Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Change and presentism

This post is an illustration of how widely intuitions can differ. It is widely felt by presentists that presentism is needed for there to be "real change", that the B-theory is a "static" theory. But I have the intuition that presentism endangers real change. Real change requires real difference between the past states and present states, and real difference requires the reality of the differing states. But if there are no past states, there are no real differences between past and present states, and hence no change.

Of course, a presentist can say that although a past state is unreal, there can nonetheless be a real difference between it and a real present state, just as there can be a real difference between the world of Harry Potter and our world, even though the world of Harry Potter isn't real. In a sense of "real difference" that's true, I agree. But not in the relevant sense. Change is a relation between realities.

The presentist can also insist that my line of thoght is simply a case of the grounding problem for presentism, and can be resolved in a similar way. Supposing a window has just changed from being whole to being broken. Then while the past unbroken state doesn't exist, there does exist a present state of the window having been whole. I am happy to grant this present state to the presentist, but it doesn't affect the argument. For the relevant difference isn't between the window having been whole and the window being broken. For if no one broke the window, there would still have been a difference between the state of the window having been whole and the window being broken. There is always a difference between a state of something having been so and a state of its being so, but this difference isn't the difference that constitutes change.

(Incredible as it may seem to the presentist, when I try to imagine the presentist's world, I imagine an evanescent instantaneous world that therefore doesn't exist long enough for any change to take place. I am well aware that this world includes states like it was the case that the window was whole, but given presentism, these states seem to me to be modal in nature, and akin to the state of it is the case in the Harry Potter universe that magic works, and hence are not appropriate to make the world non-evanescent.)

Probably the presentist's best bet is simply to deny that real difference in my sense is needed for change. All that's needed is that something wasn't so and now is so. But if something's having been not so and its being so doesn't imply a real difference, it's not change, I feel.

Of course, the presentist feels very similarly about the B-theorist's typical at-at theory of change (change is a matter of something's being one way at one time and another way at another time): she feels that what is described isn't really change.

And this, finally, gives us the real upshot of this post. There are interesting disagreements where one side's account of a phenomenon just doesn't seem to be a description of the relevant concept to the other side--it seems to be a change of topic. These disagreements are particularly difficult to make progress in. Compare how the compatibilist's account of freedom just doesn't seem to be a description of freedom to the libertarian.

I don't have a general theory on how to make progress past such disagreement. I do have one thing I do in such cases: I try to find as many things connected with the concept in other areas of philosophy, like epistemology, philosophy of science, ethics and natural theology. And then I see which account does better more generally.


Heath White said...

For what it's worth ... I used to be very sympathetic to A-theory. I believe my intuition was this. Time is REALLY different from space. B-theory seems "static" because there doesn't seem to be a strong distinction between the spatial dimensions and the temporal dimension. (This of course can be a selling point for B-theory.) On B-theory, it seemed like an accident that my conscious experience was ordered earlier/later as opposed to, say, north to south, or that it was temporal at all as opposed to Boethian-eternalist.

I still find these points fairly strong. But I am somewhat sympathetic to the idea that the temporal dimension is just the dimension of causation, and that goes some way to solving the problem, especially if we assume my conscious experience is caused by the world I live in. (This in turn lends itself to a physical explanation of consciousness.) The conscious experience of an uncaused being would quite naturally be non-temporal. Also reflecting on what reality would have to be like for an eternal being to make sense pushed me towards B-theory. (One objection to an eternal God is that such a God cannot know what time it is. B-theory solves this problem nicely.) And relativity theory made a difference, although I would not have found that convincing by itself.

Also, at different points in my career, people that seemed like they knew what they were talking about were A-theorists or B-theorists. I think one should not underestimate such influences.

I bet presentists have a strong sense that change involves time in a way that is way different from space, and they think the non-presentist doesn't give them that. You want change to be a relation between two (as it were unchanging) realities, whereas they think no, there is just one reality, and it changes through time. Change through time seems NOT AT ALL like alterations across space.

Kenny said...

I've never been able to figure out presentism. It seems like presentists always start by pumping some intuition that I just don't have, and then they end up having to do all kinds of backflips to preserve that intuition. When I took my first logic class, and the professor showed how to translate tensed statements by quantification over times, this just seemed to me to be obviously what I had always meant. After all, what could possibly be meant by 'change' other than that things are one way at one time and a different way at another time?

All that to say, I agree with you: the presentist is the one whose universe doesn't include change.