Sunday, July 22, 2007

Metaphysical Production

Is the future in some sense produced or generated from the present? Our intuitive folk metaphysics seems to assume so. The present moment is taken to be metaphysically privileged -- until the laws of nature do their work, generating the 'next' moment out of the raw materials of the present one. This generative process constitutes the passage of time, as the past is literally transformed (in the deepest fabric of its being) into the future. According to this 'presentism', the old times are not simply passed, but wholly replaced.

It's a difficult subject to make sense of. We're used to talking about objects within time, and it's not so clear that our familiar concepts (process, change, replacement), which compare an object between times, can be extended to apply to time itself -- not without regressive appeal to some 'meta-time' during which the manipulation of time-as-an-object occurs. (More here.)

These concerns lead us towards 'Eternalism', or the view that all moments are ontologically on a par. Time is understood to be simply another dimension, not so different from space, and 'now' is an indexical with no more metaphysical import than 'here'.

It seems that this forces us to give up our intuitive beliefs about metaphysical production. If the future already exists, it doesn't need to be generated out of the present. Laws of nature are stripped of their productive power, and instead serve the merely passive purpose of descriptive generalization.

Consider the 'Humean mosaic': the static, 4-d spacetime "loaf" that comprises the entire expanse and (future) history of the universe. The distribution of properties is taken to be fundamental and inexplicable. The way of things is just a brute fact. It just so happens that there are plenty of regularities -- "constant conjunctions" -- to be found in the mosaic. Dropping an object is followed by its falling to the floor. There's not really any deep reason for this (it's just the way the mosaic happens to be drawn), but we can come up with physical "laws" that describe these regularities.

So, what are we to make of all this? Can the luscious garden of common-sense metaphysics be saved? Or should we embrace the desert landscape of the Humean mosaic? I guess David Lewis' project was to show how, with the help of some fancy analytical footwork, we can still assert the truths of common-sense within the desert. Present events still "cause" future ones, and all that. It's just that causation isn't what we thought it was. (Rather than a fundamental notion of generative powers, where the cause brings about its effect, we appeal to a sterile analysis in terms of counterfactual conditionals, which are in turn reduced to facts about other - similarly 'deserted' - Humean mosaics.)

I'm awfully suspicious of that kind of philosophy, as explained in my old post: The Limits of Truth Conditions. I guess I'm assuming some kind of semantic transparency here: we have some idea of what it would take to make our claims true, and the desert just ain't it. I mean, nobody ever read Lewis' On the Plurality of Worlds and thought, "Exactly, that's what I meant when I said that Humphrey could have won the election: just that somewhere out there, in another universe, there's a guy a lot like Humphrey who does win a similar election!"

So I have some secondary questions: Should we be satisfied by crazily counterintuitive analyses, so long as they yield the (truth-conditionally) right results? Why allow that common-sense intuitions are a guide to what's true, but not to what those truths consist in (i.e. what's real)? On the other hand, is it a legitimate objection to Lewis to simply insist, "But that's not what I mean by that term!" -- is meaning so introspectable? How much leeway do we have when assigning truthmakers to a class of claims?

Answers, please!


  1. Hi Richard,

    I might be wrong, but seems that the third position is mostly ignored in this talk about time. And that is the position that time is grounded in change, i.e. that time is used either for simple before/after relation of some aspects of change which can be subsummed under a notion (e.g. in case of movement of X, we can abstract the relation that X was at position A *before* being at position B), or further for quantification through comparing some kind of regular change (clock ticks) with some other change.

    That time is abstraction from change (and not ground of it) of course is not new idea, it was argued by Hegel, and goes even back to Aristotle who argued that solution of Zeno's paradoxes is to take moments of time, and positions in space, not as actual (i.e. self-subsistent) but as potential, and Heraclitus who by seeing becoming as ontologically basic probably can be taken to deny the self-subsistence of any such things as 'momentary states'.

