Sunday, November 04, 2007

Caring about Time's Reality

Do debates in the metaphysics of time affect what we should care about? If eternalism is true, for example, should we be more or less obsessed with non-present events? If presentism is true, can that justify temporal bias (in favour of the near future, say)?

David Velleman ('So it goes', p.20) writes:
We can't stop the self from seeming to endure, or stop time from seeming to pass, but we can cope with these phenomena better, given the knowledge that they are merely phenomenal...

I have a disconcerting tendency to live different parts of my life all at once -- to relive the past and pre-live the future even while I'm trying to live in the present. And even as I relive my past in a memory, it is at the same time speeding away from me, as there comes bearing down on me a future that I am pre-living in anticipation. It's as if too many parts of my life are on the table at once, and yet somehow they are continually being served up and snatched away like dishes in a restaurant whose wait-staff is too impatient to let me eat...

The realization that I am of the moment -- that is, a momentary part of a temporally extended self -- can remind me to be in the moment.

But why is this? I guess the thought is that if the past no longer exists, our emotional attachment to it may tempt us to imaginatively "bring" it into the present. Eternalism reassures us that the past is safe and sound right where it is, so we need not be so clingy. On the other hand, as a classmate pointed out to me, we may think that the eternal reality of a past event is all the more reason to dwell on it. (I'm more inclined to the view that the metaphysics makes no difference either way. But that may just be because I can't really see what the dispute amounts to -- presentism seems inconceivable to me.)

What of temporal bias? Could "the moving now" better justify the relief we feel when bad events are past? Parfit (R&P, p.180) suggests an argument:
Suppose we allow the metaphor that the scope of 'now' moves into the future. This explains why, of the three attitudes to time, one [the bias towards the near] is irrational, and the other two [biases towards the future, and the present] are rationally required. Pains matter only because of what they are like when they are in the present, or under the scope of 'now'. This is why we must care more about our pains when we are now in pain. 'Now' moves into the future. This is why past pains do not matter. Once pains are past, they will only move away from the scope of 'now'. Things are different with nearness in the future. Time's passage does not justify caring more about the near future since, however distant future pains are, they will come within the scope of 'now'.

But, likewise, however distant past pains are, they have been within the scope of 'now'. Why isn't that enough to make them matter? (After all, concern for the future precludes one from claiming that pains matter only while they are present.) So the mere fact (if it is one) that 'now' moves into the future doesn't explain why past pains do not matter.

One might introduce a "growing block" theory to introduce the needed asymmetry between past and future. On that view, the past exists, whereas the future is still open. But this seems to give precisely the wrong result. Assuming we should care more about existing pains than non-existent ones, the growing-block theorist is committed to favouring the past over the future!


  1. Hi Richard,

    I made a post on my blog some months back arguing that if Eternalism is true it is irrational to anticipate future events. You can read it here:

    Hope you find it interesting.

  2. This metaphysics of time has consequences for temporal bias. It is not my metaphysics of time, though I think mine could be made to match up with it.

    Think of a block universe with a moving light of presentness. Also, think that consciousness is only at the present time and future times. A view on which the past is dead, but the present and future are "alive." Then, as time passes, the amount of pain in the universe decreases, for events which were contributing to the total pain in the universe, in virtue of passing into the past, are now dead and no longer painful. On this metaphysics of time we should give no weight (or perhaps almost no weight) to past pains but equal weight to present and future pains.

    As you know, this is like my theory of time. I think the past is dead. I think we should care about existing pains, so we should care about present pains. I don't think we should care at all about past pains, or at least I don't see why we should. Now I just need to think of a reason to care about future pains that does not require that future times be real.

  3. Hey, Richard --

    Thanks for discussing my paper, but ... . In order to make sense of that passage, you have to take it in context. The paper argues that we are not enduring things (as we seem to be); that time does not pass (as it seems to); and that these two illusions (of our endurance and time's passage) are related. What allows me to be "in the moment" is the realization that time doesn't really pass, that the future is not bearing down on me and the past is not slipping away from me. All of these appearances are illusions.

  4. Hi David - thanks for dropping by!

    I take you to be suggesting that the illusion of (e.g.) the past's "slipping away" causes us needless anxiety. We fear losing those precious moments, and so cling to them in imagination and memory. When we see through the illusion, the motivation for such clingyness is undermined, and we may attend to our present surroundings instead. Is that the rough idea?

    I'm just wondering why someone couldn't just as well argue the opposite. Say, given that this temporal slice of me is eternally static, it might have additional reason to imaginatively extend itself, since that is the only way it can touch on other times. Or, as mentioned in the main post, if the pains suffered by my earlier temporal parts are not really over (but just back a ways along the time dimension, right where they always have been), then that may provide all the more reason to dwell on them. (There's some seriously bad stuff going on in the world back there!) If the past is always there, what grounds have we for letting go of it?

    So I'd be interested to hear a bit more about how you see the argument progressing from the metaphysical facts to the normative conclusions about what attitudes would be more or less rational to hold in light of them. (Unless you mean the claim to be purely psychological: unveiling the metaphysical illusions just happens to relieve some people's temporal anxieties, even though there's no necessary reason why they should?)

  5. Have you ever realized that we reason as eternalists about human life and death? We value having had a good life, even if it is completely in the past. We don't think that death equalize the well being of all death persons. We would like it to be true when we are dead "that we have had a good life", as if it could still have any meaning and importance in itself at THAT point.

  6. Good point. Indeed, Parfit himself notes that we certainly do care upon learning that our loved ones suffered significant pain, even if it is past. Plausibly (though Parfit doesn't go this far), this is because we recognize (a) that this affects the quality of their life as a whole; and (b) that it's the whole life that matters.

  7. One quick comment, which adds nothing of substance to the discussion above:

    I find it quite difficult to think about time, and in particular, I find the metaphor of time's movement or passage nonsensical. Movement just means change in some dimension with respect to time, right? So what could the movement or passage of time itself possibly mean?


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