This past weekend was fucked up and weird in any number of ways, but one thing which was good about it was my opportunity to attend and present at the annual meeting of the
Alabama Philosophical Society in Orange Beach, Alabama. Thanks to the work of the people in APS – especially at Auburn and at the University of South Alabama – the APS is a strong and growing, but still very relaxing and laid-back conference. People from around the area are starting to catch on, and we’re getting submissions not just from ex-pat alumni, but also from folks down in Florida and out in Louisiana. A lot of kudos are do to folks like Kelly Jolley, Roderick Long, and Kevin Meeker who have put a lot of work into building such an enjoyable conference, and for working to create a real community of scholars for philosophers in Alabama.
For my part, I presented a paper from my fellowship work–Are There Worlds Enough and Time?–on modality and temporal logic. The central worry is this: many skeptics, and even some Christians, have accepted an argument that if there is an omniscient God who knows everything that we will do, then we do not have any option to act other than how God knows we will act, and thus, if the Christian God exists, we do not act by free will, but rather by necessity. And since free will is central to our ability to distinguish between acts we perpetrate and events that happen to us, this causes big problems for moral imputability on the Christian picture.
At first blush it seems like this is only a reason for Christians to worry, while we non-Christians either happily consign the debate to the flames, or else hang around out of metaphysical schadenfreude and urge the Christian to give up the incoherent picture of experience that Christianity gives. But arguments from the ancient debates over fatalism show that the same worry present in the foreknowledge argument actually raises its ugly head for everyone. God’s omniscience is one way of ensuring that what you do will be set in advance, but even if there is no-one who has any knowledge about what I will do today, if two people made precisely contradictory predictions about what I will do today, then one of those predictions would have to be true, and one of them would have to be false. Whichever one is true, fixes what I will do before I ever did it. No-one may know which one that is, but the concern here is metaphysics, not epistemology, and not knowing what the fact of the matter is doesn’t keep that fact of the matter from obtaining. So it looks like the Christian and the Aristotelian have found themselves to be allies in the same fight.
The general problem turns out to be a problem with the modality of temporal states of affairs, and the foreknowledge and prediction arguments are just illustrations to point the way. It seems that, if it turns out that S will be the case, then for all of history, it was true that S would be the case–for otherwise, S would not have happened. And if it was true then that S would be the case, then there is no way that S couldn’t be the case. Time itself seems to stop us from acting as we will.
As it turns out, there are two ways to get ourself out of this difficulty, each of which involves rejecting a different hidden premise of the fatalist’s argument. On one account, true predictions do not constrain choice because what they predict actually will happen–but actuality, unlike necessity, does not constrain alternative possibilities. There is only one thing that I will do when the moment of decision comes, but that does not mean that there weren’t other things that I could do instead. Alternatively, one can reject the premise that either of the predictions is true–and claim that predictions about the future simply are not truth-valuable until the event that they predict does or does not come to pass. In this case, the range of choices is not limited at the time of prediction, because there’s nothing to do the limiting in the first place.
Unfortunately, either solution raises thorny logical and metaphysical difficulties. The latter sections of the paper examine these difficulties and draw out the concerns on each side. I will leave the rest of the details in elipsis, however, because I hope to see this paper in published, so for the time being I’m not going to post it here. Not because I don’t love you, gentle reader, but because you aren’t the Harvard Review of Philosophy.
In any case, it was a very relaxing trip and I encourage anyone who has the opportunity to make it in upcoming years, to do so. You’ll get to spend some time on the beach (which is actually quite pleasant when it’s not being bombarded with heat, sun, and annoying people having fun), you’ll get to meet people doing some exciting work in philosophy, and hopefully, you’ll get to think about some new and interesting things.