Determinism and Fatalism

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This is the the thirty-seventh post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear. In the last post, I finished a series within the series on philosophical theology, looking at what sort of revelation we might expect if anything like the traditional view of God is correct. This post begins a new section of the series on freedom and determinism.

Before we get to any substantive philosophical arguments, I want to get clear on some
definitions. Some of the terms used in this discussion have been used in a number of different ways. To start off, I want to distinguish between determinism and fatalism. Philosophers generally define the term 'determinism' in something like the following way.

Determinism: given the laws of nature and the state of the universe at any one time, there is only one possible state of the universe at any later time.

Sometimes people confuse this notion with another one, and since both have been treated under the category of fate, destiny, or predetermination, it's worth getting clear on the difference. The term 'fatalism' has been used a few different ways in philosophy, but I'm going to use it in the following way to distinguish it from determinism and to make it clear that the issue here does not involve this commonsense notion of fate.

Fatalism: certain events are unavoidable, no matter what anyone does.

Two differences are worth noticing. One is that fatalism allows for some events to be undetermined. Determinism, in this sense, is a stronger claim. It says that every event is predetermined. Furthermore, it takes the laws of nature and the past to determine the future. Fatalism doesn't specify what does the determining. In practice, it will not be anything like the laws of nature and the past, however. It will almost always be some sort of divine or supernatural figure or at least someone intelligent who has purposes.

Otherwise why would some events be fixed ahead of time, while others aren't? Why would they be so fixed that no matter what you might do, they will happen that way? Maybe an evil demon wants you to die at 1:00 tomorrow, and it will happen no matter where you go to avoid it or what you might try to do to prevent it. It could be from being poisoned, stabbed in the back, run over by a truck, or anything else, as long as you die at that time tomorrow.

The assumption behind the fatalist attitude is that various futures are possible, with that one event happening in all of them. So it turns out to be a denial of determinism, which holds that there is one future determined by things already true now. It's not as if these futures with you trying to avoid that one event are really possible. The very laws of nature will ensure that none of your attempts to avoid it will happen, or else they will ensure that your attempts will happen. One or the other is true. But it's not as if just the outcome is determined, if determinism is true. Your actions leading up to the outcome are also true, and thus your actions have been part of the process that led to the outcome that was determined, because those actions were also determined.

Some things I find people saying on this topic rely on confusing these two notions of determinism and fatalism, so I thought it would be good to get clear on that difference before moving on to the discussion of freedom and what its relation to determinism might be. In the next post, I'll look at the arguments people give for thinking determinism is true.


I know you said that's how philosophers define the terms (fatalism specifically in this comment) but is that the general definition? Because I remember them sounding like two sides of the same coin: determinism looking at events now and saying "caused by previous events" and fatalism looking at any event (without restriction) and saying "unavoidable". Just checked m-w and it seems to allow for the fuzinness but it doesn't restrict it to some.

There's lots of fuzziness in ordinary language. That's why philosophers identify clearer concepts and then tell you what they mean by each word, using those clearer concepts. I think the ordinary sense of the word 'determinism' is pretty much what philosophers mean by it, but philosophers have tried to clarify it and define it more exactly. There are several things people have used the word 'fatalism' to mean. I'm using it to mean one particular thing in order to distinguish that sort of view from determinism. I'm not making any claim about what the word can mean in English. I'm not even saying this is the only thing philosophers might use it to mean, since it's not.

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