Thursday, July 15, 2021

The evanescent world of becoming

An old idea in philosophy, going back to Plato, is that things that are becoming are less beings than things that are timeless. This is a mysterious view, but I have just found that my own preferred four-dimensionalism implies a clear and unmysterious version of this view.

On my preferred four-dimensionalism, material substances are four-dimensional entities. Since they are substances, they are explanatorily prior to any parts or accidents they may have. This four-dimensionalism, thus, cannot hold that four-dimensional entities are constructed out of three-dimensional time slices, or even that the slices are somehow ontologically on par with the four-dimensional substances.

Nonetheless, it makes sense to talk of a three-dimensional time slices as a kind of derivative entity.

It may, for instance, turn out to be like the Thomist’s “virtual entities”. The Thomist does not think that the electrons that help make up my body are substances, but thinks that our scientific language can be saved: the electrons “virtually exist” in virtue of my pattern of (accidental) causal powers.

Or it might even be that three-dimensional time slices just are accidents: that the four-dimensional entity that I am has an accident corresponding to every time at which it exists, an accident which itself is the bearer of further accidents. Thus, the fact that I have a certain three-dimensional shape s at a time t could be analyzed in terms of me having an existence-at-t accident Et, and Et in turn having an s-shape accident.

Virtual entities and accidents are unmysteriously less beings than substances: for them to be is to qualify a substance.

So, now, here is a reconstruction of the Platonic insight. A lot of our ordinary talk about material substances is most straightforwardly construed as about time slices rather than four-dimensional substances. When we talk of the shape of a flower, we mean its three-dimensional shape with respect to a particular slice, and so on. Now, we identify something like the Platonic world of becoming as the world of three-dimensional time slices. These are completely evanescent entities—they exist literally only for a moment each—and their being is derivative from the being of substances.

Presentists have long complained that four-dimensional entities are not really becoming. We can embrace an aspect of that insight. There is a way in which the four-dimensional entities form a world where time is less important. Granted, they indeed are spatio temporal entities: they do exist in time as well as in space. But there is little reason to think that their very being is somehow ontologically tied to time in the way that the presenists think the world of becoming is. On the other hand, the time slices are very much time slices: their very being is tied to their temporality.

Of course, this reconstruction of the Platonic insight into a world of becoming is in the end quite unfaithful to Plato: for we, who are four-dimensional substances, end up not being in the world of becoming, though we ground it. We are almost like Kantian noumena, grounding a world of becoming phenomena.

I don't know that the standard presentist can reconstruct the Platonist insight. For the standard presentist, to be is to be at present. The only difference between eternal things and things in the world of becoming is that eternal things were and will be in the same state, while things in the world of becoming were and/or will be in a different state. This is not a difference with respect to a way of being.

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