Friday, October 22, 2010

Promises to non-existent people

The bindingness of promises after the death of the promisee is debated by philosophers, mainly I think because of the intuition that one can't owe anything to someone who doesn't exist (if I promise something to the Tooth Fairy, I don't need to keep to it). But in fact it seems quite obvious that it is possible to be bound by a promise to someone who doesn't presently exist. Sam is about to go on a trip, traveling until the beginning of next month. He has me promise to take care of his pet rat until his return. It surely does not matter for the bindingness of my promise whether Sam is planning on traveling by car, plane, donkey cart... or time-machine. But if he travels by time-machine to the beginning of next month, then as soon as he has departed it will be true to say that he doesn't presently exist. Yet, surely, he will be right to blame me for breaking my promise if five minutes after his departure I let his rat out to be eaten by the cats, possums and maybe snakes that roam our neighborhood.

If time travel is impossible, I can run the argument with gappy existence. Maybe you don't exist when frozen. Sam has himself frozen until next month. Etc.

Still, the idea that one can't owe something to someone who doesn't exist is plausible. If we are eternalists, we simply say that this principle holds when we talk about existence simpliciter, but not when we talk about present existence. Promises to those who currently don't exist may, however, make trouble for presentists.

1 comment:

enigMan said...

Is this a new argument against Presentism? I've not seen it before, and it seems better than most of those I have. I suppose I could question what a promise really is, and also whether temporal gaps are possible under Presentism. But both of those approaches seem to me to be missing the point.

Regarding the former, what if promises are essentially made to oneself (or alternatively, to God), and only secondarily to others? A promise may be contractual or descriptive. In the former case, it does not seem counter-intuitive that it should be binding just so long as one has oneself agreed to it, whatever the status of the others, unless they have acted so as to break the contract. And why should non-existence automatically break a contract? E.g. you may pay me to do something and then die, and I will still have been paid to do it.

Regarding descriptive promises, if I describe my intentions to you, in the form of a promise, then although your non-existence means that I no longer have to worry about having misinformed you, I still have my original intentions.

Regarding the possibility of gappy time or time-travel, such things make sense if we think of time as like a line, as like space, as we do on Eternalism. But for Presentists that is just a picture to help us to think about how things change. The basic entities are continuants, under Presentism, and they don't have gaps in their existence. That is one reason why Presentism may be more plausible under theism, because it is plausible that God would have no such gaps, and it would be His changes (potential and actual) that would give rise to what we call "time".

And that may also deal with gappy existence. Under Presentism, it is most natural to think that we don't have gaps. But furthermore (which may be nearer to the point), can't one owe something to someone who doesn't exist? Whether or not you exist when asleep, surely I can continue to owe you things then. Or consider when someone dies, and I then owe stuff to her estate, E, but she is brought back to life. If I only owed E, when she was non-existent, why would I then owe her when she came back?