V. Alan White firstname.lastname@example.org
After learning about the concept of determinism, a natural tendency is to conclude that if anyone actually believed in the determinism of human nature, then all future human actions are "set out for us" or "cut and dried" and, in some sense, utterly unavoidable. Another way of referring to such inevitability is that human action appears to be fated if determinism is true.
We all have some idea of what fate or destiny is supposed to be. Sometimes we might say that "it was fate that brought us together," or that some sports team won a championship because that was its "destiny." It's clear that part of what is meant by such statements is that these events must occur "no matter what." Equally clear is that what "no matter what" really means is "no matter what comes before them." And that, of course, is to say that events preceding fated events have no bearing on whether fated events occur.
A fanciful example might help at this point (though it may sound as if it's out of The Twilight Zone). A young man sees a palmist in order to find what his future holds. The mysterious turbaned figure looks wanly at the young man's hand and gloomily croaks, "You will die by water!" Well, that's enough for this young man. Though he lives on the East Coast, he moves to a place in landlocked Kansas, away from streams and lakes. Though an excellent swimmer, he shuns available pools, and even refuses to take baths or showers, thinking of possible water-related accidents that might occur. His life becomes a paranoid avoidance of all significant contact with water. But--you probably guessed it by now--he still must consume water to live. So, one day at home, hovering above a bowl of chicken soup, he is hit on the head by a cookie jar knocked off the refrigerator by his cat (a black cat, naturally). Unconscious, his head falls forward into his soup and he drowns! (Mentally run the Zone theme through your mind--dee Dee dee duh, dee Dee dee duh. . .).
It should be clear from this (overly) cute tale that much fatalism is occult nonsense. After all, to believe as fatalists must that at least some events must occur no matter what happens previously is, in fact, to renounce causation of those fated events, for any caused event must be preceded only by a certain type of event which is its cause. Therefore, a belief that some event is fated invokes a mysterious control that requires the event to happen but not necessarily causally.
An objection must be addressed here. Aren't some events irrevocably set out in our futures? Mustn't we all die sometime, for example? And isn't it just correct to say that that is our fate? Well, that's a good try--but such questions confuse fate with inevitability. Events can easily be understood to be relatively inevitable if they are deterministic. In our earlier examples, the movement of a billiard ball which is struck in a certain way may be understood to be inevitable, that is, relative to the fact that it is so struck. Likewise, given that our bodies must age in the usual way (and much if not all of that is deterministic), then it seems inevitable that they must break down at some point. Thus, our deaths are inevitable, but they aren't fated. (Similarly, our poor "fated" Twilight persona inevitably had to drown relative to the cookie jar's fall, rendering him unconscious.)
But an astute thinker may not yet be satisfied. Isn't there some way to merge determinism with some other concept so that a form of fatalism emerges? Couldn't determinism be used to fix the future in some real sense so that some events become unavoidable?
Indeed, it must be confessed that the definition of fatalism above is a weakened or minimalist one; there are stronger versions which involve determinism in this capacity as an instrument for fixing the future relative to a certain causal past. But, to produce such stronger versions, the definition must accordingly be strengthened: events are fated if they are causally and intentionally fixed to occur. Note that this strengthening of the definition does much to eradicate the mysteriousness of the weaker version since a mechanism of fate--determinism--is now spelled out. Now what must be provided is some account of how this mechanism can be put to intentional use to make (at least some) events unavoidable.
Conceivably, we could satisfy this definition in rather ordinary situations. What if we decide to program a VCR to record a late-night movie and then do so? Then consider the facts of this action. The VCR's timer causally ticks off the time, the signals from the TV station causally flow over the air or cable, and, at the predetermined moment, the recording occurs. Given that all this occurs causally, and that it was done intentionally, then it might make sense to say that the recording was fated to occur, meaning here that it was purposely made unavoidable by causal means.
Still, it sounds strange to say that the VCR recording was a matter of fate. First, though the recording may in fact have been brought about by causal means, it is quite thinkable that the causes involved in the case might have broken down--the timer might have fizzled, the electricity might have gone out on the recorder or at the source of the TV signals, etc., etc. Causal necessity does not of itself make events ultimately unavoidable even if they are caused to occur, because, as we have seen, events that are caused are only necessary relative to their causes. Different causes of an unforeseen nature (the TV signals are jammed by radio interference, for example) must produce different effects. Second, just because events come about purposely and causally does not mean that they are fated in an irrevocable sense if those purposes are at all fallible. Thus, we can program the VCR, come back tomorrow to watch our program, and discover that we mistakenly programmed the wrong channel and recorded an infomercial. (How dreadful!) Anything akin to real fate must preclude such accidents.
There does seem to be a way to avoid these pitfalls: assume that the universe is absolutely deterministic and provide purpose for the unfolding of all events throughout time. Of course, what this means is that a deity plans the unfolding of the universe and requires just that that plan occurs by means of the determinism of all events. In this way there can't be unforeseen causes and the enactment of purpose cannot go awry. In fact, classic 18th century deism posited just such a view. Note that this is about as strong a view of fatalism as can be thought.
However, most determinists about human nature are not universal determinists--they only believe that the significant events of the systems of human nature are causal both physically and mentally. Further, being a determinist says nothing about one's commitments to theology. Therefore, even though such a determinist believes that all events of human nature are caused, he or she need not believe that they are in any sense fated. Remember, though, that being a determinist entails that, given prior events as causes, future effects must inevitably occur. (Hence, in a godless but deterministic universe, everything unfolds by causal necessity, but nothing is planned--fated--to occur.)
To summarize. Determinism is the belief that some system of events is entirely causal, nothing more, nothing less. In the absence of any surefire planning for such a system of causes, determinism cannot become fatalism.