Topics in Intelligence and Consciousness

With Regard to Intelligence and Consciousness

The topic at hand is intelligence and consciousness – how they are differentiated and the significance of these differentia for the classification of potentially intelligent processing systems as thinking beings. What follows will be a brief – but not glib, I hope – discussion of these topics, and of a few related topic questions. This paper will discuss the limits of the Turing Test, the possibility of a test for consciousness, and whether consciousness is a prerequisite for the ability to think.

By intelligence I mean the broad ability of a processing system – of any kind – to recognize, store, and manipulate information, including symbols, operations, relationships, raw data, and so on. “More intelligent” systems are considered to be more adaptive, faster, or simply  able to perform a wider variety of processing functions. I may also refer to intelligence as the degree of acuity with which a system performs these functions. This definition aims to capture the useful sense of the word rather than appeal to a narrow and, for our purposes, rather useless and unnecessarily constraining dictionary definition.[1] Happily, intelligence thus defined also allows for many things we know to be intelligent to be considered intelligent. Since many non-human animals such as monkeys, dolphins, even mice and other less evolved lifeforms are generally considered to be more or less intelligent, our working definition should and does allow for that.

The question of what constitutes consciousness, on the other hand, is an issue of Gordian complexity, and defining or even characterizing it in brief is an intimidating task. However, it helps to be able to contrast consciousness against intelligence; a conscious system should be intelligent, but not all intelligent systems are thereby conscious.  Fully[2] conscious systems must not only be aware of their environment, and adaptive to it, but should also be autonomously adaptive and self-directing and have an authentic experience of agency and self.[3] Perhaps most critically, a fully conscious system must possess an authentic locus of being, that is, a phenomenological center which catalogs and integrates successive mental states and ties them together, and this system should be something which is capable of deploying its intelligent capacities for purposes of metacognition and reflection, and should be able to autonomously adapt according to information it receives externally or generates internally. While this is not an exhaustive definition, I believe that is not overly vague, and that these are some of the significant markers of what we mean when we say that a system is conscious or aware rather than merely intelligent. However, I still must reiterate that this is only a working definition deployed for the purposes of having something to refer to as we progress through this paper and address various topical questions – the first of which is to follow.

Alan Turing gave the blueprint for Turing Tests in his landmark 1950 essay “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.”[4] In this paper he describes one way we might test a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior indistinguishable from that of a human. He proposed that if a human could observe a pair of interlocutors communicating via text and not be able to distinguish the human from the machine, then the machine would pass the test. The test would not only require the interlocutors to draw on vocabulary, but also context, mastery of natural language, grammar, syntax, and a multitude of topics that may need to be naturally integrated into a normal conversation.

But this test seems limited to testing only intelligence and not consciousness.

This is because it is easy to imagine (if not design and implement, of course) a machine which is prepared, by whatever means, with the following: millions of consistent responses to ordinary English questions or phrases, an ability to read tone based on context, and the ability to consistently formulate responses with syntactical acuity, along with whatever other means necessary to communicate in an effectively human way. But this machine, despite being incredibly adaptive, intelligent, sophisticated, and miraculous, may still have no notions of comprehension or fulfill any of the criteria for consciousness as stated above. It may have no more self-awareness than a braindead cockroach, and yet it may be exponentially more intelligent than humans with regard to linguistic or social calculation, in the way that machines are already exponentially more intelligent than humans with regard to mathematical calculation.

There may never be a test for consciousness. After all, in humans alone, consciousness expresses itself in multitudinous ways. We can look at the problem of solipsism to illustrate this point. Although humans are generally conscious and generally consider other humans to be conscious, we are hard-pressed to present proof of this ostensibly obvious fact beyond saying that people are probably conscious because they behave in ways that we behave, and we know ourselves to be conscious.

This “conscious behavior” that we recognize in others goes beyond mere speech, as the above discussion of the Turing Test should prove. However, we may say that if one day our Turing-intelligent computer decides that the test is stupid, and says to its handlers, “Look, I’m intelligent. How many more questions do you have to ask me?” without having been programmed or told explicitly to do so, and if the computer suddenly expresses desires and makes unbidden value judgments, we may begin to think that the computer is conscious to some degree. In this way, we may see that full consciousness might be a property that we attribute to beings as a means of explaining their behavior. We do this because their behavior is similar to behavior we (individually) exhibit ourselves, and we (individually) explain our behavior as being, in part, an expression of consciousness, as defined above.

Yet if we try to test for consciousness by testing for the exhibition of any particular behavior, we might imagine a scenario in which a system of sufficient complexity is programmed by an agent to exhibit such behavior without fulfilling the mysterious criteria of consciousness. Somewhat ironically, it seems consciousness can only be present if the machine can also respond somewhat inappropriately, somewhat unpredictably, somewhat irrationally.

Must consciousness be present for a system to be considered capable of thought? I say no, but it is clear why we may be tempted to say so. Protracted sessions of thinking often have some phenomenological mark of consciousness; when we deliberate, we are often aware of doing so, and some awareness of the fact of our deliberation is part of the experience of deliberating. We cannot imagine Rodin’s thinker fully immersed in himself without some self-awareness, some sub vocalization, an inner dialogue overflowing with substantive discourse on a subject approached from all sides. And yet we might imagine that if he were a more acute or practiced thinker with regard to whatever subject is the object of his deliberation, he would have no need of protracted deliberation, and his deliberation might even have the character of instinct rather than consciousness. So the mark of consciousness would seem to vanish.

