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Fatalism generally refers to any of the following ideas:
- The view that we are powerless to do anything other than what we actually do. Included in this is that humans have no power to influence the future, or indeed, their own actions. This belief is very similar to predeterminism.
- An attitude of resignation in the face of some future event or events which are thought to be inevitable. Friedrich Nietzsche named this idea "Turkish fatalism" in his book The Wanderer and His Shadow.
- That acceptance is appropriate, rather than resistance, against inevitability. This belief is very similar to defeatism.
- Some take it to mean determinism.
Determinism and predeterminism
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While the terms are often used interchangeably, fatalism, determinism, and predeterminism are discrete in stressing different aspects 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.
Likewise, determinism is a broader term than predeterminism. Predeterminists, as a specific type of determinists, believe that every single event or effect is caused by an uninterrupted chain of events that goes back to the origin of the universe. Determinists, holding a more generic view, meanwhile, believe that each event is at least caused by recent prior events, if not also by such far-extending and unbroken events as those going back in time to the universe's very origins.
Fatalism, by referring to the personal "fate" or to "predestined events" strongly imply the existence of a someone or something that has set the "predestination." This is usually interpreted to mean a conscious, omniscient being or force who has personally planned—and therefore knows at all times—the exact succession of every event in the past, present, and future, none of which can be altered.
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. It is, however, a false argument because it fails to consider that those fated to recover may be those fated to consult a doctor.
Logical fatalism and the argument from bivalence
Another famous argument for fatalism that goes back to antiquity is one 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 have been objected to and elaborated on but do not enjoy mainstream support.
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.
The basic logical structure of logical fatalism is criticized as false. The structure of its argument is "Either a certain event happens or it doesn't happen. If it happens, there is nothing to be done to prevent it. If it doesn't happen, there is nothing to be done to enable it." The problem in the argument arises with the semantics of "if". The argument fails because it uses "if" to imply that the event will happen with absolute certainty, when there is only certainty that the event either happens or doesn't, when both options are considered. Neither option by itself is certain, even though both options together are certain. The use of the word "if" in this way frames the sentence as "if the event is certain to happen, then there is nothing to be done to prevent it", but there is no certainty that the event will happen. Thus this type of fatalism relies on circular reasoning.
Another 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.
- Hugh Rice (11 October 2010). "Fatalism". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]. Retrieved 2 December 2010.
- Richard Taylor (January 1962). "Fatalism". The Philosophical Review. Duke University Press. 71 (1): 56–66. JSTOR 2183681.
- Stambaugh, Joan (1994). Other Nietzsche, The. SUNY Press. p. 81. ISBN 9781438420929.
- Friedrich Nietzsche, The Wanderer and His Shadow, 1880, Türkenfatalismus
- 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
- Dummett, Michael (1996), The Seas of Language, Clarendon Press Oxford, pp. 352–358
- Ryerson, James (12 December 2008). "Consider the Philosopher". The New York Times.
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