Practical Metaphysics: The Case of Freewill and Fatalism

Do humans act of their own free will, or is everything that people do merely the result of universal causation? Are free will and determinism compatible or incompatible? Does fate rule whether or not free will exists? These questions are metaphysical because neither science nor the techniques of formal logic can answer them once and for all. This is the first principle of practical metaphysics. The second is that it is necessary in life to adopt some metaphysical beliefs. The third is that some of these beliefs have practical consequences for one’s life. Free will conforms to the second principle, because everyone takes a stand on the question. However, not all metaphysical beliefs have practical consequences, so we must examine each case as it comes up.

Believing in the existence of free will clearly does have practical consequences. Believers are willing to accept responsibility for their actions. They think that their choices matter. The future is not a foregone conclusion. Praise and blame lose their grip if a person “cannot help” acting in a certain way. Another consequence is that such people will be less likely to blame others or circumstances for their own mistakes. Still another is that belief in free will supports an optimistic attitude. It makes sense of trying to do better, believing the future is open, and that it is actually possible to improve.

Does the belief in determinism have practical consequences? Perhaps. If it turns out that the truth of universal causation determines human actions, and if actions can be reduced to physical actions and chemical processes, then it is indeed true that all my actions will be determined in advance by antecedent causes. What difference would the truth of this assertion make to how I live my life? We are unable to know the entire antecedent universe. Whether or not it is true that the future is determined in advance, the future is opaque to us. We learn from experience what happens regularly in different circumstances, all things being equal. However, we cannot know if all things are equal in any particular case. Hence, we might be excused for thinking that a belief in metaphysical determinism makes no difference to the life of an agent.

Is this the whole story? Might it be possible to use a belief in determinism as a universal excuse for one’s actions? If my body and body chemistry move along with the universal causal nexus regardless of what I think, plan, feel or do, then what do my choices and reasons mean? Can I, therefore, abdicate my responsibility along with my free will by adopting a thorough-going metaphysical determinism? Or, does my ignorance of determining conditions make it impossible for me to give up my sense that I am responsible for my choices and actions?

If believing in determinism is a way to deny personal responsibility, then accepting it has practical consequences. It is an approach to life. Perhaps it would be better here to speak of the attitude of fatalism rather than universal determinism. With fatalism we can accept that we have to make choices, but believe that no matter what choices we make, our fate is sealed. Think of Somerset Maugham’s old story about the man who met the person of Death in Cairo, ran for his life to Samara, only to find Death waiting for him there, saying “When I saw you in Cairo, I thought you might be late for our our date in Samara, but here you are.” It was fate.

Fatalism is the view that what will be, will be, and nothing can change that. Might not taking on this view turn a person into a quietest who lives a still and passive life? Perhaps, if one believes in fate, one will not struggle against it. A clear literary example of this is described in Richard Adam’s epic rabbit adventure, Watership Down. At one point, Hazel and the other rabbits who are striking out to find a new home, run into a tribe of rabbits who live a well fed and pleasant life. However, they are taken for the pot one by one. All these rabbits know that one day they will be taken, but they do no know what that day will be. So they spend their time writing poetry and putting on tragic dramas, waiting quiescently for their individual ends. Hazel discovers what is going on and offers them a chance to escape. The ‘artistic’ rabbits turn down the offer by saying that their lives are their fate and they are resigned to it.

Perhaps there is another way, too, that belief in fate might affect one’s approach to life. There is a scene in Johnson’s “Rasselas” in which the hero meets a scientist who is weighed down by his conviction that he controls much of the weather and brings up the sun each morning from the top of his observatory. He is cured when he realizes that it is all a fantasy in his head. Finding out that something is not within one’s own power can be a relief. Responsibility is a heavy burden that can be laid down when one finds that the issue is out of one’s control. If we combine that with the idea of God’s providence, we have a source of consolation as well. I conclude that believing in free will or fatalism has practical consequences for the life of the believer, and thus falls within the subject matter of practical metaphysics.

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