Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Is Calvinism synonymous with fatalism?

I've posted most of the definitions at one time or another, but it's useful to collate them in one place. 

Is Calvinism fatalistic? Is determinism synonymous with fatalism?

Critics of Calvinism use "fatalism" as an inaccurate term of abuse, because it has invidious connotations that a neutral term does not. Here are some standard definitions and explanations of fatalism. Calvinism is not fatalistic:

Fatalism, in its most usual sense, should not be confused with predestination. Fatalism asserts an abstract necessity without regard to causal antecedents and thus is diametrically opposed to predestination, in which causes and effects, ends and means, are determined in relation to one another. The use of means is rendered futile by fatalism, but not by predestination. The Encyclopedia of Christianity, 4:180.

According to this view, then, determinism is the thesis that everything that occurs, including our deliberations and decisions, are causally necessitated by antecedent conditions. Fatalism, by contrast, is the doctrine that our deliberations and decisions are causally ineffective and make no difference to the course of events. In circumstances of fatalism what happens does not depend on how the agent deliberates. The relevant outcome will occur no matter what the agent decides.

Clearly, however, determinism does not imply fatalism. While there are some circumstances in which deliberation is futile (i.e. 'local fatalism'), deliberation is nevertheless generally effective in a deterministic world. Paul Russell, "Compatibilist Fatalism: Finitude, Pessimism and the Limits of Free Will," Ton van den Beld, ed., Moral Responsibility and Ontology (Kluwer: Dordrecht, 2000), 199-218.

This is one of the most common confusions in free will debates. Fatalism is the view that whatever is going to happen, is going to happen, no matter what we do. Determinism alone does not imply such a consequence. What we decide and what we do would make a difference in how things turn out–often an enormous difference–even if determinism should be true. Robert Kane, A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will (Oxford 2005), 19.

An event is naturalistically fated just in case it occurs in every physically possible world. If there are such fated events, then in one clear sense somethings are going to happen no matter what–vary the initial conditions as much as you like (within the bounds of physical possibility) and the fated event will nonetheless eventuate. Naturalistic fatalism in this sense neither entails nor is entailed by determinism. John Earman, A Primer on Determinism (D. Reidel, 1986), 18.

Others hold to fatalism, the ancient (but still popular) idea that future events happen regardless of what we do. Fiction is full of eerie, fatalistic tales, usually about people who try hard to prevent a dire prophecy about them from coming true–but end up right where the prophecy says they will. Oedipus was fated to kill his father and marry his mother–which he did, even though he went to great lengths to try to prevent such a tragedy.

Are you fated to read this entire book? If so, then you will read it no matter what you do to avoid reading it, such as throwing the book in the trash. It is the view that all future events will happen no matter what anyone does. The future is fixed and will be a certain way regardless of our deliberations and actions. In modern times, fatalism seems to be an enormously popular idea. Soldiers have been known to say something like “If there’s a bullet with my name on it, I’ll get it. If there’s no bullet with my name on it, I won’t get it. Either way, I can’t change it, so worrying is a waste of time.” Some people express fatalistic sentiments with the old cliché, “Que sera, sera–whatever will be will be.”

Fatalism, however, is not the same thing as causal determinism. Causal determinism says that future events happen as a result of preceding events. That preceding events include things that we do, so many future events happen because of what we do. Fatalism says tht future events happen regardless of what we do. Causal determinists reject fatalism because they believe that people’s actions play a role in events that are determined. Lewis Vaughn & Austin Dacey, The Case for Humanism: An Introduction (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003), 68, 78-79. [Foreword by Evan Fales.]

It is sometimes supposed that the doctrine of Determinism–in the form of a belief in the causal interconnectedness of all events, from past to present and thence to the future–also has fatalistic implications. But this has got to be wrong. A determinist can well believe that just as our present actions are the effects of past events, so our present actions have their own effects and so can play a role in determining future events. That is to say, a causal determinist can consistently say that our wills are causally efficacious, at least some of the time. Since fatalism denies that our choices can have any effect on what the future is to be, a fatalist cannot consistently say this. Hence determinism does not imply fatalism.


Oedipus was fated to kill his father and marry his mother. What do we mean when we say that? Certainly it must have been true that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother. But at least on one understanding, the claim seems to involve more than that: it involves the thought that nothing that Oedipus could have done would have stopped him from killing his father and marrying his mother. Somehow, no matter what he chose to do, no matter what actions he performed, circumstances would conspire to guarantee those outcomes. Fatalism, understood this way, thus amounts to powerlessness to avoid a given outcome.

We can put the point in terms of a counterfactual: There are some outcomes such that whatever action Oedipus were to perform, they would come about.

This is a very specific fatalism: two specific outcomes are fated. There is no implication that Oedipus could not effectively choose to do other things: he was free to choose where he went, what he said, what immediate bodily actions he performed.


Fatalism is the thesis that all events (or in some versions, at least some events) are destined to occur no matter what we do. The source of the guarantee that those events will happen is located in the will of the gods, or their divine foreknowledge, or some intrinsic teleological aspect of the universe, rather than in the unfolding of events under the sway of natural laws or cause-effect relations. Fatalism is therefore clearly separable from determinism…

2 comments:

  1. Steve,
    Hi from Brazil! like a lot your posts, but I think I like more of your exchanges in the comments.
    I see that a lot of times, in the objections of arminians concerning atonement and determinism, specificaly, there's a constant confusion in the distinction of 'sufficient' x 'necessary' CAUSES, and 'sufficient' x 'necessary' CONDITIONS (e.g., the death of Christ is a sufficient condition of salvation, given that regeneration is also required? The election is a sufficient cause of salvation, given that it initiates the chain of salvation? etc.).
    Could you do a post explaining those concepts, and it's importance to the ordo salutis and the arminian soteriology in general?

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  2. Let me add that it seem that some arminians are willing to say that God is the 'ultimate cause' of whatever happens and exists, while some don't want to say that God is the 'ultimate cause' of the existence of evil. Perhaps there's a misconception there of what is a 'ultimate cause'? Or even saying that 'evil' was 'created' by satan or humans?!

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