Wednesday, October 3, 2007

What is the Fatalist Claiming?

The issue here is not whether or not whatever the fatalist claims is true. I just want to think a bit about what it is that the fatalist is claiming. The fatalist is not claiming that causal determinism obtains: that physical causation is closed and necessary, such that given the causal antecedents of my act, I couldn't have acted otherwise. Fatalism has an altogether different flavor than determinism. Specifically, I want to argue that fatalist arguments do not claim that facts about the future in any way determine the way that the future will be. This is, I think, an alternative interpretation from one that holds fatalist arguments to be a kind of logical determinism. Let's consider the version of the argument that argues from God's foreknowledge (omniscience). If God knows (now) what you are going to do next Thursday, the argument goes, then you are fated to do what you do next Thursday. If I have reason to think that there is a fact about the future (e.g. God's foreknowledge), then I have reason to believe that the future is concrete, like the past. The objection to fatalism from logical determinism runs like this: The fatalist is interpreted as arguing that 1) If God has foreknowledge of my actions, then the future is concrete. 2) God has foreknowledge of my actions. Therefore, the future is concrete. But, the objection goes on, God's foreknowledge is, in fact, determined by my actions this coming Thursday, and not the other way around. Thus it is misleading to characterize God's foreknowledge as a fact about the past (or the present); God's foreknowledge is just a fact about the future "disguised as a fact about the past." These philosophers claim that the fatalist is making a mistake about the "direction of dependence" between the future and the past/present. From the fact that it's true that you will vote Liberal next year, on this view, it doesn't follow that you cannot but vote Liberal next year. And, the interpreter of fatalism as logical determinism will go on, it must be that the fatalist is making this further claim. (And indeed the fatalist is claiming to have reason to believe that the future is concrete. ) But I think that there is an equivocation here between two senses of "determine." In the sense of causal determinism, the antecedent causes, in a lawlike way, the consequent effect: literally the antecedent causes are the explanation of my action. But in the sense of logical determinism, the word "determine" has the sense of determining, say, where San Sebastian is by looking on a map, or determining who the sixth President was by looking it up in a reference book. Arguing for fate from the fact of God's omniscience is entirely different from a possible determinist argument from God's omnipotence. The fact of God's foreknowledge is neither a necessary fact in itself nor a necessary precondition for the future being concrete. In fact, it is only if we have some independent reason for believing in God's foreknowledge that we can then draw the implication that the future is concrete. It doesn't look like the concreteness of the future could possibly depend on anything: if the future is concrete then there are no causes, thus properly understood fatalism turns out to be the opposite of determinism, which holds that the present state of affairs depends on the antecedant causes.
(And many thanks to Brian Garrett, author of What is this thing called metaphysics? Routledge, 2006, the text I'm using in my Metaphysics class. Prof. Garrett very generously responded to my e-mails generated by our class discussion, and helped us to do some good and fun philosophy here at the Univ. of Puerto Rico. Thanks Brian!)

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