Fate, Determinism, and Free Will


Fate: Predetermined outcome that cannot be controlled or changed.

Free Will: The ability to make choices which can change and/or determine an outcome.

Determinism: All events, including human actions, are the results of causes outside the will.

Of these theories, fate is the more difficult to defend because it is more of a religious belief than a philosophical theory. Some philosophy professors don’t even bring it into the mix when examining the theories we’re talking about in class. I include it because it is a valid theory and many people believe in it. The religious concept of fate dates back to ancient Greek and Roman mythology in which three goddesses were charged with determining human destinies (Tikkanen). The ancient belief in fate was strong and is reflected in literary works of the times including the Oedipus trilogy of plays written by Greek playwright Sophocles.  

This belief has, to an extent, carried into modern monotheistic religions in spite of the fact that there is little, if any, direct support for it in scripture. The fact that fate is largely a religious belief is the reason many students who choose to defend it turn to religious teachings. That is not a bad thing. Starting with scripture—be it the Torah, the Bible, or the Quran—helps to establish a foundation. The key is building upon that foundation. If we only use scripture to defend fate, we end up defending why people believe in it, but not necessarily proving that it’s real.


This argument asserts that man has no control over the outcome, it is predetermined in spite of any action man might take. In the argument for fate, life is a journey from point A to point B. Though there may be many paths and choices along the way, the outcome will always be point B. All roads lead to point B.

Fate Illustration

While three paths are illustrated above, an infinite number of paths lead from point A to point B if fate is in control.

Examining the argument for fate from a religious standpoint, we must consider that fate is likely God’s will. So, if our lives are controlled by fate, then even immoral lives and tragic deaths are the will of God. This takes us back to our discussion about God and the Problem of Evil. See lecture notes on that topic.

Even if we separate the concept of fate from religion, a belief in fate still presupposes the existence of a higher power. If fate is a predetermined outcome, then someone or something must do the predetermining.


The argument in favor of free will asserts that life is not a journey from point A to point B, but a journey from point A to any point we choose. The choices we make have a direct effect on path of our lives; each choice affects an ultimate outcome.

Free Will Illustration
Note: In the illustration above, points B, C, and D, are examples. The number of actual outcomes in the free will argument is infinite.

This argument begets an important question: If each decision we make sends us to a different outcome, do those decisions affect the outcomes of others, and vice versa? If this is the case, then we are not solely in control of our destiny or outcomes, they also rest on the actions of others.

When examining this argument from a philosophy-of-religion point of view, God’s plan comes into question. If free will determines our outcomes, then either God already knows our outcome, or He has one in mind for us.

If God already knows a person will end at point C, then free will is an illusion as the outcome is never really in question. However, one could argue that the simple fact that the person had a choice to begin with implies or proves free will.

Additionally, God may have an outcome in mind for each person, but He allows each of us to choose our own. For example, God might have a plan for a person to become a teacher, but the person chooses a life of drug use and dies of an overdose. Since an all-loving God would likely desire happiness for His people, the teaching option would have made this person the happiest in life. In addition, it is unlikely God wants any of His creation to lead an immoral life and die of a drug overdose.


The Robert Frost Argument for Free Will

In “The Road Not Taken,” poet Robert Frost writes about a split in the road. The narrator in the poem is forced to make a decision as to which road to travel; he chooses the road that appears to be less traveled and argues that it made an impact on his life. “I took the one less traveled by,” the poem ends, “And that has made all the difference.”

Frost argues through his symbolic poem that free will is what controls mankind’s existence. The choice of the road less traveled makes a difference as the choice influences the outcome.


Many argue that while fate is not in control of man’s actions, he still does not have free will. Many philosophers, sociologists, and scientists agree that our actions and decisions are so heavily influenced by external factors that our will cannot truly be free. These factors include the actions of others, genetics, social norms, biology, etc.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s position on the issue:

“Because human action is causally determined, Schopenhauer denies that humans can freely choose how they respond to motives. In any course of events, one and only one course of action is available to the agent, and the agent performs that action with necessity” (Troxel).

Let us consider an example. Paul is hungry and on a reasonably tight schedule because of work-related commitments. His next meeting is near a shopping center where there is a pizza shop, Burger King, and Subway. A vegan, Paul opts for a veggie sandwich at Subway. At first glance, this appears to be an act of free will.

Now consider the external factors at play. Paul’s schedule and physical location were determined by his employer. His obedience to his employer is likely due to a sense of loyalty and/or an economic need for cash flow. As a result, his dining options are limited. Paul’s vegan diet is due in part to a strong morality instilled in him during his upbringing and a physical intolerance for lactose. His awareness of Subway’s vegan option is a result of a successful marketing campaign carried out by the franchise. His hunger is cause by a biological need for nutrition.

Paul’s apparently free-will decision was forced by all the factors above. It was–arguably–his only decision, due to numerous factors out of his control.

Hard Determinism / Causal Determinism

“Causal determinism is, roughly speaking, the idea that every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature” (Hoefer). 

Soft Determinism / Compatibilism

“Soft determinism or Compatibilism is the position or view that  causal determinism is true, but we still act as free, morally responsible agents when, in the absence of external constraints, our actions are caused by our desires. Compatibilism does not maintain that humans are free. Compatibilism does not hold that humans have free will … Compatibilism is determinism with a slight modification for the sake of appearances and for our language use.  It is a position taken because of the perceived need to have some idea of accountability or responsibility for human behavior” (Pecorino 7). 

Let’s take a look at a video examination of determinism and free will:

Works Cited

Frost, Robert. “The Road Not Taken.” Poetry Foundation. poetryfoundation.org. N.D.

Hoefer, Carl. “Causal Determinis.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. plato.stanford.edu. 21 January 2016.

Pecorino, Phillip. Introduction to Philosophy. Queensborough Community College CUNY. qcc.cuny.edu. N.D.

Tikkhanon, Amy. “Fate.” Encyclopedia Britannica. britannica.com. 5 November 2022.

Troxel, Mary. “Arthur Schopenhauer.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. iep.utm.edu. N.D.

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