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Sunday, June 02, 2013

Tenseless* Presentism


(* For the purposes of this post I consider only the past and future tenses as genuine tenses. Think of the "present tense" as the null tense, if you like.)

I believe there's a way for presentists to have their Relativistic cake and eat it too. That is, I think there's a way to believe in the Special and General theories of Relativity (henceforth, I'll refer to both as 'Relativity') while remaining a devout presentist. In order to do so, however, one does have to believe that these theories have been wrongly interpreted.

The idea is this: There is but one moment of time; this moment, the present moment. There were none before it, there will be none after it. At this single moment, there is a four dimensional space of variable curvature, at whose points exist everything that we perceive and interact with; everything, in a word, that we ordinarily take to exist in space-time. The only error of the ordinary conception lies in the belief that the fourth dimension is time. Time, on tenseless presentism, essentially involves the idea that 'earlier than' and 'later than' are irreducibly tensed notions; granted, entities may be ordered in the fourth dimension by relations of increasing entropy and whatnot, but that is not what 'earlier than' and 'later than' come to. It is the way that our experiences are laid out four-dimensionally that gives rise to our belief that the fourth dimension is time, and to experience it as time, even though it really isn't. Nevertheless, these experiences give rise to intuitions about time, tense, and how the former involves the latter, and thus it is only tense that could underwrite the existence of real 'earlier than' and 'later than' relations, though on this view no such relations actually obtain.

In contrast to presentist views that treat Relativity as empirically adequate but false--either by regarding it as not describing a real structure, or by privileging some reference frame as the real present--tenseless presentism does neither of these things. Relativity does describe a real structure, and none of the reference frames within it are privileged, it's just that we have wrongly interpreted the fourth dimension of this instantaneous space temporally. Even though it is treated different mathematically from the other dimensions, on this view that doesn't make it a dimension of time, whatever else it may make it.

This version of presentism might not seem appealing, for it lacks the (alleged) virtue of more common versions of presentism, namely that they accommodate our (alleged) intuition that time really does pass, and that this passage is as we experience it to be. Still, tenseless presentism does respect our (alleged) intuition that tense is essential to genuine 'earlier than' and 'later than'  relations, and to all appearances it has the definite virtue of not conflicting with accepted physical theory. So if you find presentism compelling and value the maximal consistency of one's metaphysical views with science more highly than the (alleged) common sense intuition that our experience of time is veridical, I think tenseless presentism is the way to go.

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