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Bewildering Stories

Challenge 401 Response

Reflections on Fatalism and Determinism

by Stefan Brenner

In A. R. Norris’ “To the Meadow’s Edge”: Does the story promote a fatalistic world view? What is the relation between fatalism and determinism?

It seems undeniable that every individual or system will eventually arrive in some state or condition, and that this end-state is thus its “fate.” The question of determinism may then seem irrelevant: the same applies even in a world ruled wholly by chance.

But fatalism is normally taken to imply more than simply that one end-state or another will be true of everything: instead, it implies that certain end-states are in some sense “determined” or inevitable. Could it be that determinism is relevant after all?

Now, it could be that every “closed” physical system evolves in accord with a finite set of mathematical formulae or “laws.” Then, as long as nothing interferes from “outside,” these laws, together with some initial conditions, would determine — and thus allow one to predict — a physical system’s end-state.

A deterministic fate would then be true of everything physical; that is, everything known to science. However, at both the “quantum” level and at the level of ordinary objects it seems that our world exhibits certain irreducible probabilistic features, features that rule out determinism. Try predicting next year’s weather! So, if fatalism depends on this kind of determinism, it is tempting to dismiss the entire notion of “fate” as some leftover of a more mechanistic, bygone age. But that would be a mistake.

For a start, fatalism, as it is generally understood, owes nothing to the mechanistic world view of Newton, Boyle and Descartes. Rather, we draw our concept of fate from the classical literature of ancient Greece. And the Greek depiction of immortal “Fates” spinning and subsequently cutting the lifelines of mortal beings appears entirely sui generis. Something must have gone amiss: we need to re-examine our notion of fate.

The concept of something being “fated” — as opposed to merely occurring — seems bound up with certain end-states’ being inevitable, and not with their being predictable or law-governed. Sophocles’ Oedipus will eventually kill his father and marry his mother; I think we take this to be true, whether or not science could have predicted that he would. I contend, furthermore, that this can be so only if these events have in some sense “already happened.”

The idea that in some sense everything has already happened is a feature of the philosophical position known as “four-dimensionalism.” In four-dimensionalism, time loses its privileged metaphysical position over the three dimensions of space, and the ordinary verb tenses of our language play a subtly altered role. As it is for Einstein, all talk of events being in the “past” or “future” is only relative to some (non-privileged) observer.

Four-dimensionalism implies that, from a certain perspective, albeit one necessarily different from our own, the future is as “actual” as the past. Where does this leave us?

If initial conditions and laws alone are responsible for Oedipus’ crimes, we might want to say that he was not entirely responsible for them. But it is a very weak idea of fate that places his actions on a par with the behaviour of a gas under compression. It is no wonder we find the comparison invidious, for it seems entirely plausible that Oedipus and his environment do not comprise a deterministic system. And if they do not, Oedipus could (where this “could” is physical or scientific) have avoided killing his Dad. Perhaps it was simply bad luck? No. Oedipus’ fate involves a great deal more than simple coincidence, although chance does play a role.

This brings us neatly to the question of tragedy. For tragedy, in addition to indeterminism and four-dimensionalism, a little “supernatural” knowledge is required. This type of knowledge appears to be “observer-transcendent”; it speaks of what has always already occurred. The Oracle’s prophetic utterances appear to be of precisely this kind: they set off a tragic chain of events in which Oedipus eventually collides with his inevitable fate, those unfortunate crimes he has always already committed.

Copyright © 2011 by Stefan Brenner

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