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To my understanding, physical causal Determinism means that if E is a physical event, then there is a physical event C such that C causes E. Fatalism means that if some event C happens, then any event E caused by C must always have happened on account of C. That is, Determinsm says that what happens has a cause, and Fatalism says that causes and effects have to have happened. The former is saying that a cause is enough for an effect, while the latter say that all instances of causation have always been decided.

I understand that this is a bit simplistic, and would require a broad survey of at least Physics, Metaphysics, and Math to really fully motivate. Either way, doesn’t debate about free will have more to do with Fatalism than Determinism?

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  • Per SEP “philosophers usually use the word to refer to the view that we are powerless to do anything other than what we actually do.” I’m extending this notion to physical events in general; that is, whatever could happen is equivalent to whatever does happen. I’m not sure how that’s me making something up. Further, this is just my paraphrase of a discussion had in a class I took when I was getting my BA in philosophy.
    – PW_246
    Jul 9, 2023 at 7:25
  • Fatalism can be more abstract, derivative of bivalence about future propositions. Perhaps one might speak of fatalism as "top-down" determinism, whereas determinism as usual is "bottom-up." Either way, the issue for libertarian free will is the issue of alternative possibilities, where these possibilities are not ethereal but grounded in specific agents making specific choices at specific times. Since strict determination from within or without seems to rule out such alternatives, either variety is in roughly equal tension with libertarian free will. Jul 9, 2023 at 7:43
  • @KristianBerry why can’t an agent physically determine an outcome with a choice that they make?
    – PW_246
    Jul 9, 2023 at 7:45
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    Maybe the issue is: if the world is physically (in a broad sense) fully determined and we are part of the physical world, how does Free Will is possible? Jul 9, 2023 at 8:13
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    Per SEP about Fatalism : "This view may be argued for in various ways: by appeal to logical laws and metaphysical necessities; by appeal to the existence and nature of God; by appeal to causal determinism. [...] When argued for in the third way it is not now commonly referred to as 'fatalism' at all, and such arguments will not be discussed here. " It would help if the question could be more specific with reference to that.
    – tkruse
    Jul 9, 2023 at 11:03

3 Answers 3

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One way to compare determinism and fatalism would be by tense:

  1. According to determinism, all future events will be determined.
  2. According to fatalism, all future events are already determined.

This might look vaporous (and it mostly is), although questions about the existence, or nonexistence, of the past, the present, or the future, or distinctions between tensed and untensed temporal logic, etc. reveal a subtle wealth of mystery in this vein.

As far as free will goes, if we are speaking of libertarian free will, then on some accounts it is still determinism that is more problematic (because determination by physical causation is more well-grounded than determination by logical necessity in general, perhaps), whereas from other angles fatalism might sound more troubling. For example, there's probably a way to read Kant's thesis that free will exists alongside, and not in absolute conflict with, spatiotemporal causation, such that Kant might've taken (theistic) fatalism as more at odds with his interpretation of free will:

If existence in time is a mere sensible mode of representation belonging to thinking beings in the world and consequently does not apply to them as things in themselves, then the creation of these beings is a creation of things in themselves, since the notion of creation does not belong to the sensible form of representation of existence or to causality, but can only be referred to noumena. Consequently, when I say of beings in the world of sense that they are created, I so far regard them as noumena. As it would be a contradiction, therefore, to say that God is a creator of appearances, so also it is a contradiction to say that as creator He is the cause of actions in the world of sense, and therefore as appearances, although He is the cause of the existence of the acting beings (which are noumena). If now it is possible to affirm freedom in spite of the natural mechanism of actions as appearances (by regarding existence in time as something that belongs only to appearances, not to things in themselves), then the circumstance that the acting beings are creatures cannot make the slightest difference, since creation concerns their supersensible and not their sensible existence, and, therefore, cannot be regarded as the determining principle of the appearances. It would be quite different if the beings in the world as things in themselves existed in time, since in that case the creator of substance would be at the same time the author of the whole mechanism of this substance.

And yet others might recoil equally from determinism and fatalism together; the degree and angle of recoil varies with one's sense of how libertarian possibilities obtain. E.g., a believer in future-tense determination might think that "all spacetime as a whole" is not an admissible term, or is an inherently underdeterminate term, so that when a local force causes something going forward in space and time, the causation is strict, whereas when the universe "as a whole" behaves in a causal manner, there is a necessarily underdeterminate accompaniment as far as effects go; and so one might imagine that indeterministic free will involves the causal activity of the entire universe (taken as an individual object that is not absolutely reducible to the sum of its contents).


Recommended reading (from the SEP (list is not exhaustive)):

  1. Events
  2. Temporal Logic
  3. Causal Determinism
  4. Fatalism
  5. Foreknowledge and Free Will
  6. The Metaphysics of Causation
  7. Compatibilism
  8. Arguments for Incompatibilism
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It's useful here to keep the distinction between the physical and the metaphysical in mind.

  • Determinism is a physical concept: it asserts that the relationship between cause and effect is immutable in the macroscopic physical world.
    • qualified because quantum mechanics doesn't seem to follow suit
  • Free will and fatalism are metaphysical concepts: they assert that consciousness can/cannot insert novel (partially nondeterministic) action into the physical world.

A lot of science-oriented people conflate determinism with fatalism for reasons that aren't worth getting into here, but they ought to be held as distinct concepts.

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Philosophy Meta, or in Philosophy Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jul 10, 2023 at 21:14
  • Did you see my message in chat?
    – PW_246
    Jul 10, 2023 at 23:19
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Determinism is an idea, that every event is completely determined by the previous event. Determinism is not a belief or a theory or a philosophical standpoint. Determinism does not describe reality or explain anything.

Fatalism is a belief that the flow of events is being directed towards a predefined end by this mysterious force called fate.

Free will has nothing to do with either of these imaginary things as both do explicitly deny free will.

Free will has many definitions. Some define it as something imaginary, illogical or impossible. Some define it as something real, like the ability to make decisions. But there are no valid definitions that define free will as an open question, a subject to debate.

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  • Your 1st para would be better: Determinism is a property of automata (systems) such that every state of the system uniquely determines the next state. When the system is unspecified it implies the Universe. The difficulty is that both state and universe are undefined. Ie granularity and boundaries of system. [Not my downvote]
    – Rushi
    Jul 9, 2023 at 7:30
  • "Fatalism is a belief that the flow of events is being directed towards a predefined end by this mysterious force called fate," might be the definition of the philosophical laity, but it is not common among the clerics. The OP seems to be addressing the clerical level of analysis, not the level of the laity's temptation towards apathy. Jul 9, 2023 at 8:23
  • Good points @KristianBerry. Except that I've seen clerics very much subscribe to your lay definition eg. when they say God is above fate. However the insight that fatalism implies an at least somewhat reified fate is a good one.
    – Rushi
    Jul 9, 2023 at 8:42
  • @Rusi perhaps I misspoke in using the word "clerics," which does have religious connotations by the by; I was trying to gesture at analytic philosophers in the academia, for whom fatalism is not about the Fates (or is only about the Fates as metaphors). Jul 9, 2023 at 8:46
  • It does not help that this answer still stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that every computer is deterministic, that some computer programs have artificial intelligence, and that thus the debate of the free will of agents in deterministic systems is real and relevant, and that determinism describes and explains such agents and systems. The year is not 1900, people don't travel in horseback anymore and philosophy has to adapt.
    – tkruse
    Jul 9, 2023 at 11:09

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