Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Fatalism, Part I of II (Diet Soap Nit-Pickery)

A little while ago, I mentioned that I was interviewed for a second appearance on philosophy-oriented podcast Diet Soap. (First one is here.) Anyway, I think the episode with the second appearance on it is going to be coming out within the next couple weeks.

As I emphasized then, I'm happy to be on there. Diet Soap is a podcast I listen to regularly--in fact, lately, it's been the one I've listened to the most regularly that isn't about hockey--and I almost always find it interesting, entertaining and thought-provoking. You should listen.

Anyway, despite having been a normal weekly listener for most of the last bunch of weeks, I somehow missed Episode 91, which was (among other things) about Deluze. Since the most recent episode was a different perspective on Deluze, and the show notes referred to the previous one, I thought I might as well go back and listen to the first Deluze discussion.

...most of which was interesting enough, but towards the end, the host and his guest touched on fatalism and free will in a way that made me want to rip my iPod out of my ears and throw it against the nearest wall in frustration. (I didn't. It's an expensive iPod--one of those tiny little "nano touch" thingies--and what with me being in Korea and all, it'd be even more expensive to replace. Plus, of course, despite my frustration on this particular point, I was still interested to hear the rest of what they had to say.) I've touched on this complaint before, after host Doug Lain brought it up in a previous episode, but I want to take another, more careful crack at it here. Here's what I said about it before:

(2) In the discussions about free will and fatalism, there's a lot of running together of two quite distinct claims:

(i) That there are facts about what will happen in the future, such that some statements about the future are true and some are false, and
(ii) That some being knows which statements about the future are true and which ones are false.

Clearly (at least given the orthodox assumption that truth is a necessary condition for knowledge), (ii) entails (i), but (i) can absolutely and obviously be true without (ii) being true. By analogy, consider Claim C (about the past, rather than the future):

C: "Alexander the great's maternal grandmother's paternal grandmother accidentally cut her toe on a rock when she was six years old."

C is pretty clearly either true or false. Whatever one thinks about reference failures and all of that (i.e. whether a statement like "the present King of France is bald" is true, false or neither, given that there is no present King of France), Alexander the Great clearly had a maternal grandmother, and she clearly had a paternal grandmother, and at one point she was six years old. During that year, that lady either did accidentally cut her toe on a rock--in which case C is true--or she didn't (in which case the negation of C is true), and none of this is remotely philosophically controversial. Given atheism (and the absence of time machines) no one is in any position to have epistemic access to the fact of the matter here, but no one thinks that there isn't a fact of the matter about this issue. Why on earth should it be any different, re: future facts and the absence of any being with epistemic access to those facts?

(In the comments on that post, a friend of mine who's working on free will for his doctoral dissertation put the point rather more vehemently than I would.)

Expanding a bit now:

Lain expresses the point in terms of "truth claims", which I find slightly confusing, just because it's not terminology that I'm used to, but I think it's fairly clear in context that it just means "claims that are true." (For the sake of simplicitly, let's make that "true statements.") He's responding to Taylor's classic argument for fatalism (the idea that the future is "fixed" in some way that gets in the way of some important intuitive idea of free will). That argument is spelled out formally by Taylor, and Lain is looking for a way out. So far, so good.

On the philosophical substance here, my own very strong view is that (a) there are lots of ways out, even if Lain's favored one is as problematic as I think it is, but that (b) no matter what your favorite conception is of free will, "fatalism" shouldn't be a problem. We can come back to that in a bit. Meanwhile....

Lain's move is, basically, to leverage atheism against fatalism. If Taylor's picture has it that there is an infinite set of every true statement about the future--and therefore that, for every prediction you could make about the future, either its in that set or its not, but one way or the other, there's a fixed fact of the matter about whether the prediction's going to come true--Lain wants to dispute the claim that there is such a set of true statements. After all, in the absence of an omniscient God, no one is in a position to claim all the infinitely many true things about the future.

