Tuesday, December 02, 2008

A Future Without Fatalism

People often confuse temporality and modality -- thinking that what 'will' be, 'must' be. This is simply a mistake. To illustrate, let Q be the proposition that tomorrow I φ. Distinguish:

(i) The actual truth of Q.
This is just to say that I will happen to φ.

(ii) Determinism about Q
This adds the claim that the conjunction of some past state P0 and the laws of nature L together entail that I will φ. Not only is Q actually true, but its negation is inconsistent with P0 & L. So in this sense I must φ. But I may retain some causal responsibility, in the sense that if I had been different, so would have been the outcome. It's merely the case that (given P0 and L) I could not have been different in the first place.

(iii) Fatalism about Q
This adds the yet further claim that Q is robustly overdetermined, such that I still would have ended up φ-ing even if my thoughts, desires, and intentions had somehow been different. So even various alternative past states P1, or P2, etc., when conjoined with L, entail Q. If it hadn't happened the one way, it would have happened some other way. This yields a much stronger sense in which I 'must' φ: even had things been different, my φ-ing could not have been avoided.

These various modalities are often confused. So it is important to be clear that just because something will occur, does not mean that there is any stronger sense in which it 'must' or is 'guaranteed' to occur. If you know beforehand, it may be 'certain' in an epistemic sense. But that is of no interest here; what matters is the metaphysical question of how things are in themselves. Compare the past: we may have certain knowledge that some past event E occurred, but that alone does not mean that E itself was in any way guaranteed or 'fated' to occur. As things turned out, E did occur, but that fact is obviously compatible with the claim that things could have turned out differently. And exactly the same is true of future events, such as my φ-ing. Actuality does not imply necessity; 'is' (or 'will') does not imply 'must'.

(In practice, others will rarely be in a position to safely assert 'Richard will φ' in advance unless I am unable to do otherwise. After all, how else can they be so sure? I might change my mind -- especially if I overhear them, I might change my mind simply to prove them wrong! So, in practice we are used to 'will' assertions being correlated with 'must' facts. This practical correlation might help explain why we are so easily tempted to conflate the two ideas, but clear thinking requires us to disentangle such associations.)

One may object (as did my confused past self, circa 2004): "If Q is true, then I cannot actually fail to φ, for that would render Q false, contrary to the assumption." But this is deceptive rhetoric. It is true, but utterly trivial, that one cannot hold the truth of Q fixed and at the same time make it false. But there is no substantive necessity here. For all that's been said, it might be entirely within my power whether I φ, and hence whether Q is actually true or false. If Q is actually true, then that's just to say that I won't actually fail to φ, but it says nothing about what I could have done. Don't let the order of words on the screen fool you: the direction of explanation flows from my contingent action to the truth of the proposition. (Q is true because I φ. It would get things backwards to think that I φ because Q is somehow antecedently true.)

A related caution: it may be true (now) that tomorrow I φ. But that makes it sound like the truth exists prior to the event. This is, again, a mere quirk of language. To say it's true that tomorrow I φ is simply to say that tomorrow I φ. It's a claim about tomorrow's events, and whether it's true or not depends entirely on those events. If it turns out that I φ, then we can say it was "true" all along. But you shouldn't be tempted to read anything deeper into such claims. (In particular, it's not to say the future truth is somehow 'contained within' or derivable from the present state of affairs -- determinism is a further claim!)

A final source of confusion stems from conflating descriptive and rigidly designating interpretations of 'the actual world'. Let '@' rigidly designate what philosophers call "the actual world" (and what really means the actual world-description, or a complete list of all the propositions that happen to be actually true). Now one might worry that it's a necessary truth that Q is true in @ -- or that 'actually Q' expresses a necessary truth. So we lack the power to change what's true in the actual world (@); but the actual world is the world we care about, so (the argument goes) we lack the only power we ever cared to have.

Can you spot the fallacy? We are not essentially concerned with @ -- in itself, @ is a mere world-description, a way the concrete universe could be. What we care about is the concrete universe, and how it turns out. In particular, if the universe turns out as @ describes (so that @ is the "actual world[-description]") then we care about that, for the universe's sake. Note that the power we're really concerned with is the power to change the universe, not some particular description thereof. In short: we can't change the description (de re) of the universe, but we can change the universe itself so that it meets a different description. And of course it's the latter power that we really cared about all along.


  1. While I'm sympathetic to much you say here one thing seems wrong. It is not the case that if I know X and X is a future fact that it has only epistemic and not metaphysical consequences. This has long been discussed in the literature and is pretty crucial for a significant aspect of the free will debate.