    One can point also to the the contemporary physics, both relativity and quantum mechanics. In relativity the idea of quantification (measurement) of space and time as objectively existing quantities is changed with talk about measurement dependent on the observer (and also tightly connected to other physical values like mass).
    In quantum mechanics the time and energy are pair of conjugate variables, which are again seen as moments (aspects) and not as self-subsistent values.

    So, I think that this points that we should once for all do away with idea of time as container, or something which makes thing change, but to see the change as ontologically more basic, and time only as a common talk about aspects of those changes.

    Sorry for the long comment.

  2. Hi Tanasije, thanks very much for your comment!

    I'd actually never heard of that "third position" before, but it sounds like it could be precisely the saviour of commonsense that I was looking for. (Though it feels strange to me to think of change as more basic than time, that's probably just due to unfamiliarity.) Do you know of any contemporary proponents of this view?

  3. Sorry, don't know of any (which doesn't mean a lot given my knowledge , or better said my ignorance of contemporary philosophy :) ). I would be also very interested if some of your readers can give pointers.

    Anyway, the idea is I think simple.

    Just that that change is 'more basic' than time, is not to be taken that change+something else gives time, but that change+abstraction(putting attention just to specific parts of the change) is where we can find 'states' and 'after/before' relations.

    So, even the change is seen as more complex, it is not seen as reducible to self-subsistent states each of which generate the next state, but the states are seen as aspects of the change (or changing world).

    So, because those temporal relations are just aspects that we find in change, there is no sense to talk about time aside from change.

    Hope this made more sense.

  4. I suport the third perspective - although its a hard one to explain. I was on the verge of givin a metaphore then I gave up.

  5. Reading suggestions: Cinema 1 & 2 by Deleuze, Matter and Memory by Bergson, and Dialectics of Duration by Bachillard. Deleuze is decidedly anti-Hegelian, Bachillard anti-Bergson via Hegel, and Bergson proported to solve Zeno's paradox with the concept of duration, which Deleuze co-opted and Bachillard denied.

    Deleuze is the most contemporary of this group; the Cinema books were written in the 1980s. Nowadays English-speaking philosophers blacklist Deleuze (see my blog for both accusations and defenses), which is a shame, since academics in cinema studies are making great progress with Deleuze in a way that could develop this third position.

    More or less, it seems that cinema is the way to comprehensively study space-time relations as understood by the human mind. See also Zizek, who is still working today, although with a Lacanian-Marxist slant. I also suggest any Jean-Luc Godard film.

    I promise a more substantial comment to come when I've a bit more time; but if you want to read up on this, go with the sources Tanasije mentioned along with the Deleuze, Bergson, Bachillard.

  6. hehe, five Deleuze books have shown up on your Amazon ad; I find that amusing. Long post below, but I encourage you to read it.

    Anyway, it's actually in Creative Evolution that Bergson's solution to Zeno's paradox is discussed. One additional source is Heidegger, and since Being and Time is massive, you might like to read the companion essays "What is called thinking?" and "Who is Zarathustra?". I'm sure you could find the essays online; they won't take more than an hour to read. Heidegger sees the past, present, and future folded together abstractly in the concept "time" but more concretely in the actualization of Being. That is to say, Heidegger is of the opinion that time and space are necessarily tied together (not a new idea), but also ontologically produced. Existence, for Heidegger, is not an abstract discussion of possibility--as a phenomenologist would ask the conditions for x existing--but a necessary positing of an existing being. Heidegger's ontology asks, "what/which exists?" as a fundamental question instead of "how/why x exists?" The focus on what/which turns the philosopher to a self-generating but empty/inexpressible ontological entity: Dasein. (This is where many get off the boat, "If this is inexpressible then how can it be examined empirically? And is Dasein nothing more than the non-existent contents of a tautology?" Good questions, but I want to focus on how Heidegger proceeds.) Dasein literally means "there-being" or "being-there"; as an ontological root Dasein can only have a locality and eventuality of its own making. It's kind of as if we say the universe comes into being where and when it comes into being since there is precisely no where or when other than that which creation provides. (The next sentence is laughable, but I really don't know how to render the Heideggarian logic intelligible [if it is intelligible]) We human beings, as physical, psychological, social creatures, are separated from pure ontological knowledge because we make the by-products of Being our primary means to an end that is actually a beginning. The "Thinking" and "Zarathustra" essays argue that philosophy is an attempt to get to the ontological root of Being, i.e. to make Dasein intelligible to itself. This entails that "thinking" becomes self-motivating and self-examining in order to "solve" the problem of its own existence. In this process, time is dissected in its unfolding aspects: past, present, and future are all folded back into Dasein, into that which becomes and is pure becoming.

