Fatalism is a philosophical doctrine emphasizing the subjugation of all events or actions to fate.

Fatalism generally refers to several of the following ideas:

  1. Though the word “fatalism” is commonly used to refer to an attitude of resignation in the face of some future event or events which are thought to be inevitable, philosophers usually use the word to refer to the view that we are powerless to do anything other than what we actually do.[1] Included in this is that man has no power to influence the future, or indeed, his own actions.[2] This belief is very similar to predeterminism.
  2. That actions are free, but nevertheless work toward an inevitable end.[3] This belief is very similar to compatibilist predestination.
  3. That acceptance is appropriate, rather than resistance against inevitability. This belief is very similar to defeatism.


Determinism, fatalism and predestination

While the terms are often used interchangeably, fatalism, determinism, and predestination are discrete in emphasizing 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, whereas fatalists may stress an acceptance of future events as inevitable. Determinists believe the future is fixed specifically due to causality; fatalists and predestinarians believe that some or all aspects of the future are inescapable, but not necessarily due to causality.

Fatalism is a broader term than determinism. The presence of history indeterminisms/chances, i.e. events that could not be predicted by sole knowledge of other events, does not exclude fatalism. Necessity (such as a law of nature) will happen just as inevitably as a chance—both can be imagined as sovereign.

The Idle Argument

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 has come down to us by way of 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.[4][5]

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.[6]

The logic argument

The logical argument for fatalism is one that depends not on causation or physical circumstances but rather argues based on logical necessity. There are numerous versions of this argument, including those by Aristotle[7] and Richard Taylor.[2] These have been objected to and elaborated on[1] but do not enjoy mainstream support.[citation needed]

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 about the future is indeterminate—is a controversial view, since the principle is an accepted part of classical logic.

Another criticism of logical fatalism is that it assumes a timeless set of all propositions which exist without being proposed by anyone in particular. Constructivists (a school of thought in logic and maths) argue that this is not the case, and that propositions only exist when they are constructed, or expressed.


In addition to the criticism levelled at the arguments put forward for fatalism, another criticism of fatalism in general is its assumption that truths do not conflict with each other. Twentieth century developments in theoretical and experimental quantum physics, specifically the concept of complementarity, seem to show that there exist pairs of statements, only one of which can be true at any given time. For example, Heisenberg's Principle of Uncertainty theorises that if it is true that a subatomic particle will be measured to have a well-defined position, then it is not true that the particle will be measured to have a well-defined momentum and vice versa. In other words, a maximum of one of the two statements 'has a well-defined position' and 'has a well-defined momentum' can be true of a given subatomic particle at a given time.

Another noteworthy 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.[8] 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."[8] Willem deVries and Jay Garfield, both of whom were advisers on Wallace’s thesis, expressed regret that Wallace never published his argument.[8] In 2010, the thesis was, however, published posthumously as Time, Fate, and Language: An Essay on Free Will.

If the quantum physical rules apply universally, then the above-described complementarity constitutes experimental disproof of fatalism. It would therefore be of merely historical interest. If, on the other hand, the quantum physical formalisms apply only in restricted domains, then fatalism could be retained by restricting it to those domains in which the quantum formalism is inapplicable. One pure fatalist argument, is that the seeming random movement of quantum physics is not random at all. Instead, each movement is predetermined in a seemingly random pattern, but is actually a predetermined pattern. This belief is the pure fatalist counter to the quantum physics argument.

See also


  1. ^ a b Hugh Rice (October 11, 2010). "Fatalism". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/fatalism/. Retrieved December 2, 2010. 
  2. ^ a b Richard Taylor (January 1962). "Fatalism". The Philosophical Review (Duke University Press) 71 (1): 56–66. JSTOR 2183681. 
  3. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia
  4. ^ Origen Contra Celsum II 20
  5. ^ Cicero De Fato 28-9
  6. ^ Susanne Bobzien, Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Philosophy, Oxford 1998, chapter 5
  7. ^ Aristotle, De Interpretatione, 9
  8. ^ a b c James Ryerson (December 12, 2008). "Consider the Philosopher". The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/14/magazine/14wwln-Wallace-t.html. 

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