Monday, May 14, 2007

Reflections on Eternalism: Part 1

Eternalism is the thesis that all times are equally real; the past just as real as the present, and the future just as real as the past. If eternalism is true, does it make sense to look forward to future events? I think there are good arguments to show that it does not.

Assume that there is some future event e that I am looking forward to. What exactly am I looking forward to? Not e’s existence, for this is eternal, and so e “already” exists. If I am waiting for e’s existence, I need wait no more. Am I waiting for my being present at e? But if I am ever present at e, I am eternally present at e. Assume for the moment that perdurantism is true, so that, instead of being wholly present at each time they exist, objects persist by having successive temporal parts. In that case I cannot wait to be identical to a future temporal part of me, for if we take the view according to which it is my whole temporal extent which is properly said to be me, then I cannot identical to some proper temporal part of myself. The temporal part of me which is present at e is eternally a temporal part of me. On the other hand, if we take the view that each of my temporal parts constitutes a distinct, momentary self, I cannot look forward to being identical to my momentary future self which is present at e, for if the self which anticipates e is not identical to the self which is present at e, it never will be. And if it is identical to it, there is nothing to anticipate, for e is eternally present to that self. If we assume instead that endurantism is true, the problem is still not solved, at least so long as we still uphold eternalism. For if, e.g., I have the time indexed property of voting for the Democratic Presidential candidate on November 4th 2008, I eternally have the time indexed property of voting for the Democratic Presidential candidate on November 4th 2008. Once again, it seems there is nothing for me to anticipate.

If all events are eternally existent, it makes as much (and as little) sense to “look backward” to past events as it does to “look forward” to future ones. So if, e.g., I’m sitting in class and the class has been going for ten minutes, why do I not “posticipate” the beginning of the class, just as I anticipate the end of the class when there are only ten minutes left to go? After all, if eternalism is true, there is no such thing as “the passage of time” or the absolute termination of a process[1]. We never get “closer to” future events, at least not in any sense we don’t also get “closer to” past events. We can say that we “get closer” to future events in the sense that if A and B are two time slices of me, and B is later than A, then B is closer to a future event e than A is. The later a time slice of me is, the closer it is to e. But we can say with equal truth that if C and D are time slices of me, and C is earlier than D, then C is closer to a past event e’ than D is. The earlier a time slice of me is, the closer it is to e'. In some sense these notions count as “getting closer to an event”, because an object of zero temporal extent would, in the above senses, never get closer to anything. But since time does not pass, we never get closer to any event in an absolute sense. So it makes sense to anticipate the future if and only if it makes sense to posticipate the past. If it makes no sense to posticipate past events, as I think most would grant, we can conclude by a parity of reasoning that it also makes no sense to anticipate future ones.

So does it make sense to look forward to future events? If eternalism is true, I’m afraid it does not. Those who uphold common sense may take this as an indictment of eternalism. Those of us who uphold eternalism—who attempt to view things “under the form of eternity”, as Spinoza put it—can take it as confirmation of just how limited our everyday perspective on reality really is.

[1] A given entity may be temporally finite in the sense that it has temporal endpoints, but the entity itself—the segment which connects the endpoints—never ceases to be.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

A follow up on Necessary Existence

Granting with Timothy Williamson that singular propositions of the form “a does not exist” cannot be true[1], is there really no other way to accommodate the intuition that there are things which do not necessarily exist? Perhaps we could cash out the intuition some individuals, such as myself, do not necessarily exist as follows:

“It is possibly the case that a, b, c…; a_1, b_1, c_1…; a_n, b_n, c_n… exist and there is no x such that x is not identical to a and x is not identical to b and x is not identical to c…” (where, a, b, c, (etc.) are constants denoting everything existent with the sole exception of me. )


If the foregoing is true then, while the proposition “Jason Zarri does not exist” cannot be true, it does not follow that I necessarily exist. For it seems perfectly possible that everything besides me could have existed while it was also the case that these things were the only things which existed. It is not necessary for this to be the case that there exist some proposition which truly asserts my nonexistence. If a given possible world does not contain me, it fails to contain the proposition that I exist as well as the proposition that I do not exist, so Williams’ argument cannot go through. Though it is not possible that I lack existence, it is still true that there are possible worlds which do not contain me.


