Fatalism: A Definition of Eternity

The majority of the world believes in a power or a being greater than themselves and yet nobody really knows what the figure commonly known as God is really capable of. While most believers in the divine can agree on the properties that define God, they all seem to disagree on how those properties affect the acts humans make on Earth. This creates a nasty dilemma of fatalism following from the existence a temporal God and escaping fatalism with the existence of an atemporal God. Even though most theists refuse to accept it, the existence of both fatalism and a God that exists in time is the more feasible option in this disagreement because of the drastic changes in traditional modes of faith that an atemporal God brings about.

Before the dispute begins, there are two properties, knowledge and omniscience, that need to be made explicitly clear. These are widely accepted when related to God, but one must first understand the concepts before applying them to a divine being. As far as knowledge is concerned, the distinction needs to be made between knowing a proposition and believing a proposition. For example, if proposition p is “April 30th is a Saturday,” I can believe that proposition. However, the fact is that p is false because April 30th is a Friday. I could have thought I had known p, in this case believed p, but I would be mistaken. Therefore, the assumption must be made that if agent J knows proposition p, it follows that J believes p and p is true. With that said, the truth of a proposition is a necessary element of the knowledge of a proposition. The next essential property is omniscience, which is defined as the knowledge of all truths. So, if an agent J is omniscient, J knows all true propositions because all propositions are either true or false. An assumed element in J being omniscient is the concept of inerrancy, which is that J does not hold a false belief. It is important to reinforce that belief and knowledge are not the same concept, so that if J were inerrant, it would not be the case that J knows all falsehoods.

If J were God instead of a random agent, this amplifies the importance of omniscience. This is because an accepted truth of God’s very nature is that he is omniscient, that is, omniscience is an essential property that separates God from every other being. Thus, because omniscience is an essential part of God, that makes it necessary; so, for God to be omniscient it is logically impossible for God to believe something that is false as well as for God to not know some truth. Because omniscience is now connected to God in such a strong way, the significance of a belief that God holds is greatly increased. Since the conceptual necessity of omniscience implies that God is infallible instead of just inerrant, a belief of God’s can not be false. Therefore, if God believes proposition p, it follows that p is true – this is a very different outcome compared to agent J holding that belief. Another property of God’s that is accepted as being different than a normal human’s is the concept of eternality. While an important facet of the dispute is a disagreement regarding how “eternal” is specifically defined, it is widely accepted that man’s time on Earth is extremely brief compared to God’s. In fact, most theists conceive God as existing through all moments of time, as an “everlasting” divine being.

Pike defines God’s eternality in his argument for fatalism by using this notion that God exists at every moment in time. He goes about this by showing how a temporal God has foreknowledge of human events and how agent J cannot refrain from doing act a under the set of characteristics God is assumed to possess. Supposing that God exists and he falls under Pike’s definition of “eternal,” it follows that he is omniscient at every moment in time because omniscience is an essential property of God. Therefore, if he knows all truths at every moment in time, it can be deduced that he would have known at time t1 that J would do act a at a future time t2, assuming that it is true that he would. Thus, by assuming essential omniscience and God’s temporal existence, foreknowledge follows. If God has complete foreknowledge, it means that God knows what humans will do before they do it, which implies fatalism. However, it must first be shown that a human has no power of refraining from those acts because according to God’s foreknowledge before the fatalist argument becomes perfectly clear.

Pike’s primary goal in supporting the fatalist argument through a God who is temporal and possesses foreknowledge is to portray how an agent J cannot refrain from doing a future act a at a future time t2. He first goes about by assuming that God believes at time t1 that J will do a at t2. For argument’s sake, Pike then supposes that J actually has the power to refrain from that act at that time, even though this is the opposite of what he is trying to prove. There appear to be three ways that J could exercise this power, the first of which being that J could make God’s belief at t1 false. This is logically impossible, however, as it has already been established that if God is necessarily omniscient, then he is infallible and it is impossible for him to hold any false beliefs. The second way J could use the power to refrain would be to make God’s belief at t1 a different belief, such as that J would not do a at t2. J cannot do this either because past beliefs are power-impossible, therefore J cannot change them. The final option for J to refrain from doing a at t2 is to make the person holding the belief at t1 not God. However, this falls into the same trap as the second option because it is power-impossible for J to change past persons, just like past beliefs. Through the means of reductio ad impossible, Pike shows that his initial supposition is false because each way for J to refrain is false, therefore he claims that it is not in J’s power to refrain from a at t2.

Putting together Pike’s primary argument for fatalism through means of a temporal God becomes rather straightforward after showing that agent J cannot refrain at a future time t2 from doing act a. Since God possesses foreknowledge because he exists in all moments of time and his omniscience is essential, then he would know at a time t1 that J would do act a at a future time t2. God’s omniscience in this case is infallible, so the proposition that J does a at t2 must be true. If J cannot do anything to refrain from a, his act cannot be a free one. Because J is not special and represents every human agent, it follows that no human act is free under these conditions. This conclusion can be very disheartening to most theists who believe that God is everlasting, exists and interacts in time, and that he knows all truths. It is this refusal to accept fatalism that drives other philosophers to find any counter-example possible in order to disagree with Pike’s perspective.

