Thank you for reading this. You didn’t have to. Or did you? I mean, before you started reading, one of two things was true; either it was true that you were going to read this, or it was true that you were not going to read it. If at that time (before you started reading), it was true that you were going to read it, you can’t change that truth, can you? And conversely, if it was true a few minutes ago that you weren’t going to read it, then you weren’t going to read it. Since one of those two things must have been true, before you started reading, doesn’t that mean that whichever you did was inevitable? I guess I shouldn’t have thanked you; you had no choice. You were fated to read this.
The previous paragraph represents a classic argument for fatalism, an ancient philosophy claiming that the future is inevitable – that certain things are going to happen, and no choices you make can change that. And although the philosophy technically applies to all kinds of futures, we usually only invoke fatalism when resigning ourselves to futures we wouldn’t choose – after all, nobody needs a philosophy to cope with good fortune!
But, you will be happy to hear (as you probably could have guessed) that there are problems with the argument in my first paragraph (can you spot them?), and so far, no one has proved that fatalism is correct; nobody has proved it wrong either.
Fatalism overlaps a lot with determinism, but there are major differences. According to determinism, all events are pre-determined by chains of cause-and-effect. Fatalism is often thought to apply to general events, such as meeting the love of your life, without applying to everything (you could meet him or her in lots of different ways. Ancient religions tended to go for this kind of fatalism, because they believed in human-ish gods who were not necessarily all powerful and omniscient, but did have agendas for human beings and the power to enforce them.
Unlike with determinism, it is possible to be fatalistic without knowing how events are fated—whether by God, causality, or for some other reason. The most discussed forms of fatalism rest on the idea that whatever is, must be so, and therefore must always have been going to be so, without necessarily saying how that comes to be so. In other words, they rest on pure logic, without reference to physics. However, we might become fatalists based on a variety of ideas:
- God or gods have plans for us, that they are going to enforce.
- God is omniscient, which means that the future is already known to Her, so how could change?
- Because of causality — i.e. because of determinism.
- Because of logic: statements about the future must be either true or false, and must have always been true or false (supposedly, but not really).
We will talk about why none of these ideas in fact requires us to believe in fatalism, in section III. First, we will touch on some landmarks in the history of fatalism.
A lot of people believe that God has a plan for them. How could she not? If she’s god. It’s part of the western definition of God that she is omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipotent (all-powerful); therefore, the only way she could not have a plan for you, is if she didn’t care what happens to you. Moreover, life holds some suffering for everyone, normally quite a lot, and without God, there may be comforting justification for this suffering. Why did someone with a family contract cancer and die? How could the Holocaust have happened? The only comforting answer may be, “because God has a plan.” Otherwise, we have to believe either that God does not exist, or that she is okay with pointless horror and suffering (and she’s supposed to be “all-merciful”). Throughout history, people have chosen to believe that their fates were determined by gods, rather than face the depressing alternatives.
Ancient religious fatalism tended to differ from the Judeo-Christian-Islamic version in interesting ways, mainly because their gods were not imagined to be all-powerful and all-knowing (how could a family of gods all be omnipotent? If they disagreed about anything, it would be a paradox!). People tended to believe that the gods, as a group, have plans for each of us, but not that every tiny event was pre-determined. As we know well from studying the colorful Greek and Roman myths in high school, the gods often had to connive and interfere to ensure that things went according to their plans; this belief is now known as “interventionist theological fatalism.”
Meanwhile, many of these religions had another intriguing feature – one or more deities, such as the Greek Fates, who determined the life-spans of not only human beings, but the other gods as well! This seems significant; it shows that even then, people had the sense that fate, if it existed was more fundamental than the gods themselves, a metaphysical imperative, one might say. Which is how it seems to be viewed by non-religious fatalists as well.
The first well-known debates about fatalism come from the Greeks (of course). Even before Aristotle, Origen and Cicero had discussed one of the most famous arguments for fatalism – “The Idle Argument” which concerns a man, let’s call him “Bob,” who is sick and contemplating whether to go to the doctor:
- Either Bob is going to get better or not.
- If it is true that Bob is going to get better, that’s a fact, whether we know it or not yet, so nothing Bob does is going to change that.
- (Likewise, for Bob not getting better)
- Therefore, Bob is either fated to get better or fated not to get better.
- Therefore, there is no reason for Bob to go to the doctor.
The Idle Argument was always regarded as a problem to be solved, not a truth, and it has been resolved, in a variety of ways, beginning with Aristotle. All philosophers agree now that the connection between (1) and (2) is false; just because it’s true that either A or not-A must happen. That doesn’t mean that either A or not-A is true before one of them happens; it is incorrect to say that “Bob is going to get better” must be true or false before it happens. The truth or falsity of that statement is created only when Bob gets better or doesn’t.
There have been other fatalistic and anti-fatalistic arguments based on either faith or logic, but you can’t argue with faith, and the purely logical arguments fall apart if you recognize that statements about the future need not be true or false before the future arrives. So, we will move on to the scientific era, where the arguments become more compelling, and solutions more surprising.
Does natural law imply that fatalism is true?
We certainly have very good reason to believe that all physical events are caused by previous physical events, and that all events are physical, or at least not supernatural. This has been the most popular view for several hundred years—at least since Isaac Newton, whose theories of motion and gravity popularized the idea of the “billiard ball universe.” This is the idea that if one were to know the position and condition of every piece of matter and energy in the universe at any given moment, then it would be (ideally) possible to predict everything that will ever happen after that moment, and retrodict everything that happened before. In other words, all events would be fully determined.
