Source: p 50, What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy (1987) by Prof. Thomas Nagel

  When you say you could have had a peach instead of chocolate cake, part of what you mean may be that it wasn't determined in advance what you would do, as it is determined in advance that the sun will rise tomorrow. There were no processes or forces at work before you made your choice that made it inevitable that you would choose chocolate cake.
  That may not be all you mean, but it seems to be at least part of what you mean. For if it was really determined in advance that you would choose cake, how could it also be true that you could have chosen fruit? It would be true that nothing would have prevented you from having a peach if you had chosen it instead of cake. [1.] But these ifs are not the same as saying you could have chosen a peach, period. [🔚] You couldn't have chosen it unless the possibility remained open until you closed it off by choosing cake.

  1. What exactly are the IFs? Which if-clause(s) does Nagel reference?

  2. How is 1 true? How do the If-clauses differ from saying you could have chosen a peach?


He clarifies what he means when he says:

"What you are saying is that you could have chosen a peach instead of chocolate cake just then, as things actually were. You think you could have chosen a peach even if everything else had been exactly the same as it was up to the point when you in fact chose chocolate cake."

Essentially, it amounts to saying that we could have done different even if everything were the same. However that indicates a fork in the road, so to speak, that is really hard to justify. The ifs are the conditions that would remain the same, and that sameness doesn't suggest the possibility that our choices could go one way or the other. Thus, he is contrasting the prior sameness with the supposed possibility that we could do something different:

The ifs (the sameness before the fork) is not the same as the could haves (the divergent paths after the fork).

If we should make a different decision is there not any motive that we could point to to explain the choice? And if there is, in what way could we say that that motive would occur under exactly the same conditions that would have led to a different choice? The existence of the motive suggests that the prior conditions weren't exactly the same, i.e. that there was something different that led to the alternate choice.

This is the point that he is trying to bring to the reader's attention.

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