Saturday, January 13, 2007

Presentism, Actualism, and the Triviality Objection

Roughly stated, presentism is the view that the only time at which anything exists is now. Past events are no more; future events are not yet. If it doesn't exist now then it doesn't exist, period.

One common objection to presentism is known as the triviality objection. According to this objection, presentism is either (a) trivially true or (b) obviously false, depending on how it is interpreted. On the one hand, if one takes presentism to be the thesis that

(1) For all x, if x does not exist now then x does not exist at the present time.

then presentism is true but seemingly trivial. On the other hand, if one takes presentism to be the thesis that

(2) For all x, if x does not exist now then x does not exist at some time or other.

then presentism seems to be obviously false. For consider the truth that "Caesar crossed the Rubicon". This event occurred in 49 B.C. and implies, of course, that Caesar existed then. But then it seems that we are committed to saying that Caesar does exist (tenselessly) at some time or other, namely, in 49 B.C. So the known truth of "Caesar crossed the Rubicon" is incompatible with (2), which means that (2) is false.

What I want to point out is that this objection is really a false dilemma for the presentist. It arises from the non-presentist assumption that there are such things as past and future times at which individuals like Caesar could possibly exist. But as the presentist sees it, to exist now is not to exist at one time out of several other possible times, it is just simply to exist. In other words, "exist now" is strictly redundant. That is the significance of the presentist's claim, and neither (1) nor (2) captures it because both of them cash out existing in terms of existing at one or more times. But "existing" is a more fundamental concept than "existing at", so to analyze the former in terms of the latter is to get things backwards.

Compare the presentist's claim that "exists now" is strictly redundant to the modal actualist's claim that "actually exists" is strictly redundant. In contrast, the modal possibilist insists on analyzing "existence" in terms of "existence at" one or more possible worlds. In these terms an exactly parallel triviality objection can be posed against modal actualism. And like the argument against presentism, it too misses the point. In both cases the objector first imagines a domain of multiple locations populated with a different "times" or "worlds". Then, when the objector hears the presentist or the actualist say that only present or only actual things exist, he imagines the presentist singling out one of those locations and either (a) saying trivially that that location has the content it does, or (b) saying falsely that the contents of all locations are the contents of that location.

But the problem arises from the objector's starting from an imagined domain of multiple locations. According to the presentist and the actualist, by contrast, we ought rather to start from what simply is, not from what is now understood in relation to other times, nor from what is actual understood in relation to other possibilia. The now and the actual, says the presentist / actualist, are not to be analyzed in terms of relations to other things. Rather, they are primitive notions, notions that we grasp immediately and in terms of which the notions of other times and of other possible worlds have to be defined. Thus, the time of Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon is how things presumably were but no longer are. Likewise, that pigs can fly is how things presumably could have been but are not.

The error of the triviality objector in both cases is to confuse the properties of a mental image or representation with the reality represented. The objector against presentism imagines time as a timeline, a stretched out series of times, and forgets the immediacy, the nowness, of his own lived experience. Consequently, he feels a need to analyze nowness in terms of relations to the other times on his timeline. Similarly, the objector against actualism imagines reality as a streched out space of possibilities and forgets the immediacy, the actuality, of his own lived experience. Consequently, he feels a need to analyze actuality in terms of relations to other possibilia in his imaginary "space".


At 2/10/2007 5:29 AM, Blogger unenlightened said...

Hey, this is remarkably clear and comprehensible for a piece of philosophy! One might want to go on to say that the past does leave its 'impression' on the present, in the form of historical records, memories, habits. You writing this piece has left an impression which I am responding to, although you may even have 'changed' your 'mind' by now (I hope not). There is more to be said about this, because the past and the future are the source of all our fears and desires, ie all our problems and unhappiness; would it not be pleasant to let go of all that habitual non-existent nonsense?

At 12/16/2009 9:30 PM, Blogger ideaexchange said...

I really like your response, Alan.

I would note that your suggestion about how the presentist understands "exists" implies that
(1) and (2) are both trivially true.

As you see the presentist, (1) means

(1*) for all x, if x does not exist now then x does not exist now at the present time.

Given the redundancy of "exists now", we can substitute for "exists" "exists now." X exists now only if X exists now at the present time. Surely. Then for (2)

(2*) For all x, if x does not exist now then x does not exist now at some time or other.

Substituting "exists now" for the second "exists" in the original (2). And again x exists now at some time or other only if x exists now. So both (1) and (2) seem to be trivialities on your interpretation of presentism.

That doesn't bother me, really. I should say it's a bit misleading to say the objection is a false dilemma and then not propose a further option that is to be added to the disjunction.

Essentially, you take presentism to be a metalinguistic or metaontological thesis: the thesis that "exists" means "exists now" or the property of existence is the property of existence now. Given that, the typical presentist's thesis that everything that exists is present is trivially true. And the typical eternalist thesis that some things exist that are not present is trivially false.

So the substantive debate arises not in the object language but in the metalanguage.

The more I think about it the more I like it.

Ernani M.


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