Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Is There a Difference Between Fatalism and Determinism?

Fatalism refers to inevitability. What happens could not have happened otherwise; or in other words, what will be will be because it is preordained, or necessary. Efforts of agents to thwart a fated end (e.g. Greek tragedy) or their efforts to produce any end are not the governing issues in determining what ends will be--fate is. This seems to me an inherently religious perspective.

Determinism refers to pre-existing causes. What will be will be, because causes and conditions that have "gone" before have set forth cause and effect chains that determine the end. Secular determinism is the framework of Godless science (not that science is necessarily godless). Theological determinism is the framework of Calvinism.

By way of illustration, let's say there is a person who sees the probability of an unpleasant future looming ahead of her. She decides to take action and change the course of her future. She takes what action she can, and experiences a chain of events she would not have if she had not taken action. It appeared she had changed the course of affairs and the initial probability wasn't so probable anymore. Unfortunately, the thing she feared came upon her anyway.

A fatalist would say, "I told you so, there is nothing that can be done to avert or change what is fated." The outcome proves the premise. What would the religious determinist say about that end that would be different in any useful way? The thought to avert the future was predetermined; the course of mitigation attempted was predetermined; the apparent success of that course was predetermined; and the ironic result of the whole affair was predetermined. How is the analysis of the end result any different for one viewpoint as opposed to the other?

If a theological determinist is to be a determinist, that one is also, ultimately, a fatalist. Whether one looks at an end occurring regardless of intervening actions, or examines consequent actions step by step, the result is the same--what ends up happening happens because it was necessary and it could not have occurred otherwise. That one cares more about the steps to get there than the other, seems to me to make precious little useful difference, in the end, at all.


  1. Uncertain, as although there is no difference in the outcome, the determinist may argue there is a different impetus? The fatalist argues that no change in behaviour is necessary, where as the determinist argues that behaviour matters. It changes how we _think_ about the outcome. But then if our thoughts are determined!

    You may be right? But I do think we need to thoroughly assess whether things are the same. While making non-existent distinctions is annoying (and raises the possibility of duplicity), we must remember that others make the same complaint of us when they lack the ability to see real distinctions.

    I suspect a significant reason for wrong belief in Christendom is conflating differences--failing to understand how 2 situations really are different. So we need to initially give them the benefit of the doubt.

    The question is, I guess, are they calling a red marble a scarlet ball, or are they calling it a green marble and we are, in fact, colour blind.


  2. bethyada,
    I hear what your saying. The details in impetus certainly do matter when making a distinction between, let's say, semi-Pelagianism and Arminianism though both require something in man's control in the end. Arminians do not countenance being sloughed together with semi-Pelagians just because they believe grace is resistible.

    Originally, I had the word "useful" in the title, but it was too long for my liking (I hate two line titles), so I dropped it. That is the issue that was truly in focus for me as I wrote the post: not whether or not a distinction could be made (it can), but whether or not it is useful in looking at outcomes. There are religious determinists who deny the fatalistic label on outcomes, because they do see a distinction in impetus. If in the end, the analysis of outcome is the same (determined), denying, what in my mind, is the more general label seems disingenuous.

    Greek tragedy, with its heavy irony, would be very illustrative, but it is so extreme (and fictional) as to seem inapplicable to real life. Nonetheless, think about Oedipus' dilemna--the more he did to thwart fate, the more he actually caused it to come to pass. His impetus did lead to the determined end.

    So it seems to me, that if the end is predetermined, the circumstance is fatalistic--regardless of whether or not one envisions the steps that lead to it as determined or not. In the final analysis, it would be impossible to tell the difference between the two.

  3. Hello SLW
    I've read this post and the comments, and I don't know what all those "isms" mean; but I wasn't meant to, anyway,according to the Calvinists. What a relief -- now I can go off and do my shopping in peace!

    I don't know if this observation is at all usefull, but I've just finished reading Job. After 39ish chapters of all his mates trying to work out why all that bad stuff happened to him, God steps in and essentially tells them to keep out of His business...

  4. Anthea,
    You're destined to shop. In America that would just mean you're a woman. ;-) Maybe on that side of the pond it means you're a Calvinist too!

    I have two homegroups working through the book of Job right now. Great book, great relevancy for the folks in the studies. God never does explain himself in that work, he just shows up in glory and challenges Job with can you do that. Questions about hows and whys and even whens disappear in the reality of Who.

  5. SLW

    You stated:
    "God never does explain himself in that work, he just shows up in glory and challenges Job with can you do that. Questions about hows and whys and even whens disappear in the reality of Who."

    I say: Ooh, that's good, that's going in the margin of my Bible!

  6. There are still some points not clear enough. Please correct me if I'm wrong... Fatalism does not necessarily have to be combined with theism. But theism can't be thought without fatalism. In both of them there is no free will of human being for the future... On the other hand, determinism has 2 versions; in the 1st version which is combined with theism, it becomes fatalism, and there is still no free will; in the 2nd version in which determinism is not combined with theism human beings can determine their future as far as they can change reasons and conditions... (?)

    1. Thank you, Anonymous, for an excellent comment.


Fatalism does not have to be combined with theism according to formal logic, it merely needs to refer to the position that we cannot do other than what we actually do. I see such conceptions as the result of the intangibles of human reasoning rather than actual truth. In other words, such conceptions arise because of our ability to state propositions in the future tense. What results is the appearance of necessity (or inevitability), but only within the framework of speaking about it (e.g. formal logic), not in the realm of it actually being so. To have a mechanism that addresses that, I think one would have to move into the realm of theism or to naturalistic causal determinism. Hence, I said fatalism is an inherently religious perspective, since to move from the machinations of mind to the mechanics of substance one has to posit a cause. If the cause is not naturalistic causal determinism (a different animal than fatalism) then it has to be supernatural attendance of some sort. Without this causal connection, fatalism is nothing more than word games, in effect, offering nothing more than "what happens, happens." Or so it seems to me.

      Theism can be thought of without fatalism, as is possible, for instance, among open theists who embrace an uncertain future. Freewill is the determining issue there, although I am fatalistic to a certain extant while simultaneously believing in freewill (as I think anyone does who is Arminian). Molinists would fit that bill as well, and compatibilism is an effort to embrace both freewill and determinism. I cannot see that Molinism or Compatibilism actually do what they set out to do (preserve freewill), and the result of either, as I see it, is that in the realm of the actually occurring, things could not have occurred otherwise--hence, fatalism. The fatalistic aspect of my belief system results in believing that God is shepherding events toward a predetermined end, but doing so from timelessness with agents in time having freewill. Of course, if one's theism involves a God who is bringing things to predetermined ends, that construct will inevitably be fatalistic, even if not properly fatalism.


I agree with your classifications of determinism. It is either naturalistic or theistic, but I would say that the naturalistic version would have trouble preserving the concept of freewill. In the naturalistic version, everything arises from what went before, so one's "willful" choices are consequent to actions and circumstances that obtained previously and the laws of nature. What appears to be the action of freewill is really only the consequence of the train of cause and effect. The only way I see to break that connection would be to posit the actual existence of mind, soul, or consciousness which are difficult to describe and define naturalistically.


Any comment in ill taste or not germane to the post may be deleted without warning. I am under no obligation to give anyone an opportunity to call me names or impugn my motives or integrity. If you can't play nice, go somewhere else and play.