On Aristotle’s Refutation of Fatalism

The matter concerning tomorrow’s sea battle is a complicated one which features in Aristotle’s book ‘De Interpretatione’, also known as ‘On Interpretation’. Aristotle tries to resolve the problem by using his own theory of logic, the rules of which he sets out within ‘Prior Analytics’. The problem can also be answered by referring to Platonic fatalism which would argue the case that since chance and free will have no effect on anything then what is true now must be true tomorrow and so tomorrow’s sea battle is necessary. However by analysing Platonic fatalism and finding it faults, and then applying Aristotelian logic then this is not the case since tomorrow’s sea battle is not necessary but it is possible.

According to the concept of Platonic fatalist time moves on a set path totally independent of the effects that occur within it, thus what was true of yesterday is true of today and shall be true of tomorrow and every day then on. In this sense fatalism can be described as pre-determinism. Platonic fatalism rests upon a set of three assumptions. The first assumption is what is commonly known as the principle of bi-valence, which is the principle whereby all assertoric statements can only ever be true or false, there is no possible third option, in between state or degrees of relative truth/falsehood. Secondly once a statement possess a truth-value it cannot change no matter what effects occur upon it, hence what is true yesterday is true today and will be tomorrow, thus we should not waste energy trying to intervene with the way the world works since any such attempt will bear no effect on the pre-destined path time is set to take, instead we should take contentment with being inactive and the consequences of our inaction since there is nothing we can do otherwise. The third assumption is a hidden premise to the argument and comes to light under after Aristotle scrutinises the concept. The third assumption fatalism is based on is if something is true then it must be necessarily true. It is this concept Aristotle refutes within his works ‘De Interpretatione’ and ‘Prior Analytics’.

Aristotle proposed that free will must hold some importance otherwise why would we be granted such a useless faculty? If fatalism was true then Aristotle would be forced to accept that both deliberation and free will were useless tools of the mind, this would have proved detrimental to his works on ethics which relied on such faculties. Aristotle also questioned fatalism on the grounds that the first two assumptions are faulty; to begin with the principle of bi-valence if accepted meant that it becomes impossible to change our position on any subject since truth-values cannot change. Secondly if something is true it does not follow that it must be unconditionally necessary for it to be true, for example if Mr. X went into a pet shop and come out the proud owner of a puppy then it is true that Mr. X brought a puppy but not necessarily true that Mr. X brought a puppy as he could have equally used his free will to purchase another form of pet. Aristotle puts forward a third argument to refute this third assumption which goes along the lines of, just because X is true it does not follow that X is unconditionally necessary. In order for a statement to be necessary then we must give it its correct temporal justification, this asserts the importance of time’s effects on truth-values, opposite to the Platonic view.

By looking at Aristotle’s refutation of Platonic fatalism as given above it becomes possible to begin to understand Aristotle’s approach towards the sea battle problem. But there is still more information needed in order to get a complete understanding of Aristotle’s position, and this is the theory behind Aristotelian logic. According to Aristotle “all sentences are meaningful…but not all make statements; only those in which truth and falsity are found do so”[1] so for Aristotle the only sentences that are meaningful are ones that hold a truth-value of some description, these meaningful sentences are what Aristotle calls propositions, or to quote his definition of a propositions exactly “A proposition, then, is a statement affirming or denying something…this is either universal or particular or indefinite”[2], by universal Aristotle means what applies to all or none of the term, whereas particular refers to propositions which make use of a soft quantifier such as some, few or many, finally indefinite propositions are those which propose no quantifier at all. Aristotle claims that propositions must consist of a terms which Aristotle said “I call a term that into which the proposition is resolved”[3]. Now this has been established it is possible to begin to understand Aristotle’s method for resolving the problem concerning tomorrow’s sea battle. Aristotle argued that logical certainty about any given matter could be found through deductive reasoning based upon arguments constructed from two propositional premises leading to a propositional conclusion; this method is known as syllogistic reasoning or sullogismos, with the described form of argument named as a syllogism.

According to sullogismos then if the two given premises are universal affirmative propositions then it becomes necessary for the conclusion to follow, this being the case then the argument for tomorrow’s sea battle should look something like this. It is always true now that a sea battle will occur tomorrow; it is also always the case that when something is true now then it be necessarily true tomorrow, therefore the sea battle will always happen tomorrow as it is necessary. The same situation occurs whenever two universal negative propositions are used as premises although since the problem is concerned with a conditional then it must be assumed that the argument is being based on affirmative propositions.

