Friday, October 20, 2017

Why my present existence can't depend on future events

I find very persuasive arguments like this:

  1. If theory T is true, then whether I exist now depends on some future events.

  2. Facts about what exists now do not depend on future events.

  3. So, theory T is not true.

For instance, some four-dimensionalist solutions to problems of fission according to which the number of people there are now depends on whether fission will are subject to this criticism.

But I’ve had a nagging worry about arguments like this, that in accepting (2), I am not being faithful to my eternalist four-dimensionalist convictions: why should the present aspects of the four-dimensional me have this sort of priority? Moreover, I didn’t really have an argument for (2). Until today.

Here is an argument for (2). Start with this.

  1. If facts about my present existence depend on future events, then facts about my present existence depend on future events that happen to me.

For instance, suppose that whether I exist now depends on whether some surgeon cuts my brain in half tomorrow. Well, then, some of the events that my present existence depends on will be events that happen entirely to someone else—for instance, whether the surgeon gets to work on time. But other events, such as the cutting or non-cutting of the brain, will happen to me. It would be absurd to think that facts about my present existence or identity depend on future events that happen entirely to something other than me.

Then add:

  1. Any events that happen to me in the future depend on my present existence.

For, such events presuppose my future existence, and my future existence is caused by my present existence.

  1. Circular dependence is impossible.

  2. So, facts about my present existence do not depend on future events.

Note that (6) is a very strong premise, and is one place the argument can get attacked. Many people think that you can have circular dependence when the dependence in the two directions is of a different sort. In the case at hand, facts about my present existence might depend constitutively on future events, while the future events depend causally on my present existence. Nonetheless, I think (6) is true, even if the dependence in the two directions is of a different sort.

Another move is to describe the future events on which my existence depends without reference to me. Don’t describe what the surgeon does as the splitting of my brain, but as the splitting of brain x. Then we could say that the future event of the surgeon’s splitting my brain does depend on my present existence, but my present existence doesn’t depend on that event. Instead, it depends on the future event of the surgeon’s splitting brain x. This objection denies (5): while the splitting of my brain depends on my present existence, the splitting of brain x does not, and yet it happens to me.

I think this is mistaken. The splitting of brain x depends on the future existence of that brain, and that brain depends on me, because parts depend on wholes—that is a deep Aristotelian premise I accept. Thus I think (5) is true. An event that happens to me is an event that involves at least a part of me, and none of my parts could exist without me. Granted, a brain like mine could exist without me. But token events are individuated in part by the things caught up in them. A splitting of a brain merely like mine would be a different event from the splitting of this particular brain. And it is a token event that my present existence is supposed to depend on.

The above argument won’t move non-Aristotelians who think that wholes depend on parts rather than parts depending on wholes. But it works for me. And hence it assuages the worry that in accepting (2), I am being unfaithful to my views about time.

All that said, I don’t really want to affirm (2) in an exceptionless way. If I am a time-traveller born in the year 2200, then my present existence does depend on what will happen in the future. But it only depends on what will happen in the external-time future not on what will happen in my internal-time future. And, crucially, I think time-travel is only possible when it doesn’t result in causal loops. So even if I am a time-traveller from the future, I cannot affect anything that is causally relevant to whether I will be born, etc. This probably means that if time-travel is possible, it is possible only in very carefully limited settings.


Heath White said...

I can imagine a political declaration of independence that was retroactive: say Catalonia decides to declare itself independent as of Jan 1 2017. (And imagine whatever legal apparatus is necessary to make this effective.) Then facts about whether a country exists could depend on future declarations of independence.

Objection: Ok, but persons are more real/fundamental than countries. They don't come into existence by declaration.

Reply 1: Well, that's one theory of personhood. But if persons are bundles of perception (or whatever) then there could be a similar story.

Reply 2: if the argument works, it seems it should work for countries or anything else too.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Heath: Would such a declaration really make it the case that Catalonia has been independent since Jan 1? I hope no one really thinks that's the case. All it can really effect is that certain reparations or other such effects might need to go into place in the future as if Catalonia had been independent all along and their independence wasn't being respected. No one thinks they can change the actual fact that one day ago (never mind 10 months ago) it simply was not the case that Catalonia was independent.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Pruss: I'm curious... Does four-dimensionalism really rule out a directionality to causation? If not, and if (2) follows from causation being future-directed, I don't see a problem with a four-dimensionalist affirming (2).

Alexander R Pruss said...

The argument is only plausible for things that are prior to their parts. Nations aren't.