Humans and nature can resemble and learn from each other. In Confucianism, the fluid and reflective nature of water provides a model for the various ways of being. The way that water nourishes everything which is in it, fearlessly seeks out the lowest spots to fill them, and has the capacity to level itself no matter where it is found, are all lessons for humans in their ability to imitate water. The appropriate phrase to describe this relationship is “as if”. Humans are not water, but they are akin to it, which is why meditating on it draws us closer to balance and harmony. To be “as if” water is to embody the principle of wu-wei or doing nothing, in an effort to participate in a kind of creative emptiness. This interpretation of wu-wei differs in the later forms of Daoism, where non-action was hardened into a strategic doctrine for effective rule. In this way, the agenda of wu-wei was no longer about finding stillness and peace and to “be like”, but about calculatingly managing others as a way of indirectly exerting one’s power and influence.
There are a few points to consider here: Zhuang Zhou is not a butterfly, dreaming is not awakening, and knowledge is not ignorance. Yet, these distinct situations interdepend and interchange to the point of where Zhuang Zhou is uncertain of where he is. The two contrasting moments correspond to the Confucian concept of li, ‘ritual’ and yue, ‘music’. The essense of li is control, and that of yue is ‘harmony’. Control holds back, while harmony blends. They correspond to Zhuang Zhou’s two moments in the dream of distinction then interchange, which also pervades our everyday life.
The word authentic comes from the Medieval Latin authenticus and Greek authentikos, meaning “original, genuine, principal”, from authentes or “acting on one’s own authority”. It derives from the term autos or “self, of oneself (independently)” and hentes meaning “being”, and the modern use of authentic implies that to be authentic, the contents in question should correspond to facts. In other words, authenticity refers to trustworthiness, reliability and consistency. An authentic document, for example, is understood to be genuine and original, or not a fake or copy, while authentic words are understood to come from the heart. Feelings and words should be aligned if they are to be considered authentic. Thus, a thing is authentic if it is what it professes to be. However, the question of authenticity becomes more complicated when authenticity becomes a characteristic attributed to human beings. After all, what does it mean to be truly autos-hentes or one’s own being? And is it even possible to truly represent oneself genuinely?
According to Varga (2020), although being oneself is somewhat inescapable, since whenever you make a choice or act, it is you who is making that choice or act, many of our thoughts, decisions and actions are not really are own and so they cannot genuinely express who we are. The issue here is whether we can ever be authentic in our day-to-day life in spite of influences that come from our families, friends, government, education, ideological affiliations, and even the language that we speak, which can affect the way that we think. If we are simply made up of these amalgam of influences, it would mean that our sense of self could not have existed without society. This argument goes so far as to make the metaphysical claim that our expressive self is only real because we as a society have made it real. So once we imagine it and give it a name and role, we cause it to be real. Consider the following dilemma: as far as we know, ‘Jennifer’ is a daughter, student, and friend. She is a Christian, an Australian, and only speaks English. We know of Jennifer as a kind girl. She was taught to express herself politely and has never in our presence made a condescending mark towards anyone. Do all these things point to an authentic Jennifer (where an authentic Jennifer would be one who acts in a way that reinforces her status as a kind, Christian friend and daughter), or is an authentic Jennifer the Jennifer beyond the labels and concepts, that is, the human that people happen to refer to by ‘Jennifer’? We will return to the Jennifer dilemma later.
