April 19, 2011

Fate, Time and Language by David Foster Wallace

In 1962, a philosopher named Richard Taylor published a short paper titled 'Fatalism'. He began by setting out six basic presuppositions, each of which seemed innocuous enough when considered independently. He then argued that these could be used to prove, via a straightforward series of logical steps, that the fatalistic reasoning we apply to past events, by which we understand that what is done cannot be undone, is no less valid when applied to future events. His conclusion was stark: either one of his assumptions would need to be shown to be incorrect, or we must accept that free will is an illusion.

Fate is, of course, an ancient idea. Writers have long recognised its peculiar hold over the imagination, its ability to speak to our awareness that life's contingencies can sometimes push us in unexpected directions and prevent us from exercising complete control over our destinies. We acknowledge this modest truth when we use the word 'fate' in the weak or ironic sense that is interchangeable with chance or coincidence.

But when the concept is understood as an iron rule it takes on disturbing implications. Tragedy, which depicts the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as overwhelming and destructive, often evokes fate in a literal way to underscore its vision of human frailty and powerlessness. If the future is indeed as fixed as the past, this powerlessness becomes absolute. There is something particularly horrible about the way that every action taken to avoid the witches's prophecy in Macbeth only serves to make it come true. The uncanny atmosphere of the play, where every instant teems with fate, suggests the reason why we are apt to feel that there is something inhuman and life-denying about fatalism: it overrides our experience of time. Thanks to the witches, Macbeth knows the future in a limited way, but his human perspective means he cannot know how events will play out. He looks into the future, as we all do, with unseeing eyes. Fatalism thus presents us with an existential problem that Isaiah Berlin summed up in a neat paradox: even if free will is an illusion, we have no choice but to live as if it is not.
   
Taylor's paper was immediately controversial. His argument was presented purely as a question of logic. It did not evoke any notion of divine control over human affairs, nor did it rely on the philosophically distinct concept of determinism, which presses materialist assumptions to a mechanistic conclusion. But it invited the same instinctive resistance we feel toward any attempt to deny that the choices we make are real and meaningful.
   
The philosophers who criticised Taylor were quick to point out there was clearly something suspect about the way his argument dealt with ⎯ or, more to the point, rendered inconsequential ⎯ the issues of time and causality as they relate to what we would understand, in a commonsense way, as possible alternative courses of action. To this, Taylor had a ready response: his critics were begging the question. They were arguing, in effect, that his fatalistic conclusion could not be valid because it was fatalistic. A telling criticism came from Charles D. Brown, who suggested that a semantic sleight of hand was allowing Taylor to treat the logic of necessary and sufficient conditions as reversible. But by the time the controversy ran out of steam, no one had succeeded in demolishing Taylor's argument comprehensively. The minor skirmish he had provoked left behind a small philosophical puzzle and set out several potential lines of inquiry. The perfect topic for, say, an Honours thesis.

The Taylor problem might be no more than a curious footnote to the history of twentieth century philosophy were it not for the fact that the Honours student who took it upon himself to clear up the mess was David Foster Wallace. Since he took his own life in September 2008 at the age of 46, it has become increasingly clear ⎯ though it was clear enough before he died ⎯ that Wallace is the most important American fiction writer to have emerged in the past thirty years. His masterpiece, Infinite Jest, is a landmark of late-twentieth century literature. It is one of those rare books, like Lyrical Ballads or Ulysses, on which an entire literary culture can be seen to pivot. As Marshall Boswell, the author of a groundbreaking early study of Wallace's fiction, observed recently: 'Without Wallace, there is no Dave Eggers, no McSweeney's or Believer, no n+1. Jonathan Franzen, George Saunders, Zadie Smith: All are indebted to Wallace and the shift in sensibility he inaugurated back in the late 1980s and early 90s.'
   
The groundswell of interest in Wallace's writing that followed from his premature death is, two and a half years later, beginning to take on a substantial form. The publication of his unfinished novel The Pale King is imminent; critical studies are beginning to appear; a biography is being written; an archive of Wallace's personal papers, which includes his annotated library, has recently opened at the University of Texas; and Fate, Time, and Language now makes available for the first time his philosophy thesis, written in the mid-1980s when he was an undergraduate at Amherst College in Massachusetts.
   
The editors of Fate, Time, and Language, Steven M. Cahn and Maureen Eckert, have, to their credit, taken a short work that is at best a minor addition to Wallace's literary legacy and assembled a book that is valuable and interesting in its own right, and not just for the fact that it was written by someone who went on to become famous for something else. The volume includes Taylor's original article along with the most significant contributions to the debate that followed. These are set out chronologically, so that it is possible to understand the various ways in which anti-fatalist philosophers initially attempted to tackle the problem and to contextualise the comprehensive response offered in Wallace's thesis. The arguments are often technical, and one needs to learn about half a dozen basic logical symbols to follow some sections, but all of the contributors to the debate write with admirable clarity. One can easily conceive of Fate, Time, and Language being used as an undergraduate philosophy textbook.
   
Without becoming too entangled in the technicalities of the argument, the gist of the Taylor problem can be illustrated by a hypothetical example. (The dramatic scenario is Wallace's, though several others are proposed in the course of the debate.) Imagine that yesterday a terrorist smuggled a nuclear bomb onto a university campus. Today, we can determine whether or not he detonated the bomb by measuring on-campus radiation levels. If radiation levels are high, we can say that the bomb was detonated; if they are normal, the bomb was not detonated.
   