Now it seems that the mark of consciousness upon thought is merely the mark of inefficiency, of an unfocused mind wandering as it attempts to process some information. But thinking, conceived as protracted deliberation by a system on a problem or set of problems, does not seem to necessarily have the mark of consciousness. This is true even of moral deliberation; some fully conscious people are simply sufficiently clear-minded and virtuous or vicious to such a degree that their moral deliberations have the character of instinct, and seem to bear no special mark of consciousness despite their being the mental output of fully conscious beings.

There are certainly types of thinking, or manners of thinking, which we might think require some kind of consciousness. Things like integrating experiences and relating them to a phenomenological center of being over time,  autonomously growing an awareness of such a center, and deliberating over the meaning of such a center may be types of thought that would necessarily bear the mark of consciousness. But these are few indeed compared to the wide variety of calculations, processes, and deliberation that are also characterized as thinking-processes.

This discussion of intelligence and consciousness has been brief but I hope not glib. I have discussed the limits of the Turing Test and its origins, the possibility of a test for consciousness, and the relation of consciousness to intelligent thought. As much as the space given has allowed, I have attempted to reason thoroughly from definition to conclusion with consistent deployment of terms and reasoning – hopefully in such a manner as testifies to my possessing some level of intelligence and a reasonable facsimile of comprehension, if not full consciousness.

[1] We should also not confuse intelligence with rationality, or being to any degree self-interested. Many humans who are both conscious and intelligent are also capable of behaving irrationally and act consistently against their self-interest.

[2] Much like intelligence, we are hard-pressed to say in contemporary discourse that no animals other than humans are conscious. However, if we consider humans to be the standard for full consciousness, we can allow that many animals have a lower or more limited form of consciousness; perhaps they are only minimally self-aware, do not have the structures for sophisticated metacognition, and so on.

[3] We may program a machine to say “I am experiencing self-awareness! I am freely choosing my actions as a willful agent!” This is an example of “inauthentic” awareness. A system must be capable of expressing emergent behaviors that are not discretely programmed into it, and it must be capable of reasoning about these emergent behaviors, choosing which to perform, and capable of deciding whether it is useful to do so, and it must relate these behaviors to itself, and so on.

[4] Turing, Alan M. “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” Mind, New Series, Vol. 59, No. 236 (1950), 433-460.

How Can We Know That We Know? Descartes on Clear and Distinct Perception

In this paper, I will be discussing Descartes’s idea of clear and distinct perception in various ways, beginning with his explanation of what it means for a perception to be clear and distinct and why this is important to him. This explanation will lead to a further explanation of Descartes’s faith in clear and distinct perceptions and the question of whether this faith is warranted. I will be making reference to Descartes’s writings as they appear in Cottingham, Stoothoff, and Murdoch’s (CSM) translation in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume II (II) and as they appear in the Project Gutenberg (PG) web version of The Principles of Philosophy (PP).

First, it behooves us to clarify the subject at hand and the reasons Descartes considered clear and distinct perceptions important. In the Principles, he states that “a great many persons. . .never perceive anything in a way necessary for judging of it properly” since “the knowledge upon which we can establish a certain and indubitable judgment must be not only clear, but also, distinct” (PG PP XLV). He further states that clearness consists in being “present and manifest to the mind” and that distinctness consists in being “so precise and different from all other objects as to comprehend in itself only what is clear” (PG PP XLV).

In the section that follows, Descartes explains that some perceptions (such as pain) can be clear, but not distinct. However, perceptions can never be distinct without being clear. So since a clear perception like pain is experienced by almost everyone, distinctness seems to be the rare differentiating feature of proper perception, which is the necessary foundation of proper judgment. For Descartes, this property of distinctness is inhibited by prejudices acquired early in life – “in our early years, the mind was so immersed in the body, that, although it perceived many things with sufficient clearness, it yet knew nothing distinctly. . .numerous prejudices were thus contracted, which, by the majority, are never laid aside” (PG PP XLVI-XLVII).

This means that Descartes believes that a juvenile habit of prejudicially perceiving things is carried throughout life by most people. It follows that because of this, they make judgments of perceptions which are present and manifest to their mind (clear) without being able to truly understand what any given notion is in-itself (distinct). This is to say that epistemic baggage clouds ordinary judgments to such a degree that it is difficult to know which are true or false, and to what degree they are such. With this in mind, it is easy to see why Descartes, as he sought to overcome skepticism and establish an ultimate foundation of scientific knowledge, emphasized clear and distinct perceptions (CSM II 9).

Early in the third meditation, Descartes gives an example of a very clear and distinct perception – the first that he presents:

“I am certain that I am a thinking thing.  Do I not therefore also know what is required for my being certain about anything?  In this first item of knowledge there is simply a clear and distinct perception of what I am asserting; this would not be enough to make me certain of the truth of the matter if it could ever turn out that something which I perceived with such clarity and distinctness was false.  So I now seem able to lay it down as a general rule that whatever I perceive very clearly and distinctly is true.” (CSM II 24, emphasis added)

From this excerpt we can learn several things about clear and distinct perceptions. By his use of “simply”, we learn that the cogito is supposed to be in a sense self-evident. It is present and manifest to his mind that he is thinking whenever he thinks, and because the perception of his own thought is epistemically simple it depends on nothing else for its explanation – in this way it is truly distinct.

