from The Worldview Literacy Book   copyright 2009            back to worldview theme(s) #11


#11A: Fatalism is the belief that people are powerless to do anything other than what they actually do.  Fatalists believe  human deliberation over possible actions they could take is pointless since in the inevitable end it will not matter.  Determinism is the belief that future events (including those involving human behavior) are fixed, caused or predetermined by preceding events (forces acting, a chain of prior occurrences, etc.).  Taken to its extreme, hard determinists conclude that at any single instance there is but a single physically possible way the future will turn out. 

     While fatalism and determinism technically are different, both fatalists and determinists believe that the future is in some sense already set or determined.  While many people use these words loosely to mean the same thing, the contexts in which they are used are typically different.  Fatalism is used more in psychological and sociological contexts, determinism more in physical and philosophical ones.  As for their connotations, the former term carries around more "baggage" than the latter. Fatalism is often linked with religious pre-destination of souls, realizing that resistance is futile—producing growing defeat-ism, succumbing to one's fate, etc.  Sociologists have suggested a link between the prevalence of belief in fatalism and living in poverty.  They hypothesize some people become resigned to their poverty and feel no matter what they do, since they were destined to be poor, they can’t escape it.    

     Before one can fully appreciate determinism, one needs to understand causality—part of most conceptions of an orderly universe.  Causality asserts events don’t just happen randomly but are linked to some cause.  Timing is important: the supposed cause (force that acts, energy release, triggering event, etc.) must precede or occur simultaneously with the observed effect.  Causality is a cornerstone of the foundation of classical physics.  For example, according to Newton’s second law, to change the state of motion of an object a force must act.  

     Hard belief in determinism—and the accompanying notion that any free will  humans seem to possess is just an illusion—was scientifically supportable up until about 1930 when quantum physics became fully developed.  In the sub-atomic world governed by quantum mechanics, with seemingly random events occurring, the discussion of causality becomes more complicated.  In the quantum world, with respect to the occurrence of individual events, it seems that causality must be abandoned!  That realization, along with appreciation of the fundamental significance of the related Heisenberg uncertainty principle (see Figure #1b) and the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanical predictions, led to a softening of the hard determinists' position.  The subsequent development of chaos theory—where, in certain physical systems, it was realized that small uncertainties in initial conditions can have very large


future consequences—had a similar effect starting in the 1970s.  Today, biologists have accepted that random "noise" means  certain aspects of cell development—such as whether a particular gene turns on to make a protein—are a matter of chance.    

#11B: Giving humans free will endows them with the ability to exercise rational control over their actions something hard determinists deny.  Consider this issue in the context of an example.  Suppose I eat lunch—which includes an orange—with a relative stranger.  I seemingly finish, see another orange in a nearby fruit bowl, grab it and resume eating.  What caused me to do this?  Was it due to 1) conscious recall of the pleasant sensation eating the first one produced,   2) an unconscious defense mechanism employed to ease my discomfort around strangers, 3) my metabolism demanding it, or 4) God's will?

     The first reason suggests I have free will, the third and fourth that I do not.  If we agree with W.T. Stace, that "Acts done freely are those whose immediate causes are psycho-logical states in the agent," we may link the second reason with free will.  Accepting Stace's definition allows free will to co-exist with determinism (compatibilism)—something behavioral psychologists won't allow. 

     The fourth reason above implies God doesn't grant humans free will.  Many religious people wish to preserve free will—for reasons that will be explained shortly.  They are thus disturbed that conceiving of God as both all knowing and all powerful logically requires that humans lack free will. Disturbed by this conclusion, some qualify God's omniscience by restricting it to knowing everything that can be known—excluding the free choices human agents will make in the future!  Another way to preserve free will is by restricting God's omnipotence, not His omniscience.  This results in a God who knows how humans will act, but is powerless to do anything to alter their choices or the consequences. 

     Those who view God in moralistic terms (see worldview theme #14A) often believe humans have free will—for only if they possess it are they capable of sinning.  Indeed, free will and sin are linked, for without the former, the latter is impossible.  That is, without free will, humans are ultimately not responsible for their actions and therefore have no moral responsibility (see Figure #11a).  If humans lack free will and their (perhaps sinful!) behavior is pre-ordained, then the character of God and the justice He imparts on Judgment Day becomes an issue.  One might ask, "What kind of God would pre-determine your behavior long before you were born, and then on Judgment Day condemn you to Hell for sinful behavior  you had absolutely no control over?  Certainly not one that I can conceive of?"  Despite the strength of this argument, many Christians throughout history have disputed it: wanting to maintain both that humans lack free will and can sin! 

Figure #11a

Freedom vs. Responsibility for Actions







free will does not exist!

does not




















free will

can't be



** If humans have complete free will, then they have no excuses: they must take full responsibility for the moral implications of their actions!


Figure #11b

Selection Effect Weeds Out Hardcore Fatalists?

Imagine a man who believes that a) all of his actions are pre-determined, b) deliberating over how to act and rationally acting based on such deliberation is pointless, and c) none of his seeming desires are truly his own.  Imagine this man acts in accordance with these beliefs.  One suspects there aren't many such people around, for, as Thomas W. Clark puts it, "Fatalists with the desire to live will look both ways before crossing the street."  Hard core fatalists / determinists, who are still very much alive, counter by asserting that people are essentially unfeeling automatisms and explain actions using the stimulus / response models of behavioral psychologists and invoking genetic preprogramming. 


Figure #11c

Fatalism and Magic

Some people qualify their fatalism.  They may believe that, while they often freely choose individual actions, nevertheless the cumulative result of those choices leads to an inevitable, predetermined end.  This can be connected with abandoning belief in cause and effect, and embracing magic.  As V. Alan White puts it, "[M]uch fatalism is occult nonsense...a belief that some event is fated invokes a mysterious control that requires the event to happen but not necessarily causally..."


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