Friday, May 8, 2020
Presentism and analogical language
Terms are used univocally when they are used in the same sense, as the word “bat” is in both “The baseball player swung the bat” and “The cricket player swung the bat.” Terms are used equivocally when why are used in completely unrelated senses, as the term “bat” is in “The baseball player swung the bat” and “A bat flew in through Bruce Wayne’s window.” The analogical use of terms is a middle ground kind of usage. I gave an example when discussing Aristotelian realism in of William Lane Craig’s book God Over All:
[There is] a common objection to the effect that it is mysterious what the Aristotelian means by saying that a pattern like triangularity is “in” particular things. But this usage is no more mysterious than other common usages of “in.” The way a person is in a club is very different from the way a spoon is in a drawer, and both are different still from the way a person might be in danger or the way World War II occurred in the twentieth century. Why is it any more mysterious to say that triangularity is in a billiards rack or a pyramid? As Aquinas would point out, the word “in” is one that is used analogically. There is something in the way a person is in a club or the way triangularity is in a pyramid that is analogous to the way a spoon is in a drawer, even if it is not exactly the same way. There is no reason to think that the spoon-in-a-drawer sort of case is the only one in which the word “in” has a legitimate use.
Notice that “in” is used literally in each case. To say that a term is used analogically is not necessarily to say that it is being used metaphorically. Note also that the usages in each case are not entirely unrelated, as the usages of “bat” in the case of baseball and in the case of Bruce Wayne’s window are entirely unrelated. But neither are they univocal, since there is no common genus to which being located inside a drawer, having occurred during the twentieth century, belonging to a club, etc. all belong. The first is a spatial relationship, the second a temporal one, the third a matter of certain conventions being observed, and so on. (For a more detailed introduction to analogical language, see , pp. 256-63.)
Presentism is the view that where time is concerned, only present things exist and past and future things do not. A presentist could also hold (as I do) that in addition to what exists in time, there is also what exists in a strictly eternal way (God, and on some views Platonic Forms and other abstract objects) and what exists in an aeviternal way that is a middle ground between time and eternity (angels). I defend presentism in , and here at the blog I have said more in defense of presentism against and against .
The truthmaker objection holds that, since for every true statement there must be something that makes it true, it follows that there must be something that makes (for example) “Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March” true. But what makes this true is Caesar’s having been assassinated on the Ides of March. And if this past event is to serve as a truthmaker, it must exist, no less than present objects and events exist. As my regular readers know, I consider this objection overrated and indeed extremely weak, for reasons spelled out in the earlier posts just linked to. But many philosophers are impressed by it, including the esteemed Bill Vallicella, who periodically posts about this topic at Maverick Philosopher.
Now, the analogical use of terms is in my view crucial to understanding where the truthmaker objection goes wrong. Thomists famously take “real,” “being,” and related terms to give us the paradigm cases of analogical usage. Actuality and potentiality, substances and attributes, parts and wholes, etc. all have being or reality, but not in a univocal sense, and philosophical problems and paradoxes can arise when we overlook this.
For example, if we think that “real” always has the sense it does when we apply it to what is actual, then we are liable to overlook the real distinction between actuality and potentiality, and be tempted to endorse Parmenides’ denial of change. If we think that the parts of a thing are real in the same sense that the whole is, we are liable to be tempted by Zeno’s paradox of parts. The Thomist argues that while potentiality is real and not nothing, it is not real in the same sense in which actuality is real, but rather has reality in an analogical sense. Similarly, the parts of a whole are in it virtually (to use the Scholastic jargon), and while virtual parts are not nothing, neither do they have the same kind of reality that the whole does. (See Scholastic Metaphysics for more on these particular issues.)
What I want to suggest is that past events are like this too. There is a sense in which Caesar’s assassination is part of reality. After all, it happened; it is not a fictional event. But that does not entail that it is real in the same sense that your current reading of this sentence is real. To suppose otherwise is simply to assume that the past and the present are “real” in a univocal way. It is like assuming that triangularity must be in a billiards rack, or a club member must be in a club, in the same sense in which a spoon is in a drawer. It simply overlooks the point that “real” is an analogical term.
Bill seems to me consistently to make this mistake in his discussions of this issue. For example, he points out that a person can be in a state of regretting some past event. But you can’t regret something that never happened, so that “every such state has as its accusative an event that exists.” Hence such past events exist. This, he suggests, “blow[s] presentism clean out of the water.”
I’m amazed at Bill’s confidence in this argument, because the fallacy seems to me obvious. Presentists simply would not (or at least should not) accept the premise that the past events in question exist in the same sense that present events do. Yes, you can say if you like that some past event that you regret “exists” if all you mean by that is that it really did happen and wasn’t something you hallucinated, or part of a fictional story, or whatever. But it simply doesn’t follow that it is real in the same sense that present events are real. The critic of presentism is free to argue otherwise, but the argument Bill gives doesn’t make that case. It simply assumes a univocal sense of “exists” and thus begs the question.
To be sure, Bill realizes that a critic might raise such a charge against him. He imagines an exchange with such a critic going as follows:
"You're begging the question! You are using 'exist(s)' tenselessly. But on presentism, the only legitimate uses of 'exist(s)' are present-tensed."
