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Tuesday, March 12, 2013


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Is there a Triviality Ghost regarding the Presentist vs. Non-presentist Dispute?

The Presentist vs. Non-presentist debate is conducted on two parallel tracks, which occasionally intersect. The first track assumes the intelligibility of the two sides and focuses primarily on a variety of objections against the truth of Presentism. The second track focuses primarily on a “triviality ghost”: i.e., whether or not the debate is genuine or is it perhaps a pseudo-debate. What reason do we have to suspect that there is a “triviality ghost” surrounding the debate?

The “triviality ghost” enters the scene when one presses the Presentist to explain in what sense he uses the term ‘exist’ when stating his position, thus: only present things exist. If ‘exist’ is used in the present tense, then Presentism is a trivial truism. If, on the other hand, ‘exist’ is de-tensed as in ‘existed, exists, or will exist’, then the objection seems to be that the Presentist’s position as advertized is trivially false. Some philosophers maintain that the “triviality ghost” is real, while others insist that it is merely apparent. Who is right?

But wait a minute, there is a problem here: In what sense do the proponents of the “triviality ghost” use the terms ‘true/false’ here? Do they use it in the correspondence sense or some other sense? Suppose it is the former. Then they can be interpreted as maintaining that there *exists* some state-of-affairs which is a truth-maker for their claim that the Presentist’s position is trivially true/false. But, now, which notion of ‘exists’ do they employ when they say that there exists a state-of-affairs which is a truth-maker … etc. (the same problem would arise if one replaces state-of-affairs with propositions). Do they mean that presently there exists a state-of-affairs which…etc., or do they mean by ‘exist’ something else? I do not think that retreating to a non-correspondence account of true/false will solve this problem. So now it seems like the proponents of the “triviality ghost” have their own ghost.

The point of my little argument against the proponents of the “triviality ghost” above is to illustrate that every disagreement presupposes some background agreement; at least agreement on the fundamental concepts which are required in order to state the respective positions of the disputants. Otherwise the opposing parties fail to talk about the same thing. In the case of the Presentism vs. Non-presentism debate, “the same thing” concerns the sorts of concrete objects that are part of reality, in the most inclusive sense of ‘reality’. Or more simply stated: what exists. The Presentist affords a privileged place for the present in determining the set of all things that are part of reality, in the most inclusive sense of ‘reality’, whereas his opponent(s), the Non-presentists, generally take a more egalitarian perspective and maintains that past, present, and future concrete objects are equally entitled to be part of reality, in the most inclusive sense of ‘reality’.

Of course, both sides must mean the same thing by ‘reality’ or ‘exist’; otherwise they cannot disagree or even appear to do so. So what is this concept they share? Here I invoke Frege’s distinction between concept and object (or intension vs. extension). I suggest that we must posit a neutral concept of *exist*, one which in the present case is taken not to include any temporal elements. Following Bill, the term ‘exist’ enclosed in parenthesis expresses this concept. For present purposes we will assume that the extension of ‘(exist)’ includes at least some concrete spatio-temporal objects.

When the term ‘(exist)’ occurs within a sentence endorsed by any of the two sides to the debate without any temporal modifier (e.g., ‘was’, ‘present’, ‘will’ and any of their variations), then its extension should be taken as the most expansive: i.e., taken alone and without any further restrictions, the extension of ‘(exist)’ is all of concrete reality, whatever that may include. (I am assuming that everyone here agrees that reality is not empty of concrete objects: i.e., at least some concrete objects (exist)). A temporal modifier which is attached to ‘(exist)’ yields an extension that cannot be more expansive than the extension of ‘(exist)’ alone. Thus, the Presentist’s position may be stated as usual:

P1. (x) (x (exists) only if x presently(exists)).

The Non-presentist, of course, will assert that the extension of ‘(exist)’ encompasses everything that (exist)ed, now(exists), and will(exist). This can be put as the conjunction of the following three propositions:

N1. If x Past(exist), then x (exists);
N2. If x Presently(exists), then x (exists)
N3. If x Will(exist), then x (exists).

