Merricks on “Truth and Freedom”
June 16, 2009 — 14:08

Author: Andrew Moon  Category: Divine Foreknowledge Theological Fatalism  Comments: 9

I just finished Trenton Merricks’ recent Phil. Review (2009, 118:1) article “Truth and Freedom”. Like most of his stuff, his arguments were crisp and clear. I’ll say at the outset that I’m far from being an expert in the freewill/foreknowledge/fatalism literature. (I make that explicit, because I know that some readers of this blog are!)
It was fun to see Merricks apply some of his work on the nature of truth to the fatalism problem. He starts with the mundane, general point that a proposition is true because of what the world is like; i.e., truth depends on the world, not the other way around. Furthermore, this dependence is not a causal one (more on this below).

Here is one way he applies this mundane point to what he calls “The Main Argument”, what he takes to be the most serious fatalistic argument. (He briefly discusses other fatalistic arguments, but considers them to be obviously faulty, despite the big names who have endorsed them (pp. 32-33)):
“1) Jones has no choice about: that Jones sits at t was true a thousand years ago.
2) Necessarily, if that Jones sits at t was true a thousand years ago, then Jones sits at time t
3) Jones has no choice about: Jones’s sitting at time t.” (p. 33).
After arguing that the Main Argument is question-begging, he then argues that (1) is false.
Here is where things got interesting to me. One of the objections to the falsity of (1) is as follows (p. 40). The past is necessary in a special temporal sense, and so Jones can’t have a choice about what was true in the past. Merricks discusses three ways to understand the necessity of the past, and considers whether, on these understandings of necessity, this objection holds any water. Here is the third understanding of necessity:
“Suppose, finally, that the past’s being necessary means only that our present and future actions cannot cause events in the past… Then the past’s being necessary amounts to there being no “backward” causation.”
He continues:
“But… the absence of backward causation fails to entail that no one now has a choice about what the past was like. This is because having a choice about the past truth of a proposition does not require backward causation.
It does not require backward causation because the truistic way in which the truth of a proposition depends on the world is not causal. This is why, for example, truth’s dependence on the world does not involve the laws of nature or the transfer of energy…
Or consider the following: abstract objects cause absolutely nothing. This familiar claim about abstract objects might be false. But it is not shown to be false merely by the truism that that abstract objects exist is true (if it is true) because abstract objects exist. That is, that truth’s depending on abstract objects does not imply that abstract objects cause something; so it does not imply that abstract objects cause that truth to be true… Therefore the truistic way in which truth depends on the world is not causal. So even though that Jones sits at t was true a thousand years ago because Jones sits (or will sit or did sit) at t, the ‘because’ here is not causal. And so it is not “backward” causal.” (p. 41)
I found this passage to be illuminating, because it pointed to me how truth’s dependence on the world is not a causal dependence, and how much of what motivates my intuition for accepting (1) is my intuition that one cannot cause changes in the past.
So understanding the necessity of the past as the point that backward causation is impossible does not underwrite (1). Let me know if I’ve been too quickly convinced by Merricks on this point. Also, I found most of Merricks’ arguments to be compelling, so if others who have read Merricks’ article think that there are good objections to his other arguments, I’m interested in hearing those too.

  • Joshua Rasmussen

    Interesting post. Have you read Mike Rae’s “Presentism and Fatalism” (

    June 16, 2009 — 21:10
  • Andrew Moon

    Yep, before it was published, Rea read the paper at Mizzou, and my M.A. paper was a response to it.
    Merricks responds to the argument of that paper (and Rea’s more recent paper with Alicia Finch in the first OSPR) in a footnote. I’ll have to go back and read it more carefully to see whether I think Merricks’ response is successful.

    June 17, 2009 — 10:55
  • Alan Rhoda

    I’ve glanced over Merricks’ paper, and I’ve read the referenced papers by Rea. Frankly, I don’t think Merricks’ paper advances the discussion all that much. Despite his claims to the contrary, I don’t see any fundamental differences between his views and Ockhamism. Sure, he doesn’t invoke the hard/soft fact distinction, but that’s only a corrolary of Ockhamism, not its driving intuition, which is simply the idea that what’s true at one time about what happens at other times depends solely on what happens at those other times. (Ockhamism is thus the temporal analogue of S5–all times are alethically accessible to each other.)
    I don’t think Merricks successfully responds to Rea in the footnotes. Rea’s argument does presuppose, however, a more robust view of the supervenience of truth of being than Merricks would grant. Those like me who aren’t impressed with his arguments against TSB will be inclined to take Rea’s side over against Merricks.

    June 17, 2009 — 20:13
  • Joshua Rasmussen

    I’d be interested in seeing your M.A. paper. (E-mail me.) I presently don’t understand Rae’s argument. I don’t know what propositions M2, M3, M5 are supposed to express. I thought I did, but after interacting with Rae about it, it’s become apparent that I do not. Hopefully, things will get cleared up for me when I can meet him in person in August. Maybe your M.A. paper will help.

    June 18, 2009 — 19:04
  • Justin Capes

    Having now read the paper, it strikes me that Alan’s remarks are spot on. I don’t see any fundamental difference between what Merricks says and the Ockhamist position. That being said, it seems no less convincing for that. I think what Merricks says is basically correct. I don’t know about the question-begging bit, but certainly premise (1) of the main argument has little to be said for it. Of course, I didn’t require much persuading, so perhaps I’m not the best judge.

    June 18, 2009 — 23:23
  • As long as we’re noting things like “What X says is susbtantially the same as what Y said earlier,” I’ll note that Ockham’s basic position was already expressed in Cicero’s De fato, where Cicero recounts Carneades’ response to the “lazy argument.”

    June 19, 2009 — 8:08
  • Kevin Timpe

    I haven’t yet read Merricks’ argument, but from the description above it sounds similar, at least in broad strokes, to part of what I say in my “Truthmaking and Divine Eternity,” Religious Studies 43.3 (2007): 299-315. And I took what I said there to be a form of Ockhamism.

    June 19, 2009 — 11:55
  • Alan Rhoda

    Nice point about Carneades as the forerunner of Ockhamism. He’s the earliest person I know of to express the idea that what’s true at T about T* depends only on what happens at T*. That reinforces my point above that the hard/soft fact distinction is really just a corollary of Ockhamism and not its central tenet.
    Interestingly, prior to, during, and for a good while after Carneades, the dominant consensus (Peripatetics, Stoics, Epicureans, etc.) was in favor of an anti-Ockhamist semantics according to which what is true at T about T* depends on what is the case at T (and not T* except by entailment). Thus, it was thought that for it to be true now that a sea battle will occur tomorrow, it must now be determined that a sea battle occur tomorrow.

    June 19, 2009 — 15:24
  • Andrew Moon

    Hmm… there’re a lot of people here who know a whole lot more about free will than me who are saying that Merricks’ solution is not significantly different from Ockhamism. I’ll have to go re-read that section where Merricks tries to argue that his solution is significantly different from Ockhamism.

    June 19, 2009 — 16:31