[1] In case you missed my last post, Williamson’s paper “Necessary Existents” can be found here: <http://www.philosophy.ox.ac.uk/members/twilliamson/index.htm>

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Necessary Existence, Truthmakers, and Modal Solipsism

This post developed out of some thoughts I had in response to the symposium on “The Contingency of Existence” at the Pacific APA convention in April, and also in response to Timothy Williamson’s paper “Necessary Existents”, which can be found here: <http://www.philosophy.ox.ac.uk/members/twilliamson/index.htm>. As I understand it, the problem with saying that a certain individual, say me, might not have existed is as follows: If I do not exist, then the proposition that I do not exist is true. If this proposition is true, however, it must exist. But if this proposition exists then so must I, for if I did not exist the proposition would have no subject to which it could attribute non-existence, and hence it could not assert my nonexistence. The proposition, if true, is false, and therefore it is false. The argument can be repeated for any individual, so we can conclude that the thesis of Necessary Existence is true: Anything which exists exists necessarily. I will not offer any support or criticism of this argument here; I will simply note that, the counterintuitiveness of its conclusion notwithstanding, there seems to be nothing obviously wrong with it. However, there is a different argument, which I formulate below, that threatens to turn this counterintuitive conclusion into something truly radical. I call this radical thesis “Modal Solipsism”. If Necessary Existence really carries this commitment, it is something we ought to reject if doing so is at all possible. I will argue, however, that the commitment to Modal Solipsism is illusory.

The argument goes like this: If Necessary Existence is true, any truthmaker which exists in any possible world exists in all. But a truthmaker for a proposition p is something such that, necessarily, if it exists then p is true. Consequently, since the truthmakers for every true proposition exist necessarily, every true proposition is necessarily true. Not a single thing could have been otherwise, for if it could, some proposition which is in fact true could have been false, and given the above supposition that is not possible. The thesis of Necessary Existence seems to collapse into Modal Solipsism: There’s just one possible world, and this is it!

Is there any way we can accept Necessary Existence and escape Modal Solipsism? I think there is, if we’re prepared to reject the above criterion on truthmakers. That is, we must reject the idea that, for every proposition p, a truthmaker for p is something such that, necessarily, if it exists then p is true. In other words, the existence of a truthmaker for p need not be sufficient for p’s truth. How can we cash this out?

The solution I propose depends on the idea that there is more to reality (and to truthmaking) than the simple existence of objects, either abstract or concrete. If there are at least two possible worlds which are exactly alike with respect to what exists in them, but which differ in respect to which objects exemplify which properties, these differences cannot be accounted for in terms of there being truthmakers which exist in one world but not in another. In such a scenario, what is the case is underdetermined by what exists. Existential propositions will have truthmakers, but we must look elsewhere for the truthmakers of non-existential ones.

States of affairs provide the way out, but only if we conceive of them abstractly, as Alvin Plantinga does: If we deny that there are states of affairs which do not obtain, then what is the case will once again coincide with what exists, and the thesis of Necessary Existence will commit us to Modal Solipsism. But if we hold that states of affairs obtain contingently and exist necessarily there is no problem. The possible worlds will differ only with respect to which states of affairs obtain, not with respect to what exists. As a first pass, we can say that it is the obtaining of a state of affairs which is the truthmaker for a non-existential proposition.

The above, however, is not quite right. As far as I can tell, a given state of affairs S and the state of affairs “S’s obtaining” are one and the same state of affairs. Thus, if p is a proposition which asserts that S obtains, the truthmaker for p is S itself, otherwise p would have no truthmaker at all. S will no doubt have different properties in those worlds in which it obtains than it has in those worlds in which it does not obtain, but the worlds in which it obtains have no additional existents which could serve as truthmakers for p only in those worlds. We must remember that everything which exists in one world exists in all. In consequence of this, S is the truthmaker for p whether S obtains or not. What we ought to say then, on this account, is that a truthmaker for a non-existential proposition p, in spite of its name, only makes p true if it obtains. Its bare existence is not enough. If the distinction between the existence of a state of affairs and its being the case survives scrutiny, we can hold that everything necessarily exists without holding that everything is necessarily true. Whatever plausibility Necessary Existence has need not be transmitted to Modal Solipsism.