Thursday, January 25, 2007

About Time (from D & B class)

The debate about the different theories of time was mentioned the other day in the D & B class; however, I'm going to disagree about how they were presented, since that was a biased presentation based on the views of who presented them. It is not the case that one theory is just about de dicto knowledge of time and the other is about de re knowledge of time. The two different theories say much more than that. There are mentioned A-time and B-time, to represent the two different theories, and despite what was said, I think these two concepts are pretty clear. B-time refers to the B-series, which is best described as what we know as a timeline: it is just moments of time constructed into a series, and the only difference between any two randomly chosen times (moments or temporal intervals) is that one of them is earlier than the other, and thus, the one is later than the other. In the B-series, or B-time, times, and therefore, events in time, are merely earlier than, or later then, or simultaneous with each other. The B-theory claims that this is all there is to time.

What is claimed by the opposing theory, the A-theory, to be missing from that picture of time are the notions of past, present, and future. The A-theory claims that these notions are metaphysically real, in *some* way. There are different A-theories and they do vary on how they flesh those out. The consequence is that for the A-theory, there is always one distinctively privileged time, and that is the present. That is essentially what would be meant by A-time, time consisting of the past, present, and future. On the B-theory, there is no such thing as the present time, there is only the illusion of our relative perception that some time is present to us, but the B-theory claims this has no metaphysical significance. The B-theorist very much makes an analogy between time and space, and the notion of present is like the notion of here: because of my location in space, there is a distinctive here for me, and there is a certain locality that I would include in my here. But that does not mean that here has any metaphysical significance, there is no privileged status of here, for all locations in space have equal metaphysical status. So, claims the B-theorist, do all different times, for they are merely located at different places from when we happen to be, but every single time has the same metaphysical status as any other. The perception of the present is merely indexical just like the perception of here.

A quick explanation of indexicals. An indexical is a word that forces a frame of reference based on the utterance of the sentence in which it appears; in other words, it indexes the reference to the context of utterance. The most obvious indexicals are "I", "here", "now". When "I" is uttered in a sentence, then it automatically refers to the speaker of the sentence (given that there are no abnormalities about the nature of the context). So the context determines the reference of the word. The same goes for both of the other indexicals, as well as any others, and there are others. One of the most significant works on indexicals is David Kaplan's article "Demonstratives", which appears in Themes From Kaplan. (The actual title is much longer, but it's generally referred to as that for short, as it appears as the first word in the title.) The whole article is very long, about 100 pages, but there is a clearly specifiable section on indexicals, and I definitely recommend it. It's difficult reading, so be prepared to spend a lot of time going over it several times, but it's worth it to know this sort of material.

Lastly, I have posted something from a portion of a paper that I wrote, because it provides a quick background to the debate about time. So I offer that to all of you, so that you will be a little more familiar as to what the debate of time is all about. Link:

A Brief History of the A-Theory/B-Theory Debate about Time

Any questions that this stimulates, please, by all means, ask. I will do my best to answer questions. Plus, we can get some discussion going if you like. :)


At 12:24 AM, January 26, 2007, Blogger cheryl said...

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At 9:41 PM, January 30, 2007, Blogger Johnny-Dee said...

Cheryl, I have found that the terminology for philosophy of time is used rather ambiguously, which can make for some frustrating reading. I've parsed out my own way of understanding key terms, and I check to see whether the paper I'm reading is using the terms the same way.

I take the A- and B-theories to be theories about language (or the reality of tense). I distinguish these theories of language from the following theories of metaphysics: presentism, (static) eternalism, growing block theory, moving spotlight theory, and possibly others.

Maybe that's helpful, or maybe it isn't. It helps me.

At 9:49 PM, February 01, 2007, Blogger cheryl said...

Granted, there are a variety of different theories in each tradition. However, I would disagree that the A- and B-theories are merely a difference in language. They are definitely really about the metaphysical nature of reality; these philosophers are not just arguing about the way we use linguistic tense. I realize that you subscribe to Craig's philosophy of time, and so you follow him in saying that they are different theories of language. It is true that they do discuss language, but this is not merely where they stop. They are meant to be discussing the metaphysical consequences of how we talk about the nature of reality, our ontological commitments. How we talk about reality does reflect what we believe about reality, and what we claim to know about reality. The analysis of the language is one step towards getting at reality, but it's a step we can't ignore, because in a sense, language is a way of accessing reality. After all, we believe we can say true things about the world: what makes what we say true? Because we express true propositions. What makes a proposition true? Because it corresponds to reality. So long as that is the case, then we gain understanding of reality by examining true propositions, since they will reveal something about reality. But our only real access to propositions is via the medium of language. The real purpose of talking about language is to understand the metaphysical nature of what we're talking about.

So, they are not merely theories about language. They are two categories of different kinds of theories about time. The A-theory is really just an umbrella term for all the various different A-theories, so it is hard to talk about "the A-theory" without referring to any particular one. (This is a huge mistake, I think, of many new philosophers currently taking up the B-theory; they talk about "the A-theory" as if there is only one version of it, usually presentism.) But regardless of whatever A-theory we are discussing, they all share one thing in common: the metaphysical reality of the privileged present.

Okay, at this point, I just took a quick read of your post. Absolutely, if the two theories about whether or not there are tensed facts, then they are metaphysical. And again, if they are about whether there are tensed properties, that is still metaphysics. Inevitably, language is going to keep taking us back to metaphysics, because the only reason we're talking about language in the first place is to talk about what is true of the world, and that is to do metaphysics. If you really wanted merely to discuss language, then you'd be doing linguistics.

Now, I will fully admit that what I have said hinges on my own theoretical beliefs and commitments, but I'm right. So there. ;P


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