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pathways (letters)

9 January 1998

Dear George,

Thank you for your essay on Determinism and Fatalism, dated 30.12.97. I trust that you now have your copy of unit 10 of The Possible World Machine, which should have crossed with your note. I had to wait for the University computing rooms to open again before I could print last week's course units. Of course, I could have had them printed up before Christmas, but that would have been thinking too far ahead!

You are right that dictionary definitions are a 'starting point' only. Those who take a 'compatibilist' line, such as A.J. Ayer, would argue that determinism is fully consistent with freedom of the will. I act freely, so long as my action arises as an outcome of my own, unforced decision. To be free is to be determined by one's own reasons, to do something because you yourself, in full possession of your faculties, want to do it. Of course, we have seen how, from another point of view, this appears the very denial of freedom. I have no freedom to deviate from the path that determinism — operating in my own brain as well as in the world outside me — lays down.

The dictionary definition does a worse job with fatalism. If a malicious deity decrees that all my efforts will come to naught, that need only mean that the deity will use all its power to thwart me, whichever path I choose, like a cat playing with a mouse. Fatalism, in the philosophical sense, is the view that whatever will happen, or whatever course of action I will choose, is what will happen and what I will choose. The choice is already made, the options are closed. There could exist an omnipotent, malicious deity even if fatalism, in this philosophical sense, is false. (Hence I reject your claim that fatalism carries 'extra baggage' of belief in a decreeing power, p. 2.)

Once this is seen, it becomes clear that it is not correct to say that 'determinism contains fatalism as one aspect of itself' as you say in para 6, if this means that determinism entails fatalism. You can be a determinist, insofar as you believe that as a matter of empirical fact the universe works according to deterministic laws, yet hold that from a logical point of view the future is open in the sense that is not a fact now whether or not determinism will continue to hold for ever more. The laws of physics might conceivably change.

It is also possible to be a fatalist without being a determinist. Even if the laws of physics are ultimately not determinist, a fatalist would hold that this is irrelevant to the question of what will be. For the fatalist, it is not the operation of physical laws that 'fixes' the future but rather a simple point of logic: what will be will be. (One way to picture this is to imagine a deity contemplating a future that is completely 'laid out'. For this to be the case, it is not necessary that determinism holds.)

The fallacy of the air-raid shelter arises because we are tempted to be inconsistent fatalists. We imagine that what we do now is up to us (choosing to go to the shelter when the siren sounds — or not) whereas the future is fixed. But if fatalism is true, it applies to everything that happens. Now I agree that this is a very difficult principle to believe in and really take to heart. The Ancient Greek Stoics counselled that the proper attitude in the face of fatalism was to 'follow nature'. Part of what it is to be a good Admiral is to strive with every means at one's disposal to defeat the enemy fleet. Even if you are convinced by the air raid shelter argument and resolve to 'do nothing', at some point you will find yourself obeying the call of nature. As a fatalist, Melissus could say that he accepted all his strivings as nothing other than events that were to happen.

The determinist who believes that determinism precludes free will says, 'I am the way I am', implying that he has no 'freedom' do decide differently, given his character and beliefs. The fatalist simply says, 'Things are the way they are', implying that the way things will be is logically part of the way things are.

Thank you for pointing out the slip on p. 137. What I say there is not acceptable as it stands. The problem is that 'the eventual outcome' is potentially ambiguous. If getting shot down is one possible 'eventual outcome' then of course it may not be up to me whether or not I get shot down (supposing that I am outnumbered fifty to one by faster enemy fighters). On the other hand — and this is what I meant to say, but couldn't find an elegant way of saying it — it is up to me whether, say, I veer into the path of the fighters approaching from the left or the fighters approaching from the right, so in a sense 'the eventual outcome' is up to me.

Yours sincerely,

Geoffrey Klempner