According to Aristotle in ‘Priori Analytics’ if a proposition is a universal then it must work not only forwards but backwards for example “if it is admissible for no garment to be white, it is also admissible for nothing white to be a garment”[4], this is what Aristotle refers to conversion and can be applied to all first figure syllogisms. First figure syllogisms are those which follow the structure of all A are B, all B are C therefore all A are [necessarily] C. If the rule of conversion is to be applied to the proposed argument as given above then the argument should look like this. It is always the case that tomorrow’s sea battle is necessary, it is always the case that when something is necessarily true tomorrow the it always true now, therefore it is true now that there will be a sea battle tomorrow. Once the argument has been converted it starts to reveal it weak points as the new first premise can be disproved by adding an additional premise which counters it for example ‘today a letter came through declaring that a cease fire had been agreed so tomorrow’s sea battle has been called off’, this would mean that it is no longer the case that tomorrow’s sea battle is always necessary since we have introduced the possibility of it being false (of course the letter could be a hoax as part of a stratagem to lower enemy defences). What this has effectively done is reduced the conclusion from a universal proposition to a particular proposition since with the additional premises added to the unconverted argument the conclusion follows as such: the sea battle might happen tomorrow as it is possible, although equally it might not happen tomorrow as this is also possible.

Aristotle agrees with this since as “it might equally well happen or not happen, since what is as chance has it no more thus than not thus”[5] by which he means that nothing is pre-determined as Plato would have his followers believe but everything is down to free will and chance, but he extends this view to claim that within this theory of a random chaotic fate there is actually some order since everything that happens does so for a reason, because “it is not because of the affirming or denying that it will be or will not be the case…it was necessary for this to happen…everything that happens happens of necessity”[6]. Hence it doesn’t matter whether the syllogism only produces a conclusion where tomorrow’s sea battle is only possible and not certain, if it happens then it is only because it happened due to necessity; it had a reason for happening.

This idea that things happen only if they have a reason to happen which then makes the event necessary does start to resonate back into Platonic fatalism since if everything if left to chance which is then ordered then there must be something which is manipulating the chaos as to bring it to order, this being the case then there must be some plan drawn up otherwise there would be no way of knowing whether things are running to order, in which case everything is pre-determined. Aristotle even admits this as he said “everything that will be, therefore, happens necessarily so nothing will come about as chance”[7]. By using the phrase ‘will be’ Aristotle if implying that this is to be the case whenever referring to propositions about the future, which provides a loophole for Aristotle to avoid the criticism of sounding hypocritical by refuting Platonic fatalism but then supporting it as he could claim that free will can only change the truth-values of things in the present and all things in the past are now fixed and all things yet to be can be pre-determined based on evidence we hold in the present, however whatever we pre-determine will happen in the future might not happen it only will if it is necessary.

Barnes agrees with this idea of future propositions must be pre-determined and present propositions are changeable due to free will since if propositions about the future, he argues, follow the rules laid down for sullogismos then either outcome is true because of the possibility of either outcome to occur and the lack of certainty than it will be one or another, thus within the present it not necessarily true for the future proposition to be true or false. But propositions about the past must hold a particular truth-value and therefore must be necessarily true or false depending on that truth-value. This then makes any future proposition based upon those concerning the past necessarily true or false depending on the truth-value of the past proposition since the past is fixed according to Aristotle and Platonic fatalism. Therefore if it is true now that a sea battle will happen tomorrow then tomorrow’s sea battle is possible but not necessary as the proposition concerns the present and not the past, hence free will and chance is still capable of changing the course of events.

To conclude, the matter concerning tomorrow’s sea battle is a confusing one which proves difficult to resolve by means of sullogismos. Nevertheless a conclusion is possible to be obtained, since it is possible that tomorrow’s sea-battle might not happen, which was proven by the ability to add a counter-statement in as an additional premise and based on the argument proposed by Barnes then it becomes arguable that tomorrow’s sea battle is not necessary because there is a significant lack of evidence that may appear between now and then to alter the truth-value of the argument, which is; ‘if it is true now that there will be a sea battle tomorrow, then tomorrow’s sea battle is necessary’. Although since the transition from sullogismos to syllogism is a mistranslation there may be more rules, such as those concerning inductive reasoning, or epagoge, which could prove the case to be otherwise.


  • Aristotle, ‘De Interpretatione’ in Barnes. J, ‘The Complete Works of Aristotle [Vol. 1]’, Princeton University Press, 1984
  • Aristotle, ‘Priori Analytics’ in Barnes. J, ‘The Complete Works of Aristotle [Vol. 1]’, Princeton University Press, 1984
  • Barnes. J, ‘Aristotle a Very Short Introduction’, Oxford University Press, 2000
  • Barnes. J, ‘The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle’, Cambridge University Press, 1995
  • Bowell. T & Kemp. G, ‘Critical Thinking a Concise Guide [second edition]’, Routledge, 2005
[1] Barnes quoting Aristotle in Barnes. J, ‘Aristotle a Very Short Introduction’, Oxford University Press, 2000, Pg. 46

[2] Aristotle, ‘Priori Analytics’, 24a16

[3] Aristotle, ‘Priori Analytics’, 24b16

[4] Aristotle, ‘Priori Analytics’, 25b10

[5] Aristotle, ‘De Interpretatione’, 18b8

[6] Aristotle, ‘De Interpretatione’, 18b39-19a4

[7] Aristotle, ‘De Interpretatione’, 18b15


Posted on December 2, 2010, in metaphysical, philosophical and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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