Theological Fatalism – Part One: The problem

Last week, I had debated Catholic philosopher Dr. Ronda Chervin (PhD, Fordham) concerning the topic “Does God Exist?” Watch the debate here.

One of the three arguments I put forth in my opening statement was the problem of theological fatalism. I argued that since free will and an omniscient being are incompatible, and since my opponent believes God granted free will, God does not exist.

I did not have time to provide a long and detailed explanation of the problem of theological fatalism because of the debate’s short format and my decision to provide three arguments in my ten minute opening statement. I used a portion of my ten minutes to provide a short version of the problem in the persuasive context of the debate. As a result of the short explanation, some who had watched the debate were confused.

I will be authoring a series of three blog posts this week, adapted from a previous post I had authored, further explaining the problem of theological fatalism and responding to objections largely drawing on Richard Taylor’s book “Metaphysics.”

This first post will set the groundwork for the problem of theological fatalism by explaining fatalism and why fatalism seems to follow from an omniscient being existing. I will also provide a fictional account of fatalism — vis-a-vis the story of Osmo — adapted from Richard Taylor’s book. The second post will focus on the implications of theological fatalism and the third will respond to objections. Both posts are now available.

The problem

Various atheists, from my experience, have a slight understanding of the problem of theological fatalism — the incompatibility between free will with omniscient being — but few really seem to understand the problem or otherwise have voiced the objections in a lengthy and sophisticated manner. Some may say, for instance, “How can persons have free will if God knows the future?” and “If God already knows what persons are going to do, how can they have free will?”

Likewise, various theists, when objecting to the problem of theological fatalism, don’t seem to quite understand the problem or otherwise have not heard a lengthy and precise description of what the problem is when they voice objections such as “God just knew what you would do before you did it, so there’s no problem” or “God just knows all of your possibilities of action, but still allows you to act freely.”

In his book Metaphysics, Philosopher Richard Taylor defines fatalism as “the belief that whatever happens is unavoidable” (55). Taylor defines a fatalist as someone who believes that whatever has happened and whatever will happen is and always was unavoidable. The future for the fatalist is just like the past for everyone else – the past is settled and fixed and although we may not remember it or know what it is, it cannot be changed and is certainly not ‘up to us.’  The fatalist looks at the future and the past in a similar manner (55-56).

Suppose that an omniscient being, God, exists. Such a being would know every fact about the universe including events that would happen in the future. Biblical support for God knowing the future comes from 1 John 3:20 (in whatever our heart condemns us; for God is greater than our heart and knows all things), Acts 1:24 (Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men), and Psalm 44:21 (For he knoweth the secrets of the heart).

Various interrogative propositions can be uttered about the future such as “Will rain fall tomorrow?” and “How many people will be reading books tomorrow?” If an omniscient being did not know the answers to these questions, such a being would not be omniscient. An omniscient being would hold all true beliefs possible and could never be mistaken, for if this being was mistaken, it could not be omniscient. It need not be the case that such a being prearranged everything or wanted the future to be what it would be, but rather only that such a being knows what the future holds.

Suppose that an omniscient being could write a book containing the details of someone’s life. If someone were to read this book and find the details of his own life, he may have good reason to suggest that everything in the book would come true. Perhaps this person read facts about his/her own life that no one else was privy to and assumed that the only possible way that these facts could be known is if an omniscient being existed. If it is the case that every fact in this book is true and must be true, such a person has no power over what will happen in the future. A belief coming from an omniscient being cannot possibly be false!

Taylor details such a case in his chapter “Fate” dealing with the story of Osmo. Osmo finds such a book and is convinced that everything in the book must be true although he tries to avoid his future of dying in a plane crash. Regardless of his efforts, Osmo’s aiplane, which he originally thought would not be going to the place the book mentioned, had taken a surprise landing. Osmo, hearing this news, tried to hijack the plane and this eventually led to his death (58-60).

Taylor notes that Osmo did not believe that the events would happen ‘no matter what’ because they could not have happened unless Osmo was in specific places at specific times. Osmo, to die in a plane crash, must have been in a plane, for example, so ‘no matter what’ cannot apply to fatalism because this is not what the fatalist contention is. Taylor writes, “Osmo’s fatalism was simply the realization that the things described in the book were unavoidable” (61). Osmo’s efforts to save himself were in vain because he could not possibly avoid his future. Taylor writes, “No power in heaven or earth can render false a statement that is true. It never has been done, and never will be” (61).

Thank you for reading my first post on theological fatalism. Read parts two and three linked above.

Justin Vacula

Justin Vacula hosts the Stoic Philosophy Podcast; serves as co-organizer and spokesperson for the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society; and has hosted monthly Stoic Philosophy discussion groups for the Humanist Association of Greater Philadelphia. He has appeared on and hosted various radio shows and podcasts; participated in formal debates and discussions; was a guest speaker for college-level courses; was featured in local, national, and international news; and has been invited to speak at various national, local, and statewide events. Vacula received bachelor's degrees in Philosophy and Psychology, a minor in Professional Writing, and the distinguished W.A. Kilburn Memorial Award for Philosophy from King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He is currently living in the Scranton, PA area attending Marywood University's graduate-level Mental Health Counseling program and has worked with the Arc of Luzerne County's Transition to Community Employment program as a teacher's assistant and job coach alongside adult learners with intellectual and developmental disabilities. He also plays poker; volunteers as a member of the website and media team for the Greyhawk Reborn Dungeons & Dragons campaign while playing at events in the Eastern United States; and enjoys metal music.