In his most recent statement of all this, in Episode 91, Lain made a special point of saying that something can only be a statement if someone has said it, written it down or thought it. I think this might have been a way of side-stepping the way I'd previously expressed my objection, quoted above--in terms of "some statements being true and others being false" vs. "some entity being in a position to know which statements are true and which are false"--and I guess it does, but in a way that I think misses the point.

Think about the past. That's definitely "fixed" and at this point unchangeable in just the sense that anyone worried about fatalism is worried that the future is "fixed", right? Well, even if the past is finite (different physical cosmologies have importantly different results on that point), in a universe without any God-like entities, surely no one is in any position to know, or state, every true statement about the past, right? That is, however, just obviously utterly irrelevant to the pasts' "fixed"-ness.

The reason its irrelevant is that the issue isn't so much about statements as it is about facts. Even if I hadn't come up with the particular example I used in the comments--C: "Alexander the great's maternal grandmother's paternal grandmother accidentally cut her toe on a rock when she was six years old."--and indeed if no one had ever said or thought of that statement (as is extremely likely that no one would have) the lady in question, and all events in her life, would still exist, and either include or fail to include the described incident. Even if one thinks that sentences per se rather, than say, propositions, are the only things that can be "true" or "false", and even if a sentence describing the incident doesn't exist, either the incident occurred or it didn't.

Now, one could make a really radical move here and just deny the existence of un-described facts--if no one has ever commented on or thought about the number of empty bottles on the floor of the basement of the frat house, then there isn't a certain, definite, objective number of bottles there!--and that would sort-of-help here, but, in the end, it wouldn't help much. Not only would this move distance you so much from any remotely recognizable sense of the meaning of the word "truth" as it's used pre-philosophically in ordinary everyday conversations that it's no longer clear to me what we're talking about when we talk about whether some statement is "true" or "false", but even if we make this move, it won't get us off the fatalist hook.

For one thing, we can always reconstruct the fatalistic stuff in terms of hypothetical statements--e.g. "for any possible future event, if one were to make a prediction about it, that prediction would either be a true prediction or it wouldn't be"--and for another, even if we couldn't (and, again, we pretty clearly can), that wouldn't matter very much.

Here's why:

Forget "the future" as a vast (possibly infinitely extended) category, and re-ask yourself why you're concerned with fatalism in the first place. Presumably, it's because we want to think we have the power to change things with our idividual or collective choices, or at the very least that (even if we don't think it's a matter of choice) certain future possibilities we care about are still "open."

The problem is that, for any given future possibility we care about the openness of, we can just construct a sentence about it. For example:

"Doug Lain's great-grandchildren will live under precisely the sort of anarchist-socialist utopia he advocates."


"An anarchist-socialist utopia will never come about."


"Doug Lain will murder someone on July 15th, 2058, and be executed for that crime."


"Doug Lain will never kill anyone."

....or whatever. Whether or not there's an infinite set of true statements for any of these these statements to be part of (if any of them are true) or to be fail to be part of, we hardly need an infinite, omniscient mind for these particular statements to exist. (Check them out! I just wrote them up!) Given that they exist, they're either true or they're not, which is presumably just as much (or, of course, just as little) of a problem for the "openness" or undecidness or whatever of these future possibilities as them being or not being part of some infinite set of true statements would be.

Now, like I said earlier, I tend to think that both (a) if one thinks that its important to avoid this fatalistic result, there are plenty of moves you could make that do so, even if the move under consideration has prospects as dim as I think they are, and that (b) it's actually not important to avoid it (the future is every bit as much "up to us" and to our free choices with or without the kind of 'openness' anti-fatalists tend to be concerned with). That is, though, as they say, a-whole-nother discussion, and one probably best reserved for a blog post of its own, this one being as long as it is already.

So let's do that in a couple weeks. Meanwhile, stay tuned for the long-delayed Part IV of the Liar Pardox posts next Wednesday!


Emil O. W. Kirkegaard said...

I agree with everything you wrote, altho I prefer not to take that route to debunk fatalism. I prefer the direct route of disputing the validity of arguments that people use to establish that there is no free will. I have never come upon an argument from fatalism, logical determinism, causal determinism or similar that did not commit some kind of modal fallacy.