Boethius, who wrote on these issues centuries before Pike did, seems to have the ideal counter to Pike’s argument for fatalism. This perspective relies on giving God an outside-the-world perspective by supplying a unique definition for “eternal.” If “eternal” means “the total and perfect possession of endless life” as Boethius claims it does, God possesses all of his life in one moment. The properties of time would cease to define the parameters of God’s existence because there would be no earlier or later parts of God’s life if it is possessed all at once. Thus, Boethius understands God to be an atemporal being, who is not bound by the past, future, or any other time-related notions because he possesses all of his existence as if it were in the present. It is important to stress that God does not solely possess his entire existence in the temporal present since he is not bound by the properties of time. However, Boethius still maintains that God is necessarily omniscient; it is just that he beholds and, therefore, knows every event at once without any relation to time. This concept of the knowing of all events timelessly clashes with Pike’s presentation of divine foreknowledge. In Boethius’ argument, God cannot know an event before it happens because his having knowledge earlier than the moment the event occurs is a relation of time. Therefore, he cannot foreknow something because that puts him in a temporal relation. By presenting the benefits of removing God from time itself and conceiving him as an atemporal being, Boethius believes he has allowed for God to remain infallibly omniscient in addition to giving humans free will.

This balance between God having infallible omniscience and humans still having free will is what most believers in God want in their lives. Even though many faiths believe in God, for argument’s sake I will focus on Catholicism as the sample religion because several points are illustrated ideally in this faith. Through the Bible, Catholics are told to believe in Jesus Christ, God’s one true son, and that in the Old Testament, God revealed himself in mysterious ways to prophets. When believers see unexplainable things occur, they claim that a miracle has transpired. Also, like in other faiths, Catholics communicate with the divine through prayer, in that they may ask God for forgiveness or for assistance. However, if God is outside of time like Boethius claims, there is no way for him to interact with the temporal world. That means no Jesus, no prophet interaction, no miracles, and no responses to prayers. Even other faiths aside from Catholicism represent God dealing with issues in the actual world through various means. While Boethius does not seem to have a problem with this, Catholics really should, even though the atemporal concept gives them free will and a god with infallible omniscience.

Especially when one considers the historical prevalence that Catholicism has had on society, the fact that some of the faith’s core tenets are not possible under Boethius’ theory is shocking. Nations have been founded under Catholicism and many people have died for going against the church in its early days. With that said, to consider God as an atemporal being would mean that a majority of the Church’s teachings are lies and all those scorned by the church would have been treated unfairly. No blame can be placed on Boethius, however, as he is regarded by the Catholic Church as a martyr for his work. The real issue in this disagreement is how much of an importance should be placed on the impression of free will by believers in God. As shocking as it is for most believers to consider fatalism, one should recall the often-used phrase “part of God’s plan.” If Catholics and other theists are willing to use this phrase to console others, then accepting fatalism should not be too difficult. After all, if God has a “plan,” he knows what will inevitably occur and because of this foreknowledge, fatalism follows. However, the only downside of believing this is that if God has foreknowledge of every human event, it is not fair for him to condemn anyone if those individuals did not have the power to refrain from their acts. At the same time, it is not proven what happens to human beings after they die, so it is possible that they are not even judged after their time on Earth has ended. When one takes everything into consideration, fatalism resulting from a temporal god seems like most feasible option for believers in God to accept.

Certainly, this entire topic would be pointless if God does not exist, as this would give humans free will. However, assuming God is real and that he is necessarily omniscient, the dispute of whether or not to accept fatalism lies in how God’s eternality is defined. Pike’s definition of an everlasting god, present at all moments in time, results in fatalism because of divine foreknowledge. On the other hand, Boethius gets out of fatalism by assuming God possesses his entire existence at once outside of time. This unfortunately forces God to not be able to interact with the temporal world, which shatters many preconceived notions found in traditional faith. When the two situations are compared, fatalism slowly becomes the most acceptable option. The most unfortunate situation of all is that even when the dispute is logically laid out, most of the world will still find ways to disagree with each other.

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Peter Spezia

Editor-in-Chief at Rhymes With Asia
Speaking into a microphone about nerd culture is a passion project for Peter Spezia, formerly known as SMYNYouko. Peter has been an Internet broadcaster since 2007, with past shows including Show Me Your News and WTF, Pokémon. His latest ventures include hosting The PowerSwitch - gaming's call-in talk radio show - and writing for RhymesWithAsia.com. A University of Michigan alum, Peter lives in the Great Lakes State with his wife Rachel as he works in video production for FCA US LLC. When he isn't keeping track of the latest video game industry news, Peter is either playing the guitar or staying fit.