Clearly the two positions disagree. It is worth noting that P1 is incompatible with N1 regarding any past object. Thus, let x = Socrates. Then it is true that ‘Socrates existed’ or ‘Socrates Past(exist)’. According to N1 it follows that Socrates (exists). But, According to P1 it is not the case that Socrates presently(exists); therefore, Socrates does not (exist). So P1 and N1 entail contradictory sentences in conjunction with ‘Socrates existed’. Note also that throughout this little argument about Socrates, both the Presentist and the Non-presentist assume the same concept of (exist) as outlined above. Therefore, the obtained results cannot be traceable to our concept of (exist).

What about Ed’s objection? Well Ed’s objection was that P1 together with

2. if x Past(exist), then x (exists).

entail that ‘Socrates did not (exist)’.

But (2) is the same as N1. And we have already noted that N1 contradicts P1. So it should not come as a surprise that (2) contradicts P1. Rather than proving that there is here some sort of a “triviality ghost”, this shows that the Presentist and the Non-presentist indeed genuinely disagree, assuming a common understanding of the concept of (exist).


"Now what is this hypertenseless univocal sense of 'exists' that applies to both God and Socrates? Persumably it is the quantifier sense according to which x exists iff (Ey) x = y. Existence in this sense is identity-with-something-or-other."

I really like your proposal to think of the concept of exist we are seeking in terms of identity plus quantification. Interestingly, I have not encountered this proposal elsewhere, although of course I have not explored all the literature on the subject. Thoroughly examining its merits is definitely worthwhile.

One thing comes to mind that may raise concerns. In classical first-order, the truth conditions of '(Ey) (x = y)' are given in terms of a non-empty domain D in the usual way. But to say that D is non-empty means that it contains (in this case) concrete spatio-temporal objects. And the later just means that some concrete spatio-temporal objects *exist* and they are members of D. But, now, the advocate of the "triviality ghost" may protest as follows: what concept are you using when you explain the non-emptiness of D? If you respond that it is the same hypertenseless concept captured by the existential quantifier and identity, then the account is threatened by circularity (one of your own favorite objections).

I suspect that one way out is to combine your proposal with mine above. Assume that we have a, in your terms, a hypertenseless concept of (exist) (in the Fregean sense of 'concept'). Then we can add that the extension of this concept is formulated in a quasi-formal language in terms of the existential quantifier and identity. You can now respond to the above objection by saying the 'exist' in the explanation of the non-empty domain D is the hypertenseless concept of (exists). So in effect your '(Ey) (x = y)' gives the extension of the hypertenseless (exist); it is not intended to analyze the meaning of the hypertenseless term 'exist'.

I hope that this makes sense (written early in the morning under some severe pressures).

As for your second comment, that is exactly one of the objections I would make to the proposal -- which I was not endorsing.

I will now study your first comment.


Are you asking for the T-maker of 'Presentism cannot be formulated in a way that is non-trivial and not obviously false'? But that sentence does not need a truth-maker since if true, it is necessarily true, and only contingent truths (though not all contingent truths) need T-makers.

Being spooked by one ghost is enough.


I think it is important to realize that there is more than one way to be a non-presentist or anti-presentist. Not all anti-presentists are B-theorists for whom real time is exhausted by the B-series.

Consider all those philosophers who maintain that the A-properties cannot be reduced to, or eliminated in favor of, the B-relations. Not all of these dudes will be presentists.

One crazy guy maintains that only the future exists, another that only the past exists.

Then there is the sane view that past and present exist but not the future.

None of the foregoing anti-presentists are temporal egalitarians (B-theorists) since each holds that existence is determined by one or more of the A-properties.


1. "But that sentence does not need a truth-maker since if true, it is necessarily true, and only contingent truths (though not all contingent truths) need T-makers." (6:24am)

You are right. But, as I hinted at in my original post, you still would need to give truth conditions to the sentence in which case you will be committed to the existence of propositions or possible worlds or at least the actual world. The problem resurfaces there.

2. I know you were not endorsing the identity + quantification account, but the proposal is nonetheless intriguing to me. Particularly when combined with my Fregean concept account to respond to the domain objection to the identity+quantification proposal.

3. "None of the foregoing anti-presentists are temporal egalitarians..."

Well! First, I narrowly construed the anti-presentism to include only "sane" versions.
Second, the "insane" versions, then, can be called Restricted-Non-Presentists because, like Presentism, they see one or another temporal location as privileged. So the camp of anti-presentism will have to be divided into those who are "Egalitarian"; more or less standard versions, and those who are, like presentism, Restricted.

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