Einstein once said, “Out of clutter, find simplicity”—it’s important to recognize order and patterns in the apparently complex. “In discord, find harmony,” he continued. Einstein utilized this maxim to guide his own investigation of the physical universe. Yet it is undoubtedly a valuable maxim for all disciplines, including philosophy, for it is an essential feature of logic. As a teacher of philosophy, then, part of my job is to simplify the clutter. But, as I will show, part of my job is also to “clutter up” what appears to be simple, to find discord in what appears harmonious. I begin with simplification.

Consider the following passage:

What is the highest human good, namely, the most valuable thing for humans, such as you and me? Let’s begin with commonplace examples of things that may appear to offer much value, but actually represent lesser human goods. Consider, for instance, lots of money or assets, i.e., wealth; it is not sought except for the sake of something else, of itself it brings us no good, but only when we use it, whether for the support of the body or for some similar purpose. Now the highest good is sought for its own, and not for another’s sake. In other words, the most valuable thing must be intrinsically valuable. Wealth is thus not a human’s highest good, for, as shown above, it is not intrinsically valuable.

Seemingly convoluted, the above passage offers a fairly straightforward argument:

(1) Wealth brings us good only when we use it.


(2) Wealth is not sought except for the sake of something else.

(3) The highest human good is sought only for its own sake.


(4) Wealth is not a highest human good.

The above argument was found in the original passage by extracting any logically extraneous detail and then expressing what remains as clearly as possible. Now the argument is ready to be checked for soundness, using the tools of logic.

In philosophy, however, the converse of Einstein’s maxim—”Out of simplicity, find clutter”—is equally valuable. For too often, what appears simple, straightforward, or consonant is not. Let me explain.

The philosopher Spinoza spoke of how there would be no disagreement among people if only they used terms univocally. Say that you and I disagree vehemently about the existence of God. Yet, maintained Spinoza, you and I would agree about God, provided that you and I actually meant the same thing by ‘God’. People may think that they are speaking of the same thing, because they are using the same words. But often they aren’t, and so confusion and disagreement reigns. Spinoza himself was called both a man “intoxicated by God” and an atheist. That’s why he began his Ethics with a set of definitions, upon which we can generate further truths and of course consensus on those truths. Spinoza may have been overly optimistic regarding the prospect of human agreement over controversial matters, nevertheless, for there to be any possibility of such agreement, clear communication is paramount.

To that effect, defining terms very carefully is crucial in philosophical discourse. Integral to this task is the making of distinctions between terms; that is, to disambiguate easily or often ambiguated terms. Here are some particularly salient distinctions that philosophers love to talk about:

  • appearance/reality
  • ambiguity/vagueness
  • analytic/synthetic
  • apriori/aposteriori
  • categorical/hypothetical
  • contrary/contradictory
  • determinism/fatalism
  • efficient/final/material/formal
  • endure/perdure
  • eternity/sempiternity
  • induction/deduction
  • intension/extension
  • necessary/contingent
  • necessarily/always
  • noumenal/phenomenal
  • transeunt/immanent
  • per se/per accidens
  • providence/praevidence
  • substantival/adjectival
  • tautologous/contingent/contradictory
  • type/token
  • use/mention

For the sake of time, I will discuss just one of these distinctions—the one between determinism and fatalism.


“Lives are rivers. We imagine we can direct their paths, though in the end there’s but one destination, and we end up being true to ourselves only because we have no choice.” (Richard Russo, Empire Falls)

In ancient Greek writings, the two distinct positions of determinism and fatalism were not often disambiguated, since the same term, moira (μοῖρα), seems to apply to each.  Moira comes from meros, “part or lot,” and moros, “fate or doom.” Even today, the English terms and phrases “fate,” “doom,” “destiny,” “one’s lot,” “what is determined to happen,” “what is predetermined,” and “what is predestined,” are often used interchangeably and loosely.

(Tapestry by Pat Taylor and Fiona Abercrombie, from the drawing Three Fates by Henry Moore)

Let’s begin by describing a brand of determinism offered by those ancient Greek and Roman philosophers called Stoics. Stoics believed that everything that is or comes to be in the universe has a cause: there is nothing that is uncaused. Everything is but a link in the infinite chain of causes. If this were not the case, the universe would be unpredictable, chaotic, and disunified. Indeed, the universe was thought by many Stoics to be an organic unity.

The Stoics distinguished between several kinds of cause: initiating, contributory, sustaining, and constitutive. But what is true of all of these causes that it is impossible that, when all of the circumstances surrounding both the cause and that for which it is a cause are identical, the result would sometimes turn out in a particular way and sometimes would not. For, insisted the Stoics, if this were to happen, then there would have to exist some change without a cause. In other words, according to the Stoics: same initial conditions, same result.

None of this, however, points to the doctrine of fatalism, strictly speaking. Rather, the Stoics tended to defend what philosophers now call determinism.

So what is fatalism and how does it differ from determinism? To explain, consider the case of Oedipus, the mythical Theban king and subject of Sophocles’ tragedy. The oracle of Apollo said to King Laius, “If you beget a child, the one who is born will slay you, and all your house will wade in blood.” Eventually, this came to pass. His son, Oedipus, wound up killing Laius and marrying his mother Jocasta, not at all knowing that he committed patricide and incest.

(King and Queen by Henry Moore)

Determinists say that if the oracle of Apollo had not made such a prophecy to Laius, none of the things that came about would have done so. If the oracle had not prophesied thusly, Laius would not have abandoned his son and his son would have known that Laius was his father and so would not have killed him nor married his mother. Everything is part of the “chain of causes,” including the prophecy. Yet the oracle did utter the prophecy, so Oedipus’ patricide and incest were both causally inevitable.

However, imagine a response to the case of Oedipus that went like this: Oepidus was going to murder his father and have sex with his mother whether or not the oracle uttered the prophecy. Such a response diverges greatly from the above deterministic one; it is the response of a fatalist.

Here’s the difference in a nutshell: determinism means that given the same initial conditions, the same results will occur; fatalism means that at least some events will occur, no matter the initial conditions. No wonder then that physicists tend to be determinists but not fatalists while Christians tend to be fatalists but not determinists. No matter what you or I do from here on out, Christians believe, Christ will return. Whereas many physicists believe that what you and I do does causally affect the future. Our actions do make a difference. The kicker, of course, is that our actions are themselves entirely causally dependent on and determined by past events.

So the next time you hear someone speak of or write about fate, ask yourself: What exactly is this person referring to? Or is she or he using it in a loose or ambiguous way?



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