And about that, this page is a god-send. :)

Ben said...


"...causal determinism...."

You really think that arguing for compatibilism about free will and causal determinism is as easy as weeding out modal fallacies?

Douglas Lain said...

The very easy refutation of your point about the past is this: No infinite set of propositions about the past need be posited, but only a finite set. And while propositions about the future must be be embodied somewhere in the present or past in order to exist, propositions about the past have already existed and are not in need of a material/perceptible foundation or embodiment.

The idea of a set of linguistic representations of all past events isn't problematic because those representations were clearly already embodied in or by the participants. Recall that from a phenomenological perspective for any fact to be it has to be perceived. That is, the perception of something is not separate from its existence according to phenomenology.

Now, having said all that I'm not convinced that I've really done much in the way of making a case for something like free will here. Instead what I think I have done is shown the assumptions underpinning Taylor's fatalism. I don't think the argument for his version of fatalism can function without God.


Douglas Lain said...

oh, another point, the claim that my grandchildren will live in the kind of anarchist-socialist society I advocate might be true while the claim no anarchist-socialist society will ever exist is also true. That is, I may advocate for something that I call anarchist-socialism but be in error. In order to figure out the truth value of such claims we have to pile on more claims, until, finally, we make a cut and just decide, okay no more-this is what this means.
Noting this we leave the realm of phenomenology behind, I think, or the realm of Deleuzian thinking behind. Because at this point we no longer have phenomena, even the past, that are complete, solid, etc... There is an arbitrary nature to what we say about and experience of the world.

Ben said...


"The very easy refutation of your point about the past is this: No infinite set of propositions about the past need be posited, but only a finite set."

Not so easy!

Note that (1) whether the past had a finite or infinite duration is an open empirical question depending on all kinds of questions about physical cosmology (whether our Big Bang was the first bang, or part of an infinite series of bangs and crunchs, or whether you go with some kind of 'soup of bubble universes' sort of cosmology, or...) which even many physicists and others far better-informed than I am about this stuff are loathe to make overly confident pronouncements about, but that in any case (2) even if the past had a finite duration, it does not by any means follow that it can be completely described with a finite set of statements, especially if space-time is ultimately composed of infinitely small spatio-temporal 'points' or instants (as I--very roughly--understand it, quantum and relativistic results point in different directions on this stuff, so who the hell knows), but, most importantly, even ignoring both of those qualifications:

(3) Even if the past can be described with a finite set of statements, only a very God-like being would be able to grasp them all!

And (3) is, as I see it, the main problem here. Even if our Big Bang was the first and only, no bubble universes, no complications of any kind, no human being, or any other creatures anywhere near as limited as any possible human being, could ever have access to every single statement accurately describing every single thing that's happened in the 15 billion years of that finite past. So the "finite" vs. "infinite" thing is just irrelevant. We'd sitll need something like God.

Ben said...

"And while propositions about the future must be be embodied somewhere in the present or past in order to exist, propositions about the past have already existed and are not in need of a material/perceptible foundation or embodiment."

A "proposition" is usually thought of as a claim about something--as the thing being expressed in a statement, as in when people say that "snow is white" and "schnee ist weiss" express the same proposition. If you believe in propositions at all, above and beyond the sentences that express them, you either think (a) they exist Platonically whether or not anyone says anything that expresses them, or (b) they only exist if a sentence expressing them exists. If you think (a), then all the propositions about the future could exist without God existing or anyone knowing them, just as all the ones about the past could. If you think (b), then many propositions that *would* accurately describe the past don't exist, just as many propositions about the future don't exist.

It sounds to me, though, like what you're really talking about isn't propositions at all, but the states of the world that would be *described* by propositions. And this just gets back to my point--the real issue about fatalism isn't whether there are propositions describing how the universe is, much less whether God or anyone else exists to know those propositions, but about whether there are facts about how the future will be. The view that your expressing is that there are presently existing facts about the past, even if no one is aware of them, and even if there are no statements about it, whereas there are no presently existing facts about how the future will be. Why not just say that? As a philosophical claim, its worth debating and thinking about, but it seems to me that it has less than nothing to do with propositions, sets of propositions, or the existence or non-existence of God.

