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Fatalism Notes

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Becky Tun


'Since it is a tautology that what will be will be, fatalism is obviously correct.' Discuss. Fatalism is the thesis that it is a logical or conceptual truth that no-one is able to act otherwise than they in fact do. Since it is a logical truth that what will in fact happen will in fact happen, it would be a logical contradiction to say 'I am able to do x, even if in fact I do not do x'. The very idea of an agent to whom alternative courses of action are open is self-contradictory. If I will not do x, I cannot do x. And if I will do x, I cannot not do x.

Sometimes fatalism is said to imply that we do not have free will, but people disagree about what free will consists in, so this will depend. If you believe that free will consists in being able to do otherwise than you in fact do, then fatalism, if correct, will jeopardize that by making it a logical impossibility, much like the way physical determinism seems to some people to jeopardize free will by making alternative courses of action a physical impossibility. But if your conception of free will consists in how one's actions are caused, then it is not so obvious that fatalism affects the free will claim.

In any case, fatalism has more far-ranging consequences than endangering some conceptions of free will. In fact it renders false most of the statements we ordinarily make involving modal words like 'can' - not just for human agents but for anything. Specifically, it renders false all statements that attribute possibility to events or states of affairs that do not in fact obtain - which throws most of our modal talk out of the window. To see how fatalistic reasoning leads to this far-ranging conclusion I will look at some more precise ways of arguing for fatalism. Then I will discuss whether this fatalist conclusion is correct, and how it bears on the status of our ordinary modal talk. However, first I would like to dispel one conclusion that does not properly follow from fatalism, although sometimes people have thought it does.


Becky Tun


This fallacy is to think that one should respond pragmatically to 'what will be will be' by not doing anything. There is no point deliberating over your decisions or acting in one way rather than another, because whatever you do, it can only be one thing - that which you actually do. Either you are going to go to London tomorrow, or you are not. But if you are not, then it is not possible for you to go, and if you are, then it is not possible for you to do anything but go. You cannot change what is the case, so you do not have any hand in making one circumstance come out rather than another. This conclusion simply does not follow. Of course you have a hand in making one circumstance come out rather than another - your decision. Just because whatever decision I make is the only one I logically could have made (if this is right) does not mean that it was not up to me to decide. Whatever your metaphysical beliefs about how decision-making works, the decisions you make shape your future, and there is no reason not to go about as usual shaping that future in accordance with your wants - otherwise all that will happen is that you may not get what you want. Of course, if you are the victim of an Oedipus-style story and have been told, for certain, that you are going to do x, then it does make sense to sit back and wait for x to happen. But this is because you now know that whatever you do will lead to your doing x - what the fatalist would add is that you are also 'incapable' of not doing x. This claim is the bone of contention.

I will now give some arguments for fatalism, the first of which is important because it makes explicit use of the principle that what is true at all is true always, or timelessly if you prefer. Fatalism relies on this principle, but I have not questioned it so far, because I think it is very hard to make sense of any thesis that denies it. However, I will discuss it shortly because some philosophers think that denying the principle is the way to avoid the fatalistic conclusion of the following kind of argument:

You do not have it within your power to render false what was already true yesterday. It was already true yesterday that you would or would not go out in the rain today, so


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