Saturday, May 11, 2019
More on presentism and truthmakers
The esteemed Bill Vallicella the truthmaker objection against presentism. I remain unimpressed by it. Can we break this impasse? Let me try by, first, proposing a diagnosis of the dialectical situation. Then I will respond to the points Bill makes in his latest post.
Truthmaking and common sense
Bill, Alex Pruss, and others who are impressed by the truthmaker objection seem to think that they are merely appealing to a commonsense assumption that it would be metaphysically costly to give up, and that the trouble with presentism is that it can be reconciled with this commonsense truthmaker assumption only with considerable effort. But I think that that is not at all what is going on. I would say that what the critics are appealing to is not in fact a commonsense assumption, but rather a tendentious metaphysical interpretation of a commonsense assumption. Presentism in no way conflicts with the commonsense truthmaker assumption itself. At most, it conflicts only with the tendentious metaphysics that the critics are reading into it.
Note, before I proceed, that neither side in this dispute is saying that whatever the commonsense view turns out to be must ipso facto be the correct view. Common sense can be wrong. But I think both sides would agree that common sense is innocent until proven guilty, so that, all things being equal, it is better for a view to be consistent with common sense. And what I am arguing is that, though Bill and others seem to think that presentism is at odds with common sense vis-à-vis truthmaking, they are mistaken about that.
Now, what common sense does indeed suppose is, I submit, something like this: Thoughts and sentences are, at least in most cases, made true by some reality beyond the mind and beyond language. For example, if I have the thought that the cat is on the mat or I utter the sentence “The cat is on the mat,” then that will be true only by virtue of something distinct from my thoughts and distinct from the sentence, namely the presence of some cat on some mat. In other words, common sense presupposes some kind of realism, as opposed to idealism or linguistic idealism.
Naturally, common sense allows that there are some thoughts and utterances that are made true by facts about mind or language. For example, the thought that I am now thinking about the cat on the mat is made true by something going on in my mind, and the sentence “The word ‘cat’ has three letters” is made true by some fact about language. But when I am thinking or speaking about the cat on the mat itself, the “truthmaker,” if you want to call it that, is something extra-mental and extra-linguistic.
Now, this commonsense assumption is applied to facts about the past no less than to facts about the present. The thought that Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March, and the sentence “Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March,” are true because, as a matter of extra-linguistic and mind-independent fact, Caesar really was assassinated on the Ides of March. Caesar, his murder, and the Ides of March aren’t things I made up or hallucinated, they aren’t mere collections of ideas in my mind or in some collection of minds, and they aren’t mere byproducts of how we use words or the like.
In no way is this at odds with presentism. Presentism holds that, where temporal things are concerned (as opposed to eternal or aeviternal things) only present things exist. Hence, the cat on the mat exists, but Caesar and his assassination no longer do. But this in no way conflicts with the commonsense assumption I’ve been describing, because it doesn’t somehow make Caesar and his assassination mind-dependent or language-dependent. It is still the case that the thought that Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March and the sentence “Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March” are true only because of something extra-mental and extra-linguistic, namely Caesar’s really having been assassinated on the Ides of March.
So far so good. The trouble begins only when contemporary analytic philosophers come along, take the innocuous commonsense assumption I’ve been describing, and transform it into something they call The Truthmaker Principle ©, which is the centerpiece of something called Truthmaker Theory (patent pending). It is proposed that what common sense is committed to is the assumption that thoughts and sentences are made true by what exists. Then it is suggested that this must be understand to mean what exists simpliciter or full stop. And then it is pointed out that in that case, whatever it is that makes thoughts and sentences about Caesar and the Ides of March true must be the same sort of thing that makes thoughts and sentences about the cat on the mat true. The next thing you know, we are seriously entertaining the strange thesis that Caesar’s assassination must exist despite this event’s having ended over two millennia ago. The sequel is that many dissertations, journal articles, and blog posts are written, many chins are earnestly pulled and brows furrowed, and (in my case, at least) some eyes are rolled.
