I know David Foster Wallace was a brilliant writer, but I’ve never been able to enjoy his ponderous novels. So I looked forward to the posthumous publication of Fate, Time and Language: An Essay on Free Will, a paper he wrote to earn his philosophy degree at Amherst College in the early 1980s. I was especially excited to read this work because I was also a philosophy student in the 1980s. I figured I’d be able to relate to this work more than I ever could to his fiction.
Fate, Time and Language is getting a lot of attention, partly because it’s the first book release from the acclaimed postmodernist’s archives since his inexplicable suicide (another book, a novel called The Pale King, will come out in April, 2011). Because it’s a philosophy text addressing the question of free will, there is an implicit hope that the book may explain something about Wallace’s work, or perhaps even illuminate the tragic thought process that led him to kill himself. It’s also being floated as a serious work of contemporary philosophy, even a groundbreaking one.
I think Fate, Time and Language will have a lot of sentimental value to DFW fans, and is also valuable as an earnest, carefully composed demonstration of philosophical argument, or dialectic. However, I’m sorry to say there’s nothing groundbreaking about this essay. It’s thoroughly the work of a smart student. While I don’t disagree with Columbia University Press’s decision to publish it, I do find it hard to believe that Wallace, if he were alive today, would be particularly proud of it, except as a relic from his past. And I don’t think it does readers a service for anyone to hype the book as an actual advancement in its field.
The purpose of the essay is to refute a well-known argument in support of fatalism (and therefore against the notion of free will) published by an established philosopher, Richard Taylor, in 1962. Taylor’s logic is usefully summarized in an introduction to Fate, Time and Language written by James Ryerson:
Like the doctrine of determinism, its better-known metaphysical cousin, fatalism holds that it is not in our doctrine to do anything other than what we actually end up doing. Unlike determinism, fatalism does not proceed by contemplating the causal mechanics of the universe — the implications for human freedom of Newtonian physics or thermodynamics or quantum mechanics. Instead, the fatalist argues that his doctrine can be established by mere reflection on the logic of propositions about the future. If I fire my handgun, one second from now its barrel will be hot; if I do not fire, one second from now the barrel will not be hot; but the proposition “one second from now the barrel will be hot” is right now either true or false. If the proposition is true, then it is the case that I will fire the gun; if it’s false, then it is the case that I won’t. Either way, it’s the state of affairs in the future that dictates what I will or won’t do now.
This is the weak argument that David Foster Wallace’s essay grapples with. Wallace breaks down the logical components that support the conclusion, and analyzes the subtly different senses of time and causality behind Taylor’s paradox:
Consider the following two instances of what we’ll assume to be valid, non-logical, physical implications:
III-1) (I give order O -> Sea-battle B tomorrow)
III-2) (Combustion -> Presence of fuel)
In both these instances, the antecedents are “sufficient” for the consequents, and, more important, the consequents are “necessary” for the antecedents. Yet we should very quickly be able to see significant differences between the internal relations in the two entailments. We can see that, in (III-1), battle B is a necessary consequence of order O. But would we want to say, with regard to (III-2), that the presence of fuel is a necessary “consequence of” combustion? Not really: it would be more natural and sensible to say instead that it is necessary
forcombustion. In (III-1), the antecedent brings about, causes, gives rise to the consequent. In (III-2), though, the fire does not “bring about” the presence of fuel; it looks rather as though the presence of fuel was one of the things that actually brought about the fire (fuel together with, say, sufficient local temperature, the presence of a conductive atmosphere, the absence of local flame-retarding agents, etc.). We may, it appears, legitimately say that the consequent in (III-1) is an instance of a condition that is “necessary-of,” and that the consequent in (III-2) is an instance of a condition that is “necessary-for”.
Wallace is certainly correct to refute Taylor’s argument, which calls to mind an ancient puzzle known as Zeno’s Paradox that “proved” motion to be impossible. But, like Zeno’s paradox, Richard Taylor’s argument had very little force to begin with. The important question isn’t whether or not Zeno’s or Taylor’s conclusions are correct; we know that objects can move, and we know that the future does not control the past. The better question we can ask with regard to either paradox is what words we can use to explain them away.