    Weird shit, and there happens to be no application to the sciences, except perhaps string-theory, which isn't yet a science proper.

    It is important to note that Heidegger's ontological becomings are fundamentally different from Bergson and Deleuze's theories. Heidegger examines an inward-turning thinking process, a thinking that thinks itself. Bergson's becoming is evolutionary: the butterfly does not replace the caterpillar, but always a becoming-butterfly. That is obvious, given that a caterpillar is not going to turn into a bat; but once Bergson takes his concept of duration to the paradox of the arrow in the quiver becoming the arrow in the target--Zeno's problem of movement--then it becomes less obvious. Again, Bachillard has a comprehensive response to Bergson's solution.

    As for Deleuze, becoming is not a problem in the least. The problem is the way in which we perceive existence. Deleuze argues that the solution Kant proposes to the question, how is knowledge of experience possible?, is inadequate because it is unable to conceive of the multiplicity of existence. For instance, there is a moment in Kant's Critique of Judgment when it seems that aesthetics, and it would seem sensation itself, needs to refuse the interjection of the categories of pure reason. Kant's sublime "breaks" through the categories of pure reason, but is still an event of sensation. Deleuze latches on to this and other discrepancies in Kant and argues that existence has a no limit in the noumenal world, no limit in concepts. You can then see a possible confrontation with Heidegger as well, for, Dasein always creates a multiplicity of beings, but only to be reduced or subordinated to a particular route back to Dasein. For Deleuze, there is no going back, existence is always open to further interpretation and creation. Time, then, for Deleuze is crystalline; time is spread out among multiple pasts, presents, and futures and is only recoverable via sensation.

    But again, no application to current scientific analysis of time. Part of that has to do with modern physic's roots in Newtonian, Leibnizian, and Kantian logic. Quantum physics, at least, is as mystical sounding as Heidegger to an uninitiate, but there is still a fundamental difference between what 20th century philosophers in the "continental" vein and 20th century physicists want to discover in existence.

    Personally, I constantly switch between saying, "that makes sense" and "that really is nonsense" even when reading the same passage in the same book. That said, the ideas I come across in "continental" discussions of time and existence aren't exactly counter-intuitive. Many times when someone reads Heidegger or Deleuze for the first time, they take it to be the most clarifying thing in the world, as if the philosophy were speaking to them as human beings. On second, third, and yet to come fourth and fifth readings, those early assurances are overturned. I'd call it contra-intuitive theory, especially in Deleuze's case. These ideas are designed to inhabit your intuition with a profound skepticism; the intuitive response becomes skepticism, while the methodological explanation of your intuition becomes a what Nietzsche described as a dynamite project. Whereas, the scientific method suggests that you follow your intuition and ask why it is that all objects fall down at a steady rate, without doubting the original claim. The scientific method takes intuition as a case of certainty (Hume--this event has happened enough times in more or less the same way that I can expect it always to happen), whereas the contra-intuitive "philosophical" method takes skepticism as the intuitive principle (Heidegger--I see these same things happening in the same way, so how can I quiet my longing for change? or Deleuze--I can't believe that this apple falls exactly as this apple falls, even if there is great similarity, therefore, what's the difference?)

