Saturday, October 13, 2007

My Next to Last Word on Fate

I imagine that my vast and fervid readership is getting a bit fatigued by this detour into the topic of fate. I understand better now that it is a very hard problem to motivate. When one first has it pointed out to them that a sentence about the future, say "Socrates will drink wine at the party tonight," has a truth value (it's not neither true nor false, nor both true and false, and saying the truth value can "change" is the weirdest claim of all), it can seem as if this is a fact, true now, about the future. In philosophy class one can get any number of people to get the intuition that this demonstrates that the future is inevitable, and it's a cool philosophy "parlor trick," as Hume would say (like scepticism). But on reflection it appears the very paradigm of a pseudo-problem: yes, the sentence describing the future act has a truth value, because in the future Socrates will or will not drink wine at the party. It in no way follows from this that Socrates was somehow caused, determined, constrained to act as he did. It's a mere tautology that "The future will be as it will be," and this has no implication for the freedom or lack thereof of our actions. God's foreknowledge is another version of the same story: at first God's foreknowledge seems to underwrite a strong intuition that the future is fated, but on reflection we come to understand that this alleged fact, even if true, still doesn't mean that we don't act freely. So the alleged existence of facts about the future does not demonstrate fate.
There is one possible way to extend this discussion, though. According to the version of Platonic realism espoused by Alvin Plantinga, the actual world includes mind-independent, matter-independent, eternally unchanging, transcendental entities. These most famously include properties ("universals"), but also states of affairs, essences, and various other beasts including propositions. A metaphysical distinction (a "type-token" distinction) is drawn between propositions and sentence-tokens, which are worldly things. Platonic entities, on this view, may play a causal role in the material world (Plato himself thinks they cause the world to be organized into categories), but the material world does not have any causal power over Platonic entities. This is particularly important regarding the semantics and intentionality of language and mind, respectively. Platonic realism is meant by Plato, Plantinga and the gang to be an alternative to nominalism, and it is true that on the standard nominalist formula we have to say that the sentence-tokens shared meaning is a "primitive, unanalyzable similarity" between the sentence-tokens, a much less intuitive analysis than the same account of, say, color (not that the nominalist story is all that satisfying on any kind of property). I don't know what I think about the larger metaphysical issues here (I'm not a partisan between Plantinga and Lewis, or Plato and Aristotle, at this point), but as to fate: on the Platonic realist account of propositions, it does not appear that we can understand the truth value of the proposition as simply a function of what actually occurs in the event, not because it is eternally true (so is God's foreknowledge), but because no property of the proposition, on the realist view, can ever be effected by any event in the material world, certainly including the semantic properties, which are a paradigm case of non-physical properties on this view. Transcendental reality can play a causal role in physical reality, but not the other way around. Thus there exists the kind of independent fact about the future that indicates that the future is fated.

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