Sunday, March 22, 2015

When your number's up

I'm going to briefly discuss the possibility of precognition. Or, to put it more prosaically, the possibility of prophecy. 

A metaphysical objection to precognition is that if we know the future, that gives us a chance to alter or avoid the future. But in that event, what was the future we foreknew? Precognition seems to generate retrocausal paradoxes. That, however, depends on the nature of the event, the specificity of the oracle, and the incentive of the foreseer to evade the outcome. 

Let's consider some hypothetical counterexamples.

i) Suppose the oracle warns you that you will die in a freak accident. Even if you're motivated to avoid premature death, having advance knowledge that you will die in a freak accident doesn't enable you to avoid that outcome. In the nature of the case, a freak accident is hard to anticipate or prepare for. So many different incidents could constitute a freak accident. The "freakish" concurrence of independent events is so unexpected that you can't avoid stepping into the trap. The oracle doesn't even tell you what kind of freak accident will kill you. You don't know what to be on the lookout for. It will zap you before you know what hit you. 

ii) Suppose the oracle warns you that you will die of food poisoning. There are two ways you can thwart the oracle. You can stop eating. In that event you will die of starvation. You can kill yourself.

But even if, in that case, you're in a position to thwart the oracle, you have no particular incentive to do so. After all, whether or not you die of food poisoning, you're bound to die sooner or later. Evading a deadly oracle by killing yourself is no advantage in that respect. It's not like the alternative to the oracle is preservation. Rather, the only way to cheat fate is to beat it to the punch. 

In practice, you wouldn't do much of anything different. You continue to eat. At some point you will die of food poisoning, but that may be years from now. Better to make the most of your remaining time, however long that may be, than to die even sooner by your own hand. Why cut it short? You're only motivated to cheat fate of that's beneficial to you. 

When your number's up, that's that. No point expediting your demise.

iii) The oracle warns you that you will die in a traffic accident. 

a) You might try to evade that. However, there are severe tradeoffs. Avoidance will require you to racially change your lifestyle.

You will have to relocate to a log cabin in the wilderness. Live off the land. Even if you could successfully thwart the oracle by doing that, the tradedown might not be worth it to you. 

b) Moreover, that's not a sure bet. After all, you rely on transportation to get out of town. You must initially use transportation to put civilization behind you. But what if fate is lying in wait for that very opportunity? 

c) Or fate might arrange for a Cessna to crash into your log cabin. 

iv) Suppose the oracle warns you that you will be mugged at 3:15 at the intersection of Park Avenue and 5th Avenue. In principle, you can cheat fate by not being there at that particular time. 

However, the success of your plan depends on how resourceful fate is. Suppose the battery in your wristwatch dies. You glance at your watch, it says 2:30. You figure you have plenty of time walk past that alley before the mugger gets there. But in reality, it's later than you think–because your watch stopped several minutes ago. 

v) Let's toy with variations on Oedipus. Suppose, at age 18, the oracle warns you that you will accidentally kill your parents. 

a) You try to cheat fate by moving out of state. But unbeknownst to you, the couple who raised you weren't your biological parents. They kidnapped you as a baby.

b) Unbeknownst to you, the town you move to is where your biological parents live. In fact, you move to the house next-door. 

You put a container of flammable liquid under a garage window. At the time you put it there, it's shaded. But during the course of the day, it falls under direct sunlight, overheats, and explodes. Your house is engulfed in flames, which spread to the house next-door, and your parents die in a house fire.

c) Or suppose the couple who raised you were your biological parents. Everyday you phone your mother. One day she's in the kitchen, washing dishes, when the phone rings. 

Because she's in a hurry to answer the phone before you hang up, she doesn't notice a puddle of water under the sink. In her haste she slips, falls, hits her head, and dies from a subdural hematoma. Your dad comes home, discovers his dead wife, and shoots himself in grief.

You innocently set in motion a chain of events which led to the death of your parents. 

vi) These are fanciful examples. Let's take a real-life example: the life of Joseph (Gen 37-50). 

Joseph has two prophetic dreams. His brothers bitterly resent his dreams because they resent the prospect of their younger brother ruling over them. 

They therefore try to cheat fate by conspiring to kill him. After all, if he's dead, he will never be in a position to rule over them.

However, some slavetraders "just happen" to come by as they are deciding whether or not to go through with their murderous plot. They don't really want to have his blood on their hands. That was only a means to an end. They just want to have him out of their hair.

How could they anticipate the famine? How could they anticipate that a foreigner (Joseph) would someday become the CEO of Egypt? What are the odds?

Likewise, what are the odds that Pharaoh "just happens" to have two prophetic dreams at about the same time that two of his disgraced courtiers are in prison, who "just happen" to have their own prophetic dreams, who "just happen" to have Joseph as their cellmate?

As a result, word of Joseph's reputation as an oneiromantist gets back to Pharaoh. And so on and so forth. 

This plot is classically fatalistic in the sense that the evasive maneuvers of the antagonists are the very means by which the oracle comes true. They know just enough to know what will happen, but not enough to know how (when, where, by whom) it will happen. So they unwittingly make it happen in their effort to prevent it from happening. 


