Fate, Time, and Language

By DAVID FOSTER WALLACE

In 1962, a philosopher (and world-famous beekeeper) namedRichard Taylor published a soon-to-be-notorious essay called “Fatalism”in The Philosophical Review. As thetitle indicates, it concerned a subject which, as a matter of humanintellectual concern, surely dates back to the minute Homo became sapiens. Thatis the subject of the Future and how it is determined: by the gods or God;solely by the past and the present; or (in circumstances that appear to bewithin our control), by our own agency—free will. Taylor’s argument, which hehimself found distasteful, was that certain logical and seemingly unarguablepremises lead to the conclusion that even in matters of human choice, thefuture is as set in stone as the past. We may think we can affect it, but wecan’t. When we try to change it, we simply put ourselves more deeply into itsstony hands. To quote Doris Day, “Quesera, sera” and that’s all there is to it.

This position bothered youngDavid Foster Wallace when he was an undergraduate at Amherst, in the 1980s,with a double major in Philosophy and Creative Writing. In fact, he wasbeginning his general transition from the one professional field to the other,maybe in part Oedipally, as his father was a well-known philosopher. And hisopposition to fatalism coincided with his burgeoning interest in fiction, whosevery nature might be said to demand some semblance of free will, as it nearlyalways concerns dramatic choices. It is almost as if the young genius weredefying his own fated future in philosophy by becoming a literary writer—awriter of obsessive talent, now somewhat overrated because of his untimelydeath, whose works include the novels TheBroom of the System and Infinite Jest.

In any case, Wallace’s thesis inphilosophy, “Richard Taylor’s ‘Fatalism’ and the Semantics of PhysicalModality” has—along with Taylor’s original essay and a good deal ofadditional apparatus—now been published by Columbia University Press under thetitle Fate, Time, and Language. Itcontains an excellent introduction by James Ryerson, which first appeared inthe New York Times Magazine in 2008,shortly after Wallace’s suicide; many articles attempting to rebut Taylor’sargument; responses by Taylor; (centrally) Wallace’s essay; an epilogue aboutWallace as a student; and an appendix. The philosophical parts of the book arevery difficult, replete with symbolic-logic signs—it will no doubt have abought-to-finished ratio similar to that of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, thoughthe “bought” factor may be a lot smaller.

But even if the reader doesn’t understand all or even half ofit, this is an excellent chapbook about a subject—human responsibility—that,with advances in neuroscience, is of increasing urgency in jurisprudence,social codes, and personal conduct. And it also shows a brilliant young manstruggling against fatalism, performing exquisite exercises to convince others,and maybe himself, that what we choose to do is what determines the future,rather than the future more or less determining what we choose to do. Thisintellectual struggle on Wallace’s part seems now a kind of emotionalforeshadowing of his suicide. He was a victim of depression from an earlyage—even during his undergraduate years—and the future never looks moreintractable than it does to someone who is depressed.

Here is my Phil-minor’sdrastically oversimplified effort to describe Taylor’s thesis and Wallace’sattempted rebuttal. Taylor imagines a naval commander on the deck of a ship whocan today order the ship to commence battle or refrain from doing so. Tomorrowit will be the case that he did issue the order or that he did not. If tomorrowit is the case that there was no battle today, that means that the commandercannot have issued the order. That is, the condition tomorrow—battle ornot-battle—can be said, a-chronologically, to have required the commander’sdecision: there is only one future, and everything in the present, despite ourillusion of will and choice, is required to happen to create that future. “Afatalist thinks of the future,” Taylor says, “in the manner in whichwe all think of the past.”

Wallace’s ornate, symbol-ladenresponse, based on a new system of truth-value he calls J, leads him to theconclusion that right now there are indeed many possible futures, and that whatwe decide to do today—this, that, or the other decision—will determine whichfuture we will have. That, for instance, when someone on a train to St. Louissays, “I could just as easily be on a train to Chicago,” it actuallymeans something. Taylor would say that it means only what the words mean andhas nothing to do with any real possibility in the world, even in the past, forin fact the person is on the train to Chicago and was always going to be.

Taylor presents his case calmly,like a beekeeper at his hives. Wallace’s essay, necessarily much longer, as itwas his thesis, feels a little more informal and excited—”One approach todefusing the Taylor argument is to attack presupposition 1.” —as befitsnot only a younger man but also someone who is in a way fighting for his life,or at least the meaning of his life. Wallace’s essay conveys everywhere thatthis issue matters. Taylor seems far more clinical but also regretful, in adetached way.

Make no mistake—Fate, Time, and Language is very hardgoing for the general reader: “Since the modalities Kripke is concernedwith are alethic, K is the set of all worlds that are not logicallyinconsistent.” But there is a way of reading it for the bare bones of theissue and disregarding the vascular complexities.

Speaking of Oedipus, Sophocles’Oedipus trilogy presents a perfect dramatization of this exact philosophicalproblem, with the Greek gods thrown in to complicate matters a little. Oedipusis, after all, told his fate by theDelphic oracle. In order to try to avoid it, he does nothing but make sure ithappens. But there are stops along the way to his tragedy where the playwrightseems to be saying Oedipus could indeed have not slain his father and stayedout of bed with his mother—for example, simply by not marrying a much olderwoman.

Finally, speaking of slayings, Fate, Time, and Language reminded me of how fond philosophers areof extreme situations in creating their thought experiments. In this book alonewe find a naval battle, the gallows, a shotgun, poison, an accident that leadsto paraplegia, somebody stabbed and killed, and so on. Why not say “I havea pretzel in my hand today. Tomorrow I will have eaten it or not eaten it”instead of “I have a gun in my hand and I will either shoot you throughthe heart and feast on your flesh or I won’t”? Well, OK—the answer iseasy: the extreme and violent scenarios catch our attention more forcefullythan pretzels do. Also, philosophers, sequestered and meditative as they mustbe, may long for real action—beyond beekeeping.

Wallace, in his essay, at thevery center of trying to show that we can indeed make meaningful choices,places a terrorist in the middle of Amherst’s campus with his finger on thetrigger mechanism of a nuclear weapon. It is by far the most narrativelyarresting moment in all of this material, and it says far more about theauthor’s approaching anti-establishment explosions of prose and his extremeemotional makeup than it does about tweedy-elbowed profs fantasizing aboutordering their ships into battle. For, after all, who, besides everyone aroundhim, would the terrorist have killed?