Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Theological Fatalism vs. Theological Determinism

There is quite a bit of confusion surrounding the issues of theological fatalism versus theological determinism. Not only are they dissimilar, but they do not entail each other either. This article will take a look at the two positions and attempt to bring clarity to this issue.

First, we shall discuss fatalism (the “theological” label will be assumed for both from here on out). Fatalism is the idea that “whatever will be, will be;” something we will do we must do. It “does not necessarily hold that everything is causally determined.”[1] It simply means that event in the future that we will do we in fact must do and cannot do any differently. William Lane Craig relays a story in which people in London during World War II, evidently believers in fatalism, reasoned they would die no matter what, so they took no provision. It is this story, he maintains, that demonstrated fatalism has serious application.[2]

Theological fatalism is the view that because of God’s foreknowledge, whatever he knows about future events must come to pass, and the participants (humans) cannot choose to do other than what God knows. This fatalism is typically espoused by open theists more than any other type of group. Of course, theological fatalism means that each action is causally-controlled. However, if fatalism applied across the board it would mean that each and every person’s every action could not have been avoided (even if for no other reason than it was simply that which they were already going to do). In application to possible worlds theory, one would say there really was only one possible world (assuming fatalism applies to God as well).

Next, we should discuss determinism. Determinism is much more popular than fatalism in philosophical circles. Causal determinism is the view that each decision or act or event that occurs does so as a result of other antecedent circumstances (including other determined events and acts) so that true free will decisions cannot be made. The argument is that since some certain propositions yet future relative to the present moment are true now, then there is nothing that prevents these from being true from yesterday, last week, last century or even from time immemorial. If that is the case, however, then they argue that a certain person cannot be free, since every act is caused by every other and the person could do no other.[3] So in this latter case God causes every single act, whether good or bad.

To summarize, then, fatalism is the idea that since every event in the future will happen, it must happen, and determinism is the idea that antecedent conditions and events in turn cause other events. What they have in common: both render human freedom illusory. How they are different: fatalism is “whatever will be, will be,” whereas determinism is the idea that every event is caused by something or someone (namely, God).

Why is this important? It is important for the Christian theist because theological fatalism results in only one possible world, and theological determinism makes God the direct and primary cause of sin. Whoever is causally responsible for sin is a sinner, and yet we know God cannot sin. Therefore, determinism is false. But we also sense we can act differently than we do, and there are multiple good reasons why determinism fails (see my article here called “Argument against Determinism” for more).

                [1] William Lane Craig, The Only Wise God (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR: 2000), 14.

                [2] Ibid., 14-15.

                [3] Kevin Timpe, “Free Will,” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, <> , accessed June 8, 2011. The basic tenets are all the same irrespective of causal, logical, or theological determinism.

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  1. This post does not take into account the means of secondary causes (men's will) as a means of an end. God is not the author of sin in the determinist's view but rather he has a purpose in everything that takes place. The crucifixion of Christ is the most horrific sin ever yet it was predestined to occur. This post cannot account for this.

  2. Hi berrytc, you're right: this post cannot account for the crucifixion of Christ being a sin and God performing the causal action of the sin while God not performing the sin, and for two reasons: 1. Such an attempt is outside the definitional purpose of the article, and 2. It would not avoid God being the causal determinant of sin, which is incoherent when God is taken to be the locus of objective moral values. As to secondary causes, these are, in philosophy,more like inanimate objects than anything else in their common usage. A man pushing a rock with a stick has the man as the primary cause and the stick as the secondary. If there is any moral responsibility in terms of "good" or "evil" (rather than in terms of praise or blame just yet) it is far more plausibly assigned in terms of causal responsibility, and that of the primary cause. But in that case, God would be committing evil. Thanks for your comment!

