Tuesday, January 25, 2011

What's the difference between determinism and fatalism?

One way may be to describe the difference in counterfactuals. Fatalism is the thesis that had things been different at some time t, it still would have occurred some event (here we may or may not want to see this event as a token or type, it may not matter) at a later time t'. Determinism has this as a vacuous truth since it could not have been different at time t because events at time t is determined by the events in some previous time and the laws of nature.

The parable of Jesus

Many secular people who admire the story of Jesus will point out that it is a moral parable. It is the story of someone that gave his life for the sins of others and was kind despite the huge costs incurred to himself. It is about redemption. But can our sins be redeemed by punishing someone else, even someone who is purely good? It seems immoral top punish innocent people on behalf of the guilty. Sins don't seem to be transferable. Sometimes some minor sins are for example, fines can usually be paid by the friends and family of the guilty and thus, the guilty incur no harm as a result of the punishment. We seem to have no problem with that kind of transferability of punishment. David Lewis wrote an interesting paper on the topic called Do We Believe in Penal Substitution?. I personally find the redemption parable uninteresting and quite morally barbaric. Punishing a good man for the sins of the sinful seem to be a immoral act.

That aside, however, I believe that there is an alternate interpretation of the story that warrants moral attention. I make an analogy to the ubermensch of Nietzsche. The ubermensch is someone that would choose, out of his own will, a life of great challenge and struggle, if only to exercise his strength, courage and engage in a creative life if only for the sake of the challenge. There is triumph in the struggle and it's more important in Nietzsche's scheme of things to live a beautiful but tragic life than a happy or pleasant life if the later life does not offer the opportunity for struggle and greatness. The virtues of strength and courage and creativity are paramount for Nietzsche. Being all powerful might even prevent someone, say a god, from living such a great life because omnipotence forbids the possibility of true struggle and the exhibition of heroic courage which comes in the face of one's own peril when one struggles against something greater than himself. This is why Nietzsche always thought the Roman Stoic philosopher Epictetus's claim that the gods have good reason to be jealous of man to be insightful and true. This is one kind of paradox which I will call a "paradox of omnipotence." Jean-Luc Godard explored another similar theme in his Hélas Pour Moi. In this film, God takes over the body of a man in order to seduce his wife. It seems that only a man, in all his finitude and imperfection can truly win the love of a woman. A god may manipulate her or coerce her into loving him but he cannot win her love the old fashioned way, i.e., through charm, conversation, etc, all the mere mortal appeals.

Now let's imagine a perfectly moral being. He happens to be all powerful as well. Now I suggest that there is a similar paradoxical limiting of one's virtues by being omnipotent in moral virtues as well (instead of the Nietzschean virtues of strength, courage, and creativity which are not traditionally thought of as moral virtues). How does being omnipotent limit oneself here? Well, it seems to me that only the mortal, the finite, are truly capable of things like moral courage, free will, moral responsibility and so on. An all powerful and all good god cannot be truly morally courageous (what has he got to be justifiably afraid of? What can possibly harm him?). Courage is the overcoming of justified fear through strength of character and will. Without the possibility of justifiable fearing anything, courage is impossible. God may only be "courageous" in a irrational sense that he overcomes an irrational fear. God can seem to do no wrong either and may not seem to have a choice in doing evil as he is determined by his omnibenevolence and his other attributes.

Thus it seems to me that God, or any moral ubermensch, if he is truly all powerful and all good, would necessarily choose to limit his powers by some kind of incarnating himself into mortal form and suffer through the (moral) trials and tribulations of someone that is put into dire situations to test and practice his own moral virtues. This would then be a parable to show that the possibility of being truly good and decent necessarily rests on our finitude. I think that this is an extremely far fetched interpretation of the Bible and it is likely not how it was intended to be read by any of its writers. But for me to see any value in the Bible at all, with all its barbarity, I would have to see it this way.

My review of Merit, Meaning, and Human Bondage

By Nomy Arpaly Here.