Fatalism: Practical aspects
It is important to make a distinction between looking at the past and looking into the future in fatalistic terms. In the first instance, the fatalistic view is an analytic statement: it does not say anything significant about the world. Nor does it circumscribe in any way our capacity for action. On the other hand, fatalistic view about the future is quite different. For here, we are affirming that the future is (already) cast in concrete. There is nothing we can do about it. Even if we think we are doing something to alter the future, even such actions have been pre-ordained, and we are merely acting within the fatalistic groove.
Unlike the tautology of the principle of fatalism in the past, futuristic fatalism has moral implications. As Seneca reminded us, fate in this sense exonerates everyone of any wrong-doing. After all, the criminal could say that his action had been pre-ordained, etched in the unalterable cement of fate. This is one reason why some ethicists and philosophers are reluctant to accept fatalism. This, of course, need not be a consideration because the judge in the court could still convict the criminal and say that the verdict had also been pre-ordained.
Nevertheless, this is one reason why in Christianity freewill is taken as an important doctrinal principle. God gave us the capacity to choose between good and bad, whereas fatalism deprives us of this choice. We are not robots behaving as per divine programming. The difficulty here is that in the Christian framework, the choice is really not free, because there are weighty consequences, pleasant or unpleasant, in what we choose to do. Choosing between a cup of tea and a cup of coffee, or from among different flavors of ice-cream, is not exactly what one means by the exercise of free-will. When we are told that by deciding to act sinfully we will go to a very hot and painful place, there to remain indefinitely, are we really given freedom to exercise our will? From this perspective, the Islamic condemnation of infidels to Hell does not seem to be fair either, at least to the infidels, because that is how Allah had written it to be. In one translation of the Qur’an we read (xviii, 58) that Allah threw veils over the hearts of unbelievers “lest they should understand the Koran, and into their ears a heaviness; and if you bid them to the guidance, yet even they will never be guided.”
What is puzzling is that even when we are not responsible for wrong actions, since God willed everything, unpleasant things occur, such as the birth of a sickly child or the death of innocent people in natural disasters. Is this also the will of God? Why did the divine blueprint for the world include pain and suffering? In this context, the Hindu perspective is an ingenious blending of fatalism and freewill. It regards our current experiences as predestined, not by God but by our own previous actions (in other births), and it allows for freewill in our current conscious state. Our present conduct will determine our future states. In this way it explains the present predicament (which fatalism does, but freewill does not), and gives freedom to human actions (which the freewill does but fatalism cannot).