  1. Hello Steve,

    Semi-related to this post, there's something I've been wondering about. In the past, you've specified that with fatalism, the means don't matter. Whatever events take place, the end result is the same. So I'm wondering how this effects a passage like Rom 9:11; if God does His choosing before they could do good or bad, doesn't that remove the means from the final equation? How do we escape the charge of fatalism in a case like this?

    1. I don't think there's a uniform definition of fatalism. It seems to be used in more than one sense.

      i) Some writers use "fatalism" as a synonym for "determinism." I think that obscures rather than clarifies the concept.

      ii) In stories (e.g. Croesus, Oedipus, Final Destination), fatalism carries the connotation of a character knowing his fate, then struggling desperately and futilely to escape his fate. That's similar to the situation of Joseph's brothers, but very different from election or reprobation.

      iii) Fatalism is consistent with the freedom to do otherwise. The ill-fated individual may succeed in avoiding many of the traps set by fate. But in the end he's bound to lose because he has to get luckily every time whereas fate only has to get lucky once. If one trap fails, fate sets another trap.

      iv) In predestination, there is only one route to the destination. In addition, election ensures that certain events will occur in the life of the elect, viz. regeneration, justification (contingent on faith), sanctification.

      In fatalism, by contrast, every road, every detour, every escape route, leads to the same destination.

    2. Thanks, Steve. This gives me much to ponder. One thing that comes to mind is that the issues in defining fatalism are also problematic for people who charge calvinism with being fatalistic. Even moreso, maybe.

      I think people bring it up primarily to say that if predestination is true, then human beings are reduced to robots or zombies. But that comes with its own problems and arguments.

      I wonder if the impersonal nature of fate is also a factor. In fatalism, "fate" seems to be disinterested, impersonal. Whereas the God of the Bible is personal, sovereign. He takes an interest in His creatures and involves Himself in their affairs. It's interesting to note, too, that many consider Islam to be fatalistic and Allah is also considered impersonal.

    3. Good points. In addition, Islam has an indeterminist tradition (Mutaziltes) as well as a determinist tradition (Asharites).

    4. To express it another way: in Calvinism, an individual is never free to do other than what he was predestined to do.

      In fatalism, by contrast, the ill-fated individual wasn't predetermined to do anything in particular. Many courses of action are open to him. He is free to do otherwise.

      Fate may miss the target on many occasions, if the ill-fated individual presents a moving target.

      However, his stalling tactics merely postpone the inevitable. Fate will always win in the long-run. It's too resourceful. It never sleeps. The ill-fated individual can't keep his guard up 24/7. He has to be lucky every time whereas fate only has to be lucky once.

      Now a critic might say that Calvinism and fatalism are alike inasmuch as the final outcome unavoidable. True.

      But just two say two positions are alike in one respect isn't significant. For instance, Islam is monotheistic and Arminianism is monotheistic. Islam believes in prophets and Arminianism believes in prophets. Islam believes in a final judgment and Arminianism believes in a final judgment.

      Ironically, open theism is fatalistic. Take the popularity of the chess metaphor in open theism. God is the chess master who can beat any human player. However you play the game, God always wins. But in that event, why play at all?

      Here's Boyd, in his own words:

      To illustrate, a world class chess master may announce that she shall checkmate you in not more than 13 moves, though she isn’t certain what your moves are going to be. It’s just that because of her superior ability to think through possibilities, she sees that, whatever you choose, this much about the game is settled. In not more than 13 moves, you’re done. This is something like the situation we face with God, but infinitely intensified.

      God is the infinitely wise chess master. On top of this, God created the rules that govern the chess game we are playing. He may therefore announce a checkmate ages before we are capable of ever imagining how such a prediction could be ensured. Because we with our limited ability to anticipate possibilities cannot see how he makes such a prediction, we might be inclined to suspect that he must somehow foreknow or must have predetermined our future moves in order to make it come to pass. Indeed, we may even suspect that those who believe God doesn’t foreknow or didn’t predetermine our future moves can’t really believe he made this prediction inerrantly! If believing the infinitely wise chess master makes predictions inerrantly is a requirement for belonging to our chess club, we may even lobby to have them removed! But, I submit, all such suspicions are rooted in an anthropomorphic conception of deity. We who have finite intelligence would need to foreknow or predetermine everything about a game of chess to ensure a checkmate this far in advance, but an infinitely intelligent chess player would not.

  2. There seems to be four purposes for precognition (prophetic prediction) in Scripture:

    1. Validation of the prophet who makes the prophecy.
    2. Validation of the cannon of Scripture.
    3. Encouragement to believers.
    4. A divinely apparent means to change the beliefs and behaviors of various people by warnings of future events either actual or subjunctive.

    All are coherent purposes that trade on our epistemic needs.

    1. How do we know the prophet is from God?
    2. How do we know the Scriptures are divinely inspired and accurate?
    3. Knowing that God fulfills his promises, how do we know that our future with God is secure?
    4. Knowing that God fulfills His promises and our knowledge is limited, what should our response be when he tells us he is going to do something? (God did this with Moses when God "repented" after Moses gave the desired response, and with Nineveh when Jonah only gave them half of the subjunctive. God also did this through the prophets prior to the exile to make an effectual change in their faith during the exile as well as encourage the faithful who remained in the land.)