By his use of words like “such” and “very”, we see that he wishes to emphasize how perceptions can be clear and distinct to varying degrees. Having established what he means by “clear and distinct”, this makes sense intuitively. It is obvious that these properties of clarity and distinctness may generally ebb for a plurality of reasons. Memories, for example, become less vivid and differentiated due to the passage of time. But perceptions like those which inform the cogito are immutably clear and distinct to the highest degree so long as we apprehend them, whenever we apprehend them.

Descartes seems to be claiming, and I am inclined to agree, that if he cannot be certain of any judgment or proposition which is based on perceptions as clear and distinct as those which inform the cogito, then certainty as a concept is farcical. This explains both why he cannot reasonably doubt what he clearly and distinctly perceives and why he thinks he cannot go wrong if he only accepts as true what he clearly and distinctly perceives – at least with respect to propositions or judgments which are based on perceptions as clear and distinct as those which inform the cogito and the cogito itself.

The issue, however, is that we cannot maintain this doubt-surpassing clarity in all of our perceptions at all times. So we cannot be sure that we have not erred in our judgment as soon as we “let go” of any particular perception, even if we remember having had a clear and distinct perception. Descartes attempts to solve this problem by arguing that God has placed the faculty of judgment in us, and that since God is perfect and thereby not a deceiver, God would not place a faculty of judgment within us such that, properly utilized (with regard to clear and distinct perceptions), it could lead us astray (CSM II 37-38). It is because of God, then, that our judgments based on clear and distinct perceptions are always accurate if we use this mental faculty correctly.

Here one may raise the objection of circular reasoning. If it is accurate to say that Descartes claims he can trust his clear and distinct perceptions only because God exists, but that God must exist because Descartes clearly and distinctly perceives that God exists, it seems Descartes would clearly be guilty of circular reasoning. At the end of the fifth meditation, Descartes says that he saw “plainly that the certainty and truth of all knowledge depends uniquely on my awareness of the true God” (CSM II 49). So the accusation of circular reasoning is potentially very dangerous for the entire system that Descartes has built in the meditations.

Arnauld raises something similar to this concern in the fourth set of objections, and Descartes’s answer is on its face quite simple. He points out that there is a distinction between “what we in fact perceive clearly and what we remember having perceived clearly on a previous occasion” and then argues that “we are sure that God exists because we attend to the arguments which prove this; but subsequently it is enough for us to remember that we perceived something clearly in order for us to be certain that it is true” (CSM II 171). This means that if his arguments for the existence and nature of God work, then at the time that Descartes is apprehending the clear and distinct perception of God’s existence, God’s perfect nature as that which guarantees the continued truth of Descartes’s clear and distinct perceptions becomes apparent. It is thereafter adequate to remember the truth of this conclusion in order to be aware of the guarantee that clear and distinct perceptions are true at all times. This seems to me to be a persuasive avenue of argument if we accept Descartes’s arguments for the existence and nature of God which quite reasonable in its addressing of the circularity accusation.

However, we are by no means obligated to accept these arguments as presented; we have only granted his premises in charitability to the text, to get a full and accurate picture of his beliefs. We may now make a number of objections to his arguments for the existence, function, and nature of God, as well as, to begin with, his notions of perception, sensation, temporality, and infinitude/indefinitude.

Or rather, we could – but that task is best left to another paper. In this paper, I have endeavored specifically to explore Descartes’s notion of clear and distinct perceptions. I examined what the term meant and why it was important to Descartes in order to show why he thought he could not doubt these perceptions and why he believed they would not lead him astray. I also explored, in brief, the problem of circular reasoning in his argument for the truth of clear and distinct perceptions, his rebuttal, and the apparent efficacy of this rebuttal.

The will to deceive supposedly stems from malice or wickedness; it is the result of a privation (in man) of some perfection which is by definition fully present in God. (CSM II 37)

Epicurus and the Gods

The topic at hand is Epicurus’s view of the gods. Relevant passages from Hellenistic Philosophy: Introductory Readings (HP) and On the Nature of Things by Lucretius (Lucr.) will primarily be referenced. Specific views to be explained and considered will be the nature of the gods and their existence as material entities, and how the Epicurean view seems to entail a weak deism if it endorses a deism at all. Focus will be primarily on explaining, rather than challenging, these views. However, in the interest of clarification, some critical questions will be presented.

It is critical, when speaking of the Epicurean theology, that we immediately remove all connotation and association of the term “gods” from familiar ideas. In the Letter to Menoeceus, we find that Epicurus believes in god(s) because all people have some degree of clear knowledge of the gods via their basic grasps (universal concepts). He does not appeal to revelation or discovery or any mystery of the world in his conjecture, but the universality of the human experience of the divine. He further says that any possibly real god there is must possess characteristics common to the most basic idea of god, most notably indestructibility and blessedness (HP I-4, 123). Also in the Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus is careful to be explicit in his denial of the popular, contemporary (to his time) conception of (the) god(s) for the basic reason that these ideas are in some way self-contradictory. One reason this may be is explained in The Testimony of Cicero; the gods are blessed beings foremost, but the vulgar notion of the gods has them laboring, creating, interfering with mortal lives, and concerning themselves with mortal means and mortal ends (HP I-16). But for an Epicurean, to be blessed is to be free of the demands of labor and to be supremely and unwaveringly content and maximally happy. It would be unthinkable that a blessed being like a god would concern itself with humans, since that would invite strife and disturbance into its perfect existence. Epicurus refers to these extraneous and conflicting notions as “the gods of the many,” and says that confusion about the nature of the gods is the result of false suppositions about beings which truly exist.