Studies of contemporary Western culture are informed by conceptions of human agency, which emphasize individuality as the principal theme of personhood. Although the prevailing myth of individualism is that in eighteenth-century Europe, a few courageous men of reason fought against religious repression to set the individual free to find and express his authentic self, the development of individualism was gradual and much more complex than this myth suggests. The Enlightenment movement’s demand for liberty re-defined human beings as individual entities rather than as role-bearers in the system of social relations. People slowly gained an increasing awareness of what Charles Taylor (1989) refers to as “inwardness” or “internal space”, where the authentic self can be separated from public performance and perception. Furthermore, the growth of commerce created an expanding middle class of merchants, well-off farmers and urban craftsmen who advocated for private property and individual wealth accumulation (Foley, 2017). Underlying these developments was Christianity’s revolutionary idea: “we are all equal because we are all brothers” (Puyol, 2019). Although this concept of fraternity promised that every individual human being (whether child, woman, foreigner, poor, disabled, non-Christian, etc.) was equal in the eyes of God, fraternity did not translate into political equality because Christian equality was about the equal worth of souls and not the equal rights of men on earth. By the nineteenth century, these commercial, intellectual and religious movements and ideas promoted individualism and led to the development of capitalist entrepreneurism and Romantic individualism, where in the latter, the quest to find an authentic self translated into rejecting materialism and society and living solitarily in nature. A similar albeit mass version of Romantic individualism occurred in the 1960s, which Taylor (1998) called “an individuating revolution”. 1960s global youth culture produced expressive individualism, which rejected conformity and authority in order to discover or find your ‘true self’. The revolution promoted self-expression, equality and sensuality, but rather than simply being an excuse for self-indulgent hippyism (which 1960s youth culture is usually accused of), it was a way of shifting from the systems and times that suppressed individuality and creativity, resulting in the emergence of the Age of Authenticity.
Critics argue that the pursuit of authenticity and individualism has resulted in cultural decline as the preoccupation on one’s own feelings and attitudes is anti-social and destroys altruism and compassion towards others and community. Christopher Lasch (1979) has claimed that there are similarities between authenticity and Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which are both characterized by self-indulgence and a lack of empathy. For Bloom (1987), the preoccupation with authenticity has made the minds of the youth “narrower and flatter” (p. 61), while Bell (1976) argues that the traditional economic processes, “based on a moral system of reward rooted in Protestant sanctification of work” (p. 38), have lost their legitimacy and are replaced by hedonism and the search for extreme experience or “kicks” and “highs”. The obsession with authenticity has also led to a time where we are losing our sense of truth and reality. Criticism of public institutions has gone so far as to legitimize alternative ways of knowing, where conspiracy theories and alternative medicine, schooling and journalism are all part of the larger conversation that characterizes the era of post-truth that we currently live in. On the other hand, as Watts (2019) states, there is a kind of nobility in the pursuit of authenticity. It is now common to tell children to follow their dreams and pursue their passions rather than stick to a dreary job all their lives that we believe would at odds with their true selves. There is also a kind of desperation to have authenticity around us, from our expectations of honesty and transparency in our closest relationships to how our leaders present themselves, for there is “nothing more despicable than a person who isn’t genuine…who betrays their feelings in order to save face.” There is also a tendency in Western society to avoid the monotonous nature of ritual, “which keeps us chained to the past.” (Watts, 2019). Meanwhile, the romanticisation of romantic love has stayed with us because it feels spontaneous and unmediated, which shows how authenticity has turned into the new cultural currency.
The emphasis on authenticity and transparency in Western culture sits well with the philosophical school of Existentialism. Existentialism arose with the collapse of the idea that philosophy itself can provide substantive norms and rules for existing by specifying particular ways of living, while authenticity was advocated as the approach where I can engage in my life as my own (Crowell, 2020). The need to live an authentic life to live meaningfully adds another important layer in moral evaluations. For instance, by keeping my promise, I act in accordance to a duty to others, and if I keep acting so because it is my duty, than according to Kant, I am acting morally because I act for the sake of duty. But, from the existentialist perspective, by simply keeping my promise out of duty’s sake makes the moral act of promise keeping inauthentic because I am only keeping the promise because I believe it is required and expected of moral people to do so. To keep my promise authentically, I need to take ownership of this choice and commit myself to the act of keeping my promise because it is my own decision and action, and not because it is socially or morally required of me. Only then can I succeed in being myself authentically. By choosing to do things on my own account, I recover myself from being alienated and absorbed into the anonymous self that uncritically engages in the world. Thus, there is a kind of integrity in acting authentically: I can either occupy a role and time that was given to me by others and drift in and out of these roles while feeling separated from myself, or I can autonomously commit myself and become whatever I choose.