  3. A year and a half later, but hey, this is exactly what is on my mind at the moment...

    I'm a theological determinist (hoping not to be a fatalist) so this is helpful. I don't believe God determining someone sinning is sinful for God, if God knows that it is for ultimate good - classic example is Joseph in Genesis 45 where Joseph/scripture attributes the brothers' wrong motives (selling Joseph into slavery out of jealousy) to the action of God, but for the purposes of good (45v5 "...for God sent me before you to preserve life."). But the brothers were still being sinful of course! So I disagree with Randy on theological determinism.

    However I also find myself frustrated with the Westminster Confession 3.1 as berrytc appears to be quoting. I find what I said above to be pretty straightforward (mostly due to different motives and levels of awareness of future consequenses, compared between God and humans). But the confession is much more mealymouthed trying to avoid saying God determines the wrong actions, when clearly God does!

    I understand the scripture that the confession has half an eye on is James 1 which explains that God tempts no one. Not finished thinking about this but at the moment I suspect that God determining a sinner to sin is not necessarily a temptation. Is God's hardening of Pharoh's heart a temptation? James 1v13 says "Let no one say when he is tempted, 'I am being tempted by God,' for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one." I think the presumption here is that for God (anyone) to be a tempter he must somehow approve or enjoy the thing he is tempting. Thus God can test/trial but not tempt? Is that a workable solution?

    1. Thanks for your comment. I am inclined to say that God's determining someone to do something is performing an act of sin, because it is stated that way almost by definition. If you causally determine some act you are performing that act. Now, it may be that the act would not be sinful for God because he is God, and he makes the rules. But that makes morality arbitrary. Someone may not have a problem with that, but I do, if only because it makes morality subjective (in its broadest sense). An example of determinism-as-doing the action is as follows: A little boy plays with his GI Joes, and makes one kick another. "Bad GI Joe!" the boy exclaims. "It's not right to kick someone," and promptly punishes him. We laugh, but it's not simply silly because the object is inanimate. It's silly because the object hasn't performed the action--the boy did! Another example: I take a baseball bat and smash a car window. When the police arrive, I say "I caused the window to shatter, but I did so by causing the bat to move. The bat actually performed the action. I did not shatter the window." I would still be ticketed. The reason is not because the cop is philosophically naive. It's because in the sense of performing an action (the same sense of moral responsibility) I have brought it about. The bat only moved because I moved it. I only moved because I chose to do so. Now suppose theological determinism is true. The bat only moved because I moved it, and so is not morally responsible. It is a secondary cause. I only moved because God moved me, and so I am not morally responsible. I am a secondary cause. Note any attempt to make me morally responsible makes the bat morally responsible too.

      As to your interpretation of James, don't take this the wrong way, but it looks for all the world like you're missing the point. We must ask ourselves why: why can God not be tempted with evil? Because he is the paradigm of good and so cannot sin. While I think enjoyment is a probable by-product of temptation I don't think it's an inherent or necessary feature. Here's an example: suppose you are running for president, and you're so likable and personable you are virtually guaranteed to win, regardless of your political positions (improbable, obviously, but run with it). Two men approach you. The first offers you $100 million if you'll promote political platform X once in office. He is very excited about the prospect of you endorsing him, and it's clear he enjoys and believes in the platform (suppose, for clarity and application, that this platform is unethical). The second man offers you the same amount of money for the same thing, but he is apathetic, even though he outwardly appears the same as the first. Can we really say the second man was not tempting you? I don't see that we can.

    2. Thanks Randy, great points and you may be able to tell I am thinking on the hoof somewhat haha.

      On the first point, as you would expect I should adopt some form of 'soft' determinism where although God determines what folks do, God does so along with determining all their emotions and desires etc. Whether that makes sense and puts a better spin instead of GI Joes and baseball bats, I guess depends on whether that kind of compatibilism makes sense or not. I understand even that position can seem a bit of a strain compared to a more traditional sense of freedom as indeterministic choice.

      As for a determining a created 'agent' (see I am accommodating libertarian suspicions with scare quote marks!) to complete a certain 'act' thus equating to actually doing that 'act' oneself (or Godself I should say). I see the point but suggest strictly it should always be one step away. To jump back to the little boy determining GI Joe to kick something (only as illustration, the toy is not really a compatibilist agent), presumably the boy himself doesn't actually kick anything? But he causes something else to kick something.