Whatever we want to say about this, it has nothing to do with common sense, and thus inherits none of the presumed innocence of common sense. I would imagine that, if asked, common sense would say that truthmakers need not exist. After all, common sense would say, the sentence that “Unicorns don’t exist” is true, but that’s not because of anything that exists. Rather, the sentence is true precisely because unicorns don’t exist. All common sense wants to say is that it is something about extra-mental and extra-linguistic reality that makes the sentence true, namely that there aren’t any unicorns in extra-mental or extra-linguistic reality. That’s all the “truthmaking” we need. We don’t need something to exist in order for the sentence to be true. Perhaps common sense needs to be modified here. We might say that the fact that unicorns exist is in some sense real, even if unicorns themselves are not. But the point is that common sense itself doesn’t say this – it doesn’t ask or answer the sort of questions that truthmaker theorists might ask and answer.
Similarly, I imagine that common sense would say that there’s nothing in its assumption that thoughts and sentences are made true by extra-mental and extra-linguistic reality that requires that even existent “truthmakers” must exist full stop. After all, the cat still exists and Caesar doesn’t, and yet neither depends on mind or language for the reality it has or had. The Aristotelian-Thomistic philosopher (the ally of common sense) would add that it is odd to insist on talking about existence simpliciter or full stop. After all, he says, we need to distinguish time, eternity, and aeviternity. There is a clear sense in which what is eternal exists simpliciter or full stop, since it never comes into being or passes away. But where temporal things are concerned, talk of what exists simpliciter or full stop is misleading, precisely because temporal things do come into being and pass away. We can say that Caesar’s assassination existed simpliciter or full stop, since of course it did in fact occur. But what does it mean to say that his assassination exists simpliciter or full stop, if this is not meant as the assertion that it exists now? Does it mean that that it exists in an eternal way (as God does)? That would be false, and in any case it isn’t what Bill or other critics of presentism are saying. Does it mean that it exists in the way that past events are claimed to exist by presentism’s rival eternalism (which holds that past, present, and future things and events are equally real)? That is certainly not an assumption that common sense would make, nor would Bill or other critics of presentism claim that eternalism is presupposed by common sense. Into the bargain, this interpretation would beg the question against presentism.
But what, then, does it mean to say that Caesar’s assassination exists simpliciter? However we answer this question, we are, again, going well beyond anything assumed by common sense. And thus we are going well beyond anything that would put the presentist at odds with common sense.
Notice that there is nothing special about presentism here. Go back to the unicorn example. It so happens that in the truthmaker literature, there is a lot of heavy going not only about presentism, but also about “negative existentials,” as they are called. A thought or sentence to the effect that there are no unicorns would be an example of a negative existential. How can our affirmation of such a thought or sentence be reconciled with the “truthmaker principle” as it is construed by many truthmaker theorists? Do we have to give up the principle? Do we have to modify it and allow that at least some truths lack truthmakers? Do we have to say that the fact that there are no unicorns is among the things that exist, and that this existent is what makes true the sentence “There are no unicorns”? Is it metaphysically extravagant to affirm the existence of such facts?
You might think this a weighty metaphysical conundrum, or you might think it much ado about very little. Either way, it is hardly a serious reason to stop affirming negative existentials like “There are no unicorns,” “There are no mermaids,” etc. If we have to give up either negative existentials or “truthmaker theory,” then we should give up the latter. But again, this does not mean giving up what common sense supposes vis-à-vis “truthmaking.” It merely means giving up some metaphysical construct that philosophers have come up with.
Same with presentism. If presentism conflicts with anything, it conflicts only with some tendentious theses of “truthmaker theory,” not with anything common sense supposes about what makes thoughts and sentences true.
It seems to me that if Bill is going to insist that the truthmaker objection is a major challenge to presentism, then he ought also to start writing blog posts about what a grave challenge the truthmaker principle is to negative existentials, so that anyone who ever denies that something exists (unicorns, mermaids, the Easter Bunny, etc.) – which would, of course, include Bill himself – owes us an explanation of how he can reconcile this denial with the principle. But if he does not think that our practice of denying the existence of things is problematic (and I am sure he does not), despite its apparent conflict with the truthmaker principle, then it seems to me that, to be consistent, he should conclude that the truthmaker objection to presentism is not after all as worrisome as he has taken it to be.