In classical China, there was a similar prevailing interest in how to live an authentic life. The Daoist school, for example, actively rejected the Confucian idea that the good life comes from embodying traditional social norms and rites and instead focused on taking care of one’s own interest. Harisson (2013) refers to this as the ethical egoist argument, where the right thing to do is to pursue one’s own interests and maximize one’s own good. Because, it is argued, we are naturally inclined to prioritize our own interests, it follows that following societal ethical recommendations about doing the right thing distorts our selfish nature and therefore compromises our authentic selves. But, whereas the Confucian scholar Xunzi, who also recognized human selfish nature, argued that it is up to moral education and rigorous practice of rites to correct human behavior, the Daoist Yang Zhu claimed that to live an ethical life, we must maintain what is genuine in our lives by avoiding artificial moral and social obligations. So, rather than finding the good life in appropriate social relationships and roles, we should actively retreat from our social life and get rid of material goods and power. Thus, the best life can be can be lived away from society and in harmony with the natural flow of Dao (the Way). An authentic life can be found in the natural world, beside rivers and mountains, which is more conducive to living authentically, that is, as our true selves stripped from others’ expectations and from our artificial social roles.
So, there are various ways of answering the Jennifer dilemma. For the Confucians, Jennifer’s authentic self comes from how others see her and the roles she is expected to play in her social relationships. Jennifer is only Jennifer because she is a daughter to her mother, an Australian national, and a Christian follower. She becomes more herself the more she honorably practices these roles and carries out the appropriate rites and rituals associated with her identity. Existentialists would argue that she is only truly Jennifer if she autonomously adopts her role as daughter, Christian, etc. as her own. If she is simply following these roles mindlessly because others expect her to, then she is harming her authentic self and will never find the satisfaction of taking control over her own existence. Finally, the ethical egoist Daoists would claim that an authentic Jennifer can only be found if she rejects her social roles and obligations as daughter, Australian citizen, Christian. Only once she retreats from the socially constructed ‘Jennifer’ can the real, authentic Jennifer live in harmony and simplicity.
This episode opens with a passage from the Zhuangzi that talks about water that is so still that it forms a mirror-image that can be used to reflect on human behaviour and relationships. The stillness and reflection of the mirror can be compared to the still and silent mind of the Sage, whose complete clarity of the world can accurately reflect on the nature of reality. By looking into the mind of the Sage, you can see yourself and your relationships as they really are, despite what might be thought or said by others. This idea of the mirror image is similarly explored in Western philosophy through the Greek and Roman myth of Narcissus, in Plato’s writings, as well as by St. Paul and Lacan, where the mirror can both reinforce hubris and act as a means of self-recognition and self-understanding.
“What is truth?” Pontius Pilate retorted to Jesus, before he went out to the Jews and declared Jesus’s innocence (John, 18:38).
For many, it would seem that truth is a universal, foundational, abstract, normative and shared concept in the human experience. Religions like Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam claim to know the true nature and meaning of the world. Similarly, political ideologies like libertarianism, Marxism, liberal democracy, socialism, and fascism all claim to know the truth on how the world should be governed. Empirical science and mathematics use deductive proof and confirmation in their search for the truth about properties and sequences. The word ‘truth’ comes from the Greek altheia, meaning “unconcealed” or the state of not being hidden. In Greek mythology, Aletheia was the daughter of Zeus and a personified spirit of truth and sincerity, and she is thought to be essential for establishing justice, love, beauty, and wisdom in the world. Without altheia or truth, our legal, ethical, political and social systems would be based on deceit, deception, and lies, which would be potentially disruptive since social and institutional trust enables cooperation and allows society to function as a whole (Sonderskov & Dinesen, 2015).