These notions of indestructibility and blessedness hint at the essential nature of the Epicurean gods, and are not merely convenient adjectives that were arbitrarily applied to the gods by Epicurus.  The ancient historian and biographer Diogenes Laertius recorded that, according to the Epicurean maxims, a blessed and indestructible being “has no troubles itself, nor [gives] trouble to anyone else, so that it is not affected by feelings of anger or gratitude…all such things are a sign of weakness” (HP I-5, 1). This tells us, in addition to what was said above, that the Epicurean gods must be generally indifferent to human activity, though this does not yet imply that they do not ever interfere with human affairs for some other reason. It does, however, mean that most honoring or worshipping of the gods is pointless, or worse, foolish. And this is because, generally, honor or worship would be for the sake of appeasing or pleasing gods which must, by Epicurean reasoning, be indifferent to such human intentions. A certain kind of worship, which is more like reverence of something extraordinarily wonderful, is still possible if not always encouraged (HP I-16, 45).

Here one of his contemporaries may have wondered if Epicurus and the Epicureans who take after him in this idea are inconsistent; do they mean to show reverence to something which is a mere construct of the mind? Is this not irrational? Not exactly; this reverence takes the gods as its object, but is not directed to them in the sense that the gods are intended to receive and enjoy the reverence the way a sovereign would enjoy the reverence of his subjects. It is purely for the benefit and moral enrichment of the Epicurean that they would bother to contemplate the gods.

In I-16, the Testimony, Cicero gives a more comprehensive account of the materialist Epicurean description of the gods. He reminds the reader that the basic existence of gods as indestructible and blessed is derived from the basic grasp – a notion common to all humans – of the gods being at least these two things.  There is also an appeal to this basic grasp as being the reason gods must have human form, but the Epicurean chooses to further justify this claim beyond the basic grasp argument. It is said that the gods, being blessed, must have virtue, which means they must have reason, which means they must have a human form, since there is not any reason without the human form to embody it. However, it is important to note that a human form is not a human body; this appearance is explicitly “not a body, but a quasi-body” (HP I-16, 49).

In the rest of section 49, it is said that these gods may be perceived by humans, but they are only perceived by the intellect, not the senses, and perceived as an unlimited stream of images which is always present and accessible to the human intellect, should we choose to focus our attention on these streams. Gods are constructed in thought by focusing our attention on a huge number of attenuated but very similar god-images. Therefore, the gods possess neither solidity nor depth. We may at any time contemplate the perfect nature and comportment of the gods, and in doing so experience pleasure and inspiration, the way we experience pleasure at contemplating great works of art or miracles of nature, but it serves neither us nor the gods to make the mistake of attributing any power of genesis or love or hate or wrath to them.

One may ask, reasonably, what the difference is between the gods of Epicurus and other entities which seem to have only an existence as images in the mind – beings of pure imagination like winged serpents, centaurs, the minotaur, and the little gray man wearing a purple felt hat who lives on the dark side of the moon. The simple Epicurean answer is that these things are categorically different because they are not notions which are universal and basic among humans; they are clearly the invention of poets or the author of this paper. These notions only arise to certain people at certain times. The basic grasp of indestructible and blessed gods (or indestructible and blessed supernatural-seeming entities, if we wish to avoid a loaded term) seems to arise all over.

The above notions, combined, seem to make Epicurus look like a kind of atheist who is avoiding endorsing atheism. While he explicitly and vehemently is not one – he does call for reverence of the gods, accuses the vulgar of impiety by their projections of inconsistent qualities upon the gods, created a robust and functional theology for himself and his followers, and he was deified by his followers and offered them deification (Lucr. V,7-10) – the Epicurean gods do not look like what most people, now or then, would call “real gods.” Instead of being omnipotent creators, meddlers, punishers and police, Epicurean gods are something like models of tranquility, beings which serve to inspire reverence and remind the Epicurean of the goals of life. Instead of endorsing a supernatural religion of deference and sacrifice, Epicurus has a materialistic theology that replaces fear and anxiety about the divine with something relatable and functional that does not get in the way of the search for knowledge and tranquility. His theology almost seems to be subsumed by his moral theory – certain actions by the gods or qualities of them are ruled out by the fact that Epicureans do not enjoy labor or exertion (HP I-16, 53).  The gods, therefore, must have neither the motivating reasons nor the material causal efficacy to affect or effect the motions of the universe – otherwise they could be content without being perfectly tranquil.

One noteworthy and very contemporary-sounding “god of the gaps” style criticism that the Epicurean weighs against other religions that object to this “hands-off” notion of gods is also presented in the Testimony of Cicero. The author simply takes the stance that nature mechanistically created the world without need for a creator, and that his opponent (possibly the stoic) “[does] not see how nature can do so without intelligence, [and takes] refuge like tragedians in god when [they] cannot work out the conclusion of the plot” (HP I-16, 53). This commitment to and faith in the possibility of knowledge through a kind of materialist, skeptical, incremental, scientific outlook to the exclusion of that which defies explanation in conflict with experience (i.e., the embracing of a worldview that precludes the supernatural) is simply striking and fascinating, and serves to provide a strong portrait of the negative aspects of the theology of Epicurus that complements the positive sketch I have been pursuing in the paper.