Presentism and truthmaking
Let’s turn to the points Bill makes in his latest post. Bill writes: “I will take [Feser] to be saying that the truth-maker of 'Caesar was assassinated' is the fact of Caesar's having been assassinated.” That’s correct. That is indeed the view I expressed in earlier posts replying to him. However, Bill goes on to object:
This is a concrete state of affairs, the subject constituent of which is Caesar himself. This state of affairs cannot exist unless Caesar himself exists. Now Feser grants the obvious point that Caesar no longer exists. That is is a datum that no reasonable person can deny. It follows that the truth-making state of affairs no longer exists either.
On presentism, however, what no longer exists does not exist at all.
End quote. But the objection fails. For it is, I would say, simply not true that “the fact of Caesar's having been assassinated… cannot exist unless Caesar himself exists.” The correct thing to say is that the fact of Caesar’s having been assassinated cannot exist unless Caesar himself existed. And Caesar did indeed once exist. Hence it is false to conclude that “the truth-making state of affairs no longer exists either.” The state of affairs of Caesar’s having been assassinated does exist, even though Caesar himself doesn’t. (To be sure, the state of affairs of Caesar’s being assassinated – present tense – will exist only if Caesar does, but that is not what we are talking about. Again, what we are talking about is the state of affairs of Caesar’s having been assassinated.)
Bill says that unless Caesar exists, “there is nothing to ground the truth that Caesar was assassinated.” But of course there is. What grounds it is the fact that he did indeed exist and was in fact assassinated. That’s the difference between sentences like “Caesar was assassinated” and sentences like “The Easter Bunny was assassinated.” The Easter Bunny never did exist and thus never was assassinated. Hence there is nothing to ground the truth of the latter sentence.
Bill is unhappy with this, apparently because he assumes that we should be able to describe all truthmakers in a tenseless way. But there is nothing in what common sense says about truthmaking that requires that assumption, and it is an assumption that simply begs the question against presentism.
Bill might object that the fact that Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March is a weird sort of fact if Caesar does not exist. I don’t think it is weird at all. What would be weird is to say that Caesar exists despite having been assassinated, and that his assassination exists despite being an event that ended over two millennia ago! Be that as it may, there are, as I noted in a previous post in this exchange with Bill, various kinds of fact and various kinds of truths. It is a mistake to suppose that all facts and all truths must be of the same kind, and thus a mistake to suppose that all truthmakers must be of the same kind. It is also important to note that “exists” is what Thomists would call an analogical term. When we apply it to things as diverse as substances, accidents, relations, facts, temporal things, aeviternal things, eternal things, etc., we are not using it in a univocal way, even if we are not using it in an equivocal way either. Hence we should not expect that what is true of some existents is going to be true of others.
Naturally, all of this raises a host of questions, but the point is that what Bill seems to think is a clear and straightforward difficulty for presentism is in fact not clear or straightforward at all. One has to make tendentious metaphysical assumptions, and arguably question-begging ones at that, in order to generate the tension Bill thinks exists between presentism and the truthmaker principle.
Presentism, common sense, and begging the question
As I’ve said, I would not claim that whatever view is the commonsense view must ipso facto be true. Still, that presentism is the commonsense view cannot plausibly be denied. Yet Bill denies it. He writes:
Presentism… is not common sense, nor is it 'fallout' from ordinary language. Speaking with the vulgar I say things like, 'The Berlin Wall no longer exists.' I am using ordinary English to record a well-known historical fact. Saying this, however, I do not thereby commit myself to the controversial metaphysical claim that wholly past items are nothing at all and that present items alone exist, are real, or have being. The Berlin sentence and its innumerable colleagues are neutral with respect to the issues that divide presentists and eternalists.
End quote. I have to say that I find this claim very strange. Take the following two propositions:
(1) The Berlin Wall does not exist.
(2) The Berlin Wall exists.
