Wednesday, February 28, 2018

More on pain and presentism

Imagine two worlds, in both of which I am presently in excruciating pain. In world w1, this pain began a nanosecond ago and will end in a nanosecond. In w2, the pain began an hour ago and will end in an hour.

In world w1, I am hardly harmed if I am harmed at all. Two nanoseconds of pain, no matter how bad, are just about harmless. It would be rational to accept two nanoseconds of excruciating pain in exchange for any non-trivial good. But in world w2, things are really bad for me.

An eternalist has a simple explanation of this: even if each of the two nanosecond pains has only a tiny amount of badness, in w2 I really have 60 × 109 of them, and that’s really bad.

It seems hard, however, for a presentist to explain the difference between the two worlds. For of the 60 × 109 two-nanosecond pains I receive in w2, only one really exists. And there is one that really exists in w1. Where is the difference? Granted, in w2, I have received billions of these pains and will receive billions more. But right now only one pain exists. And throughout the two hours of pain, at any given time, only one of the pains exists—and that one pain is insignificant.

Here is my best way of trying to get the presentist out of this difficulty. Pain is like audible sound. You cannot attribute an audible sound to an object in virtue of how the object is at one moment of time, or even a very, very short interval of times. You need at least 50 microseconds to get an audible sound, since you need one complete period of air vibration (I am assuming that 50 microseconds doesn’t count as “very, very short”). When the presentist says that there is an audible sound at t, she must mean that there was air vibration going on some time before t and/or there will be air vibration going on for some time after t. Likewise, to be in pain at t requires a non-trivial period of time, much longer than two nanoseconds, during which some unpleasant mental activity is going on.

How long is that period? I don’t know. A tenth of a second, maybe? But maybe for an excruciating pain, that activity needs to go for longer, say half a second. Suppose so. Can I re-run the original argument, but using a half-second pulse of excruciating pain in place of the two-nanosecond excruciating pain? I am not sure. For a half-second of excruciating pain is not insignificant.


Heath White said...

Regardless of what the minimum quantum of excruciating pain is (and why doesn't this argument just show that presentists can't account for time-extended phenomena like pains and sounds?) it is a lot less bad than, say, several years of excruciating pain. And how can the presentist explain the much-worseness of long-term pain over the minimum quantum of pain?

Christopher Michael said...

"An eternalist has a simple explanation of this: even if each of the two nanosecond pains has only a tiny amount of badness, in w_2 I really have 60 × 10^9 of them, and that’s really bad."

This is false. On eternalism, you don't have 60 x 10^9 two-nanosecond units of pain. You have as much pain on eternalism as you have on presentism. It's true that more units of two-nanosecond Christopher-pains exist on eternalism than on presentism, but that doesn't entail that I have them. I don't experience my future or past pains any more on eternalism than on presentism, so I'm not sure how eternalism helps here.

The answer to what makes w_2 worse for me than w_1 is the same on both eternalism and presentism: in w_2 I have experienced and will experience far more pain than in w_1. The difference between eternalism and presentism is just on how they read claims like "I will experience pain." On eternalism, that reduces to the claim that Christopher-pain already exists and will be experienced by me when I catch up to them. On presentism, claims about the future (and the past) cannot be reduced to claims about what exists now. This is a feature, not a bug. For when eternalists reduce claims about the past and the future to claims about what exists now, they implicitly deny the reality of change; they forsake real change for mere variation along the temporal dimension. Nevertheless, while it is true on presentism that claims about the past or the future cannot be reduced to claims about what exists now, this is consistent with it being the case that true future and past facts can bear on my present welfare. I can be the one who will experience those pains even though those pains don't yet exist, just as I can be Thomas' grandson (Thomas is my grandfather) even though Thomas died in 2006 and therefore doesn't exist anymore.

Some of our propositions irreducibly refer to future and past existents and it is a mistake to think their truth must be grounded in what exists now. For truth and being are convertible, and so we should expect that propositions that irreducibly refer to past and future existents are made true by past and future existents and not (solely) by present existents. We err when we believe that because propositions that irreducibly refer to the past or the future are true, that they must be made true by truthmakers that are rather than by truthmakers that were or will be.

Martin Cooke said...

The problem with your argument, Alex, is that it does not address any good presentist account of intrinsically time-extended phenomena. Maybe there isn't one, but then that would, as Heath says, be the problem.

I doubt that a good presentist account would try to use even a tiny extent of time as its present moment; I think that it might just deny that time was that much like space! A mereological account might allow a moment to be neither of zero extent, nor of some tiny extent, but simply unextended, temporally, somehow capable of supporting atoms or quanta of phenomenal experience; but there must be more sophisticated accounts, somewhere. I don't know which will turn out to be best, theoretically: a single moment that supports changing atoms, or a series of moments; but the problem is going to be finding the best account. The mainstream literature is likely to have preferred to address accounts that were by famous names but easily rubbished (why make yourself look stupid, in a competitive environment?

One superficial observation about your argument, though: You make the presentist look like someone living in the present, so to speak. No presentist, in the sense of a metaphysical theorist, is going to be doing that, of course; but, all presentists will be familiar with such confusions. (If you want presentists to leave your argument alone, then such an appearance of your argument could be good

Martin Cooke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Martin Cooke said...

(I did not mean to ignore your comment, Christopher
it was just that you posted it while I was writing mine

Alexander R Pruss said...


Could be.


Sure, I would have all these units of pain. They are all *my* pains. I experience all these pains, albeit at different times or with respect to different temporal parts. (Compare: If my consciousness is split, I can experience two simultaneous pains, but with respect to different consciousnesses.)

I don't see why the fact that I *have* experienced pain for the past hour bears on my present well-being if presentism is true. Suppose that you become convinced that backwards causation is possible, and I offer you $1 for participating in an experiment which makes you *have* experienced intense pain over the past hour, pain that is guaranteed not to have been remembered by you (because I also backwards-cause you to have forgot the pain) or to cause physical or psychological damage. Barring worries about the safety of the experiment or the reliability of the guarantees, I don't see why you shouldn't go for the $1.

I can't run the same thought experiment with respect to the future. So maybe you can say that being such that you will suffer is bad for you while being such that you have suffered isn't bad. On this view, as your two hours of pain progress, you linearly come to be better and better off (since the sum total of future pain decreases linearly as time progresses) reaching zero ill-being just as the two hours end, and hence having 120 times less ill-being a minute before the end than at the start. But that seems mistaken. You may be somewhat better off a minute before the end than at the start, but you aren't 120 times better off.