Reply: Please note that you too must use 'exist(s)' tenselessly to formulate your presentist thesis on pain of your thesis collapsing into the miserable tautology, 'Whatever in time exists (present-tense) exists (present-tense).' That's fake news. To advance a substantive claim you must say, 'Whatever in time exists simpliciter exists at present' where 'simpliciter' is cashed out by 'tenselessly.'
End quote. There are several problems with this. First, what does the claim that “the only legitimate uses of 'exist(s)' are present-tensed” amount to? Is this a grammatical claim about the tenses of the English word “exists”? Surely not, since no one denies that the past tense “existed” and the future tense “will exist” are grammatically legitimate uses. Perhaps what Bill has in mind, then, is that the presentist makes a semantic claim to the effect that to say that something exists means that it exists in the present; or a metaphysical claim to the effect that whatever exists in fact exists in the present.
But that is false. The presentist does not make such claims, or at least presentists need not make them. Again, I would say that eternal things and aeviternal things exist, but they do not in the relevant sense exist in the present, because they don’t exist in time, but outside of time. I have also allowed that past events can be said to “exist” if all that that entails is that they really did happen and aren’t fictional. They just don’t exist in the same sense in which present things do. How could they? They’re past – over and done with, no longer around, etc.
Second, for that reason, presentism does not collapse into a tautology, miserable or otherwise. If a presentist were to claim that “exists” means “exists in the present,” then yes, it would be a tautology to say that only present things exist. But again, that is not what the presentist says, or at least it is certainly not what he needs to say.
Third, there is no such thing as “’exists’ simpliciter” if “exists” is not a univocal term. And if Bill thinks that terms like “exists,” “real,” and the like are univocal, he needs to argue for this claim if his criticisms of presentism are to have any force. It cuts no ice simply to take it for granted.
In , Bill writes:
On presentism, the present alone exists, and not in the trivial sense that the present alone exists at present, but in the substantive sense that the present alone exists simpliciter. But if so, then the past is nothing, a realm of sheer nonbeing. But surely the past is not nothing: it happened, and is in some sense 'there' to be investigated by historians and archeologists and paleontologists.
End quote. Now, of course no presentist need deny that “the past is not nothing: it happened.” That is not what is at issue. What is at issue is whether that entails that the past is real in the same sense in which the present is real. The presentist would say that the past is real precisely insofar as it really happened, unlike purely fictional objects and events. It just isn’t real in any sense beyond that. Again, if you want, you can even say that past objects and events “exist” if all that means is that it they actually existed and happened, by contrast with fictional objects and events, which never existed or happened. None of that entails that past objects and events “exist” in the same sense that present ones do.
This tendency to appeal to premises that seem to me to beg the question against presentism (certainly against my form of presentism) is one of the features of Bill’s approach to this subject that I find frustrating. But perhaps I'm misunderstanding him; I'm happy to be corrected. Another tendency that I find frustrating is Bill's predilection for assessing presentism independently of any assessment of rival views, such as eternalism and the growing block theory. I maintain that that cannot fruitfully be done. In the nature of the case, to claim that the past exists in the same sense in which the present does at least suggests either an eternalist or a growing block position. Perhaps Bill can accept this and then go on to defend either eternalism or the growing block theory. Or perhaps he could show that his claim does not in fact imply either eternalism or the growing block theory, which would entail saying at least enough about them to differentiate them from his own view. Either way, it will not do to attack presentism without taking some stand on those other positions. Otherwise, any problem you think you are solving by rejecting presentism is bound to give way to a no less serious problem elsewhere.
For example, one of the criticisms I have repeatedly raised against the claim that present events and past events are real in the same sense is that it appears to collapse time into eternity, effectively making the series of events an atemporal series, like a number series. In a post from the other day, Bill seems to me to let this atemporalist cat leap right out of the bag alongside the univocalist one. For though he stops short of endorsing it, he proposes for our consideration the following argument:
ARGUMENT FROM THE UNIVOCITY OF 'EXIST(S)'
a) Both temporal and atemporal items exist.
b) Whatever exists exists in the same sense and in the same way: there are no different modes of existence such that timeless items exist in one way and time-bound items in another. 'Exist(s)' is univocal across all applications.
c) Atemporal items exist tenselessly. Therefore:
d) Temporal items exist tenselessly. Therefore:
e) Julius Caesar and all wholly past items exist tenselessly despite being wholly past.
End quote. Now, why on earth should any presentist (especially an Aristotelian-Thomist presentist like myself) be impressed by an argument that simply assumes “the univocity of ‘exist(s)’”? How on earth can this argument avoid the implication that present things and past things (like Julius Caesar) exist atemporally? And why on earth should any presentist not regard an argument that appears to assimilate the temporal to the atemporal as a reductio ad absurdum?
I’ve repeatedly urged readers of Aristotle’s Revenge not to read the remarks I make there about the truthmaker objection before reading the nearly 70 pages worth of material on the philosophy of time that lead up to them. The reason is that, by the time I get to that objection, I have already argued that rivals to presentism like the ones mentioned above cannot be right. Hence if the truthmaker objection would force us to accept one of those rivals, it needn’t delay us for any more than the couple of pages I devote to it. Bill’s series of posts on this topic seem to me to illustrate the dangers of trying to press the truthmaker objection in isolation from consideration of these larger issues. All the same, I thank him for forcing us presentists to articulate our position with greater precision and to defend it in greater depth. I always enjoy and profit from reading Bill even on those occasions when I find myself disagreeing with him.