Bill seems to be claiming that on a natural, commonsense reading of the sentence “The Berlin Wall no longer exists,” that sentence does not plausibly entail (1) rather than (2). Rather, the sentence, as far as commonsense is concerned, is neutral between (1) and (2). Seriously? Surely, “The Berlin Wall no longer exists” is, on a natural or commonsense reading, equivalent to “The Berlin Wall does not exist anymore.” And surely, on a natural or commonsense reading, the statement that the Berlin Wall does not exist anymore entails that the Berlin wall does not exist. Whether or not you think presentism is true, then, it seems quite a stretch to say that it “is not common sense, nor is it 'fallout' from ordinary language.”
In response to the charge that he is begging the question, Bill writes:
I do not assume that only presently existing items can serve as truth-makers. What I assume is that only existing items can serve as truth-makers. To appreciate this, consider timeless entities. God, classically conceived, is an example… Or consider so-called 'abstract' objects such as the number 7. It is true that 7 exists. What makes this truth true? The number 7! So again a truth-maker needn't be temporally present, or in time at all, to serve as a truth-maker. But it must exist.
End quote. Well, OK, fine. But I think Bill is missing the point I was making. He says that the truth of “Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March” presupposes that Caesar exists. I would say: If that is meant as a roundabout way of saying that Caesar existed, then that is true. Of course, Bill doesn’t mean it that way. So how does he mean it? Does he mean that Caesar exists eternally, or perhaps aeviternally? Surely not, since Caesar was not God or an angel or a Platonic Form. Does he mean that Caesar exists in time? Naturally, Bill would say that Caesar existed in time, but he also agrees that Caesar does not exist now. But in what way does Caesar exist, then, if it is not eternally, or aeviternally, or in time now? I imagine that Bill would respond by saying: “Caesar exists in time, but not now – rather, he exists at some earlier point in time.” But that would beg the question against the presentist, who denies that there exist any points in time other than now.
Perhaps Bill would say that there is some further sense in which Caesar might be said to exist – not eternally, not aeviternally, not now, and not (on pain of begging the question) at some earlier point in time. But if so, then we are owed an explanation of exactly what sense that is. And whatever the answer is, it too would beg the question, at least against me, since I would deny that there are any further alternatives, and I would certainly deny that we need to posit any further ones in order to respect commonsense qualms about truthmaking.
Facts and truthmaking
Bill says that my position faces a dilemma. The truthmaker for the thought that Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March would, he says, have to be either a “fact that” or a “fact of.” The fact that would be the proposition that Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March. The fact of would be a concrete state of affairs. But it cannot be the first, because no proposition can be its own truthmaker. And it cannot be the second, he says, because Caesar and his assassination do not exist, according to presentism. Hence the concrete state of affairs that would be the fact of does not exist, and thus cannot serve as a truthmaker.
In response, I would say that Bill is simply describing the second horn of this purported dilemma in a tendentious way. Yes, Caesar and his assassination do not exist, and hence the fact of Caesar’s being assassinated does not exist. But it doesn’t follow that the fact of Caesar’s having been assassinated does not exist. And that can serve as the truthmaker. The fact of needn’t be what Bill supposes. Bill will not like this since, again, he seems to assume that we must describe all truthmakers tenselessly. But that assumption is, as I have said, question-begging.
In the comments section of Bill’s post, a reader points out that what I am talking about are facts that are neither propositions nor states of affairs with existing constituents, and that Bill “seemed to assume that such a thing is impossible rather than directly addressing the possibility” and “didn't address this other than to deny it.” That is exactly right. When I talk about the fact that Caesar was assassinated, I am not talking about a proposition; rather, I am talking about what the proposition that Caesar was assassinated is about or represents. Nor am I talking about states of affairs with existing constituents, since Caesar and his assassination no longer exist. Bill’s reader correctly notes that I am talking about a third possibility that Bill ignores.
