example of the shuffling Cafe waiter. He is in 'bad faith' insofar as he pretends to himself that the waiters role constitutes his real existence. I am in 'bad faith' insofar as I believe my job as a reporter is my real existence. The Omagh terrorists are in 'bad faith' because they excuse themselves by pretending the dead are a result of war. Real humans are reduced to the abstract term the dead.

The concept of 'bad faith' allows us to see that society is covered by a 'film of lies'. It is the very possibility of 'bad faith' that shows us the reality of human freedom — albeit in a determined universe. An individual can be in 'bad faith' only because he or she knows they are free and will not face that freedom. Berger argues that 'bad faith' is a shadow of human liberty (Berger pp163-165). It's attempt to escape liberty is always doomed, Hence Sartre's famous maxim we are 'condemned to freedom.'

The Newtonian deterministic universe has taken a battering over the last 90 years. First there was quantum physics that, according to Series et alia (p499), introduced chance back into the cosmos. And then there was Chaos Theory that left the future states of the Universe 'open' in some sense.

In a line from Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia Valentine proclaims that the future is disorder and not the tidy world of the Enlightenment. 'The unpredictable and the predetermined unfold together to, make everything the way it is.'

We're better at predicting events at the edge of the galaxy or inside a nucleus of an atom than whether it'll rain on auntie's garden party three Sundays from now...

A door like this has cracked open four or five times since we got up on our hind legs...

It's the best possible time to be alive when almost everything you thought you know is wrong.

Fractals, Chaos and Strange Attractors Series et alia p503.



Philosophy made Simple 3rd Edition Richard Popkin, Avrum Stroll (1993 Butterworth/ Heinemann)

Fractals, Chaos and Strange Attractors C. Series, P. Davis et alia, 'Faber Book of Science' edited by John Carey (Faber 1995)

Human Freedom and Responsibility Frederick Vivian (Chatto and Windus 1964)

Marx and Engels, Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy edited by Lewis S. Feuer

An Introduction to Western Philosophy Anthony Flew revised edition (Thames and Hudson 1989)

Spinoza' Stuart Hampshire (Pelican Books 1953)

Invitation to Sociology Peter Berger (Pelican Original edition 1975)

© Marie O'Hagan 2001

Martin O'Hagan IN MEMORIAM