      Following that, due to variations of motives (and awareness of further outcomes) between the kicker and the kicker-causer, one of them might be in the wrong and the other in the right, despite it being the same kicking event. Man that got complicated!

      What is more I am not sure the traditional alternative is all that much better. God creating a libertarian agent in a certain situation knowing perfectly what they will freely do doesn't seem much different morally to God determining a compatibilist 'agent' performing the same kind of action in the same kind of situation (albeit a fully determined one). God still knowingly fully brings about the outcome(which is pretty close to 'determines' or 'causes').

      On the James interpretation, yep I hold my hands up and say I didn't see that one haha. The political donors example is great too. Suddenly I want to study that passage more thoroughly. I really hadn't before posting.

      Oh my name is Richard by the way, I picked anonymous as it was easiest!

    3. Thanks Richard! I appreciate your comments and kind spirit in discussing this. I would say it's correct that the boy has not kicked the item, but it is correct that the boy had the item kicked over, and also correct that the boy is responsible for the item being kicked over. The type of causation the the GI Joe (or the bat, or whatever) is called the secondary cause. My whole point is that the secondary causes don't bear any moral responsibility (and yes, that does hearken back to whether compatibilism makes sense or not).

      As to the differences, there is certainly a distinction between allowing and causing. Suppose a parent allows his child to grow up and leave the house, knowing full well he will do some things that the parent does not desire (nor cause). Would that place the parent in the same state of responsibility as if the parent had caused the child to do these things? It seems not.

      I'm glad to meet you Richard, and very relieved to see that people on the internet can disagree and get along!

    4. On the last point first, I am very much with you on that! Philosophy shouldn't be a competition/war/zero sum game. I prefer metaphors of dance or construction, something cooperative. Plus of course if Christians cannot discuss Christianly then things must be pretty bad haha.

      At the risk of overstepping in the dance (hah) I like your further comments. I agree the boy is still totally responsible for the kicking event, but I hope I suggested why in certain situations that causer may have good motives/reasons to do so, whereas the actual kicker (compatibilist agent) would not. Or for the bat (if we magically give the bat motives etc.) it is possible the wielder of the bat had good motives and broader perspectives (such as saving a child in the car perhaps) whereas the magic bat had bad ones ('I like to smash stuff up real good...hur, hur, hur!')

      Of course as in everything, these things lead to more questions and other areas of philosophy. Determinists have to reconcile with morality generally. That has to involve breaking the Kantian 'ought implies can' issue etc. Not an easy path. Plus reconciling with rationality/agency etc. Which I just noticed was a major theme from another subject you posted on determinism! I may read that more and contribute there too!

      Oh yes about the allowing/causing. I think the traditional libertarian with foreknowledge position is doing more than a parent 'allowing' their child to do something. God still creates the agent with their free actions. Further to that, I don't think a distinction between omission to act and acting makes much moral difference. But I know these are further substantial areas with cases to be made on both sides, probably beyond this one thread...


    5. Whoops, sorry for double posting, but I just realised I wasn't very clearly responding to your actual point that "secondary causes don't bear any moral responsibility".

      Even from what I said, I think a determinist has to disagree, and in so doing has a difficult job of rejecting 'ought implies can' etc., due to the compatibilist agent being technically unable to do otherwise. That job probably means recentering morality away from indeterministic actions (hopefully right/wrong actions restored later downstream as it were), to things like good outcomes and virtues etc. Or possibly a sense of ‘can’ as in ‘could do if I had different motives’. Anything to fill the yawning gap!!! But let's not try to fix morality entirely (too hard!).

      As a colourful theological aside too (not that we need more tangents!) A theological determinist needs to consider whether God is also determined, albeit by God's own self/nature etc. So the same determinist moves to reconcile with morality needs to be thought about there just as much as with 'secondary causes'. More hard work.



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