For McLeod (2016), it is important to emphasise the universality of truth and while different cultures may have a different sense of this basic notion, all human societies are committed to a basic “correspondence intuition”, which allows us to understand how things are and how things should be. In the history of philosophy, there are four main theories which purport to provide a theory of truth. The first, the correspondence theory of truth, argues that truth consists of the relationship between the proposition and the facts that verify or confirm the proposition. As Plato wrote, “The true sentence states fact as they are…and the false one states things that are other than the facts” (Sophist, p. 263). In that case, the truth is something that is objective or independent of our thoughts. It exists outside of us. What you believe to be true is not true by wishful thinking or imagination. Instead, as Wittgenstein (1921) states, to be true “A proposition [should be based on] a picture of reality” (s. 4.01). Although facts (or states of affairs) themselves cannot be true or false, as they simply point to what is real, propositions that are based on facts are considered true, while propositions that are not based on facts are considered to be false. Take the following example:
- The cup is full of water.
According to the correspondence theory, if and only if the cup is full of water, and we perceive that the cup is full of water, is proposition (1) true. The cup is either full of water or it is not, and if it is then the proposition is necessarily true. However, if someone drinks from the cup of water, spills it, or adds another liquid to it, then proposition (1) would be false. While some criticize the theory as being “trivial, vacuous, trading in mere platitudes” (David, 2015), the correspondence theory is straightforward in that it identifies truth as having a relationship with reality, and that reality is potentially always in the process of being discovered.
The second theory of truth is called the coherence theory, which argues a proposition or belief is true if it coheres with a system of other propositions or beliefs. Therefore, a true proposition is true by nature of its relationship to other propositions which are related to each other by logical necessity. A truth test can thus be devised to see whether a statement is consistent with every other known part of the system, and if the statement were true then it must not contradict what is already known. For example, many people believe in the ‘moon landing’ proposition that a person was sent to the moon in 1969. Videos and photos of space along with sightings of rockets travelling vertically into space as well as people testifying that they were in space and the videos and photographs of the moon landing could lead a person to believe in the plausibility that it is true a person was sent to the moon in 1969. In that case, the moon landing proposition coheres with other aspects of space travel and human possibility that one might accept to be true, which makes the moon landing proposition seemingly true also. However, if someone were to doubt that space even exists; that rockets could be sent to space; or that there were people in the rockets sent to space, it follows that it would be logically impossible for a person to believe in the moon landing proposition. It is important to note that in the coherence theory of truth, truth is never fully knowable. As finite beings with finite knowledge and resources, we can never know the whole truth of the universe, but only partial, fragmented truths that for the most part, fit and cohere to other systems of truth we believe for various reasons to be plausible. Some sets of beliefs/propositions better cohere with others, and we may change our beliefs of truth as time goes on, but no one can ever have a perfectly coherent set. The problem here is that two incompatible theories may seem true, and outright falsities like fairy tales could be taken as true as long as they are considered coherent. This raises questions about whether the coherence of propositions must only be considered true if they somehow correspond to facts of reality, and whether these facts of reality can ever be truly knowable. Perhaps the coherence theory is really only an assumption about truth that we can accept if we do not have solid evidence of reality that confirms our beliefs.
The third theory of truth is called the pragmatic theory. It states that a belief is true if it is useful to believe. In other words, if the belief helps individuals in any way, for example by believing in a higher guiding power like God, then it is true. Thus, beliefs that best justify our actions and promote success and happiness are true. As James (1948) states, “Grant an idea of belief to be true, what concrete difference will its being true mean in anyone’s actual life?… What, in short, is the truth’s cash value in experimental terms” (p. 170). The idea that truth can belong to anyone even with entirely different sets of beliefs suggests that the pragmatic theory of truth is a form of cognitive relativism. That is, the pro-vaccinator and anti-vaccinator can ‘agree to disagree’ that they have different truths on the matter of whether it is right for children to get vaccinated, leading to the violation of the law of non-contradiction. Such approaches to truth suggest that truth is not objective and mind-independent, but subjective to each individual’s beliefs and justifications. There is an inherent mis-relationship between truth and facts where the goal is not to reach a single truth, but to aim for acquiring beliefs that are useful. This anti-realist approach would say that atomic theory is not true or false, but simply useful for predicting outcomes in experiments and explaining data in the same way that maps are not necessarily true but are useful representations of landscapes.