Although Einstein’s theories of relativity (which replaced Newtonian mechanics) make past and future relative to the observer, this only makes the argument stronger for fatalism, because it implies that all past and future events already exist. Otherwise, how could my future be your past? Which is something that can happen in relativity (but that’s another discussion). So, in this, “block universe,” as it’s called, all past, present, and future already exist, our lives are paths through this already-determined space-time, and fatalism wins.
Or does it? Because quantum theory, which Einstein helped discover but resisted, changes the picture radically. For two reasons – the uncertainty principle and the principle of superposition. Philosophers tend to dismiss the relevance of quantum theory out of ignorance. Most know that the uncertainty principle means that events are all just a tiny bit random and unpredictable at the sub-atomic level, and they correctly reason that this doesn’t necessarily make events less determined, just less predictable. Probabilistic / statistical determination is still a kind of determination.
However, quantum theory says much more; it says that each time any event can happen in more than one way (such as Bob getting better or not), all of them happen. This is one meaning of “superposition”; different possibilities existing at once, on top of each other (in a sense). The many-worlds interpretation attempts to explain why that’s not what we experience. Its answer is that each possible outcome of an event happens in a different “world.” Under this interpretation, Bob gets better in some worlds and he does not get better in others. Which would mean that (a) yes, the universe is deterministic, but b) since every one of our possible futures happens, it is not fatalistic.
It’s a difficult result to interpret, but one with compelling experimental support. A variety of observed quantum effects, especially those now being harnessed for quantum computing, seem to depend on multiple worlds existing, in some sense.
The most difficult problem raised by this theory for fatalism is the question of what it means for each of us personally if multiple versions of us exist, forever separated, experiencing different fates. One might ask, “how can I make sure I’m the one that wins the lottery, rather than alternate me!?” The answer is that it’s a nonsensical question; you will become both the one who wins and the one who doesn’t. Your actions now may determine which one you become, but those actions were not inevitable; another version of you enjoys a different fate. So, is that a kind of fatalism or not? Academic philosophers haven’t even tried to answer that one yet!
IV. Famous Quotes about Fatalism
“La fatalité triomphe dès que l’on croit en elle.” ― Simone de Beauvoir, America Day by Day
Fatalism triumphs over those who believe in it. One of the great existentialist philosophers, Simon de Beauvoir appropriately ignores the metaphysical question of fatalism’s reality, focusing instead on how the belief affects our lives. Existentialists believe that, at the least, we have the ability to interpret our lives, and from this point of view fatalism is wrong, if not metaphysically, practically, and perhaps morally. Because, believing you have no power over your fate could have devastating consequences for your life.
“The stars are only the father of your fate. The mother is your own soul.” – Johannes Kepler
A rare and fascinating quote to come from Johannes Kepler, the early 17th century astronomer, who spent most of his life as an administrator in the Catholic Church, and published the first widely accepted theory that the Earth and other planets orbit the sun. Thus, considering his devotion to both Catholicism and the deterministic physics of astronomy, it is remarkable to see this quotation which seems to say that our fates are only shaped but not determined by physics or God (the stars). One might interpret it to mean that “the stars” represent laws that we cannot break while our souls give birth to meaningful lives.
Interventionist Theological Fatalism: discussed in section II, this is a label for the ancient belief that our fates are, at least sometimes determined by active divine intervention in our lives.
Omniscience Fatalism: the argument that fatalism must be true because God, or some other force, already knows all facts, past, present, and future, making it impossible to change any of them without contradicting God’s omniscience.
Physical Fatalism (Determinism): the argument, based on classical physics, that all events are uniquely pre-determined by previous physical events, through chains of cause and effect.
Logical or Conceptual Fatalism: discussed in section II, the argument that future events must be determined because of the fact that anything we say about them now must be true or false, and therefore, to change our fates would require changing the past, which is assumed to be impossible.
VI. Fatalism versus Free Will
Free will, the ability to choose what we will, necessarily contradicts most kinds of fatalism, although not all. You might believe that you are fated to fall in love with a certain person, or other significant life-events without ruling out free will in smaller matters. But if you believe that all events are pre-determined or pre-known by God, then “free will” seems impossible. You have no choice about what choices you will make. Philosophers in every generation have tried to prove that fatalism must be false and free will real – so far, with no success (debatably!)
VII. Fatalism in Pop Culture
Example #1: The Matrix
This scene from the first Matrix film alludes to both “omniscience fatalism” and “logical fatalism.” The Oracle is said to be omniscient about events in the Matrix, because she is one of its creators. At the same time, she prods Neo with the paradox of “logical fatalism”; if her statements about the future are true, logically, the future can’t change those truths, but common sense tells us that a person who knows what is going to happen can change it. The films’ solution to this paradox is revealed in the second film – and in our article on “free will”!
Example #2: The Adjustment Bureau
One of the most under-appreciated of many films based on the works of American science-fiction author Philip K. Dick, The Adjustment Bureau is an utterly unique and modern representation of “interventionist theological fatalism.” The Adjustment Bureau is a supernatural agency that works to make sure God’s plans for our world proceed without a hitch. When those plans separate the film’s hero (Matt Damon) from the woman of his dreams, he fights. With film-noir secret-agents-of-god and a heroic quest for true love, this film makes compelling adventure and romance out of philosophy.