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哲學功課: On Fatalism

In this essay I will discuss the conflict between God’s foreknowledge and our freedom. I will first examine the problem of fatalism proposed by Richard Taylor. Then I will reproduce the resolution proposed by St. Augustine and William Rowe.

In chapter six of Taylor’s book Metaphysics, he has concluded determinism will logically lead to fatalism. Fatalism is a belief that whatever happens in the future is unavoidable. Normal people agree on the fact that the past cannot be changed. The fatalists take their belief one step further. They think that the future also cannot be changed. All events, from the past to the future, in the time line are static. We are just players acting out a predefined script; although we don’t necessary know what is going to happen.

One form of fatalism arises from religious beliefs. In this form of fatalism, there exists an omniscient God. This all-knowing, all-powerful God has foreknowledge about all events in the future. Therefore, although the future has not yet arrived, everything is already fixed in the eyes of God. Men may have illusion that their action can change the future, but nothing happen in the world is avoidable. In another words, it is impossible for us to have done it otherwise, according to the foreknowledge of God. There is another form of fatalism does not require the presence of God. The second form of fatalism is based on the law of excluded middle. Every statement about any event in any given time is either true or false, there is no middle ground. Therefore, there exists a set of true statements that describe every event that had happened, is happening or will happen in the world. Again, in another words, this also implies it is impossible for us to do it otherwise, according to that set of true statements.

In the dialog between Augustine and Erodins, Erodins questioned Augustine that the two propositions God has foreknowledge and we sin by free will are not compatible. Since men are inevitable to sin, men should be not judged nor punished. This question is essentially the same as the claim of fatalism, except that Erodins also brought the question of responsibility into the picture. Augustine responded by stating the distinction between will and necessity. He said that by definition the freedom of choices is not a will unless it is in our power. Therefore, the foreknowledge of God does not disprove our power to will anything voluntarily, as long as God also has knowledge of our power over it. Then Augustine further developed his argument claiming that due to we have free will, God’s foreknowledge that we will sin does not compel us to sin. Our sin is caused by our free will, so it is justified to punish those who had sinned. To summarize, Augustine provided an argument that free will is compatible with fatalism, as well as God’s foreknowledge.

In Rowe’s article on predestination, divine foreknowledge and human freedom, he tackled the problem from a different approach. First the he refuted Augustine’s definition of free will and the resolution by separating foreseeing the events from foreordaining the events. Rowe said power of will alone is not sufficient to justify human freedom; the other necessary condition is the power to do otherwise. He used growing old as an example. Say someone wants to grow old, although he indeed is growing old, but he still doesn’t grow old freely. Rowe clarity the problem by outlining the premise and the arguments that leads to the conclusion human has no freedom. The first premise is that God has foreknowledge. The second premise is that since God knows everything we will do, we cannot do otherwise. The third premise is that if we cannot do otherwise, then we don’t really have freedom. In order to dispute the conclusion, we have to reject at least one of the premises.

The first solution is to reject premise three, Augustine’s resolution, which already refuted by Rowe. The second solution is to reject premise two, deny God’s foreknowledge limits us to choose otherwise. Rowe cited the solution suggested by William of Ockham to classify statements about the past into two types: simply about the past and not simply about the past. Statements simply about the past are out of our power to control, however we may alter statements not simply about the past. God’s foreknowledge is statements not simply about the past, therefore God knows everything does not mutually exclude sometimes we have the power to do otherwise. The third solution is to reject premise three, deny God has foreknowledge. This resolution is adopted by many theologians such as Boethius and Thomas Aquinas. In short, this resolution claims God exists outside of time, therefore his foreknowledge does not affect men’s temporal passage. They claim that all events in all time are observed by God at the same moment. Therefore, there is no restriction from God’s foreknowledge limiting men’s freedom to choose otherwise.

To summarize this essay, Augustine made an unsuccessful attempt to solve the problem of fatalism. He made his argument from redefining the meaning of free will is shown too weak. This object is already addressed by Taylor in the end of chapter 5 of his book, Metaphysics. The second and third solution suggested by Rowe has built a much stronger case. Rowe had shown divine foreknowledge is compatible with human freedom by stating free will doesn’t involve altering the past. Taylor has no response to meet these two objects in his book and Rowe had successfully solved the problem of fatalism.

Lastly, the thesis of fatalism is built base on the premise that determinism is true. However from our latest philosophical understanding, determinism cannot be true due to the effect of randomness in reality. If there is no hard coded universal causal relationship between the past and the future, then the claim of fatalism that the future is unavoidable is vague. Therefore, there is no need to solve the problem of fatalism as the conflict between fatalism and free will is not valid in the first place.

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