Challenge 401 Response
Fate and Tenses
by Don Webb
If I understand correctly — which is by no means predetermined — “fate” is an “end state” of a person or set of circumstances. Thus, fate is a conclusion of sorts, and it may be real or hypothetical, for example:
When we talk about Oedipus’ fate, we refer to him in our past; we have learned that his fate consists in his discovering what he’s done, however unwittingly.
When pundits and politicians ask what the “exit strategy” of a war is — or its end state or fate, which are all the same thing — they ask about imponderables in the future and ulterior motives in the present.
Since fate is a conclusion, determinism is a means by which the conclusion is reached. And “a means” implies that other means are possible.
Not only are other means possible, we know how they operate. Determinism functions probabilistically at the level of the macrocosm. It ensures that when we walk into a furniture store, we can expect to find furniture for sale rather than a fantastical, random selection of anything.
While determinism functions like the tastefully well-ordered furniture-store showroom, the back room is quite different: it’s a large, shady, smoke-filled hideaway bustling with poker games, roulette wheels, and craps tables. Here we’re in the microcosm, where nothing is certain, and quantum mechanics shuffle cards and roll dice.
Does the back room affect what’s on display in the showroom? Only indirectly: the contingency of its operations provides the funds — the capital, if you will — that allows the “house” or management to mount the varied and colorful displays out front, but that’s really another subject.
Now, is Oedipus’ fate predetermined? Has his future already taken place, so to speak, and does he simply go to meet it? In a sense, yes. Consider this scenario:
“Here’s the challenge, Sophocles. Given that a man kills his father and marries his mother, prove that he is not a criminal.”
The conditions thus require that Sophocles write a story to justify an ending chosen in advance. It’s simply sound literary practice.
But determinism doesn’t end there. Let’s compare what an amateur writer might do and what a professional does:
An amateur might cheat. He’d make Oedipus a numbskull who exercises no more choice than a pinball. The Mob might hire Oedipus as a hit man to rub out a rival kingpin named Laius. As a reward, they fix him up with one of their most attractive although somewhat middle-aged molls, Jocasta.
Oedipus finds out too late that Laius was his father and Jocasta is his mother. The amateur writer has cheated by making Oedipus a petty thug, but he has technically respected the conditions of the proof, because Oedipus must be acquitted of the charges of committing patricide and incest knowingly and with malice aforethought.
A solid professional like Sophocles takes the high road by giving Oedipus free will and a tragic flaw. In fact, the Oracle might have a modern-day analogue in a psychological counselor: “Look, Oedipus, I’m worried. You’re headstrong and impulsive. Be very careful whom you kill and whom you marry, okay?”
In the amateur writer’s story, Oedipus’ fate is predetermined, because he does what he’s told. In Sophocles’ play, Oedipus has the option to heed the Oracle’s warning or disregard it. The point of the play is less what he does than why he does it. The tragedy is that of good intentions with unintended consequences and of overconfidence combined with insufficient prudence.
When you get into verb tenses, you’re on my turf. Has the future already happened? The short answer is: no, grammar itself tells us that the future is imaginary. Now, how can that be?
Strictly speaking, there is no true future tense in any Indo-European language. Spooky, isn’t it? In fact, English has only two tenses: the present and the non-present. We give verb tenses the names we do for reasons of tradition and convenience.
What are we to make of sentences like “We will do that”? Okay, how is the verb formed? Add the present tense of the modal auxiliary “will” to the modal infinitive “do.” We call it a future tense for the sake of convenience, but it’s really a modified present tense.
Granted, some languages have evolved what amounts to a true future tense, for example, in late Latin:
The word order is the opposite of English, but the principle is the same for all practical purposes.
In French, the two verbs contract into one: dormirons, with a savings of fifty percent!
If you wake a Frenchman in the middle of the night and ask him what the tense of nous dormirons is, he’ll say it’s the future and he would like to be able to use it in the present tense, thank you very much. And he’d be right: why should he know or care how the word evolved? As far as he’s concerned it is a true future tense.
But is the future always the same everywhere? Not necessarily.
“will” + infinitive expresses causality; i.e. present conditions assure the action or state of being.
The basic reference point of time — the zero hour, if you will — is that of the speaker.
French takes a rather different point of view:
The future tense may express the equivalent of the English modal imperative, e.g. “we shall sleep,” but most often it says simply that the action follows an earlier one, as when the future tense is used in a historical narrative written in the past tense. If causality plays a role in it, the cause is stated, not assumed.
Verb tenses relate to each other, not to any particular point in time. The time of the sentence is that of the subject of the main verb. If the time happens to be the speaker’s present, the subject is je, ‘I’.
What is the future? Has it “already happened,” as some suggest? Other language families may formulate things differently, but in the Indo-European world view the future does not exist. As a concept, it is “a time after this one,” but its content is imaginary. At most it’s the imagined effect of causes in the present, an “if this goes on” hypothesis.
Does grammar shape our view of fate, free will, and determinism? Who knows? But one thing is certain: it shapes how we talk about those things.
Copyright © 2011 by Don Webb