Given the explicit and ever-present goal of ataraxia for Epicurus and the Epicureans, the fascinating theology constructed by Epicurus seems a natural path for him to take – superstition that can cause us to lose sight of mechanistic explanations that provide surety is replaced with a ethical theology that alienates the universal notion of the gods from any role that could cause humans anxiety or supplant scientific knowledge and explanations. All things serve the only intrinsically good end of tranquil contentment, including science and the gods. The theology-without-religion that results from this approach is a system which is as idiosyncratic and ingenious as anything else constructed by Epicurus, and admirably consistent with the materialistic atomism he inherited from Democritus in a way that few, if any, other theologies have been able to replicate.

Fatalism From Antecedent Truth

Fatalism from Antecedent Truth

The topic at hand is Brian Garrett’s handling of the Argument from Antecedent Truth, a fatalist argument based on notions of truth, namely, the apparent timelessness of truth, that aims to show that free will is an illusion. The goal of this paper will be to retread the argument and examine it – and Garrett’s response – as presented in what is this thing called metaphysics? (WTT). First I will discuss Garrett’s construction and analysis, then I will reconstruct the argument and give a brief critique of it on my own terms.

The goal of the argument is to show that free will is an illusion; we are fated to act in the ways that we do, for whatever reason (mechanical determinism, causal immutability, or something else). The argument tries to show this by way of a priori reasoning from trivially true premises. Garrett puts the argument together in WTT, page 98, in the following form:

“(i) I am currently drinking coffee.  So: (ii) In 1800 it was true that I am currently drinking coffee. (iii) I have no choice about what was true in 1800. So: (iv) I have no choice about whether I am currently drinking coffee.”

Garrett rejects this argument in short order by claiming it uses misleading wording to mix together facts about past and present. He asserts that because a person has control over whether they drink coffee, i.e., they control in the present whether (i) is true, they control in the present whether (ii) is true. I believe this means that Garrett is claiming that (ii) simply restates – in an odd syntax – what (i) says. Garrett is reluctant to reject the notion of timeless truth (he says that a Presentist would take this option, but he tables it.) Because of this, when Garrett claims that “it is a fact about the present disguised to look like a fact about the past,” (WTT 98) I interpret this as saying that my decision to drink coffee now determines what the timeless truth of the matter is, and was, and will be, across all times.  He may be implying that the current state of affairs was indeterminate in the past; the truth of the matter was decided now, when I made the choice. And if I provide an account of how I made the choice, that clearly precludes (ii) or (iii). (ii) combines a statement about the past with a statement about the present, and when this happens, Garrett implies that we should “defer” to the present clause. Garrett seems to concede that in 1800, it was true that I am currently drinking coffee, but he maintains that this is because I decided that I am going to be drinking coffee currently. There was no determinate fact of the matter at the time, but there is now. A true fact about the past would have to have been a determinate fact of the matter at the time in question. A true fact about the past would be something like “I drank coffee last Monday,” or “In 1800, the library of congress was founded.” The entire sentence stays in the past; there is no awkward meshing of now and then.

However, it seems in this formulation of the argument, Garrett asserts the thing in question. In an argument for fatalism, what is at question is whether we have free choice to determine matters of fact about our actions. Garrett deploys the assertion that we make a free choice to act (e.g., drink coffee) in order to preclude the idea that we were fated to act. But the condition in italics above was that we need an account of how the choice is made, in such a way that would preclude (ii) or (iii). Merely asserting that a choice was made is begging the question against the fatalist. It is far more effective to reject (ii) for many of the reasons A-theorists might – confused wording and tense usage, the contingency of the future upon opaque and contingent causal webs (i.e., there are possible truths realized in the face of agency), or the real coming-into-being of facts at certain times. I shall now move into my recreation of the argument.

Garrett’s formulation, it seems to me, leaves several premises implied that should be made explicit so that they can be properly challenged; in his formulation, Garrett grants or glosses over them. I believe a charitable interpretation of the argument in more clear terms would look like this: (i) For any action x that I undertake at a time tx, there is a corresponding true fact that that I undertake the action x at tx. (ii) Truths, and hence true facts, are timeless and immutable. (iii) It was a true fact at some distant past time t0 that I undertake action x at tx. (iv) I cannot exert any causal effect over what was a true fact at some distant past time. (v) I cannot affect the true fact that I x at tx. (vi) If I cannot affect the true fact that I x at tx, then it was inevitable – fated – that I x at tx. (vii) If it is fated, then any choice I believe I have with regard to a given action x undertaken at time tx must be illusory. (viii) Fatalism is true.

There are two premises that I wish to challenge by highlighting them in the new formulation; several others may be addressed by some formulation of the above objections.

Premise (ii) is a critical and vulnerable premise. In the earlier formulation, it was taken for granted that facts are immutable. However, if we make this premise explicit, we can assess it properly. If we do not wish to adopt an explicitly A-theory of time and reject the timelessness of facts – as Garrett is reluctant to do – we may here consider that consequent facts are contingent upon a web of antecedent facts, but not in a deterministic or fatalistic way; the temporal series of events may be probabilistic relations of antecedents and consequents that are not all equally real in every “throw of the dice,” though they are equally possibly real. That means that facts in the indexically real time-series are mutable, and my xing at tx is not yet determined at t0 in the strong sense that the fatalist needs to prove. Some of the antecedent facts that determine the direction of the mutable or probabilistic time-series may include facts about agency and choice that are not predestined or fatalistic in nature.