Ben said...

"Recall that from a phenomenological perspective for any fact to be it has to be perceived."

Only if, by "phenomenology", you basically mean Berkeleyan idealism. I know that Husserl, for example, definitely didn't have that view--he "methodologically bracketted off" the question of whether mind-independent reality existed in his earlier stuff about phenomenology, and in his later years when he did start calling himself an "idealist" of some kind, he insisted that he didn't mean anything like what Berkeley or other idealists had meant. (It's actually a bit confusing what he did mean--I wrote a paper about this once for a Husserl class, and I'm still not very confident that I got it right. But in any case, early, pre-idealist Husserl was definitely a phenomenologist who didn't claim that there are no unperceived facts. I know less about, e.g. Sartre, but my hunch is that he would have rejected that view too. And, if you think about it, it really is a *radically* counter-intuitive view. If we throw empty beer bottles into the basement, and no one's gone down there to count them, does that really means that there isn't a definite, objective number of bottles down there and that, if I guessed without checking to see if I was right, my guess would be either true--if I'd stumbled onto the right number--or false if I hadn't?)

"That is, the perception of something is not separate from its existence according to phenomenology." a very different claim from "there are no unperceived facts." As I understand what, for example, Husserl was up to, the point is that when, for example, I look at a beer bottle, there aren't three things--the beer bottle, the experience of the beer bottle, and my peception--but just two things, the beer bottle and my perception. I'm experiencing the bottle, not some sort of mental snapshot of it. That point is good and important and well-taken--the idea of "sense data" in between me and the object of perception has led to all kinds of confusion in the history of philosophy, and we're well rid of it--but it's *completely* compatible with the existence of unperceived facts. Of which, intuitively, there would seem to be a great many, even about the present, much less the at-least-15-billion-year-old past, much less the (longer) future!

Ben said...

"oh, another point, the claim that my grandchildren will live in the kind of anarchist-socialist society I advocate might be true while the claim no anarchist-socialist society will ever exist is also true. That is, I may advocate for something that I call anarchist-socialism but be in error."

Why wouldn't that just make the first claim *false*?

Emil O. W. Kirkegaard said...

If you think that is easy, then yes. Swartz spent an entire book about getting modal fallacies our of the confused common-sense notion of "natural law". ("The Concept of Physical Law")

But even logical determinism/fatalism seems to be impossible to remove from some people. I once spent over a month trying to explain it to a person. Never got anywhere. And with another person I spent weeks, same for a third person.

With some people, it is like they lack the mental strength to grasp the problem, or that they cannot get out of some previous way of thinking about it. Now a days, I just direct people to Swartz page and answer questions if they are sensible. If they are not, I give up and discuss with other people.

Ben said...


Sure, I see what you mean about 'easy.' Let me re-phrase:

I can see how you can argue that fatalist/"logical determinist" objections to free will come down to modal fallacies. Many people do argue that that's the kind of thing that's going on those arguments. But I'm totally mystified about how one could argue that objections to free will based on *causal* determinism comes down to modal fallacies. At the very least there's a vast literature on compatibilism, pro- and con, that seems to all rest on the assumption that it's a difficult conceptual issue, not a result of mistakes about where to put the boxes and the diamonds when we symbolize our arguments.

Emil O. W. Kirkegaard said...

But those arguments with causal determinism are about that the future events are completely determined by the laws of nature and the initial (or just current, if the universe is infinitely old) conditions, and that there is some free will intuition that goes: if there is FW, then future events are not completely determined--that there is room for choice.

Typically, when one asks for clarification, one will get something about how the laws of nature necessitate future events, and THAT is where various modal fallacies come into it. By the way, this is exactly how SEP explains 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. "

But there is no more necessitation of future events by laws of nature (a subset of true truth carriers), than there is by true truth carriers in general, which is just logical determinism again.

Sorry if this is badly explained. I just went to pick a question for my oral examination and I picked a Hegel question. I fucking hate Hegel. So I started drinking earlier to make the situation more bearable to live. :)