Tuesday, April 16, 2019
Vallicella on existence-entailing relations and presentism
his critical response to my defense of presentism in In the first part of his critique (to which I responded in ), Bill raised the influential “truthmaker objection” against presentism. In his latest post, he rehearses another popular objection, which appeals to the nature of relations. I don’t think this objection is any more formidable than the truthmaker objection, but here too Bill disagrees..
The objection goes like this. For at least some relations, it seems that both relata have to exist in order for the relation to hold. For example, if I am standing next to you, the relation a is next to b holds of us precisely because you and I both exist. Now a causes b seems to be that sort of relation as well. Something non-existent can hardly cause anything, and if something has been caused, it too must exist.
Now, presentism claims that within the temporal domain, only present objects and events exist. (I say “within the temporal domain” because, as I noted in my earlier post, a presentist could hold that in addition to presently existing objects and events there are also things that exist in an eternal or aeviternal way.) But then (so it is claimed) it seems we have a problem. For suppose we say that Caesar’s assassination is among the things that have caused me to refer to it just now. Caesar and his assassination, being past, do not exist. So how can they be causally related to me? Hence (it is concluded) presentism cannot account for such relations.
Many contemporary philosophers seem to regard this as a real chin-puller, but once again (and with nothing but respect for my good pal Bill) I find it difficult to stifle a yawn. The reason is this. From the commonsense point of view, and the Aristotelian point of view that systematizes it, causal and other relations don’t require that both relata exist now. They just require that they exist at some time. Hence, for Caesar’s assassination to be among the things that cause me to refer to it, it suffices that Caesar and his assassination did exist in the past, not that they now exist.
In his latest post, Bill objects:
But this is not the operative assumption. The operative assumption is simply that for an n-adic relation to hold between or among n relata, all the relata have to exist, period. They have to exist simpliciter; they don't have to exist now.
End quote. I do think Bill is missing the point. For the claim that the relata “have to exist, period” or “have to exist simpliciter” is simply not one that the presentist would accept in the first place. For where temporal phenomena are concerned, there just is no existence period or existence simpliciter in the “timeless” sense Bill seems to have in mind. There is only what exists now, what used to exist but no longer does, and what will exist. To insist that relations within the temporal realm must involve things that exist simpliciter (as opposed to existing now or being the sort of thing that used to exist) is simply to beg the question against presentism.
This should be even more obviously true of the example Bill himself actually uses, which is the relation a is earlier than b. Does the truth of a proposition like Caesar’s assassination was earlier than Feser’s writing this blog post require that both events exist simpliciter? Why on earth would a presentist agree with that assumption? On the contrary, the presentist should say that a relation like a is earlier than b is precisely an Exhibit A case in which the items related do not exist at the same time. In particular, it is a relation such that a had ceased to exist by the time b had come into existence. If the critic of presentism doesn’t like this way of talking, and insists that a and b must exist simpliciter, that is his problem, not the presentist’s. The burden is on the critic to provide an argument for taking this insistence seriously. It will not do for him to pretend that he has raised some devastating objection when the objection in fact rests on a question-begging assumption.
To be sure, Bill writes:
It is important to bear in mind that the presentist too must make use of the notion of existence simpliciter. The thesis of presentism is not the logical truth that whatever exists (present-tense) exists now. It is the thesis that whatever exists simpliciter exists now. Equivalently: only present items exist simpliciter. From this it follows that wholly past items such as the event of my having eaten lunch do not exist simpliciter. But then the objection is up and running.
End quote. But the objection is not up and running, and again it seems to me that Bill is missing the point. Yes, Caesar’s assassination does not now exist simpliciter (if one insists on talking that way). But it did exist simpliciter at one time, and that is enough for it to bear a causal relation to me.
To fully savor the problem we cast it in the mold of an aporetic tetrad:
1. All genuine relations are either existence-entailing or existence-symmetric.
2. Earlier than is a genuine relation.
3. Presentism: only temporally present items exist.
4. Some events are earlier than others.
Each limb of the tetrad is exceedingly plausible. But they cannot all be true: any three, taken together, entail the negation of the remaining limb. For example, the first three entail the negation of the fourth. To solve the problem, we must reject one of the limbs.
End quote. Now, the trouble with this is that proposition 1 is ambiguous. Both sides would agree that there is a sense in which the relations in question entail existence. For example, both sides would agree that unicorns cannot cause anything, because they don’t exist and never did. But the presentist would say that some relations (such as a is earlier than b, and a causes b) require only that the relata did exist at some time, whereas the critic of presentism insists that the relations require something else.
