What if in your entire life, you never avoided anything? Everything that was ever going to happen to you, did happen. Well, you might imagine that you did not last long; you came to a quick demise.
But what if, the very idea of “avoiding” was some sort of a misperception or a semantic confusion? After all, we can easily reframe many different things as an act of avoiding one thing or another. This very moment, my heartbeats allow me to avoid death. Gravity avoids the problem of my coffee floating out of my cup and drifting about the room. Sitting here avoids additional wear on my shoes. In conclusion, it seems that anything that happens avoids all the things that possibly could have happened in its place.
Philosopher Dan Dennett cites Mark Twain’s musings on these matters: “I am an old man, and I’ve seen many troubles, but most of them never happened.” Dennett contends that there are confusions in our way we think we “avoid” and also some similar actions, the “preeminent verbs of agency,” he calls them. Verbs like “help”, “avert”. “protect,” “bring about,” “thwart,” are all used to describe us as “actors,” “initiators.” “doers,” as opposed to passive creatures and the mere site of occurrences that happen. We can “make a difference,” we like to believe; we can “change the course of things” by avoiding, protecting, bringing about, helping. (Elbow Room, p.124)
Here are some examples of some prominent events that we have recently successfully avoided: The Presidential Coup of January 2022 (narrowly avoided), The 2018 North Korean Nuclear Missile Attack on Los Angeles (avoided by a much wider margin), The Great Plague of 2019 in which the most virulent strain of Covid Virus killed millions of Americans (avoided by a margin that might have been far narrower than we realize). We can, of course, think of many other important events that did not occur, avoided, at least partially, due to our efforts.
So, what are “the possibilities?” The noted philosopher Willard Quine, one of Dennett’s mentors, was famously skeptical of meaningful talk about “the possible.” He would ask something like the following: “How many imaginary fat men could stand in that doorway? Surely fewer imaginary fat men than imaginary thin men. How many imaginary thin men could fit? Remember, imaginary thin men can be pretty thin.”
Dennett draws our attention to a more likely case of possibility and avoidance. You are at a baseball game and sitting along the third-base line. A foul ball comes off the bat and it is a line drive right at you. You duck and it misses. “Luckily,” you say, “it missed me; I was going to get hit right in the face!” In what sense were you “going to?”
Now this is an especially interesting case of avoidance because “ducking” is a human reflex. It is a mechanism designed and evolved right into us. Biologists call it “a situation-action mechanism” and animals have many of them, like a clam closing its shell at the least disturbance. Its automatic, considering ample stimulus input. So, not only did the ball not hit you, it was never going to hit you because you were always going to duck (given the situation as it was). Your response was part of the great causal chain of nature, that long sequence of events that started quite a while ago; like billiard balls ricocheting on the universal billiard table.
Dennett then makes a shocking claim: All acts of avoidance are (“merely”) cases of faulty human anticipation (Freedom Evolves, p.59). If you were smarter, you would have known better! You expected the ball to hit you, but it didn’t. Your impending injury was (“merely”) a product of your limited knowledge. From a “wider context,” a perspective now provided to us by our philosopher, you can now see what was always going to really happen and what did happen—not only did you escape the peril, there never was any.
What should we make of these contentions? Dennett allows that maybe we should consider the above case “pseudo-avoidance.” All the above uses of the word “merely” should be taken from their parentheses and scare-quotes and allowed to stand. This level of reflexive avoidance is not “genuine avoidance.” After all, even the simplest amoeba ‘avoid’ some of “the bad” and are ‘attracted’ to some of “the good.” It’s that primitive and that mechanical. Maybe we need to up-grade the quality of our avoidance, from “simple ‘hard-wired’ avoidance responses [to] fancier varieties,” he contends. And so we have.
Polio: In 1988 the World Health Organization reported 350,000 cases world wide, and launched a prevention campaign. By 2012, they reported merely 175 confirmed severe cases. Several strands of this virus are believed to be entirely eradicated in the wild. Polio has been truly avoided and prevented by extensive scientific research, mass public education and vaccination. (Karl Landsteiner identified the virus in 1909 and Jonas Salk invented an effective vaccine in 1955.) Clearly, the course of history was changed; a difference was made: polio has been avoided.
Now Dennett is a product of what is called “Analytic Philosophy,” a modern movement within that profession that started around the turn of the 20th century especially in England. Bertrand Russell (along with Alfred N. Whitehead) used very formal symbols (“symbolic logic”) to attempt to analyze the roots of mathematics, and G.E. Moore used our more traditional logic to analyze various concepts as we use them in our ordinary language. This seems to me to be the source of the following surprising claims.
“If we want to change the course of history we are in for a big disappointment,’ says Dennett. “We cannot point to any real event that was ever avoided...No event that actually has happened, is happening, or will happen is an event that was, is being, or will be avoided.” If we think we have “replaced one future event with another” —lots of polio to very little polio—we are wrong. In fact, that idea is, “in this undoctored form, incoherent,” he argues because “future events” are not real events and are as slippery as imaginary thin men in a doorway.
