So Aristotle provided the means for an argument for fatalism (the view that the future is set, and nothing can be otherwise than it is). The argument can be stated like this:

1. For any statement S, the claim “Either S or not S” is true now. (That’s just logic.)
2. So, let S be a statement about the future (like, “I will have cereal tomorrow for breakfast”).
3. So, either S is true now, or not-S is true now (from #1).
4. If S is true now, then the future is set now (with regard to S) and there’s no avoiding it.
5. If not-S is true now, then the future is set now (with regard to S) and there’s no avoiding it.
6. So, either way, the future is set now (with regard to S) and there’s no avoiding it.

And this argument can be made about every statement about the future!

That’s the rough idea anyway. What do you think about it? Does it show fatalism is true? If not, where does the argument go wrong?

(I should note that Aristotle hated the conclusion so much that he used this argument to show that #3 doesn’t really follow from #1. So “Either I will have cereal tomorrow or I won’t” is true now, even though “I will have cereal tomorrow” is not true now, and “I won’t have cereal tomorrow” is not true now. In other words: even though S is not true now, and not-S is not true now, “either S or not-S” is true now. This, I think, is a very awkward thing to believe!)

10 thoughts on “Fatalism?

  1. Kleiner

    I don’t think Aristotle’s solution is as awkward as you seem to think it is. It is worth quoting The Philosopher (Aristotle) from De Interpretation:

    “What is, necessarily is, when it is; and what is not, necessarily is not, when it is not. … But not everything that is, necessarily is; and not everything that is not, necessarily is not.”

    What he is doing here is curtailing the move from truth to necessity. This is perfectly legitimate. Not all truths are necessary truths. Either-Ors, say “Either X or not-X”, are necessary truths (at least those that do not present a false dilemma of some kind, like “You are either with us or against us”). But the individual declarative assertions (‘X’ or ‘Not-X’) need not be. So “Either S or not-S” is true now, but neither ‘S’ nor ‘not-S’ is true now, because they are contingent rather than necessary truths.
    So it is necessarily true that I will “Either I will eat cereal tomorrow morning or not”, but “I will eat cereal” or “I will not eat cereal” are not true now because they are not necessary truths. Their truth depends on a future condition that is characterized by spontaneity rather than necessity (my free choice).

    Does introducing the necessary vs contingent distinction help?


  2. Huenemann Post author

    I still think it is odd to say “P or Q is true now” while denying both “P is true now” and “Q is true now.” But here’s a response, hinted at by Kleiner, that I do like: “P or not-P” in necessarily true now, but neither P nor not-P is NECESSARILY true now. Maybe P is true; maybe not-P is true. But neither of them is necessarily true. The disjunction “P or not-P” is necessarily true, though, just because there’s no possible third alternative.

    This would still mean there are truths about the future — e.g., it is true now that I will have cereal tomorrow — but those truths aren’t necessary. The argument is sound, but doesn’t show the future is necessary. It only shows that the future is set and WON’T be avoided, not that it CAN’T be avoided!


  3. Kleiner

    Disclaimer: this is a provisional disagreement. We have ventured into muddy waters.

    I agree that neither ‘S’ n or ‘not-S’ are necessarily true. But Huenemaan suggests that either ‘S’ or ‘not-S’ is contingently true now and so, in some sense, the “future is set”. I disagree.

    What sense is there in saying that something is “true now” if the condition that would make it true (say, my choosing to eat cereal tomorrow morning) is as yet undecided? Since at least some future events can be caused by a free (undetermined) will, it is not the case that they are “true now” – as if they were already set but we just did not know it yet. This is not just an epistemic issue – where we seem free only because we have not seen future inevitable truths. On the contrary, while “Either S or not-S” is necessarily true now, NEITHER ‘S’ nor ‘not-S’ are true now. The truth or falsity of those claims is contingent on my free will, which has not yet made its judgment.


  4. Huenemann Post author

    I’m saying the truth of S, or the truth of not-S, is now determined. Not made necessary; things could go otherwise. But they won’t. So, either it’s true now that you’ll eat cereal, or it’s true now that you won’t, and either way, there is now a truth about what WILL happen. But not about what MUST happen.

    I think Aristotle wouldn’t go for this, since I think he believes in contra-causal free will, or libertarian free will. He believes that some questions about the future aren’t yet determined because the choices have yet to be made, and those choices are not yet determined. (And I think you agree with him.) That’s why he wants to say that “P or not-P” is true even though the truth values of P and not-P are not yet determined. But I say that believing this just an ad hoc move to save contra-causal free will.


  5. Kleiner

    I am not clear on how you are distinguishing between what “will” happen and what “must” happen. On the one hand you say that the truth of S is already determined (which sounds like a must). But then you back off that and say it merely “will” happen, not that it must happen.

