Sea Battles and What Will Be


Last time we looked at the philosophically perplexing case of a finite but immortal being that makes an irrevocable choice.  The whimsical example we used was of Highlander Connor MacLeod, who resolves that he will never eat a broccoli fudge sundae throughout eternity.  To do so is not a logical impossibility as being a married bachelor would be, for example.  It seems common sense, then, to say that Connor at any point could eat the sundae; he just doesn’t want to, or has chosen not to.  However, to say that a thing could happen–which is the same thing as saying it’s possible–seems to imply that, given a sufficiently long period of time, it will happen.  I didn’t give the term last time, but this idea is sometimes called the plenitude principle.  This principle seems to imply that if it’s logically possible to eat a broccoli fudge sundae–which it certainly is, aesthetics aside–that sooner or later Connor will indeed eat it, given that he has literally all the time in the world.  This, however, seems to imply that Connor does not have the free will to eternally refrain from such sundaes.

On the other hand, if we say that Connor can indeed go forever without eating the sundae, that seems to mean that there is zero probability that it will happen; which seems equivalent to saying that it cannot happen;  which seems to say it is not possible; which seems to conflict with the notion of what it means to say that it is logically possible, and with the plenitude principle.  It’s even worse than that in that Connor’s ability to forever forgo broccoli fudge sundaes by an act of free will seems, paradoxically, to undermine the notion that he has free will.  To see why, we need now to discuss naval battles.

Aristotle, in his De Interpretatione, in the course of discussing potentiality and actuality, discusses a thought experiment.  Say that two navies are planning a possible battle tomorrow.  It seems reasonable to say that either the sea battle will happen tomorrow–in which case it’s true to say, “A sea battle will happen tomorrow”–or the battle will not happen tomorrow–in which case it’s false to say, “A sea battle will happen tomorrow.”  However, this causes a problem.  We assume the admirals of each side have free will.  They can freely choose to have a battle or not–that’s what we mean by “free will”.  However, if it is true that there will be a battle tomorrow, this implies that the admirals are not free to avoid the battle.  After all, we’ve just said “There will be a sea battle tomorrow” is true; therefore any actions to the contrary can’t occur.  Likewise, if it is false that there will be a battle tomorrow, the admirals can’t choose to have the battle after all.*

If this is confusing, let’s use a science fiction example.  I develop a chronoscope–a device that will allow me to view any time and place, past, present, or future.  I use it to look at next week’s newspaper and discover that a horrible nuclear plant accident happened six days earlier–that is, tomorrow.  The disaster was caused by an error by technician Joe Schmoe.  I immediately decide to get in touch with Mr. Schmoe and convince him of what is about to happen, so that I can avert it.  However, if I really did see the future, the implication is that the disaster is fixed.  After all, if I had been able to stop the disaster, it never would have been written up for me to see by chronoscope in the first place.  Thus, it would seem that no matter what I do, I can’t prevent the disaster.  My actions may even be what causes it (see the story of Oedipus for an example of this kind of thing).  This implies that neither I nor Joe Schmoe nor anyone else involved can change the future; which implies that none of us have free will.

On the other hand, if I do get to Joe and the disaster is prevented, the newspaper from next week that I saw is wrong–after all, the disaster it reported did not happen.  This is perplexing in that it means I never actually saw the future at all; and it prompts the question of where the headline I originally saw came from in the first place.

For our purposes here, if we say that Connor keeps his promise and never, ever eats a broccoli fudge sundae, then this is equivalent to saying that it is true that at any given point in the future he has not done so.  As with Aristotle’s sea battle and our hypothetical nuclear disaster, this is tantamount to saying that the future state of affairs described by the sentence “Connor MacCleod has never eaten a broccoli fudge sundae” is true.  If this future state of affairs is true, then it seems like it’s not even possible for Connor to eat the sundae, which implies that he lacks free will–the very thing we posited to begin with.

We are thus at a bit of an impasse.  Different analyses give different results.  Taking Connor’s immortality as a given, if we use the principle of plenitude, it seems that Connor will inevitably eat the broccoli fudge sundae no matter what he vows.  On the other hand, if we assume he is capable of carrying out the vow, it seems he had no free will to do otherwise, which is equivalent to saying that he could never have changed his mind, no matter what happened.  Either of these seems to imply that Connor–or any immortal being–lacks the free will to make an eternal choice.  Such a choice may be made; but it seems to be predestined.  Returning to our original motivation, it seems that whether or not damned souls can maintain their eternal choice to damnation or not, they do not do so from free will, but from predetermination.

This seems an even worse state of affairs than the one with which we started.  We’ll leave it at this, for now, though, and revisit the issue in the next installment.

*As an aside, the late novelist David Foster Wallace, whose major was philosophy before he switched to English, wrote an essay discussing this problem.  It has been published in book form with a lengthy introduction and essays supporting and opposing free will on the basis of the classical argument and Wallace’s interpretation of it.  The book, Fate, Time, and Language:  An Essay on Free Will is a fascinating book well worth reading to those willing to take on the rather heavy philosophical language in it.

Part of the series “You Pays Your Money and Takes Your Chances: Free Will

Posted on 16/01/2014, in Christianity, metaphysics, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

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