Determinism, Fatalism & Predestination: making distinctions

Predestination, Fatalism, and Determinism are often confused for each other, and so I thought I’d briefly outline some differences and make the distinctions clearer. To begin with, we can turn to Fatalism. Fatalism is the philosophical idea that regardless of what choices one makes, some event ‘x’ is inevitably going to happen. For instance, suppose I know it is the case that no matter how well I fight a battle, I will lose, and I will lose regardless of what choices I make or how hard I try – I am ‘fated’ to lose. It was a concern to avoid Fatalism which led Aristotle to argue that future-tensed propositions actually had no truth value at all; the future was truly open, on his view, and not yet set in stone or in any sense ‘real’. The key is really to remember, therefore, that Fatalism is the doctrine that there is at least one event ‘x’ such that it will occur (to me or the relevant parties who have any fate) regardless of any free decision on our part (or any at all).

Determinism, by contrast, says of any event ‘x’ that it is entirely causally determined by the conditions given which it occurred, in such a way that given the same conditions, there is no logically possible world where ‘x’ did not occur. Note that determinism is typically taken to be about all events. Determinism is often thought of as a cognate philosophical position to mechanism, materialism or naturalism, though that has greatly changed with quantum physics. Determinism thus says of all apparently ‘free’ choices, that they too are causally determined, as are all thoughts. Determinism says of the world that, taken as a whole, it could not possibly have been any other way.

The doctrines of Fatalism, and of Determinism, are both rejected by Catholicism. Events are not fated to happen, but rather occur given conditions which allow them to occur, along with causes which put them into effect (including the cause of agents freely choosing in ways which would allow certain events to come about). Where fatalism denies the significance of free will, determinism denies even the reality of free will. Predestination preserves both the significance and the reality of free will. It is useful to note, before attempting to outline a definition of predestination, what predestination is not, or what being predestined does not  mean. Being predestined to eternal glory and life everlasting in heaven with God does not mean being fated to that end. Nor does it mean being determined (meaning here, as should be clear, pre-determined) to go to heaven. Instead, being predestined means, first of all, that, as a matter of fact, you are going to have eternal life in the hereafter. That fact itself is determined by none other than you yourself, but the future tensed proposition “I will live eternally in the bliss of God’s communion” has a truth value (contra Aristotle), and if it is true of any subject S, then S is predestined. Predestination, however, requires more than the mere fact. I think predestination minimally requires a few things. Let us say that some persons are predestined just in case:

  1. God has knowledge of the ‘destiny’ from the moment of creation,
  2. God wills that ‘destiny’ from the moment of creation,
  3. God is the party chiefly responsible for realizing it,
  4. and it involves the exercise of free will on the part of the subject predestined.

The third feature is regularly the cause of confusion and controversy, but notice that all it says is that God is the chief party responsible for realizing it, and does not entail or even imply any kind of divinely imposed determinism. Catholics are bound to believe that in the absence of Grace man can do no good, and thus even to be able to freely choose contrary to evil is itself made possible with Grace which “has gone before us” (CCC 2009). Thus, the provision of Grace which is wholly unmerited enables us to freely choose the good, though that Grace is not irresistible (as John Calvin maintained that it was). Moreover, when we choose the good, our free choice, properly understood, is passive, and the active agent is Christ in us whom we have allowed to work in us and through us. We, with respect to the Holy Spirit, are passive, and He is active. Thus, God is the one who accomplishes in us all that is truly good. The end result being what Augustine describes when he says:

Our merits are gifts effected through grace; when God rewards, He crowns His gifts, even the merits He has given.
~St. Augustine, Letter 194

There are two further distinctions to be made. Predestination is not to be confused with either double-predestination on the one hand, nor is it to be confused with the view of God’s providentially overseeing and, as it were, dictating the events of history. Double-Predestination was a position condemned roundly by the Catholic Church a number of times, including at the Second Council of Orange, and again at Trent. Today, it is a position often associated, not unevenly, with Calvinism or Reformed theology. This view interprets the second criteria of predestination (God’s willing it to be) to include all instances of damnation and sin, so that God wills for some to sin, and even for some of those same ones to be damned. On this view Grace is irresistible, and is offered according to God’s arbitrary choice when he chooses whom to have grace upon, and who to refuse that same Grace to. It also, obviously, denies the fourth criteria altogether.

The view of God providentially overseeing and dictating the events of history is one about which controversy exists even among Catholics (Catholics all agree one way or another with something like that, but the particulars remain legitimate issues for theological debate in the Church). It would seem to entail that God has what is called middle knowledge, such that God not only knows what I will freely choose to do, but rather he also knows what I would freely choose to do in different circumstances. However, it seems almost impossible to reconcile the doctrine of free will (which is non-negotiable in Catholicism), and the idea that God could know what I would freely choose to do in some counterfactual scenario. It seems difficult for God to know that just because it seems impossible for counterfactuals about libertarian free will to be true at all (or false for that matter). There are Catholics who do maintain this position however, including most or many Thomists, and notably Molinists. Whatever else can be said in favour of this view that God is providentially dictating all events of history, it is not to be confused with predestination anymore than it is to be confused with either determinism or fatalism.

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About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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