The “Basic” Argument for Theological Fatalism
Fatalism is the view that everything that happens in entirely unavoidable. Since everything that happens is unavoidable, none of our actions are genuinely up to us and we powerless to do anything other than what we actually do. Here is Richard Taylor on what the fatalist believes [“Fate” from Metaphysics, 4th Ed (Pearson, 1991)]:
“A fatalist is someone who believes that whatever happens is and always was unavoidable. He thinks it is not up to him what will happen a thousand years hence, next year, tomorrow, or the very next moment.” (52)
“A fatalist thinks of the future in the way we all think of the past, for everyone is a fatalist as he looks back on things.” (52)
We all think of the past “as something settled and fixed, to be taken for what it is. We are never in the least tempted to try to modify it. It is not in the least up to us what happened last year, yesterday, or even a moment ago, any more than are the motions of the heaves or the political developments in Tibet. … We say of past things that they are no longer within our power. The fatalist says they never were.” (52-53)
According to the main versions of Western Monotheism (e.g. traditional Christianity), God is omniscient. To be omniscient is to have (in some important sense) unlimited knowledge. It’s hard to say what this amounts to, but let’s use the following definition (since it’s common)
x is omniscient = for x knows every true proposition and x does not believe any false propositions.
Many people think that omniscience is incompatible with human freedom, because it implies the doctrine of theological fatalism. Theological fatalism is the view that all human actions are unavoidable (and we are powerless to do anything other than what we actually do) because God has exhaustive foreknowledge of all future human actions. Here is an important statement of the argument for theological fatalism from Augustine (On Free Choice of the Will, Book III)
I very much wonder how God can have foreknowledge of everything in the future, and yet we do not sin by necessity. It would be an irreligious and completely insane attack on God’s foreknowledge to say that something could happen otherwise than as God foreknew … Since God foreknew that [Adam] was going to sin, his sin necessarily had to happen. How, then, is the will free when such inescapable necessity is found in it?
Surely this is the problem … How is it that these two propositions are not contradictory and inconsistent: (1) God has foreknowledge of everything in the future; and (2) We sin by the will, not by necessity? For, you say, if God foreknows that someone is going to sin, then it is necessary that he sin. But if it is necessary, the will has no choice about whether to sin; there is an inescapable and fixed necessity. And so you fear that this argument forces us into one of two positions: either we draw the heretical conclusion that God does not foreknow everything in the future; or, if we cannot accept this conclusion, we must admit that sin happens by necessity and not by will.
The Basic Argument for Theological Fatalism
Where S stands for any person whatsoever and A stands for any action, Augustine’s argument can be stated as: 1.
For any person, S, and an action, A, that S performs, God knew in advance that S will do A. 2.
If God knows in advance that S will do A, then it necessary that S will do A. 3.
Therefore, it is necessary that S will do A.
If it is necessary that S will do A, then S is not free to refrain from performing A. 5.
If S is not free to refrain from performing A, then S does not freely perform A. 6.
Therefore, no person ever acts freely.
Evaluating the argument
Premise 2 is ambiguous
P2a: Necessarily, If God knows in advance that S will perform A, then S will perform A (De Dicto) •
P2b: If God knows in advance that S will perform A, then...
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