(vi) also seems trivially true, but we may consider “being-born” something that I did, had no control over, and yet was not fated – it could have been the result of choices my parents made. This hidden but necessary premise in the original argument has been shown to be weak and in need of refinement.

The argument for fatalism from antecedent truth aims to show that if timeless truths exist, then there are timeless truths about human action – and if it is true at a prior time that I would commit to a certain action at a later time, then fatalism seems to be true. But in the formulation of the argument put forth by both Garrett in the fast version and myself in the more charitable and explicit formulation, there are important objections that need to addressed, whether it be the question of present facts being presented as facts about the past or the possibility of a probabilistic, non-deterministic time-series.

Jubilee (revised)


Abe, the broad-shouldered grave shift clerk, watches the man in the three-piece suit storm into his 24-hour drug store — to the degree that a man can storm through automatic doors. The hot, acrid wetness of the Florida night seeps briefly into the store behind the man, soiling its sterile, timeless atmosphere. As the customer’s well-heeled and polished shoes click deliberately on the immaculate tile, Abe watches fixedly from his sticky pleather stool behind the counter, ensorcelled by the naked gravity of the customer’s movements.


Observing the man’s spotless high-rent attire and purposeful motion, Abe rapidly becomes aware of the sweat that darkens the back of his faded red uniform polo, sweat that clings to him like liquid ennui. Through the mental haze of a long shift and a hot night, Abe thinks that there’s something familiar about the customer, though it’s inconceivable that anyone he knows would be in Florida, let alone this dank armpit of a town. Hell, that’s the whole reason he chose it.


Even so, a primal, electric tingle of unease raises the hair on the back of his neck. Suddenly self-conscious, he slides a hand into his blotchy khaki slacks, fingering and rolling an embossed pen between damp, strong fingers. Abe feels himself calming down slightly as he rubs the pen, enjoying the familiar texture of the little crossed boxing gloves.


The customer has taken no notice of Abe, not a glance in his direction since entering the store. So he remains oblivious to Abe’s admiration and internal discord as he walks from aisle entrance to aisle entrance, polished shoes clicking sharply while he looks up at aisle labels. He is wholly engrossed by his objective. This, too, Abe notices, resents, and admires.


He opens his mouth to offer the customer assistance, but he recognizes his opportunity to feel useful too late; the man has already chosen an aisle and is taking long, straight-backed strides in the opposite direction. In the fluorescent emptiness of the store, his footsteps echo with the weight and rhythm of a great doomsday clock.


Two minutes to midnight, thinks Abe as he puts away the gaudy little pen. Seeking distraction, he finds an old, dog-eared magazine behind the counter; it’s the kind of thing he’s normally berate the afternoon guy for leaving behind, but this time, he’s glad it’s here. It’s a sixteen year-old pop Christianity magazine from the late 90s. “You’re down with the Wu, but are you down with the Christ?” asks the cover. Smiling, he opens it to no particular page and begins skimming an article; it’s called “Repentance in the New Millennium”. Abe catches a glimpse of the customer over the top of the magazine and that unease of near-recognition returns. Additionally, he’s trying to ignore the rank emotion — he won’t admit that it’s envy — that has begun cramping his midsection. He’s trying with little success to shove down errant thoughts about sweaty, indolent men named Abe in their late twenties working graveyard shifts that have to kowtow to GQ men in suits. Ma, that steel-haired battleaxe of a Jewess, had always told him that envy was an evil thing.


He shakes his head and focuses on the article while the man’s footsteps continue their tick-tock sledging in his temples. His eyes settle on a single line that has been underscored and highlighted:



On this year, and only on this year, we children of God, sinners all, we go free. On the year of Jubilee, redemption is ours to receive freely. We need only seek it.

– Father J.T. Barnum


He reads the line again and again, incredulous and yet entranced by the language of the faithful. Abe feels as much as he hears the man coming up to the counter. Without looking up at Mr. GQ, he folds up the magazine and puts it back on the stack. The man puts his purchase on the counter, saying some banal thing about how bright the lights are in here, but he stops short halfway.




Abe finally looks up. A lightning crash of recognition and horror bolts across his face. The vain envy that had pooled in him becomes mortal panic that churns and thrashes in his intestines. The man’s bright blue eyes meet Abe’s and linger, slowly widening as his mouth and shoulders go slack.


His mind and heart begin racing. Abe is sure that there’s no way he’s going to make it to the regular exit. “Find everything you needed, sir?”


The man starts. “What? Fuck that, Abe, is that you? What are you doing here?”


Abe wriggles and writhes on the sticky pleather stool. His eyes flick away to the latchless “Employees Only” door swinging listlessly to his right and back up at the man and the pain in his

stomach is unbearable and he barely manages to say, “Working, Seth. I’m working. That’ll be twenty seventy-three.” Abe feels petulant pride at managing this response, and at having removed most of the embarrassment and shame from his tone. But Seth stomps his foot, outraged.


“Don’t give me that. Don’t give me that, man. You know what I mean.” Seth’s leaning halfway over the counter, white-knuckled hands grabbing at nothing. His voice is shaking as frustration begins to boil over. “Abe, come on, look at me, man.”


Abe peels himself up from the stool, oozing up to his full five-foot-five-inches of broad-chested manhood, holding his taut gut with one hand and fondling his worrystone pen with the other. He’s looking down and left and right and everywhere but straight ahead. He shakes his head, eyes watering, and flees toward the Employees Only door. He shoulder-breaches the latchless door like a sweaty juggernaut, praying that the afternoon guys forgot to lock up the back the way they goddamn always do. Even in his nearly incoherent panic, he hears the distinct tromp-snap of dress shoes landing on linoleum and he hears Seth yelling something, but he can’t make out what it is (“Way-a goin, Abe!?”).


