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Thursday, September 30, 2010


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If past, present, and future exist tenselessly, what are the implications for counterfactuals, i.e., the would-haves, etc.? What status, if any, do they enjoy?

For some time now I have been wondering about (or perhaps toying with) the idea as to why are we compelled to accept either the B-Time series or the A-Time series but cannot accept both? Is there an argument against such a possibility?

Hi Kevin,

The B-theorist won't have any trouble with counterfactuals. Or do you have aspecific problem in mind?


Well, there is McT's original argument according to which the B-series requires the A-series, the latter is self-contradictory, hence time is unreal.

But I believe it is possible to think of events as tenselessly existent as the B-theory does while holding to an absolute NOW that moves along the B-series.

I guess my question is whether counterfactuals enjoy some sort of existence according to the B-theory. Maybe I've got the analogy wrong, but upon reading this post about the B-theory, I imagined a visual metaphor along the lines of the "eternal now" that some theists talk about when referring to the godly perspective.

"...a B-theorist is an egalitarian about times and the events at times: they are all equal in point of reality."

The metaphor involved a spool of movie film, where the movie in its entirety is analogous to the history of the universe, with each frame of the movie being analogous to all states of affairs in the universe at a given moment in time. A person standing next to the spool of film could, in theory, unspool the whole movie and see all of its moments at a glance -- a godlike perspective not available to the characters inside the movie, who experience its events frame by frame. All the frames of the movie already exist simultaneously, and that simultaneity would be analogous to the tenseless existence of past, present, and future in B-theory.

Perhaps I've conjured up the wrong image in thinking about B-theory, but that image is what leads me to my problem with counterfactuals: the spool of film can only refer to actual states of affairs. Being linear, the spool doesn't branch off into shadowy would-haves and could-haves and all the rest; only one actual path exists from the movie's beginning to its end. The uncomfortable implication of the image is that there are no alternatives: the film's events must run their inevitable course, leaving no room for freedom. One would think that, for freedom to exist, counterfactuals would have to exist in some sense. If the film represents all there is, and if counterfactuals are a subset of all there is (because they exist in some way), then for there to be freedom, the film must somehow contain the counterfactuals in its frames.

Perhaps I'm asking two different questions, here: (1) is my image an appropriate way to visualize the B-theory notion of spatiotemporality, and (2) regardless of the justice of my chosen metaphor, how do counterfactuals figure into B-theory?


Imagine the film unspooled and laid out flat. Each frame is equally real. If we ignore the continuity of time and think of it as composed of discrete moments, then each frame can be thought of as a moment of time. If the NOW is the projector that illuminates and projects each frame onto a screen, then there is no projector. For there is no moving NOW on the B-theory.

But you can't say the frames exist simultaneously: they are ordered by the B-relations, earlier and later.

As for counterfactuals, their analysis requires possible worlds. The B-theory is consistent with there being a plurality of worlds. 'If I were to drop this glass, it would shatter.' Suppose the glass is never dropped in the actual world and never shatters. The counterfactual is nonetheless true because there are possible worlds in which the glass exists, is dropped, and does shatter.

The B-theory does imply that the future is not open: it is as settled or determinate as the past.

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