Monthly Archives: July 2011

Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will

by David Foster Wallace

Tough going. The most difficult Wallace of them all. This is Wallace’s graduate thesis in philosophy, a rebuttal of Richard Taylor’s argument that human beings have no free will. As background to the works of fiction that he was later to create, the book is fascinating. We learn what kind of mind was responsible, where it came from. From the introductory bits:

“Wallace would also identify  another subconscious desire behind his early philosophical enthusiasms: the craving for a certain kind of beauty, for the variety of aesthetic experience characteristic of formal systems like mathematics and chess.”

“The reason I applied to philosophy grad school is I remembered that I had flourished in an academic environment. And I had this idea that I could read philosophy and do philosophy, and write on the side, and that it would make the writing better.”

What kind of writing did Wallace want to do, exactly?

“…there are areas of inquiry that might seem remote from the concerns of everyday life but that can, in fact, offer an array of intimate emotional and aesthetic experiences. Even for the reader with an appetite for it, however, a theoretical work can be so intellectually taxing, so draining of one’s mental energies, that what Wallace called the ‘emotional implications’ of the text are overlooked. The novel of ideas is at its most valuable, he contended, not when making abstruse ideas ‘accessible’ or easy to digest for the reader, but rather when bringing these neglected undercurrents to the surface.”

So, without going into too much detail (or any at all, really) on what, first of all, Taylor was saying in his argument, is it possible to condense down Wallace’s counter-argument?

“I will be making a case for the claim that situational physical possibility is best understood in terms of compatibility between sets of physical circumstances under unvarying natural laws. Since the sets of circumstances that bear on the modal character of an event or state of affairs usually can and do vary with the passage of time, an since thus the physical-modal character of some event or state of affairs may very well change from time-and-situation to time-and-situation, it is not surprising to find that scope problems of significant complexity arise when we try to formalize and interpret tensed physical-modal propositions. It is precisely such a semantic scope confusion that I think Taylor, offering a semantic argument for a metaphysical conclusion, has fallen for, and would have us fall for.”

I am reminded, when I read Wallace’s explanations of how vital the distinctions of modal language are, of the arguments that I have had in the past with those who would accuse me of being a prescriptive grammarian for my desire to maintain and use words and sentences correctly and precisely:

“What it means in a nutshell is that the denial of the consequent’s obtaining today means only that it cannot today be the case that yesterday did occur, not that it was the case yesterday that the explosion could not occur. We might say, more naturally if less perspicuously, as we enjoy the relatively low radiation today, that the explosion ‘can’t have’ occurred yesterday, not that it ‘couldn’t’ occur yesterday. This is an absolutely vital sort of distinction. Compare the following sentences, and think of the kinds of ‘impossibilities’ they really express: ‘It can’t have rained last night; there are no puddles on the sidewalk this morning,’ vs. ‘It couldn’t rain last night; last night a high-pressure ridge was keeping all precipitation-causing clouds out of the area.’ ‘He can’t have gone for a drive in his car an hour ago; the hood of the car’s not even warm,’ vs. ‘He couldn’t go for a drive in his car an hour ago; an hour ago his car was broken.’


“…This is so simply because physical modalities are understood here as sensitive to time and sensitive to world-situations causally joined in mother- and daughter-relationships, as parts of causal paths. And this understanding of physical modality seems to point to a way to solve the Taylor problem, to show that even under the most generous acceptance of his premises and reading of his argument, the fatalistic conclusion he wants to ‘force’ upon us simply does not validly follow.”

Simple, right?

“…physical possibility is, I have tried to argue, properly understood in a significantly different way from logical possibility. A ‘physical possibility,’ if it obtains, always obtains, and is to be evaluated in the context of, an index and a situation. It is to be understood as a relation of causal, physical compatibility between indices and their respective situations through time. It is true that in system J what is now-actual is also now-physically-possible, but this is a physical, not an alethic, relation; it is to be understood as holding simply for the reason that what is actual now is, quite obviously, physically compatible with what was actual a few moments ago and gave rise to what is actual now.”

Category: philosophy | Tags: , ,