The inability to truly know an independent, objective truth was first put forward by Socrates in Plato’s Apology. When seeking a man who was wiser than himself in the marketplace, Socrates found that all the men he encountered thought that they were wise, but actually knew very little. He concluded that while everyone knew very little, they were ignorant of their knowledge unlike himself who knew very little and knew (or was aware) of how little he knew. Socrates’ conclusion suggests that he was part of a larger philosophical tradition called Skepticism, where the Greek term skeptic means “to inquire, investigate”. The Greek skeptic and physician Sextus Empiricus (1968 trans.) defined skepticism as the “ability to place in antithesis, in any manner whatever, appearances, and judgements, and thus−because of the equality of force in the objects and arguments opposed−to come first of all to a suspension of judgement and then to mental tranquility” (p. 32). While the skeptic accepts that the world appears to him or her a certain way, they recognize that appearances are simply passive aspects of perception. However, the skeptic actively refuses to draw conclusions to his or her perceptions and recognizes that states of reality are relative to the individual. Because perception, judgement, evaluation, habit and ability are different between humans and animals; between different kinds of animals; and between different kinds of humans, there are innumerable possible explanations on even the simplest observations, for example, on colour, taste, and distance, which means even the most basic sense perception is relative.
In the Chinese tradition, there is no word that is equivalent or synonymous with the English noun ‘truth’ or Greek word aletheia. Indeed, the absence of such a word in the Chinese language led Chad Hansen (1985) to conclude that there is no concept of truth in Chinese philosophy at all. However, as Harbsmeier (1989) states, there are more than ten words in the Chinese language that refer to factual truth, including ran (be so, be the case), dang (to fit, to fit the facts), zhen (be genuine, be genuinely so), and qing (inherent state, essence, genuine state of affairs). None of these terms corresponds exactly with the concept of truth and they are separated from ideas about the moral truth or dao. Thus, early Mohist scientific preoccupations with the truth in theoretical terms was very untypical in mainstream Chinese literature, where Chinese thinkers were mainly searching for dao or the right way of things. For Xu (2010), it is even appropriate to think of dao as the Western version of Truth (capital ‘T’), that is, as something that belongs to an unchangeable eternal reality (as truth is defined in Platonic Idealism). In the Xunzi, it states:
“We call it ‘being straight’ to declare something ‘this (or right)’ if it is ‘this (or right)’, and to declare something ‘not this (or, wrong)’ if it is ‘not this (or, wrong)’ (2.12).
In this passage, there is a discussion about rightness or truthness of a matter, but the passage reveals that the emphasis is not so much on the definition of truth or what is ‘this (or right)’ and how to define it, but on the social definition of being straight or telling the truth. So, the right way of telling the truth, the dao of speaking, is what is of primary concern. Furthermore, whereas in Western philosophy the idea of Truth is absolute and unchanging, the dao in Chinese philosophy is often depicted as many and changing. In Confucian texts, different daos are referenced, such as “the dao of sages”, “the dao of Junzi (morally superior person)”, “the dao of Yang Zhu and Modi”, etc. In the Taoist text Zhuang Zi, there is even a “dao of robbers”. For Mencius, “There are two daos in general: benevolence or not benevolence” (4A:2), highlighting the many-ness and diversity of possible daos. In these discussions, the dao refers to the right way of doing things, and as Mencius suggested, the Confucian dao was that of “timely correct” (shi zhong), which means the rightness of dao depends on different times, places, objects and people. In this sense, the dao is about the correct way of handling situations and relations between people under certain historic circumstances, rather than some permanent objective existence waiting to be discovered through discourse and scientific trial and error. The absence of theories of truth in Chinese philosophy makes the Chinese approaches to truth different from that of the West. Even in the Daoist school, which often questions and argues against conventional claims of knowledge, politics and morality by recognizing relativity, subjectivity and limitedness of human knowledge, the critique of morality and knowledge only acts to provide a way towards a view of life, reality and morality which are not skeptical (Cheng, 1977). Therefore, even in its critique of ideas of truth, the Chinese tradition established an ultimate anti-skeptical view of philosophy.
