Fatalism is the idea that actions in the present aren’t decisive but are determined by the state of affairs in the future. It was given a serious formulation in 1962 by a philosopher named Richard Taylor. For the New York Times Magazine, James Ryerson looks up the undergraduate philosophy thesis of the novelist David Foster Wallace and discovers that Wallace refutes it.
Wallace proposed that there was a flaw in Taylor’s argument, a hidden defect. In essence, Taylor was treating two types of propositions as if they were the same, when in fact they needed to be distinguished and treated differently. Consider the sentences “It was the case that I couldn’t fire my handgun” and “It cannot be the case that I did fire my handgun.” At first they may sound similar, but Wallace argued that they involve quite different notions of impossibility. “It was the case that I couldn’t fire my handgun” refers to a past situation in which discharge is deemed impossible because (let’s say) my gun was broken. “It cannot be the case that I did fire my handgun” refers to a present situation in which discharge is deemed impossible because (let’s say) my gun is still cool to the touch. The first notion involves an earlier, physical constraint on firing (namely, the broken gun); the other involves the current absence of a necessary consequence of firing (namely, a hot barrel). An extremely sensitive observer of language, Wallace noted that there is a subtle indicator of this important distinction already at work in our language: the fine differentiation in meaning between “I couldn’t have done such and so” and “I can’t have done such and so.”
Armed with this small but powerful insight, Wallace was able to pick apart the machinery of Taylor’s argument.