  7. ps: as you may or may not know, that's also the reason Brian Leiter rejects the analytic/continental divide in favor of a naturalist/quietist divide in philosophy. Deleuze isn't exactly a quietist, and we can see this in his polite opposition to Heidegger, as once answers are found to the Deleuzian question, "what is the difference?", there is much more to say. Leiter never mentions Deleuze, and that's because he throws Deleuze out with the rest of the post-modernists. That's a mistake; the post-modernists work with the same or similar problems that the quietists work with--except that the post-modernists don't want to silence the philosophical questioning, they want to make it louder. This is often with mixed results (Baudrillard is unimpressive in my opinion), but that's the risk.

  8. What a deluge of Deleuze! Anyway, I'm wondering why you think that the folk position is a difficult one to make sense of? In realistic interpretations of quantum mechanics, the present state of the universe gives rise to possibilities for the future, one (family) of which is picked to be the actual future state. That is, the future state is produced and replaced by the present state. The future itself, well that may just be the existing of present possibilities for the actual future state, as in tanasije's comments. If so then the future would have to exist in order for future states to arise. What more can be said about the future itself is a mystery, but only because it is so removed from our lives, not because of any incoherence in the folk position, I think.

  9. Re: the third option.

    Emanuel Swedenborg suggested something similar to this, as well.

    In his conversing with angels, he become aware of a distinct and uncomfortable problem within his rationalizing about the heavenly sphere. That was, he could understand well enough what it was to exist to infinity - for that was to exist without end - but he could not understand what it was from infinity.

    It was explained to him (allegedly by heavenly beings) that time works differently in the world beyond this one, and that there it proceeds fundamentally according to change, rather than as something in itself.

    PS - nice talk the other day Richard.

  10. Enigman-
    I responded to you, but it got lost. The short version is that I don't think future states are just "sitting there" to be enabled by alterations in the present state, although I do admit that that is a perfectly valid way to look at things. The alternative is that, metaphorically speaking, the future is a "soup" that's "boiled" in the present and which produces "solid forms" for the past. With a analogy such as that where "dynamic chaos=>actualization=>static past" we can avoid having to talk about time as having a uniform fabric.
    What doesn't quite make sense to me are the technical details of Heideggarian and Deleuzian ontology; and I don't know a single quantum of quantum mechanics.

  11. I don't see how the 1st and 2nd positions are incompatible.

    To me it seems like more a question of perspective. In the common-sense model we're standing inside of space-time and see an appropriate slice of the Universe, whereas it the loaf model we have a birds eye from outside of spacetime and see the whole spacetime loaf in one go.

    In either model, events at one time, depend on events at another time. In the common-sense view we have physical laws describing the change. In the birds eye view we have the physical laws describing the loaf structures.

    But I didn't understand a bunch of the philosophy words so maybe I'm missing the point!

  12. Hi Gyroid, you've really described a version of eternalism (the second view). According to presentists, there is no loaf for us to describe from a birds eye view. The present moment is the only one that exists, period.

    Although you might take two 'perspectives' on the laws, there's presumably only one fact of the matter as to what the laws are really doing. So my question is this: are the laws fundamentally descriptive (i.e. simply describing what is already independently real), or are they "productive" in a deeper sense -- i.e. do they not merely "describe the change", but rather they produce the change?

  13. Cheers, Richard. Think i get where you're coming from now.

    How do people usually reconcile presentism with relativity, since that precludes an absolute common time that all observers share? What "existed" then depends on which observer you are, which doesn't seem nice.

    I find it difficult to imagine that physical laws are just descriptive. It seems very unlikely that such simple laws would just happen to match our Universe so I would assume they are productive.

    A weaker presentism seems then to follow:
    All the physical laws together with the initial condition is a different thing than the Universe itself. So there must be a process that takes all the laws and finds a Universe compatible with them. This process would then be existence. Position in this process is then time-like but distinct from the concept of time that appears in the physical laws. We would then take a presentist view using our position in this process (we experience consciousness as the process calculates us, sorry for the maths metaphor) as the present.


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