“Fate, however, is to all appearances more unavoidable than unexpected.” – Plutarch, Caesar


Despite robust arguments for free will and the cogency of free agency, most of us will have at least episodic feelings that the course of our life is not under our control but rather subject to fate. In this introduction, we will begin our discussion by looking at (1) clarification of the terms: fate, fortune, destiny, and predestination, and (2) the distinction between determinism and fatalism.

Fate is the apparent inexorable march of events, particularly as experienced by an individual, and including the element of necessity. Fortune also applies to the individual, but depends on chance, not necessity; that is, fortune appears to be contingent. Fortune can be good or bad, but its nature as chance makes it more “congenial than fate.”1 We investigate fortune in more detail in a later section.

The words destiny and fate can be used interchangeably, though in philosophy destiny is often used less for the individual and more generally as “future necessity; the legal outcome of actuality” or as defined by Charles Peirce: “the embodiment of generals in existence.”2 The book title, Human Destiny by Lecomte du Nouy, exemplifies the flavor of this word as I will use it on this site. This also will be the subject of a future section.

Predestination applies both to individuals and reality in general, most often with implications of divine planning. Theologically it is most often applied to salvation and depends on the grace or good will of the divine towards the individual. It too is the subject of a later section.

We have already looked at determinism, “the doctrine that every fact in the universe is guided entirely by law.”3 It is based on the “thesis that all events in the world without exception are effects or events necessitated by earlier events…a casual chain with every link solid.”4  Fatalism is slightly different; it is the thesis that “the future will be the same no matter what we do.” For instance a fatalist says why call a physician when you are ill as you will get better or not get better whether you call him or not? 5 Determinism then is more objective or scientific and fatalism more subjective and personal.

For the next few posts, fate and fatalism will be used to describe the individual, personal, or subjective sense of the inevitability of the course of one’s life related to forces outside one’s control, but not identified as mere instances of chance. We will begin next time by looking at the subjective warrants for belief in fate and fatalistic attitudes to life.


1Adler, Mortimer J, et. al., The Great Ideas – A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, Volume II, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1952, page 515.

2Runes, Dagobert D., Dictionary of Philosophy. Philosophical Library, New York, 1960, p.77.

3Ibid, page 78.

4Honderich, Ted, The Oxford Guide to Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0-19-534093-8 page 208.

5Ibid, page 291.

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“You say: I am not free. But I have raised and lowered my arm. Everyone understands that this illogical answer is an irrefutable proof of freedom.” – Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace.


If free will is confirmed by the empirical and moral arguments discussed in the last two posts, the next question is how human will can be free when it appears everything else in nature is determined by antecedent causes or events. The answer depends on the proposition of free agency which is the subject of this blog.

In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant explains that the– metaphysics of causality require a first cause which is a free agent- that is  “a faculty of absolutely beginning a state and therefore also of absolutely beginning a series of consequences,” and “every beginning of an act however  presupposes a state in which the cause is not yet active; and a dynamically first beginning of an act presupposes a state which has no causal connection with the preceding state of this cause, that is, in no wise results from that preceding state.”  Kant calls this transcendental freedom as opposed to the law of causality. Free agency then is the faculty of transcendental freedom.

Mortimer Adler concurs: freedom of choice does not make the chosen decision “uncaused” rather the operative efficient cause is not like the efficient causes that operate in natural phenomena which are determined but unwilled. Action of the human will is outside the domain of natural phenomena studied by science. Such actions arise from the intellect and are necessitated (due to genuine knowledge) or arbitrary (based on unsupported opinion). Necessitated actions serve our happiness as we are unable to will not to seek happiness, whereas other acts of the will seek partial goods. Thus, free agency is affirmed by these three conditions: (1) the immateriality of the will, (2) the difference between the ways its acts are caused as opposed to natural events, and (3) its causal indeterminacy not due to chance.

In conclusion, free will can be demonstrated as a free agent deciding on a course of action unrelated to a prior causal chain. It relies on reason not causality. What seems unclear to me and is perhaps the fault of an excess anthropomorphic perspective is why other animals are not free agents. When a bird chooses to build her nest on one rather than another of the identical eave-covered outdoor lights outside my library, it seems a stretch to call it instinctual, due to sufficient and necessary cause or even chance. It appears to be a conscious choice of an unconstrained and non-coerced creature.

1Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Pure Reason, Penguin Books Ltd., London, 2007. ISBN 978-0-140-44747-7, pages 405-408.

2Adler, Mortimer J., Adler’s Philosophical Dictionary. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1996. ISBN 0-684-80360-7, pages 56-57.

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“This is also clearly defined in the teachings of the Church, that every rational soul is possessed with free-will and volition; that it has a struggle to maintain with the devil and his angels, and opposing influences, because they strive to burden it with sins.” – Origen of Alexandria.


Previously I identified two main arguments for the existence of human free will. The first relies on empirical evidence as we discussed in the last post. Today we will look at Immanuel Kant’s moral argument for free will. In the Critique of Practical Reason, he demonstrates that an objective ethics can be based on reason alone, that is, necessity rather than empirical or contingent conditions. In his model, moral maxims can be tested for universality of form by inquiring whether such maxims if made a universal law would be contradictory. For example the maxim to seek one’s own happiness fails since if all men seek their own happiness it renders happiness for all men impossible; while the maxim for all men to tell the truth succeeds as any dishonesty renders all statements untrustworthy.

He then points out that one ought to follow the moral laws; and what one ought to do one must be able to do; therefore the will must be free to follow or not follow the moral laws. In other words, while freedom cannot be proven by reason alone, “freedom and the unconditional practical law imply each other.”1 Kant is denying that free will is a matter of faith as are, for example, immortality or God. Rather the will using practical reason determines the moral law and by virtue of its autonomy upholds that law.

Roger Scruton rephrases Kant’s moral argument, suggesting we suspend the idea of freedom and note the universal practice of holding people to account for their actions. In the case of a criminal act such as a mugging, we hold the mugger responsible for a deliberate act. In the case of negligence such as the inadequate supervision a child who is then harmed, we hold the caregiver responsible even though it is not a deliberate act. In a third case where the caregiver of a child is called away by an urgent emergency the same child’s injury is neither deliberate nor worthy of blame. This is the social practice which gives the concept of freedom its sense. When we hold someone responsible for a state of affairs, we do not necessarily imply his actions caused it, nor do we hold someone responsible for everything that he does deliberately. The judgment of responsibility attaches an event not to the actions of a person but to the person himself – with the implied understanding the person’s free will was the cause of his actions.2

The moral and empirical arguments provide a nearly impregnable defense of freedom of the will, but both depend on a coherent understanding of free agency which is the subject of the next blog.

1Magill, Frank. Masterpieces of World Philosophy. HarperCollins Publishers. 1990. ISBN 0-06-270051-0. Pages 547-548.

2Scruton, Roger, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy. Penguin Books. New York, 1999. ISBN 0 14 027516 9, page 99-103.

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