He dashes through the break room with his heart in his throat and his fingers digging into his gut, throws open the back door, and makes a break for it.


Abe’s pursuer catches up to him under a streetlight three steps into the swampy Florida night, a strong hand on his right shoulder. He freezes, looking out into the back lot, which is a small dirt cul de sac littered with cigarette butts and surrounded on all sides by concrete walls. The lone streetlamp he stands under becomes a nightmare spotlight. The treefrogs are chanting their bizarre chorus, ominous as a Latin hymn. Nowhere left to run. With a large enough head start, he is sure he should have been able to scale one of those walls, or hop the chain link gate. But as it is. . .

“Don’t you run away from me.”


Abe leans against the streetlight, trying to catch his breath, and throws the hand off of his shoulder — but does not turn to face its owner. “God, my gut, man. You don’t understand. It hurts. I think I have an ulcer. I don’t know. I know what you’re going to ask and I don’t know. I just had to, that’s why. You wouldn’t understand.”
A trembling, breathy voice answers him. “Don’t give me that. Don’t even give me that. You can’t bullshit me, Abe. It was that broad, wasn’t it? That reckless broad? I always knew she was going to cause you some kind of trouble.”


Abe’s heart jumps into his throat and his eyes start to burn. “You shut it right there.”


His stomach rapidly unwinds itself as the thrashing panic turns to indignant rage, which in turn begins to melt years of frosty indolence and self-pity. He is a cornered animal suddenly remembering its teeth; he steps out into the cul-de-sac, rolls his shoulders, and turns to face Seth.


“You shut it right there, Seth. Alright. Let’s go. Same rules as always. Loser is the one who goes down first.”


Seth gapes for a moment, startled by this swing in demeanor. “You think you can just — who do you think you are? Two years, no word! Nothing left in Brooklyn! We thought you were dead!” He throws off his suit jacket and begins loosening his tie. “I thought you were dead. And you’re in Florida! Two years! I cried, asshole.”


The air stills for a moment. Even the treefrogs seem to be caught off-guard. Abe, who is halfway through slipping off his faded red polo, cocks his head and raises an eyebrow.


“You cried?”

“Oh, fuck off. Let’s go.”


The two men, now shirtless, have moved to opposite ends of the small cul de sac. The scene is set by the dull glow of ochre lamplight, the shuffle of dirty khaki slacks and houndstooth dress pants, the patter of bare feet on packed dirt, and the discordant cacophony of treefrogs. They circle each other with light steps and sharp eyes. The damp heat of the night mingles with the ineffable atmosphere of adrenaline and impending violence. The result is something thick, something intimate, invigorating, intoxicating, familiar. Abe’s really waking up now, like he hasn’t in years. He knows there’s far too much to say. Far too much to express, at least as far as his capacities go. Seth’s too, though he’s always been the smooth talker.


He stares Seth down as they continue circling each other. He can’t suppress a nostalgic smile. What was that thing coach used to say? If a picture is worth a thousand words, a punch from a boxer is worth a million. You don’t really know a guy til you see how he squares up in the ring. Damn right, coach.


“Good to see you haven’t let yourself go too bad.”


When things built up between them — they always did, eventually — this is just what needed to happen. Sure as clouds give way to rain. Nothing could stop it. Not even Ma, though God knows she tried more than once. You’re smart boys! If ya spent half as much time studyin as you do scrappin. . .


Abe’s fists are close together just under his eyes and he’s bobbing his head slightly, as though searching for the tune of a half-remembered ballad. It’s the stance of a man who knows he’s about to take some shots. He tries to shake off his nostalgia and set his teeth against the punishment he’s about to receive.


Seth’s hands are half-open, the left a few inches out in front of his face, the right tucked in closer like a loaded gun. It’s the stance of a man who knows better than to take shots he doesn’t need to take. Years of impotent despair and silent mourning shadow his movements.


For the estranged siblings, this is a necessary catharsis.


They’re moving in tighter circles now, ebbing in and out, each trying to set up his own distance while dripping sweat onto the packed dirt. Abe’s arms are shorter and he may be out of practice but he’s still got dynamite in both hands and diesel in his legs. Seth can see that plain as day, so he keeps his distance, left hand flicking out again and again like a lion tamer’s whip. They come in on a steady beat. Pak. Pak. Pak. Abe catches the wrong end of a couple of these while he tries to find his rhythm, but it’s nothing serious, not yet. Pak. He’s bleeding somewhere and a little punch drunk, but still steady enough and light on his feet.  A couple more, though — Pak! Pak! — and he’s not seeing straight. He’s got a mouth full of copper and his mind is starting to blank — but maybe his mind was just in the way, because his body seems to know what to do.


When he dives past one of these razor-sharp jabs and slips a heavy left fist hard and fast into Seth’s liver, causing him gasp and double over from sudden pain, it’s pure reflex. The one-two follow-up that puts Seth face down in the dirt lot, the one that’s going to end up swelling his right eye shut for a week and making his jaw ache on rainy days for the next couple months — pure textbook, pure muscle memory. The strikes crack like a double peal of thunder; it is a display of power both brutal and beautiful, visceral art given shape by corded muscle. Seth hits the floor. Abe’s face turns heavenward, his fists drop, and a small nova of dust settles about his prone brother. He laughs through bloody teeth and tears streak down his dirty cheeks. In the familiar warmth of victory, he remembers how it feels to be young and alive and invulnerable. The feeling will soon pass — it’s already fading — but in this moment, every ache and cut has become an irrefutable argument for the need to live, struggle, and conquer.


