January 11, 2019

Finkish Backtracking Abilities

A disposition or ability is said to be 'finkish' iff, were the conditions for its exercise actual, the disposition/ability would be lost. (See Martin and Lewis.) For instance, imagine a sorcerer casts a spell on a fragile glass that will make it cease to be fragile if it is ever struck or dropped. (This example is due to Vihvelin. Realistic, non-magical examples are possible but more complex.) A fragile object is one that is disposed to break if struck, dropped, etc. The intuition is supposed to be that, given that the glass is intrinsically qualitatively identical to any other fragile glass, it should also be called 'fragile' but, nevertheless, if it were struck, dropped, etc., it would not break since it would cease to be fragile.

A backtracking conditional is a counterfactual conditional expressing what would have to have been the case at an earlier time if things were going to be a certain way at a future time. (All the ways of unambiguously phrasing backtracking conditionals in English are pretty clunky.) So, for instance, if I was going to be in Australia tomorrow I would have to have already left by now. David Lewis famously argued that free will could be preserved, given nomological determinism, by means of backtracking conditionals: if I had been going to raise my arm right now, a law of nature would have to have been broken in the past does not, according to Lewis, imply that I can change the past or break the laws.

Suppose, as Molinists and Thomists about divine providence hold, that God employs knowledge of what free creatures would do in hypothetical circumstances in deciding what to create. Then it seems likely that finkish backtracking abilities are widespread. That is, it seems likely that ordinary folks like you and I are able to do some things such that, if we had been going to do them, we would never have been able to do them (and perhaps would never have existed) in the first place because if we had been going to exercise those abilities God would have made a different creative decision.

This point is not entirely new,* but I don't believe I've seen it connected to the 'finkishness' literature before.


* This post was partly inspired by a footnote in the new Pruss and Rasmussen book, which attributes a similar point to Luke Van Horn. Discussion of various funky conditionals is widespread in the Molinism literature.

Posted by Kenny at January 11, 2019 12:01 PM
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That sounds right. Dean Zimmerman once said that he thought God would only allow a certain amount of disvalue. If so, then everyone is such that were he about to exceed the allowable level of disvalue, God would never have created him or would never have created him in those circumstances, or... This does appear to lead to some puzzles of evaluation of such counterfactuals. There are no possible worlds in which I exceed the minimal amount of evil--it's of course impossible if God does not allow it--so there really is no basis for the backtracking. There is no need for God to have acted in ways to prevent actions that are impossible.
One other quick point about finking dispositions. I have old drafts (somewhere) where I argue that this is the best way to understand how God's omnipotence is compatible with his moral perfection. God's moral perfection necessarily finks his power to do wrong! Just an idea.

Posted by: Mike at January 11, 2019 1:28 PM

Thanks for your comment. I'm thinking about this stuff because I'm working on a response to your paper in the Timpe and Speak volume, so you will be hearing more from me about this! :)

Posted by: Kenny Pearce at January 11, 2019 1:31 PM

Looking forward to it, Kenny! Happy to send comments.

Posted by: Mike at January 11, 2019 3:24 PM

Kenny could you send me a copy of the paper too?

Posted by: Scott Hill at January 11, 2019 3:38 PM

It's not done yet, but when it's ready I certainly will!

Posted by: Kenny Pearce at January 11, 2019 3:39 PM

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