David Foster Wallace
As a young philosopher, David Foster Wallace (later a popular writer of fiction with philosophical themes), wrote an undergraduate philosophy thesis in 1985 on Richard Taylor's famous article "Fatalism," which had appeared in The Philosophical Review, v. 71, n. 1, 1962. Wallace claimed to disprove Taylor by showing that his arguments were merely semantic and could not establish metaphysical truths such as determinism. Taylor's article is important because it shows how a few important presuppositions, ones commonly accepted by academic philosophers, imply that determinism is true. This is most ironic, because anyone familiar with Taylor's work (he was an agent causalist) would know that this was not his position on free will. Nevertheless, several philosophers tried to show in the 1960's that Taylor's arguments in "Fatalism" were invalid. Taylor's article is still widely anthologized, with the result that many philosophers today regard Taylor as a fatalist! Taylor's arguments are essentially versions of the ancient problems of Future Contingency and Diodorus Cronus' Master Argument, still implicit in many philosophers work on the problem of free will. Even in ancient times, such arguments were derided, by Epictetus, for example, in his Discourses, Bk 2, Ch 1, "Against those who embrace philosophical opinions only in words." Modern thinkers with similar conclusions, albeit for different reasons, include C. W. Rietdijk, Hilary Putnam, J. J. C. Smart, Michael Lockwood, and Michael Levin, who like to think that the future is "already out there" in the relativistic space-time continuum of a "tenseless" "block universe." Wallace's arguments are quite powerful in the sense that much of what Taylor was doing (perhaps with tongue in cheek?) and other analytical language philosophers tried to do was simply not possible to do, discover truths about the physical world from logic and language. Information philosophy goes "beyond logic and language." Wallace describes fatalism as collapsing all possibilities into actuality. Only the actual is possible, they claim. Fatalism is a form of Actualism. Modern "actualists" include Harry Frankfurt, and Daniel Dennett. Wallace writes:
By what reason, other than mere habit or inclination, ought we to reject out of hand a modal system in which possibility, actuality, and necessity are collapsed? Would it somehow be meaningless or uninteresting? The fatalist can point out that no less a non-fatalist than G. H. von Wright does not think it would. In discussing a system with just such a feature, von Wright maintains that "This 'collapsing' of the distinction between the possible and the necessary does not make the system uninteresting as a modal logic. Quite to the contrary, speaking in the traditional modal terms, one can call it a modal logic of a universe of propositions which has no room for contingent propositions but in which every truth is a necessity and every falsehood an impossibility." (In other words, a fatalistic modal logic.) Some philosophers have argued that the collapse of modal distinctions apparently implied by the Taylor problem results in the very concept of "necessity" itself becoming vacuous, and so renders the fatalist's contention that everything that happens is "necessary" empty and benign. But the fatalist is clearly going to want to hold that since the relevant collapse is from possibility and actuality into necessity, it is only necessity which has any real meaning as a modal concept, and it is the others which are really empty. Where does this leave us? Again an attempted refutation of Taylor's argument boils down to an attack upon a fatalistic intuition which we can only reject, not refute.Wallace concludes his thesis by concluding that fatalism entails determinism:
the metaphysical doctrine of determinism [is] the idea that,given a precise and total state of affairs at one instant, and the physical laws that govern the causal relations between states of affairs, there is one and only one possible state of affairs that could obtain at the next instant. The fatalist, then, would appear to be able to preserve the validity of his Taylor-argument against [Wallace's] analysis only by embracing the metaphysical doctrine of determinism, by being a determinist. And what exactly is a determinst? Let's have a look at Richard Taylor's own definition:A determinist is simply, if he is consistent, a fatalist about everything; or at least, he should be. For the essential idea that a man would be expressing by saying that his attitude was one of fatalism with respect to this or that event — his own death, for instance — is that it is not up to him whether, or when or where, this event will occur, that it is not within his control. But the theory of determinism, once it is clearly spelled out and not hedged about with unresolved 'ifs' entails that this is true of everything that ever happens, that it is never really up to any man what he does or what he becomes, and that nothing ever can happen, except what does in fact happen.So what are we to say about the fatalist's asserting the truth of determinism in order to save the validity of an argument for the truth of fatalism, when determinism, by Professor Taylor's own enthusiastic admission, is simply a stronger, more general version of fatalism? At our harshest we might simply reject the fatalist's response here as assuming in the first place the very thing for which he purported to have an independent argument. We might accuse the fatalist here of just begging the question, precisely the charge we saw the fatalist level at his poor critics in section (II). But it is more fair to an ingenious and very important argument (and I think more interesting) to say something else. Taylor's claim was never really that fatalism was actually "true," only that it was forced upon us by proof from certain basic logical and semantic principles. This essay's semantic analysis has shown that Taylor's proof doesn't "force" fatalism on us at all. We should now recall that Taylor was offering a very curious sort of argument: a semantic argument for a metaphysical conclusion. In light of what we've seen about the semantics of physical modality, I hold that Taylor's semantic argument does not in fact yield his metaphysical conclusion. And now the fact that it appears as though he can get his metaphysical conclusion from his semantic argument only by positing at the outset the truth of a doctrine thoroughly metaphysical, seems to warrant the following conclusion of our own: if Taylor and the fatalists want to force upon us a metaphysical conclusion, they must do metaphysics, not semantics. And this seems entirely appropriate.