Destiny, God, and Conspiracies Theories: The Fallacy of Fatalism

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy

By David K. Johnson, Ph.D., King’s College

Those who believe that God exists generally believe in free will. Because only when we have free will, God can hold us morally responsible for what we do. But it’s impossible to believe that God could rightly hold us morally responsible for doing something if he is the one who fated us to do it. However, that’s not to say that some haven’t tried this argument. 

Image of Illuminati green eye printed on a dollar bill.
Some people believe in conspiracy theories that claim everything is fated by super-powerful human entities like the Illuminati. (Image: CINPLE films/Shutterstock)

Calvin’s Wrathful God

Consider the theologian John Calvin, who believed that humans are so depraved by Adam’s original sin that they are incapable of acting rightly or even accepting God’s offer of salvation unless God elects to enable them to do so.

Indeed, in the Institutes, Calvin makes clear that he believes every event in the universe—both natural events and human actions—is preordained, is caused by God. And yet Calvin thought that God could hold people morally responsible for their sins that he himself caused people to commit.

Defenders of Calvin will admit that, in Calvin’s view, sinners are not free in what is known as “the libertarian sense”—where one is capable of choosing otherwise or refraining from acting as they do. But Calvinists will argue, sinners can still be held morally responsible for what they did because, even though they acted out of necessity, they still sinned “willfully.” They were not coerced—that is, forced by intimidation or threat—to act as they did. They made a decision.

This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Fate and the Problem of Responsibility

But philosophically, this argument is vacuous. Yes, the sinner decided to act as they did, but unless that decision was a free decision, and how they acted was up to them, they cannot be held morally responsible for what they did.

In The Adjustment Bureau, a secret organization called the Bureau controls all world history by designing a detailed plan for everything.

Suppose the Bureau agents in the movie “recalibrated” not only our rational decision-making processes but our personality and emotions too, so that a person would desire and decide to be an ax murderer. Could we morally blame him for the murders he would commit? No, because how he behaved was not up to him. And even his desire to murder is not genuine.

The Will of God

It’s even worse when it comes to Calvin’s view of God. Humans are not only programmed by their sinful nature to sin and incapable of doing otherwise unless God chooses to enable them to do otherwise—but each of the individual’s sinful actions is a part of God’s plan. Indeed, they are directly willed by God.

If that’s true, how could we blame anyone for anything? Sure, we could still say the ax murderer “made a decision,” but in no way was that decision up to him. Unless these arguments can be answered, the belief in fate (grounded in theism) will have to remain a matter of blind faith—belief despite sufficient evidence to the contrary.

Learn more about God and nature—miracles and demons.

Secret Overlords

A possible way fate is at work in the world is inspired by the suggestion that everything is fated not by God but by aliens or super-powerful human entities. We might consider this obvious fiction, but many people actually believe it to be true.

They call these entities the Illuminati or the Freemasons, etc. But the idea is the same: There is a clandestine group of super-powerful beings, and that group makes human history pan out as it sees fit. Of course, a lot of people believing something doesn’t make it true. And such an organization’s power to control things wouldn’t be on par with God’s, although many conspiracy theorists ascribe to them almost Godlike powers.

There are good reasons why this kind of belief in fate is irrational. First, the arguments are just inadequate. The main arguments usually involve major world events—like the JKF assassination or 9/11—which, according to conspiracy theorists, were committed by the Illuminati or clandestine entities. In these two instances, the conspiracy arguments are just based on false assumptions about historical events or fundamental misunderstanding of physics.

The Problem with Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theories are attempts to provide far-reaching explanations for major world events. But good explanations must adhere to the adequacy criteria. For example, they should be simpler, more conservative, and have a wider scope than their competitors—that is, they must not make extra assumptions; they must align with established facts and unify our knowledge.

Conspiracy Theory words typed on paper with an old typewriter
The problem with conspiracy theories is that they are irrational and ultimately unfalsifiable. (Image: Sumandaq/Shutterstock)

But in this regard, conspiracy theories fail on every account. They appeal to unknown entities with inexplicable motives and incomprehensible powers.

They assume large groups of people can keep secrets perfectly and that otherwise normal people will willfully perform morally heinous actions without remorse. What it most clearly reveals is the intellectual vacuity of conspiracy theories, and their failure regarding two fundamental criteria for establishing a theory: testability and fruitfulness.

Learn more about the Freemasons.

The Irrationality of Conspiracy Theories

A theory is testable when it can be proven wrong. It makes novel observable predictions that, if they don’t turn out to be true, would mean the theory is false. A theory is fruitful when the predictions it makes turn out to be true. But conspiracy theories are not testable because, by nature, they are immune to counterevidence.

All evidence that shows their conspiracy theory false will be said, by conspiracy theorists, to be planted by conspirators to throw us off track. These kinds of ad hoc excuses make conspiracy theories unfalsifiable and thus fundamentally irrational.

Common Questions about the Fallacy of Fatalism

Q: How did the theologian John Calvin think about human free will?

Calvin believed every event in the universe is preordained by God. He thought, “God so attends to the regulation of individual events, and they all so proceed from his set plan, that nothing takes place by chance.”

Q: What is the Calvinistic view of human responsibility?

According to Calvin, humans are so depraved by Adam’s original sin that they are incapable of acting rightly. Humans are sinners, but they can still be held morally responsible for what they do because, even though they acted according to their preordained fate, they still sinned “willfully.”

Q: Why can’t conspiracy theories be proven?

To establish a theory and determine whether it’s true or false, it must be testable. But since conspiracy theories are unfalsifiable, they cannot be proven. An obvious example is the claim that the preordained fate of human history is determined by secret societies like the Illuminati.

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