In the Analects, dao or the Way is always being communicated: it is heard (as in the passage above, 4:8), spoken and studied (6:12), corrected (1:4), walked (5:7), and wasted or absent (3:24). The dao can be born (1:2), can be strengthened (15:29), and it can be great or small (19:4).
While dao is a ‘general’ mass term (for example, X can be dao and Y can be dao, yet these two dao-things can still be distinct), this mass-like behaviour has led many in the West to translate dao as ‘being’ or “condition, state, circumstance, presence”. However, the way that dao is interpreted in Chinese is more practical than metaphysical, where writers change the usage of dao regularly. For example, certain people can be said to have dao (Confucius has a dao; kings can have dao; some villages have dao). Heaven or nature also has dao, and there can be different dao depending on the period of history.
For Hansen (1989), it is more appropriate to think of the general mass term of dao as the English noun ‘discourse’. Just like dao, the inner structure of discourse remains indeterminate. Similarly, X can be a discourse and Y can be a discourse that together form a combined discourse, while apart they remain as separate discourses. This interpretation provides a framework to understand the relation between dao and action and behaviour so that dao acts as a guiding or prescriptive discourse. That is, a ‘way’ to do something. A particular way of hearing, for example, where one listens but does not pass judgement of right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful or ugly.
The subject of fate has fascinated and driven religious arguments and philosophical discussions since the time of the ancient Greeks. With the capacity for thought and meaning-making, humans have always sought to find some kind of explanation and purpose to their lives and to particular events that they regard as life-changing. As the saying goes, “everything happens for a reason”, which suggests that events do not simple happen randomly or without purpose. Instead, some kind of power, which is referred to as fate, shapes the course of lives and allows people to interpret their experiences and circumstances as having some sort of justification or reasoning. Thus, fate plays into the basic human need for psychological order and meaning in a life that is full of limitation, suffering and unfairness.
The term ‘fate’ became popular around the 14th century and referred to a person’s destiny or pre-determined course in life. From the Latin word fata it also meant “guiding spirit”, and from the plural fatum, “prophetic declaration of what must be, oracle, prediction”. As a prophetic declaration, often spoken by the gods, the past participle of fate is fari, meaning “to speak, tell, say”. From the early 15th century, fate was used to describe the “power that rules destinies” or “destiny personified”, and by the 18th century, “that which must be” or “final event”. The word originally evolved from phrase “sentence of the Gods” (Greek, theosphaton) and indeed played a particular importance in religious mythologies around the world. In the Norse religion, for example, the power of fate is able to affect gods so while the god Odin and his wife Frigga are able to see the future, they cannot alter it. While the future in Norse mythology is set and unchangeable, select individuals are able to see the workings of fate through prophetic dreams and by reading holy runic epigraphs (Garry, 2017). Often, in motifs and folklore, fate is seen as a many or as a single human female figure. For instance, in Greek myth, Tyche is a minor goddess who emerged after the decline of the traditional gods. She embodies both good and bad luck and is often depicted holding a rudder, symbolizing divinity guiding men, and a ball, which represents the unsteadiness of fortune (Atsma, 2017). Her Roman counterpart is the goddess of luck and chance, fortuna, who was thought to have the power of unpredictable chance, while in Greek, Norse, Indian and Irish myths, the Fates are represented through three goddesses who are often portrayed spinning and cutting a length of yarn that symbolizes the span of human life. In Lithuanian folklore, seven goddesses share the task of spinning, measuring and cutting the woolen yarn (Gary, 2017).
