Sunday, December 18, 2016

Fatal snapshot

One consequence of being a celebrity is that folks are continually snapping photos of you. There are paparazzi who tail you relentlessly. There's a snapshot of James Dean tanking up at a Sherman Oaks gas station. There he is, in the prime of life, having a blast, on a warm sunny day in Southern California. A picture perfect scene. Or so it seems. 

Now, because he was a movie star, there are many snapshots of Dean. So what, if anything, makes this particular snapshot special–compared to hundreds of others? Thousands of others?  

It's a snapshot of his silver Porsche 550 Spyder. That's the car he died in. And the snapshot was taken September 30, 1955. That's the day he died, at 5:45 pm, in a fatal collision. In other words, it was taken just hours before his untimely demise. 

And that makes the snapshot ominous. The viewer knows something he doesn't. Dean has no inkling that a few hours later, he will be dead. For him, that lies in the unforeseeable future, however near in time–whereas, for the viewer, it lies in the past. We know the trajectory. We're looking back on that. We mentally begin with how it ended, and view the snapshot in light of the denouement. That snapshot, which is nothing special in prospect, takes on haunting significance in retrospect. We know that he's doomed. And it's too late to warn him. Nothing can save him. 

Now, at the moment the snapshot was taken, it wasn't fatalistic. Indeed, if any one of any number of things had happened slightly differently, he'd still be alive, vibrant, and youthful the next day–with a full life ahead of him. Had he arrived at the intersection a few moments sooner or later, they'd miss connections. Had the driver of the other car arrived at the intersection a few moments sooner or later, they'd miss connections. If one of them had a flat tire on the way, they'd miss connections. And so on and so forth. But the past is unalterable. And when we see that snapshot, with the benefit of hindsight, it has a fatalistic vibe. Not fatalistic in advance of the fact–but after the fact, nothing can be done to avert the outcome. 

Incidentally, it's edifying to consider all the near misses in our lives. In the nature of the case, we're often unaware of a near miss because it didn't happen. There's nothing to notice. In some cases we're conscious of a close call, which makes us thankful. But those must be greatly outnumbered by all the close calls that escape our notice. Had the timing or placement been even slightly different, we wouldn't be here. To make it this far, consider how many times we averted disaster by a few meters or moments. Changing just one variable five, ten, twenty, or fifty miles up the road may preempt a chain reaction. 

Now suppose that due to a temporal anomaly, when you check your mail on September 29, 1955, there's a manila envelop containing two snapshots. One snapshot shows Dean at the gas station, and the other snapshot shows the scene of the accident. It that case, is the accident a foregone conclusion? 

Hypothetically, if you knew what you were looking at, and you had a chance to forewarn the actor, the accident would still be preventable. But suppose there's no way to contact him. Is the accident a fait accompli, even though this is a day before the two scenes depicted in the snapshots? In that event, isn't the collision bound to happen?

i) This illustrates the dilemma between freedom and foreknowledge. If God knows the future, can the future turn out contrary to God's knowledge? Suppose God has, in effect, mental snapshots of Dean at the gas station as well as the crash site. 

ii) Some freewill theists might object that it's disanalogous because God doesn't have advance knowledge of the future. Rather, God is outside of time.

However, I didn't frame the question in terms of what God knew before it happened, but the sequence of events. Not God's relation to time, but relations within time. If, moreover, God has timeless mental snapshots of these two scenes, then how can events play out any differently?

To be sure, God has mental snapshots of alternate timelines. The point, though, is that he knows which one of those many timelines maps onto the real world, in contrast to all the counterfactual timelines. And if, in addition, God creates a world with a history corresponding to those mental snapshots, then how can it deviate from his mental snapshots of the past or future? 

iii) A freewill theist might object that if the future were different, then God would have different mental snapshots of the future. If the future were different, the future God knows would be a different future.

But even so, that's not what's going to happen. Only one timeline will happen. If the manila envelop had snapshots depicting a different outcome, then, of course, Dean won't die in the accident. But isn't that beside the point? The envelop doesn't have those snapshots. Rather, it has snapshots of Dean at the gas station, and the crash site. Given those snapshots (of tomorrow), how can events unfold any differently tomorrow? 

iv) Moreover, the question is whether Dean, or the other driver, or some other participant in the chain of events, has the power to change God's knowledge of the future (were they to do something different). It's not a question of our general ability to do one thing or another, but whether that's open-ended in relation to a fact about God's knowledge. This becomes a debate over the fortunes of Ockhamism. But a basic problem with Ockhamism is that it seems to stand in tension with the fixity of the past. As one philosopher put it, 

It seems to me that it is very difficult to give an account of the necessity of the past that preserves the intuition that the past has a special kind of necessity in virtue of being past, but which has the consequence that God's past beliefs do not have that kind of necessity. The problem is that God's past beliefs seem to be as good a candidate for something that is strictly past as almost anything we can think of, such as an explosion last week. If we have counterfactual power over God's past beliefs, but not the past explosion, that must be because of something special about God's past beliefs that is intuitively plausible apart from the attempt to avoid theological fatalism. If it is not independently plausible, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Ockhamist solution is ad hoc.

v) A freewill theist could take the radical step of denying the fixity the past, but if there's a conflict between the fixity of the past and counterfactual power over the past, what gives? Which principle is more plausible and fundamental? When push comes to shove, I think it's arguably the case that the fixity of the past takes precedence. For some detailed analysis:

vi) Another question is whether timeless beliefs are analogous to the past. If even the past is necessary, albeit "accidentally" so, despite the fact that time is continent, then a fortiori, timeless states should be at least as necessary, if not more so. What's timelessness is inherently immutable, whereas temporal events only become immutable when they lie in the past. 

vii) A friend of my noted that a freewill theist might parry the argument by shifting to the question of what grounds God's beliefs, what they metaphysically "depend" on. If they are grounded in the creature's free action, that is if they metaphysically depend on the creature, then this is enough for libertarian freedom (it's argued). So even if we can't do otherwise given God's infallible beliefs, so long as it's us who ground his belief, that's enough for libertarian freedom.

That move concedes that libertarian freedom is inconsistent with God's knowledge of the future if freedom is defined as liberty to do otherwise in the same situation. So the argument is successful against libertarian freedom in that sense. 

If so, the issue shifts to the philosophical prospects for libertarian freedom defined by ultimate sourcehood. That requires different arguments and counterarguments. 

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