Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Self-causation, persistence and presentism

Fido exists now because of various things Fido did a couple of minutes ago, such as breathe, pump blood with his heart, etc. So, it seems, Fido's existence is caused by Fido. But self-causation is absurd. So what's going on? Well, that depends on the theory of persistence.

Perdurantists and exdurantists have no problem at all. One temporal part causes another. There isn't even a whiff of absurd self-causation, either. Four-dimensionalist worm-theorists who don't believe in temporal parts can say that Fido doesn't cause his existence, but only aspects of his spatiotemporal dimensions. So on four-dimensional theories, we don't have absurdity.

But what about three-dimensionalist theories? Suppose Fido wholly exists at this time. Then it seems that all of Fido (now) is caused by Fido (five minutes ago), and that would be absurd. But that's not quite right. The eternalist or growing block three-dimensionalist can distinguish. Fido doesn't cause Fido's existing simpliciter. Fido only causes Fido's existing now. If we want more precision, we can say that Fido in virtue of existing five minutes ago causes himself to exist now. No problem, again.

That leaves the other three-dimensionalist option: presentism. And now we have a problem. According to presentism, to exist is to exist presently. Fido's present existence is (was? -- the tenses are hard to get right) caused by Fido. But that just means that Fido's existence is caused by Fido. And that's self-causation.

But perhaps we should take account of the sorts of things presentists say about the problem of transtemporal causation. Maybe it's not quite correct to say that Fido's existence is caused by Fido, but rather that Fido's existing is caused by Fido's having existed five minutes ago. Plus, talking like this makes causation a relation between states of affairs, and some will prefer that. But we still have a problem. For Fido's having existed five minutes ago is a state of affairs involving Fido. But it's absurd for Fido's existing to be caused by any state of affairs involving him, since Fido's existing is explanatorily prior to any state of affairs involving Fido.

Perhaps, though, the presentist can bring in Fido's haecceity H. Fido's existing is caused by H's having been instantiated five minutes ago. That is, I suspect, the presentist's best bet here. But there is a problem for that. For it sure seems like the state of affairs that caused Fido's present existence isn't a state of affairs of his haecceity having had something happen to it (say, being co-instantiated with respiration), but but it is the state of affairs of Fido having done certain things five minutes ago, like breathing. If it is states of affairs about haecceities that are causally relevant, then it looks like the things that are fundamentally involved in causation aren't particulars like Fido but are are abstracta like haecceities. And that's not right.

There is a direct argument here against presentism, too.

  1. Fido's presently existing is caused by Fido's having existed five minutes ago.
  2. If presentism is correct, Fido's presently existing is Fido's existing.
  3. Fido's having existed five minutes ago is a state of affairs of which Fido is a constituent.
  4. No state of affairs of which Fido is a constituent causes Fido's existing.
  5. So, if presentism is correct, Fido's existing is caused by Fido's having existed five minutes ago. (1, 2).
  6. So, if presentism is correct, Fido's existing is caused by a state of affairs of which Fido is a constituent. (3, 5).
  7. So, presentism is not correct. (4, 6)


Peter said...

But should the presentist accept 3 at face value? The argument seems to assume that ‘Fido’ refers to a single, concrete entity. Then 3 tells us that this concrete entity is a constituent of something else: a state of affairs. But let’s suppose that Fido dies. At this point, the presentist will still want to talk about Fido’s having existed five minutes ago, but now Fido, the concrete entity, does not exist, which means Fido can no longer be a constituent of anything, including the state of affairs of Fido having existed five minutes ago. But it seems that if he isn’t a constituent of the state of affairs at this point, then we shouldn’t think he was ever part of a relevantly similar state of affairs.
What, then, could be the constituents of a state of affairs like “Fido existed five minutes ago”? Perhaps the presentist could say that it is the entirety of the world together with the world property of Fido’s having existed 5 minutes ago.
Bigelow invokes something like this to make sense of transtemporal causation, and perhaps the same move could be used to make sense of the constituents of states of affairs. (I doubt such a tensed property can do any causal work, but it might be more plausible than the denial of 4) Perhaps some other solution could be given instead.
In any case, I doubt the presentist should accept 3.

Alexander R Pruss said...

True, but then we lose the fact that surely a cause of Fido's present existence is either Fido or a state of affairs that has Fido as a constituent. If it's a state of affairs that doesn't have Fido in it, then that misses Fido's crucial role in self-maintenance.

Peter said...

I agree that one way or another, Fido must be explanatorily relevant to Fido's present existence. I just don't see a plausible ontology that contains both 3 and presentism.

In general, I don't see how they could hold onto the claim that Fido is explanatorily relevent to Fido's present existence unless they are willing to make one of three implausible moves: (a)embrace some form of Meinongian view of existence where past objects hang on in some shadowy way, (b) make the present temporally thick (containing, for example, 3 moments) which proceeds in a stepwise way, or (c) claim that it was the case that Fido (in the past) caused some timeless entity (an abstract object of some sort??) that then is somehow explanatorily relevant to Fido's present existence.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Pruss, I think the intuition behind 4 is that the coming-into-being of an object cannot include themselves as part of the explanation. Your argument seems entirely based on equivocating between coming into existence and persisting in existence.

Another problem with your analysis seems to be that you think of the presentist as considering the sequential "present moments" to be slices. So, each slice is a sui generis reality, and all the elements in it must have just come into existence right in that instant. But, if the presentist considers reality to undergo continuous evolution, then this is not an issue. For any X, what needs explaining in terms of some external cause is how X came into existence and joined the evolving reality in the first place. How X persists in being could very well involve X itself; perhaps even exclusively in some cases.

Kolten Ellis said...

The presentist could also be a divine occasionalist, and thereby say that God is the cause of Fido at each successive moment, although creates each successive Fido with the properties that would have been held by Fido(t-1), had Fido(t-1) perdured in 4 demensional time. So long as Fido(present) has any properties relevant to moral judgements, etc., many problems relating to the Problem of Evil ir divine judgement that tend to accompany occasionalism could be avoided. Perhaps not all of them, though- and this is rather ad hoc.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Mr Gonzalez:

I am not asking for an explanation of coming-into-being but of existing simpliciter.

Mr Ellis:

I guess so, but if presentism requires occasionalism, that's a high cost.

Kolten Ellis said...

It is a high cost, and one I'm not particularly inclined to pay. I think the presentist could accuse 2 of smacking with some sort of equivocation. It seems that premise 1 gives an account of why Fido exists now, but not why Fido exists now. Surely the truth of the temporal indexical is dependent on Fido having breathed, eaten, existed five minutes ago, etc. But none of those explain why Fido exists simpliciter.
To say that Fido's presently existing is Fido's existing doesn't seem necessarily true. For "to exist" on the presentist view need not mean "to exist now." otherwise, to say "dinosaurs used to exist" is to say "dinosaurs used to exist now," which is false. It makes more sense to say that Fido's existing entails that he exists now. But then the argument doesn't go through.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Regarding your last argument, I was using "presently" non-rigidly. But "now" is always rigid.