Am I talking about a state of affairs of some other kind? That depends on what you mean by “state of affairs,” an expression that is used by philosophers in different ways. What I would say is that there are simply various ways that things are and various ways that things were, independently of thought and language, and that those are the sorts of thing I am talking about when I say that the fact that the cat is on the mat, the fact that Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March, etc. are what make true the corresponding thoughts and sentences. Since there are these ways that things are and ways that things were, you can say that they have a kind of being and thus, if you want, that they exist (even if, in the case of ways that things were, they concern things do not themselves exist anymore).
Does this raise metaphysical issues? Of course. What matters for present purposes, though, is this. First, what I’m saying doesn’t in any way conflict with what common sense supposes vis-à-vis truthmaking. Common sense simply doesn’t get remotely close to considering recherché ontological questions about the difference between propositions and facts, the nature of facts whose constituents no longer exist, etc. Hence, whatever qualms Bill has about my position, he cannot reasonably say that it is somehow in tension with commonsense or intuitive assumptions about truthmaking.
Second, the issues raised are not unique to presentism. Again, that there are no unicorns is also among the ways that things are. Now, how can there exist facts about what does not exist? Fair question, but no one thinks the fact that we can ask it poses some urgent, earthshaking problem for our practice of saying things like “There are no unicorns.” Similarly, that we can raise metaphysical questions about the nature of facts about things that no longer exist does not constitute some urgent, earthshaking problem for the presentist thesis that Caesar’s assassination does not exist.
I would say: Unicorns don’t exist and never did, and Caesar’s assassination does not exist even though it once did. Truthmaker theory has to accommodate itself to these data rather than the other way around. Bill’s problem, it seems to me, is that he is letting the tail of tendentious contemporary truthmaker theory wag the dog of (what I claim is) the presentism that common sense takes for granted. To be sure, if he wants to present some argument for favoring the tendentious metaphysics over common sense, that’s fine. Again, what I object to is the suggestion that the burden of proof is on the presentist rather than on the tendentious metaphysician.
Some loose ends
Bill rejects the claim I made in an earlier post to the effect that the truthmaker objection to presentism can succeed only if the critic has a plausible alternative to presentism (and the alternatives, I argue in Bill notes that, despite his criticisms of presentism, he does not embrace the standard eternalist alternative, and in fact he is willing to allow that it might turn out that all the extant theories of time are untenable., all fail).
This might be true of Bill as a matter of biographical fact, but it is irrelevant to the point I was making. The truthmaker objection to presentism holds that a sentence like “Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March” can be true only if Caesar exists, and the objection concedes that Caesar does not exist now. But then the person raising the objection owes us an explanation of exactly how Caesar can intelligibly be said to exist if he doesn’t exist now (and also doesn’t exist eternally or aeviternally). And as I noted above, the only answer on offer is the claim that he exists at some past point in time, as theories like eternalism and the growing block theory would hold. But in that case, the truthmaker objection, to be intelligible, at least implicitly presupposes that some such alternative theory is correct. It will not do, then, to say that one can coherently press the truthmaker objection against presentism and at the same time hold that none of the alternative theories are any good. The objection will not work unless some alternative theory also works.
Finally, Bill comments in passing on a brief remark I made in Aristotle’s Revenge (at p. 239) to the effect that there is a sense in which past events exist now insofar as their effects remain. Bill says:
[I]t is not clear to me how this notion (causal trace theory) is supposed to cohere with what Feser says elsewhere in his section on time. How does it cohere with what we discussed above? It is one thing to say that the truth-maker of 'Caesar was assassinated' is the fact that C. was assassinated, and quite another to say that the truth-maker exists in the present in the form of present effects of C.'s past existence.
End quote. I don’t think Bill read what I wrote with sufficient care. What I actually wrote in Aristotle’s Revenge is that “past and future exist now only in the loose sense that they are, as it were, causally contained in what exists now” but that “what actually exists in the strict sense is what exists now” (p. 239, emphasis added). The qualifiers “loose” and “strict” should have made it clear what I meant, and why there is no conflict between what I said about causal traces and the presentist thesis that past events do not exist. And I never said (nor would I say) that Caesar’s effect on the present is the truthmaker for the sentence “Caesar was assassinated.”