But surely, we should reply, “Something was changed! We went form polio to no polio; The future was changed!” Well, at least “apparently,“ says Dennett: “All of the verbs of ‘making a difference’ involve a tacit comparison between the way the world was apparently going to go, and the way it turned out to go.” Dennett is arguing that it is not that history was changed, but that our anticipations about history—“the future”—were wrong. It’s an epistemic issue, as the philosophers would say. More polio in the future, and the baseball smashing your face, they were never in “the cards” (the real course of history) in the first place!
That is an interesting contention; it was us and our expectations that were faulty, not that we had the power to reach out ahead of ourselves in time (into the future) and switch things around. But don’t we have that ability? Isn’t the future “open” and being determined by us “now?” We “deliberate” a lot; we “think things through” and then “decide,” and “act.” This is where we started this little essay, with “the verbs of action”: avoiding, protecting, creating, doing…and thus “making a difference.”
This “open future” needs more careful consideration. We have the ability “to change the outcome” of events in history, we believe, as if “the future” has some options. To change “one possible future event for a different possible future event” is not a good way to conceptualize it; this we have already decided. So did we “change the outcome,” instead? But this statement is no better, argues Dennett (as an example of analytic philosophy or just careful logical consideration), because “the outcome” is what actually happened or will happen; it’s a single thing and a real thing and it turned out not to be smacked in the face (and no polio); that is the one and only outcome and that is the future. Dennett comments that we often acknowledge that we cannot change the past, but we should equally acknowledge that we cannot change the future! It is the event that will actually happen, and “happen to happen—in the fulness of time,” he insists.
Once again, we are confusing what we anticipated was going to be the future with what the future really was. The future did not change and we did not change it only our anticipations of it are often misguided.
We have other strong evidence that “the real course of history” is already determined. Modern physicists believe that, in principle, the equation that predicts the movements of all the particles that compose our everyday world has already been discovered; it is called “the path-integral formulation of Quantum mechanics.” Yet, we will never have adequate information to practically utilize this equation to “see our own futures.” It is an imagined perspective, writes Dennett, “a God’s-eye view of things,” but that does not make “the view from [this] inaccessible perspective any less true” (Elbow Room, p.102).
The course of events, and things in general, are more sealed up than we anticipated.
So where does this leave us? Should we stop trying “to make a difference” because the future is already set?
Dennett does not recommend that course. Instead, we should regard our fancier varieties of action—scientific research, religious faith and ritual, ethical behavior, and human planning in general—as on par with our more reflexive forms of action. All our behaviors are caused by the past and by our current environment, that they are determined, in this way, does not diminish their stature. “Genuine avoidance” is a confusion, and even as such it offers us no better than “determined avoidance.” In each case, the peril is avoided. A thunderstorm is a real thing, and now that we know they are determined by natural causes, that does not diminish their status. They are still “a thunderstorm,” as powerful and full of lightning and rain as ever, even now when we can fairly accurately predict when and where they will occur.
The same is true for “deliberation,” contends Dennett. It may seem paradoxical to think that “to deliberate,” “to think things through,” makes sense even when from a different perspective the outcome of that deliberation is already determined. But it is not paradoxical in the following way.
We do not know the outcome of our own deliberations! We must carry them out. That particular future seems open to us, just as does the future in general. From our perspective, we must “Act Under the Idea of Freedom,” the title to the fifth essay in Dennett’s Elbow Room. “The course of history” is out of our control; we have very good reasons to believe that, but from the perspective of an actor inside that grand scheme of things, we cannot “see” it. We should “keep our shoulder to the grind stone,” “keep our head down” and concentrate to try to do the best we can with the situation we have.
It’s like “follow-through” in a golfer’s or baseball player’s swing. “The trajectory of the ball [or even contact itself] is already determined before the follow-through commences;” yet follow-through is a wise and rational policy, argues Dennett. We continue our swing and keep our eyes down and focused on the area of potential contact, even after the contact has or hasn’t occurred. It allows for the smoothest swing, a swing that is “most effective” and seems to give us the best results. Follow-through tends “to ensure that the right, desirable sorts of things happen at the crucial time in the swing,” even though it occurs after the outcome (the ball was already hit, or not hit) has already been determined.
And so in life, we have done pretty well acting as if we are free, and responsible, and efficacious. History has often rewarded us with a beneficial outcome, beneficial from our point of view, of course. For a creature with limited abilities, it is possible to see much progress.
This above realignment of ideas is part of that progress itself, believes Dennett. It makes science more compatible with our everyday ideas of ourselves as actors. I believe, it even allows a quasi-religious sense of awe and participation. History is one of those Big Things, that give us a part to play but are outside us and our ability to control. History is our destiny. It is beyond us, and yet still us, at the same time.