The view – beloved of Greek oracles and their adherents – that the future, or part of it, will be what it will be, irrespective of our desires and actions.
If we try to evade what is destined, our actions will always be frustrated and somehow turned so as to bring about the fated result.
Probably never held as a serious philosophical doctrine, fatalism should be distinguished from determinism and necessitarianism.
The term “fatalism” can refer to any of the following ideas:
- Any view according to which human beings are powerless to do anything other than what they actually do. Included in this is the belief that humans have no power to influence the future or indeed the outcome of their own actions.
- One such view is theological fatalism, according to which free will is incompatible with the existence of an omniscient God who has foreknowledge of all future events. This is very similar to theological determinism.[a]
- A second such view is logical fatalism, according to which propositions about the future which we take to currently be either true or false can only be true or false if future events are already determined.
- A third such view is causal determinism. Causal determinism (often simply called “determinism”) is now usually treated as distinct from fatalism, on the grounds that it requires only the determination of each successive state in a system by that system’s prior state, rather than the final state of a system being predetermined.
- The view that the appropriate reaction to the inevitability of some future event is acceptance or resignation, rather than resistance.[b] This view is closer to everyday use of the word “fatalism”, and is similar to defeatism.
Determinism and predeterminism
While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, fatalism, determinism, and predeterminism are distinct, as each emphasizes a different aspect of the futility of human will or the foreordination of destiny. However, all these doctrines share common ground.
Determinists generally agree that human actions affect the future but that human action is itself determined by a causal chain of prior events. Their view does not accentuate a “submission” to fate or destiny, whereas fatalists stress an acceptance of future events as inevitable. Determinists believe the future is fixed specifically due to causality; fatalists and predeterminists believe that some or all aspects of the future are inescapable but, for fatalists, not necessarily due to causality.
Fatalism is a looser term than determinism. The presence of historical “indeterminisms” or chances, i.e. events that could not be predicted by sole knowledge of other events, is an idea still compatible with fatalism. Necessity (such as a law of nature) will happen just as inevitably as a chance—both can be imagined as sovereign. This idea has roots in Aristotle’s work, “De interpretatione”.
Theological fatalism is the thesis that infallible foreknowledge of a human act makes the act necessary and hence unfree. If there is a being who knows the entire future infallibly, then no human act is free. The philosopher Al Farabi makes the case that if God does in fact know all human actions and choices, then Aristotle’s original solution to this dilemma stands.
One famous ancient argument regarding fatalism was the so-called Idle Argument. It argues that if something is fated, then it would be pointless or futile to make any effort to bring it about. The Idle Argument was described by Origen and Cicero and it went like this:
- If it is fated for you to recover from this illness, then you will recover whether you call a doctor or not.
- Likewise, if you are fated not to recover, you will not do so whether you call a doctor or not.
- But either it is fated that you will recover from this illness, or it is fated that you will not recover.
- Therefore, it is futile to consult a doctor.
The Idle Argument was anticipated by Aristotle in his De Interpretatione chapter 9. The Stoics considered it to be a sophism and the Stoic Chrysippus attempted to refute it by pointing out that consulting the doctor would be as much fated as recovering. He seems to have introduced the idea that in cases like that at issue two events can be co-fated, so that one cannot occur without the other.
Logical fatalism and the argument from bivalence
The main argument for logical fatalism goes back to antiquity. This is an argument that depends not on causation or physical circumstances but rather is based on presumed logical truths. There are numerous versions of this argument, including those by Aristotle and Richard Taylor. These arguments have been objected to and elaborated on with some effect.
The key idea of logical fatalism is that there is a body of true propositions (statements) about what is going to happen, and these are true regardless of when they are made. So, for example, if it is true today that tomorrow there will be a sea battle, then there cannot fail to be a sea battle tomorrow, since otherwise it would not be true today that such a battle will take place tomorrow.
The argument relies heavily on the principle of bivalence: the idea that any proposition is either true or false. As a result of this principle, if it is not false that there will be a sea battle, then it is true; there is no in-between. However, rejecting the principle of bivalence—perhaps by saying that the truth of a proposition regarding the future is indeterminate—is a controversial view since the principle is an accepted part of classical logic.
One criticism comes from the novelist David Foster Wallace, who in a 1985 paper “Richard Taylor’s Fatalism and the Semantics of Physical Modality” suggests that Taylor reached his conclusion of fatalism only because his argument involved two different and inconsistent notions of impossibility. Wallace did not reject fatalism per se, as he wrote in his closing passage, “if Taylor and the fatalists want to force upon us a metaphysical conclusion, they must do metaphysics, not semantics. And this seems entirely appropriate.” Willem deVries and Jay Garfield, both of whom were advisers on Wallace’s thesis, expressed regret that Wallace never published his argument. In 2010, the thesis was, however, published posthumously as Time, Fate, and Language: An Essay on Free Will.
- Rice, Hugh (Winter 2018). “Fatalism”. In Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University: Center for the Study of Language and Information. Retrieved 5 April 2020.
- Solomon, Robert C. (October 2003). “On Fate and Fatalism”. Philosophy East and West. University of Hawaii Press. 53 (4): 435–454. JSTOR 1399977.
- Taylor, Richard (January 1962). “Fatalism”. The Philosophical Review. Duke University Press. 71 (1): 56–66. JSTOR 2183681.
- Zagzebski, Linda. “Foreknowledge and Free Will”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 7 June 2020.
- Stambaugh, Joan (1994). Other Nietzsche, The. SUNY Press. p. 81. ISBN 9781438420929.
- Friedrich Nietzsche, The Wanderer and His Shadow, 1880, Türkenfatalismus
- Hoefer, Carl, “Causal Determinism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
- Barnes, E. J. (1984). The complete works of Aristotle, de interpretatione IX. princeton: Princeton University press.
- Zagzebski, Linda, “Foreknowledge and Free Will”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2017/entries/free-will-foreknowledge/>.
- Al-Farabi. (1981). Commentary on Aristotle’s De Interpretatione. Translated by F.W.Zimmerman,. Oxford: Oxford university press.
- Origen Contra Celsum II 20
- Cicero De Fato 28-9
- Susanne Bobzien, Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Philosophy, Oxford 1998, chapter 5
- “Aristotle, De Interpretatione, 9”. Archived from the original on 31 March 2007. Retrieved 17 February 2007.
- Mackie, Penelope. “Fatalism, Incompatibilism, and the Power To Do Otherwise” Noûs, vol. 37, no. 4, pp. 672-689, December 2003
- Ryerson, James (12 December 2008). “Consider the Philosopher”. The New York Times.