    Sure, either ‘S’ or ‘not-S’ will happen. That is just the either or. We agree there – these either-ors (assuming they are not false dilemmas) are necessarily true. But it is not that case that ‘S’ must happen or that ‘not’-S’ must happen. EITHER S will happen or not-S will happen. And which actually happens is as yet undetermined because the condition that would make ‘S’ or ‘not-S’ true or false is not yet actual. ‘S’ and ‘not-S’ are contingent truths. By “contingent” I mean both ‘not logically necessary’ but also “contingent” in the sense of being dependent on something else.

    I ask you – what is it that would make ‘S’ or ‘not-S’ true? If it is not yet determined, then how can ‘S’ or ‘not-S’ already be actually true? While “Either S or not-S” is actually true now, aren’t ‘S’ and ‘not-S’ only potentially true now, since they are contingent on some future (not-actual but possible) event or choice?

    Aside: As much as I enjoy doing some philosophy with Huenemann – any students out there with some thoughts?


  6. Kleiner

    Perhaps the problem with the first argument is a move made from Premise 1 to premise 3.
    To restate:
    Premise 1: For any statement S, the claim “Either S or not S” is true now. (That’s just logic.)
    Premise 3: So, either S is true now, or not-S is true now (from #1).

    An important change has been made from 1 to 3. It seems to me that these are two very different propositions. Let’s use quotation marks to help us along here.
    Proposition 1: “Either S or not S” is true now
    Proposition 2: “Either S is true now or not S is true now”
    or, perhaps: Either “S” is true now or “not S” is true now

    We all agree that Proposition 1 is necessarily true, or is “true now”. But what is true now is “Either S or not S”. That is not the same thing as saying that “S’ or “not S”, taken individually, is true now.

    Right? Or does this lowly continental philosopher need to brush up on his logic skills?


  7. Huenemann Post author

    No, your logic skils are just fine, or at least as good as Aristotle’s! I think you’re making the same move he does — namely, to make a disjunction true now without making either of the disjuncts true now. I don’t know if I can prove that that simply cannot be right, but it is a little weird, and it seems to me motivated only by the desire to avoid the fatalist’s conclusion. But I’m proposing a different way to avoid the fatalist conclusion: let one of the disjuncts be true now (of course, we don’t know which one), but then deny that it is necessarily true. The only “cost” of my proposal is that you’ll have to be a compatibilist, meaning that you’ll have to give up on the idea that “free” means undetermined. I think an action can be free while still be determined; what matters is that the action be caused in the right way, by desires and beliefs. The action could have been otherwise only in the sense that HAD the agents desires and beliefs been otherwise, s/he would have acted differently. But, things being as they are, the future is set.


  8. Huenemann Post author

    Welcome, Vince! It is interesting to think whether/how quantum mechanics changes or invalidates the fatalism argument. One way the fatalist might try to repair the argument is by changing the statements to the form:

    At time T (future), X (if observed) will be in state S or will be not-in-state-S.

    I take it we can now say that this sort of statement is true, though we don’t know which state X will be in, and there is not now any sort of deterministic chain of causes that will make either outcome inevitable. If the disjunctive statement is true, then the argument gets going, without presupposing any Newtonian physics; just logic. If the disjuntion is true now, then doesn’t one of the disjuncts have to be true now — despite the laws of quantum mechanics?

    I know that at least one recent philosopher, Hilary Putnam, has argued “no,” and he’s claimed that QM forces us to reject the hallowed law of logic, the Principle of the Excluded Middle (“Either P is true, or not-P is true”). But I think he argued that only in the case of unobserved states, like the Schrodinger cat sort of case.

    Regarding your other comments, I think John Wheeler has speculated in the direction of a self-observing universe — the universe as an observing entity that keeps itself collapsed into determined states. I guess one could understand this as a kind of Spinozistic pantheism, and think of thye universe as God. But I don’t know whether there needs to be a further entity to observe the self-observing universe, to make sure it is also collapsed!


  9. Huenemann Post author

    I favor the view that, given sufficient size, a system collapses — I suppose just because for the life of me I can’t see why an act of measurement, on the part of a conscious observer, should affect a system. It’s groovy in a way, but almost too groovy to be true! But, anyway, I can’t see that the only options are either Platonism or Spinoza. What about William James’s pluralistic universe?


  10. Huenemann Post author

    Also, Vince, I don’t think it’s merely a matter of semantics whether the atheist denies God’s existence or believes that the material universe is God. Typically, a theist believes there is a grand person who has concern over what humans do. A pantheist, like Spinoza, thinks there is no such grand person, but thinks there is a thing in the universe that has at least some of the important properties traditionally ascribed to God. But an atheist may deny even this — maybe there is nothing in the universe, and not even the universe itself, which has any of the important properties traditionally ascribed to God. The so-called “universe” — one thing, uniting a multiplicity — may in fact be a “pluraverse,” which is not even united by the laws discovered by scientists. after all, our experience of the universe is severely limited, and what confidence can we have that the laws that seem to apply to what we have observed actually apply as well to the vast range of events we have not observed?



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