Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Future Contingents and the Battle Tomorrow

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Future Contingents and the Battle Tomorrow

Article excerpt

WHEN, roughly twenty-five hundred years ago, Aristotle famously wondered about tomorrow's sea battle, he presented us with a splendid problem, a problem neither easily dismissed nor easily solved, one that even now continues to be a valuable source of philosophical insight. In Aristotle's picture, "If one man affirms that an event of a given character will take place and another denies it, it is plain that the statement of one will correspond to reality while the other will hot." (1) We will not here be concerned with the issues raised by inquiring whether statements correspond to reality. (2) We focus instead on the initial portion of the quotation, interpreting the latter portion to say that two agents have, at a particular time and place, made conflicting assertions about the future, the assertion of each being the denial of the other. Thus understood, the problem arises because, given the truth of the assertion at the time it is asserted, it seems, as Aristotle puts it, that "nothing takes place fortuitously-either in the present or in the future, and there are no real alternatives," (3) because "that of which someone has truly said that it will be cannot fail to take place; and of that which takes place, it was always true to say that it would be." "Yet," Aristotle continues, "this view leads to an impossible conclusion of each being the denial of the other." (4)

On our view, if determinism were everywhere and always true, the difficulty with which we are concerned would simply disappear. If it was determined that a certain battle was going to occur on the sea between Aphetae and Artemisium, then the prior claim that it will occur was, and always had been, settled true. (5) If determinism were everywhere and always true, there is no loss in giving up the potentiality of the future. As Aristotle has seen, however, if that which is asserted truly "cannot

fail to take place," then "we lose the potentiality in either direction." (6) The potentiality of the future, as we understand it, commits us to a real indeterminism rather than the merely epistemic variety. Real or objective indeterminism tells us of a future of possibilities, where each among several incompatible possibilities has the potential to eventuate--though of course only at the expense of canceling the other outcomes that were formerly possible.

In this way, Aristotle put the problem of indeterminism in terms of language directed toward the future. We concur in this strategy. Although over-worrying about language often leads philosophers astray, in this case, in order to understand the metaphysics of objective indeterminism, it is essential to be able to answer the following question: What features must a language have to be adequate for use by speakers inhabiting an indeterministic world? It is for this reason that our essay concentrates on the language of indeterminism. Indeed, we consider the question sufficiently tricky to require deploying some of the techniques of formal metaphysics and formal logic that have been developed only in the last half century or so. (7)

Here is the linguistic situation: Two agents make contradictory assertions about the future. At the time the assertions are made, the future is not settled. In this case we know that Eurybiades, the Spartan, wanted to retreat in the face of the Persians; while Themistocles, to encourage Eurybiades to engage, threatened to withdraw the Athenian fleet to Sicily. Suppose that on the second of the three days, Themistocles says to Eurybiades,

(*) There will be a sea battle tomorrow,

while Eurybiades says to Themistocles

There will not be a sea battle tomorrow.

It is when we concern ourselves with sentences whose truth or falsity depends upon a not yet settled future, a future in which both alternatives are real possibilities based in present fact such that each excludes the other, though neither is yet determined, that the difficulty arises. …

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