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After a long neglect of his subject, Victor was not as thoroughly convinced that impossibility was the best route to necessity as he might have been had he recently reconsidered Stolkin’s extreme case in which ‘scientists destroy my brain and body, and then make out of new matter, a replica of Greta Garbo’. How could one help agreeing with Stolkin that ‘there would be no connection between me and the resulting person’?

I don't quite understand the boldfaced part—is it a negation of 'one can't help agreeing' or what? Could anybody paraphrase it, please?

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To say that one "can't help" doing something means that she can't not do it – that is, she has to do it or must do it. Here, that expression is used in a rhetorical question. "How could one help agreeing?" means "how could one disagree?," with the implication that one couldn't possibly disagree (because the logic underlying Stolkin's assertion is irrefutable).

You should note that this is a special, limited, and somewhat counterintuitive usage of the verb "to help," in which "help + [verb]ing" means "avoid [verb]ing" or "refrain from [verb]ing." In this particular usage, "help" is almost always used in the negative potential form, unless it's occurring in a question (as in your example). That is, we say "I can't help [doing something]" or "I couldn't help [doing something]"; we would almost never express the idea "I can avoid [doing something]" by saying "I can help [doing something]."

Also, sometimes instead of "can't/couldn't help [verb]ing" you will see "can't/couldn't help but [verb]."

Some simple examples:

You say you've told me everything, but I can't help thinking you're hiding something from me.

She tried to look serious, but the expression on his face was so funny that she [couldn't help laughing / couldn't help but laugh].

When you heard what a difficult life he has had, how could you [help feeling sorry / help but feel sorry] for him?

  • That was my first impression too. But then shouldn't it be put as How could one help not agreeing with? – Michael Login Jun 15 '19 at 21:57
  • No, but that's an excellent question and I see why you have asked it. Instead of answering here in the comments, I've edited my original answer to add some further explanation that I hope will make it clearer. – Nanigashi Jun 15 '19 at 22:17

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