This is why I’m disappointed in David Foster Wallace’s essay — not because it’s wrong (rather, it’s entirely correct) but because its ambition is misplaced. In this essay, David Foster Wallace swats a logical fly to death. It’s pleasant enough to watch him doing so, and readers who haven’t been exposed to philosophical dialectic will learn something from the process. Wallace is quoted admiring the “click” of symbolic logic in the book’s introduction, and he’s right that this “click” carries with it an aesthetic feeling of joy.
But the idea, suggested by the book’s introduction and supplementary material, that Wallace’s essay accomplishes something other philosophers have not been able to do, cannot be taken seriously. Other academic philosophers have also refuted Richard Taylor’s argument. More meaningfully, two major modern thinkers who predate Richard Taylor had already kicked the Free Will Problem into oblivion decades before Wallace wrote this piece.
I’m speaking, as I admit I so very often do, of William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Compare David Foster Wallace’s turbid formulas with James’s modest but powerful declaration a hundred years earlier: “My first act of free will is to believe in free will”.
Too simple? But, really, all the greatest philosophers have written simply and from the heart. It’s a current myth, and not a very helpful one, that a good philosophy book should read like a calculus textbook.
Wittgenstein, meanwhile, showed us that logical difficulties found in language do not prevent us from thinking clearly. The fact that we cannot pin down exactly why a paradox is a paradox does not mean that the paradox is important. Wittgenstein’s response to Richard Taylor’s argument that we do not have free will because statements about the future are either true or false today would be a primal one: “you are playing with words”. There are more important things for philosophers to do than attempt to trap each other with oddities and amusements based on varying definitions of terms involving time and causality. Instead, the purpose of philosophy is to help us discuss how we should live, what it means to exist, what we do when we think, how we can better relate to and understand each other.
Since the attitudes expressed by William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein towards questions like the free will problem are widely accepted among philosophers today, Richard Taylor’s and David Foster Wallace’s attempts to resurrect the free will problem as a serious philosophical concern are really acts of nostalgia, like singing in a barbershop quartet or taking photos with Polaroid film. Anybody who still worries about whether or not human beings have free will after reading James and Wittgenstein, in my opinion, has missed the bus.
I don’t know how David Foster Wallace felt about the work of William James, but no essay of this kind can avoid Wittgenstein’s looming presence, and there is a significant passage in James Ryerson’s introduction to Fate, Time and Language where he deals with Wittgenstein directly. Here he exposes a surprising new angle on Fate, Time and Language, an angle that recalls the expose of paternal tension and Oedipal rebellion in Jacob Weisberg’s The Bush Tragedy:
… [David Foster Wallace] found Philosophical Investigations, the crowning statement of [Ludwig Wittgenstein’s] late philosophy, to be “silly”.
As Wallace would later admit, his intellectual leanings in these years may have been influenced by a wish to differentiate himself from his father. James Wallace received his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1963 from Cornell University, writing his dissertation (on the topic of pleasure) under the direction of Norman Malcolm, a close friend and disciple of Wittgenstein’s. James Wallace, like Malcolm, was an admirer of Wittgenstein’s late work, and less receptive to the kind of philosophy that David would come to embrace. “I am not interested in logic, et cetera,” James Wallace explained to me.
This adds a lot of helpful perspective, and the perspective doesn’t help David Foster Wallace’s case at all. Certainly we do not all have to worship Wittgenstein, but we ignore him at the risk of our own reputations. David Foster Wallace found Wittgenstein’s late work “silly”? This is, I’m sorry to say, the philosophical equivalent of creationism. David Foster Wallace was apparently an unabashed Rationalist, a proud throwback to philosophy’s quaint past. It’s certainly likely that a desire to differentiate himself from his father must have motivated him in taking this archaic position. I can’t think of any other explanation.
I’m glad Fate, Time and Language was published, because it’s an impressive exercise in symbolic logic and may turn many of Wallace’s enthusiastic readers on to a new way of thinking. But is it in any way a meaningful or innovative work of modern philosophy? Not even close. I bet Wallace would have written a much better essay later in his life.
Does the posthumous publication help in any way to illuminate David Foster Wallace’s trajectory in life? Maybe, but not because it clears up the free will problem. I’m afraid the main takeaway here is this: whatever could have made David Foster Wallace decide that life was worth living, he didn’t find it at Amherst College in the 1980s.