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.


Pull out my teeth
I’m tired of biting
Steal my breath and put me down

Pull out my teeth
I’m tired of chasing
Soft little lamps with plump little thighs

I can’t stop hunting

I can’t stop feeding

Pull out my teeth
Pull out my teeth

Stop me
Break me
























The claim I will be defending is that I have hands. This is an important claim and belief that is very dear to me — truth be told, I do much of my work with what I believe to be my hands. In the interest of conserving space, I will not examine this claim piecemeal, i.e., by proving the existence of the self (“I”), arguing property rights (“have”), or by arguing that there are such things as “hands,” onto-epistemologically. I will say upfront that my investigation is not purely reason-based or a priori, and is therefore subject to all reasonable objections to combining reason and material experience as a method for evaluating the particular claim that I have hands (e.g., the verification principle).

I have several reasons for believing that I have hands. First, however, I will address some potential concerns with the idea that I have hands: Examined closely, the specific actualizations of my hands are subject to change, and frequently, especially due to the temporary nature of the epidermis and the fact that organic creatures and their prehensile appendages are typically subject to cycles of growth and decay, and that these processes are largely outside their willful control. I must concede that some of the secondary properties of my hands are mutable and automatic, but this does not disprove their existence, their responsiveness to my will, their relation to my central person (i.e. my body), or their singular connection to my sense experience; these things constitute, perhaps, the phenomenological essence of those appendages which are the referential object of the term “my hands.”

These concerns and potential objections aside, some of the specific reasons I have for believing that I have hands are as follows: I am currently typing with prehensile appendages located at the end of a pair of arms. I am experiencing the effect of their actions in the form of sensory feedback (e.g. the tapping of keys and words appearing on-screen in my word processor, the experience of texture). When I will these prehensile appendages to move in a particular direction or perform a particular action, they do so, to the degree of dexterity that I have trained myself to possess. This I can prove by example, if necessary. If another person wills them to move, they do not respond. It therefore follows that these prehensile appendages are hands, and that they are mine.

These reasons are not only grounded in evidence, proof, or fact, but they are such. Prehensile appendages at the end of arms below the wrist can only be hands. Hands organically attached to me that I move through will alone can only be my hands. When I will them to act, I experience sensory feedback, sensory feedback which is relayed to no one but me — this would not occur if these were not my hands. The statement “I have hands” is therefore reasonable and defensible.

My belief can be evaluated deductively. The argument in favor of the conclusion that I have hands seems to be both valid and sound. I am aware that my argument rests – at least partially – on my having arms, although I have attempted to circumvent this valid contention by defining hands as prehensile appendages at the end of arms (not merely my arms), and deductively proving that an ability to directly exert will over their movement and receive tactile, sensate feedback causes them to be considered my hands, rather than their attachment to what I do indeed consider to be my arms.

For these reasons and based on these arguments, I consider the belief or claim that I have hands to be justified and true. As reasoned, it should also be considered an objective belief, as the premises would not vary from person to person insofar as they refer to an experience common to all people who employ will to control their prehensile appendages.

My belief is not an opinion because there is no room for reasonable uncertainty or alternative explanations if my arguments are well-reasoned, nor is it based on faith, although I understand that it is based upon certain metaphysical and epistemological assumptions regarding the nature of being, ownership, will, and knowledge.

My belief is actually acceptable, and further, actionable, because I have justified reasons, good evidence, and sound reasoning, as outlined above.

As a philosopher, academic, and iconoclast, one should wonder at my pretensions to critical thinking if I could not adequately defend a claim as elementary and apparently self-evident as “I have hands.” As an aspiring functional and stable person, however, one should wonder at my pretensions to sanity and reasonableness if I should move through life in this way — if I should claim to genuinely live in the mode of skepticism, or even if I should comport myself in a pedantic and overly critical manner.