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Fatalism

Fatalism And Determinism, Aristotle's Sea Battle, Theological Fatalism, Bibliography

Fatalism is the thesis that whatever happens must happen. This is not to be confused with the completely innocuous idea that whatever happens, happens. Nor is fatalism to be conflated with the proposition that, necessarily, whatever happens happens, where this assertion simply expresses the tautologous nature of the prior innocuous idea. Fatalism is a substantive thesis that claims that the occurrence of every event or state of affairs is necessary.

Elucidation of this thesis requires the articulation of the fatalist's necessity; we must know what the "must" amounts to when the fatalist tells us that whatever happens must occur. Since fatalism is to some measure a term of art, there are not tight a priori restrictions about how the necessity used by the fatalist is to be understood. There is, however, one criterion for any acceptable definition. Fatalism has occupied thinkers for more than two millennia primarily because its truth appears to have the consequence that we lack the power (capability, capacity) to perform any actions other than those that we actually do perform. If we perform an act, which is a type of event, and this event is necessitated, then no other act could have occurred. And, if no other act could have occurred, then we have no power to bring about any act other than the one that we, in fact, produced. If fatalism is true, there are no alternative courses of action open to us and so the conception of ourselves as meaningful, free-willed agents who have the power to affect the constitution of the future is thoroughly compromised. Any account of fatalistic necessity worth the name needs to respect the prima facie tension between fatalism and autonomous behavior.

Virtually all philosophers construe fatalistic necessity as logical or conceptual. Steven Cahn is representative when he states that fatalism

is the thesis that the laws of logic alone [his italics] suffice to prove that no man has free will, suffice to prove that the only actions which a man can perform are the actions which he does, in fact, perform, and suffice to prove that a man can bring about only those events which do, in fact, occur and can prevent only those events which do not, in fact, occur. (p. 8)

Although logical construals of fatalistic necessity meet the minimal requirement of maintaining the prima facie antagonism between fatalism and the actions of autonomous persons, they unfairly caricature the nature of some arguments that all parties deem as fatalistic. If all fatalistic arguments are conceived as containing only statements of logical laws (i.e., tautologies) as premises, it is difficult to see both how any substantive thesis could evolve and how any disagreement about the truth of fatalism could be more than merely a verbal squabble. In fact, the sophisticated fatalistic arguments of Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.), Diodorus Cronus (d. c. 284 B.C.E.), and others demonstrate that there are implicit substantive, albeit controversial, assumptions concerning the nature of truth and time. Before examining these arguments, it is important that we distinguish between fatalism and determinism, two theses that are frequently conflated.

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