    That's not to say we shouldn't distinguish will from must. But the problem is more equivocative senses of the word determinism.

  2. "It is not the case that if I know X and X is a future fact that it has only epistemic and not metaphysical consequences."

    How so? (I don't deny that many philosophers have considered foreknowledge to be a special problem for free will. But they seem to me mistaken. Talking about divine foreknowledge, for example, is simply a vivid way of highlighting that the known proposition is a future truth, and I've argued that that is no problem at all.)

  3. Because truth has metaphysical aspects.

    I suppose one can have a theory of truth where this isn't true. (Say truth as coherence) So I'll back off somewhat. But typically even those who reject normal "truth as correspondence" as a theory of truth still would accept many of the metaphysical entailments if something about the future is true.

  4. To add, I think one can make the distinction between entailment and what necessitates. But then one is making a claim about causality. Which is why I said the issue is ultimately about equivocation over the meaning of "determinism."

  5. Clark, the whole point of my post was that 'future truth' does not entail fatalism (or anything along those lines). If Q is true, that simply entails that I will phi tomorrow. It does not entail that there is any stronger sense in which I must do so. To think otherwise is sheer conceptual confusion.

    See especially my middle two paragraphs beginning 'One may object'...

  6. I think though that a Libertarian free will proponent would still object to the way you phrase it. But I'd be the first to admit that part of the problem is all the language we use here in terms of power, "may," "will," and so forth is muddled and carries both senses.

    Let's put it a different way. It is possible for there to be a truth of the future without there being causal determinism. That avoids all the problematic terminology. (And I include fatalism in that since it can mean that nothing I do matters for the future - which is wrong as you pointed out - but can also mean that the future state of affairs is fated to be true)

    But my point is that to say something is certain only in an epistemic sense seems false. Truth entails that the future state of affairs is constrained in a metaphysical sense as well. It may not be constrained in a causal deterministic or fatalistic (in your definition) sense.

    The interesting question you don't really touch on is whether it is possible to know future truths without the future being fixed. That is does the mere fact one can know entail a certain kind of determinism (not necessarily causal). I tend to lead to the idea that foreknowledge entails at least blocks of determinism between the present and the time period known. But clearly that goes beyond what you are getting at.

  7. Clark - my point is that mere truth should not be thought of as any kind of "constraint" at all. When you mention alternative definitions of "determinism" (or, for that matter, of what's "fated" to be) you are simply offering misleading rewordings of the basic fact that the future event will be. There is no further metaphysical sense in which it is 'fated', 'constrained', 'certain' or 'fixed'.

    Like I said: "It is true, but utterly trivial, that one cannot hold the truth of Q fixed and at the same time make it false. But there is no substantive necessity here. For all that's been said, it might be entirely within my power whether I φ, and hence whether Q is actually true or false."

    If you think there is some sense in which the future may be 'constrained' that goes beyond the trivial claim that future truths are true, whilst falling short of making any (false) counterfactual claims, I would ask you to clarify precisely what the claim is supposed to be. I don't see any room left in logical space for such a claim to be coherent.

  8. Well since I tend to agree with you I'm not the one to ask that. My point is that this is a controversial claim.

    I think the question becomes how is it possible that there can be a future truth without metaphysical entailments that go beyond the "merely true."

    The other points I raise aren't, I think misleading, beyond the trivial point that the words are. (Which was much of what I was saying - so I think we're agreeing there for the most part)

    Now if you're saying epistemology is merely a logical issue without metaphysical entailment maybe we might disagree more. I'll read your new post which I notice came up before saying more since I suspect a lot rests upon the whole metaphysical/epistemology distinction.

  9. I agree that it's "controversial" in the sense that many people have a different view. That's why I take myself to be diagnosing a common mistake -- many people make it. If you mean it is 'controversial' in some stronger sense, i.e. that there are good reasons for taking the alternative view, then that has not been established.

  10. Well I think there are quite a few good arguments in this regard.

    Take the following. Either QM's view of the universe or GR's view of the universe is correct. If foreknowledge is possible then the presentism in QM is false and GR is true. GR entails a block universe for future truths to be possible. Therefore all future events exist. Therefore the future is determined.

  11. I think my arguments apply just as well to future existents as to future truths. If 'determined' in the last sentence is meant in some non-trivial sense (i.e. that goes beyond the mere claim that the future really, though perhaps contingently, exists) then it is a non-sequitur. So, again, the claim is either trivial or it doesn't actually follow. You can't get necessity out of mere factuality. (See also my new post 'Accessible Non-Actual Futures'.)


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