The terms fate, fatalism, and determinism are often used interchangeably in the literature but it should be noted that they represent different schools of thought. Determinism is the doctrine that every event, action or decision is the inevitable result of earlier causes, including physical, psychological and environmental, that are independent of human will (Cohen-Mor, 2001). The future in this case is casually determined by many factors, and what we think, say and do is part of this casual process. Fatalism, on the other hand, is the belief that all things are subject to fate or inevitable predestination. We are thus fated regardless of what we think, say or do as the future is not particularly dependent on causality. In the case of determinism, if one is caused to recover from an illness, calling a doctor or not calling a doctor could be part of that causality. Either it is that you will be caused to recover from the illness, or you will be caused not to recover from the illness. Since calling a doctor might be part of your causality to recover, it still makes sense to call a doctor. However, according to the fatalist school, if it is fated that you will (or will not) recover from an illness, then you will (not) recover whether you call a doctor or not. Either it is fated that you will recover from the illness, or you will not be fated to recover from the illness. In either situation, there is no point in calling a doctor since fate certainly determines the already set outcome. For Richard Taylor (1963), both positions lead to resignation as the fatalist is someone who thinks she cannot do anything about the future: it is not up to her what will happen in ten minutes, tomorrow, or next year. Thus, “it is pointless for [the fatalist] to deliberate about anything, for a man deliberates only about those future things he believes to be within his power to do and forego” (p. 55). The passivity and pessimism expressed by Taylor was reinforced by West (1993) when he identified fatalism as a complex psychological cycle characterized by hopelessness, worthlessness, meaninglessness and powerlessness. Without free will or any kind of choice-directed control over one’s circumstances, West’s claim is that no matter what one does (or does not do), one will be doomed to a certain set of circumstances that is beyond one’s control. So, no matter how hard person A tries, she either will or will not pass the biology exam. The decider of whether she will pass or not is not up to her or her effort, but up to fate.
There are two main arguments that put forward this thesis. The first is called ‘logical fatalism’, which argues that no actions are free because before they were performed, it was already true that they would be performed. In other words, suppose I bought a book today. Necessarily, if I bought a book today, then it was true ten years ago that I would buy a book today. If it was true ten years ago that I would buy a book today, then it was never in my power to prevent it from being true ten years ago that I would buy a book today as I do not have power over what was true ten years ago. So, it being true ten years ago that I would buy a book today entails that I would buy a book today (this is an instance of the “Truth Entails Truth” principle: if something is true, then it is true). This truth, which happened ten years ago, implies that it was never within my power to not buy a book today, and if it was never within my power to not buy a book today, then I did not buy a book today freely. The logical conclusion is that when anything happens, it was always the case that it would happen. If it is happening, then there was a “prior truth” specifying that it was going to happen, and the fact that it is happening means that it was inevitable. According to Fischer and Todd (2015), an attempt to refute this argument might start out with the following claim: while it was true 10 years ago that you would purchase a book today that does not, in itself, tell us that you will purchase a book today. Indeed, why believe the premise that because it was true ten years ago (that you would buy a book today) that it is necessarily true now? If no one is coercing you, and you are not under some strange spell or hypnosis, or any other form of mind control, then surely what you do at any time is completely up to you. However, if we accept the premise that every meaningful statement is either true or false, once and for all, where it istrue that you would buy a book today, this alone implies fatalism; the very fact that this statement is true is enough to make it unavoidable. You cannot un-buy the book or the action of buying the book (which would make the statement that you bought the book today false), and while you may argue that you had the (perceived) power or choice of not buying the book, the fact that you bought the book still makes the statement true and hence, fated.