According to Taylor, when an event occurs the law of necessary conditions (which states that if all the necessary conditions for something to occur are present then it will occur) and the law of sufficient conditions (which states that if an event has occurred then sufficient conditions for that event to occur must have been present) combine with the law of the excluded middle (which states that a proposition must be either true or untrue) to force the conclusion that it was not possible for it not to occur. The same logic applies if the event fails to take place. In other words, Taylor argues that the absence of excessive radiation today allows us to claim not simply that the explosion did not happen, but that it was never within the power of the terrorist to explode his bomb.
   
This seems on an intuitive level to be clearly wrong, but establishing why is tricky within the terms of Taylor's argument. As Wallace points out, the conclusion takes no account of the distinction we make in everyday speech when we say, on the one hand, that the terrorist can't have exploded his bomb, meaning we have deduced this fact from the absence of radiation, and when we say that he couldn't explode the bomb, meaning he was somehow physically prevented from doing so. Yet Taylor's argument appears to render this distinction unimportant because its form makes it applicable to a scenario in which nothing is physically restraining the terrorist. This hampered the anti-fatalist philosophers who initially attempted to introduce the issue of possibility into the argument, because they did not come up with a coherent way to analyse alternative courses of action that could take account of Taylor's elementary assumptions.

   
The bulk of Wallace's thesis is taken up with developing just such a logical system. He builds his argument around what he calls 'situational physical modalities'. Simply stated, this refers to the way in which our possible actions are limited by physical circumstances. It is, for example, possible for me to touch the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but because I am currently in Melbourne it is not possible for me to do so in the next five minutes.
   
Such circumstantial constraints, Wallace observes, are constantly changing. And to show how it is possible to make sense of these kinds of contingencies he adapts the work of the philosophers Saul Kripke and Richard Montague into a formal system of his own. The arguments are complex, but the essence of the system can be grasped if one imagines a set of all possible worlds, one of which is the world as it exists right now. If we then conceive of a second set of possible worlds at a point in the future, it becomes possible to see (literally: there are diagrams) that some of these future worlds are accessible from the present, while others are not. The vision Wallace goes on to elaborate is of multiple but not unlimited possibilities constantly opening and closing before us as we move from one moment to the next. This not only seems closer to the way in which we actually experience the world than Taylor's fatalistic view, it ultimately allows Wallace to place the able-bodied terrorist on-campus, with a functional bomb in his possession and his finger poised over the detonating device, and give a systematic explanation of the scenario that permits him to say that, whatever happens next, it need not be considered inevitable.

What does all this have to do with Wallace's fiction? Well, on one level, not much. Beyond the fact that it is unusually well-written, the thesis gives little indication of his literary genius ⎯ hardly surprising for a work whose actual title is Richard Taylor's "Fatalism" and the Semantics of Physical Modality. It certainly proves that Wallace was talented enough to have made a career out of philosophy, but by his own admission he turned to fiction to escape the formalities of the discipline once he had ceased to find them intellectually satisfying. One could perhaps see in Wallace's hypothetical terrorist threat the germ of Infinite Jest's subplot about a cell of violent wheelchair-bound Quebecios separatists, but it's a long bow.
   
In his fine introductory essay, Cahn rightly points out that Wallace's subsequent writing was often intensely philosophical, and he makes much of the admiration for Ludwig Wittgenstein that led Wallace to base his first novel, The Broom of the System, on an extended Wittgensteinian conceit. This all well and good, but it is something of a red herring with regards to the thesis itself: Wittgenstein plays no part in Wallace's solution to the Taylor problem. And one hardly needs to understand the finer points of modal logic to grasp the import of stories as achingly brilliant as Forever Overhead and The Soul is Not a Smithy, or the stunning extract from The Pale King that was published in the New Yorker in 2007 under the title Good People.
   
To the extent that Fate, Time, and Language does have implications for Wallace's subsequent work, they are of the most general kind. It confirms what one can discern readily enough from reading his fiction ⎯ namely, that he possessed an extraordinarily precocious intellect that was both sharply analytical and preternaturally lucid. The orientation and motivation of his anti-fatalist argument, if not the technicalities and the dry scholarly tone, are also in accord with the general tenor of his later writing. As his supervisor Jay Garfield remembers in a brief essay that is included as a postscript to the thesis, Wallace approached the Taylor problem with a sense of 'righteous indignation. He was outraged that Taylor sought, and claimed to have derived, an explicitly metaphysical conclusion from purely logical or semantic premises; and he was genuinely offended by the failure of professional philosophers to have put things right.'
   
It is this observation, rather than the specifics of Wallace's response, that points to perhaps the most telling aspect of Fate, Time, and Language. At the conclusion of his thesis, Wallace challenges Taylor to make a metaphysical argument if he wants to draw a metaphysical conclusion. And it was to metaphysics that Wallace's own work subsequently turned. The line in the sand he drew between his fiction and that of his immediate literary forebears was based on his sense that the avant garde literature of the late-twentieth century had reached an impasse, that it had lost its expressive power and was in thrall to a form of self-defeating intellectual gamesmanship whose philosophical implications were ultimately hollow and solipsistic. His fiction proceeds from the assumption that we do indeed have free will, and that our basic humanity and our ability to understand and empathise with other people depends on our ability to manage this freedom successfully. Much of what he wrote was motivated by a desire to  to dramatise the burden of responsibility the freedom to choose places upon us, how easily this freedom is squandered, and the terrible consequences that follow of we allow our vanities and weaknesses to draw us into fatalistic spirals of isolating self-consciousness. He brought to this task intellectual gusto, acute sensitivity and seemingly boundless literary resources. Fate, Time, and Language does not necessarily throw direct light on the nature and extent of Wallace's literary achievement, but it does, in its limited way, suggest the truly remarkable quality of the talent that has been lost.

 David Foster Wallace, Fate, Time and Language
(Colombia University Press)

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