Require what, exactly? That the relata both exist now? The critic of presentism will deny that that is what he is saying. But what, then? That one of the relata exists at one point in time and that the other exists at another point in time, where both points in time are equally real? But if that is what the critic means, then he is begging the question against presentism, since the presentist denies that past and future points in time are real.
What is going on with the objection from existence-entailing relations, I would argue, is that an essentially non-presentist conception of temporal existence is inadvertently smuggled in as if it were neutral ground on which both sides could formulate and debate the objection. And it is a conception that is very far from a commonsense or Aristotelian way of understanding time.
Now, it is important to note that in Aristotle’s Revenge, I defend the commonsense/Aristotelian conception of time at some length before I ever get to recherché contemporary objections to presentism like the truthmaker objection and the objection from existence-entailing relations. The reason is that I think these objections sound remotely plausible only if one has already gotten far away from common sense – for example, if one has started to think of time as if it were like space, so that past and future events are like distant spatial locations. For only then does it start to seem intelligible that a past or future event might be said to exist even though it is not present.
When a philosopher says, of something that exists in time (as opposed to eternally or aeviternally), “Sure, it doesn’t exist now, but does it exist simpliciter?”, I am inclined to channel Wittgenstein and say that language has gone on holiday. We are no longer using “exists” in a way that reflects time as we ordinarily understand it. Rather, we are using it in some highly theoretical sense that reflects a tendentious reconstruction of the notion of time. (In fact, I would say, it reflects an abandonment of the notion of time and its replacement with some quasi-spatialized ersatz.)
That doesn’t by itself entail that that theoretical sense is wrong – though I certainly think it is – but it does mean that, since it is tendentious, it ought not to be put forward as if it were neutral ground on which to construct an aporia.
Something similar is going on with the truthmaker objection. From a commonsense presentist point of view, the “truthmaker” for the proposition that Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March is the fact that Caesar really was assassinated on the Ides of March, and nothing more need be said. There are facts about what was the case just as there are facts about what is the case. Facts about what was the case will seem problematic only if one supposes that all facts must be of the same type, and describable in some timeless way – that is to say, only if one begs the question against presentism.
Part of what is going here, I would suggest, is that the critic of presentism is thinking, no doubt without realizing it, in a kind of Parmenidean way. “There is just what is, full stop, and what is not, full stop!” And Lesson 1 of Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy is that that is a deep mistake, and the source of countless other mistakes. Carving the territory up into “what is” and “what is not” (or what exists simpliciter and what does not) is too crude. We need, for example, to recognize that between actuality and nothingness, there is potentiality, which is real even though it is not actual. We need to see that in addition to what is, we can speak of what was and what will be. We need to realize that notions like being, real, and existence are analogical, applied in related but still distinct senses to distinct kinds of thing. And so forth. Reality is simply more nuanced than the Parmenidean supposes.
Another factor, I think, is the prevalence of the time travel motif in contemporary pop culture. Now, I love time travel stories and always have. But metaphysically speaking, they are sheer incoherent nonsense (for reasons I set out at length in Aristotle’s Revenge). They seem to work only if one doesn’t think too carefully about them. The trouble is that a steady diet of this kind of stuff has given people muddleheaded views about time. They start to think of past and future objects and events as if they are, or at least could be, “out there” somewhere, but just hard or impossible to reach. In short, they start to think in an essentially “eternalist” way about time, without realizing it. Then they hear an objection like the truthmaker objection or the objection from existence-entailing relations and think “Hmm, good point,” because they suppose it makes sense in the first place (as the presentist does not, or should not) to think that past and future events might exist to serve as relata or truthmakers.
In fact, I would say, such objections can be seen to be non-starters when one approaches them from the point of view of the correct conception of the nature of time, which (I would argue) is the commonsense Aristotelian conception. Hence, as I say, I defend that conception at considerable length in Aristotle’s Revenge before I discuss the contemporary objections in question.
Longtime readers know that it is a recurring theme of my work that the standard moves made by contemporary philosophers where issues in natural theology, ethics, philosophy of mind, metaphysics, and other areas of philosophy are concerned typically rest on presuppositions that Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophers would reject, and ignore ideas that Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophers would defend. The same thing is true in the philosophy of time. Here as elsewhere, getting things right requires getting outside the box in which the debate is usually conducted.