This argument becomes even more difficult to refute with theological fatalism, which argues that divine beliefs about future actions make those actions unavoidable, and thus unfree. Suppose that an all-knowing divine being cannot make mistakes, and that this all-knowing divine existed ten years ago and believed you would buy a book today, then do you have the power to refrain from buying this book? According to the fatalist, no, because that would either mean that you had the power to do something to make the all-knowing divine being have a false belief ten years ago, or the power to do something to make the all-knowing divine being not believe ten years ago that you would buy the book today, or the power to do something which would make the all-knowing divine being not exist ten years ago. All of these powers are impossible. For the philosopher Boethius, one solution to the problem is to deny that the all-knowing divine being existed ten years ago or believed anything 10 years ago. The divine being is, according to this argument, outside time or “timelessly eternal” (Rice, 2018). Thus, if the divine being’s knowledge is not temporal, there is no reason why you would not have the power to make it that the divine knows that you will not buy the book instead of knowing that you will buy the book today, since possessing this power would not require you to have the power to affect the past. The important point here is that you are still unable to affect the past for the past and the present are real and actual, while the future is not real or actual. But if it really is impossible to affect the past, then, even if the divine being could know that you will buy the book without affecting your ability to not buy the book, the divine being could not, on the basis of its knowledge, bring about events in the world which the divine being would not have brought about if you had not bought the book; for it the divine being did, this would mean that you had the power to change certain circumstances before the book buying event, which would give you the power to affect the past. In that case, the fatalist argument still holds because whether the divine being exists inside or outside of time, there would be certain events/thought processes that the divine being would make come about that would lead you to buy the book today, and these factors would exist outside of your control. The divine being in this argument acts as a puppeteer, for they have the ultimate power to determine the causes of events. As a puppet, although you seemingly have the power to make decisions, you do not have the power to control the various influences that actually make you decide these things. Thus, the divine being’s or puppeteer’s beliefs and decisions makes certain actions and outcomes inevitable.
When it comes to the relation between theism and fatalism, it should be noted that in the Chinese tradition the oracle texts use the verb ‘to command’ or ‘to order’ to mean divine action, which refers to fate (or “destiny”, “mandate”− ming 命). According to Kwong-loi Shun, the various interpretations of ming can generally be characterized as “descriptive”, where ming refers to an impersonal force outside of human control, which is similar to Hume’s “secret and unknown causes, whose operation is oft unexpected and always unaccountable”. This type of ming is like the idea of chance and luck as to how one will fare in life. So, how each person lives and dies and whether they acquire wealth, nobility, talent and beauty is determined by ming. The other type of ming is “normative”, where ming is considered to function as an equivalent to yi (duty; righteousness). Slingerland (1996) explains that in this type of ming, everything is seen as ordained by Heaven, and so by following and accepting one’s ming, one does not surrender to fatalism, but rather acts in honor as one would when following other “duties” prescribed by the principle of yi. According to the Confucians, the best way to deal with the unpredictability and uncertainty of ming goes back to the bifurcation of reality into two distinct realms: the inner (nei) and outer (wai). The forces of ming occur in the outer realm, the realm beyond the control of human action and effort, where “seeking does not contributing to one’s getting” (Mencius 7A:3). This realm is not of concern to the Sage, whose efforts should be concentrated on the inner realm, in which “seeking contributes to one’s getting” (Mencius 7A:3). With effort and action concentrated on self-cultivation in the inner world, the uncertainty of one’s descriptive ming, such as whether one is born in wealth or poverty, can be dealt with “without worry and without fear” (Analects, 12.4). Thus, the response to fate is neither an attempt to control that which cannot be controlled, nor to a kind of pessimistic resignation. Instead, the Sagely person should redirect their effort and energy to cultivating and morally improving themselves in order to accept their life circumstances. On the one hand, the ability to voluntarily cultivate oneself through the freedom of choice indicates that there is some sort of free will (whether that is real or perceived in one’s day to day actions is not clear). At the same time, the acceptance of inborn luck and fated events suggests that Confucianism also accepts a sort of soft fatalism, where it is difficult to put all responsibility on individuals, resulting in an ethics of compassion and forgiveness (Hwang, 2013). This contrasts the idea of libertarian free will where it is believed individuals have the power to change and control all aspects of their life should they choose to.
In the fourth episode of the broadcast, Professor Mortley examines two moral dilemmas about sons betraying fathers in the interests of justice, one from Plato’s Euthyphro, and the other from Confucius’ Analects. Traditionally, Chinese culture emphasises filial piety or respect where there is an obligation to be reverent to one’s parents and ancestors.
Although ideally, a harmonisation of all principles should be achieved where justice, care for others, and filial respect are valued, in the Confucian dilemma, there a greater truth in obligation to family so it is preferred that the son remains loyal to his father than to his community.