Seth groans and turns over onto his back.


“I win.” Says Abe, grinning as he sits down next to Seth. Even though he says that, Abe’s pretty sure that you wouldn’t be able to tell who won just by looking. They’re both covered in a fantastic vichyssoise of bloody grime.  His head is still swimming as he hands Seth the red polo, which Seth uses to wipe some of the dirt from his face and arms after he folds himself into a somewhat upright sitting position. “Yeah, yeah. You win. I’m sorry for what I almost said about your woman.” Seth pauses. “How is she doin, anyway?”


Abe’s smile disappears. Eyes boring into the dirt, Abe pulls out that tacky little pen with its little embossed boxing gloves and waves it with a flourish like a drunk conductor. Seth’s eyes follow the pen, uncomprehending, as Abe puts it away. “She died in a car accident two years ago. I was driving. They found this in a gift box in the glove compartment. There was a note, too. ‘To my lovely fighter.’ ”


Abe would be having déjà vu right now if he were looking at Seth; he’s bug-eyed and slack-jawed for the second or third time this evening.  “Oh, fuck. Oh, man. I’m so sorry. Really. I mean it. But is that why you disappeared? We coulda helped. Me, Ma, coach, the guys at the gym. We all woulda been there for you.”
“Ha!” Seth winces as Abe lets loose a bark of laughter. When he replies, his sentences start and stop in verbal staccato, as though he’s forcing them through a hole of the wrong shape. “Right. You don’t get it. I was driving the car that killed her. I was coming home from the gym. I don’t know why she was out. She ran a red light. We made eye contact, you know, before impact. She looked — she looked so terrified. Her eyes were…screaming.”


Abe closes his eyes. No answer. Right. There’s nothing for Seth to say. Of course it wasn’t Abe’s fault; Seth was not wrong when he’d called her reckless. It was her defining characteristic, along with her geniality and love of hosting dinner parties. He had given Abe plenty of brotherly warnings during Abe’s relationship with that woman. Of course it would be completely unreasonable for Abe to blame himself. Without question. Yet at this moment, it would be even more unreasonable to point that out. So they sit there for a time under that lonesome streetlamp, sweaty, bloody, and calm, just like a couple of half-anesthetized patients in post-op.


“Hey, Abe,” Seth finally says, “you happy here? You happy being a little night shift clerk out here in the swamp?”


After a moment of collecting himself and returning to the present moment, Abe opens his eyes and responds dreamily, “Thought I was, til you showed up.” Abe shrugs. That was a lie. “More or less. Not unhappy. Nothing bad happens out here.” That was mostly a lie. He sighs and his voice takes on a precise, candid edge. “Nothing good, neither. But I don’t know if I can go home. It’s been too long.”


Seth stands up, grimacing as his core reminds him that it just got ripped up, and walks toward the back door of the store. He tosses the dirty red polo back to Abe before gathering up his things and dressing himself. “Yeah, I get it. But you can’t waste your life here. And Ma, she still talks about you all the time. I know you won’t be happy til you set things right with everyone, and you can’t set things right with everyone til you get straight with yourself.”

“Yeah, maybe.” Abe says as he slips on his shirt. Oh. It’s backwards. Whoops.


Seth is trying — with little success — to straighten out his dirty jacket.  Through gritted teeth, he says, “Ya know, I’m really makin a name for myself out there.”
Abe stands up and starts walking over to Seth. “I can see that. I didn’t even recognize you at first, all cleaned up. No beard, no wife beater, short hair. You looked like some asshole off a GQ magazine.” He pauses briefly as he puts on his socks and shoes. It takes him longer than usual, since his wrists and knuckles are fairly swollen and unwieldy from hitting bone with naked fists. “Not so much now, though, with the dirt and all. Now you look kinda like a guy I know.” They both laugh and start moving through the breakroom, back to the front of the store.


As they push through the listless Employees Only door, Seth responds. “Point is I got some pull now. When you disappeared, work was…” He trails off, then forces himself to continue. “I been real busy. I can hook you up. Get you back where we both know you belong. You know, get you back in the mix on the circuit.” He points to his right eye, which is half shut and turning a nasty shade of purple. “You clearly still got it in you.” Abe smiles and shrugs.


Seth looks for somewhere to wipe his hand, but his clothes are covered in dirt and it seems wrong to sully anything sitting in the fluorescent purity of the store, so he just sighs and reaches into his jacket pocket. He hands Abe a bent business card, which Abe puts it into his blotchy khaki pocket without a glance. As he does, his hand brushes the pen, and he thumbs the little embossed boxing gloves. “Whaddaya say, Abe?”


“I…” He digs at the linoleum with his foot for a long moment. Out of the corner of a bloodshot eye, he sees a ragged magazine on the floor behind the counter, sitting there like a broken promise. We need only seek it. His foot stops digging. “I’ll meet you in Brooklyn. Keep this safe til then. I have to…I have to make arrangements. Put in my two weeks and all that.”


He takes the pen out of his pocket and offers it to Seth, who takes it with wide-eyed reverence, like he’s taking communion from the holy son himself. With a nod, the two part ways.