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Monday, May 13, 2019


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You misrepresent the Ostrich, who recognises there is a deep problem, but who insists that it is a problem of explaining in precisely what sense the problem can be set out clearly. ‘The riddle does not exist. If a question can be framed at all, it is also possible to answer it’.

We saw the problem earlier in the case of *exist, meaning ‘exists, has existed, or will exist’. Then ‘X *exists, but does not presently exist’ is the trivial claim that rules out one of the three possibilities. The metaphysical anti-presentist wants to say more than something merely trivial. I think he wants a sense of *exist that is closer to or identical with the normal sense of ‘exists’, i.e. exists in the present, which is of course impossible, for ‘X *exists, but does not presently exist’ would state that X presently exists, but does not presently exist.

The anti-presentist claim is a bit like the claim that the existence of no longer existing things is being in some shadowy parallel ‘now’. They really do exist in some way, rather than in some sense. But then they really do exist, although they have passed from present existence in this physical world to present existence in the shadow realm. Which would defeat anti-presentism, for presentism then would be true in the sense that nothing really ceases to exist, but merely changes state. Quoting Wittgenstein back at you again: ‘Is not this eternal life as much of a riddle as our present life?’ (Tractatus, 6.4312)

Once again, the problem is to provide a sense of ‘*exists’ that renders ‘X *exists, but does not presently exist’ both substantive and intelligible.

This may seem off-topic, but please bear with me for a few paragraphs.

There is a common account of Zeno's paradox of Achilles and the tortoise and the tortoise that goes something like this: "In Zeno's day they didn't know that an infinite series could have a finite result. When mathematicians discovered this, they were able to resolve Zeno's paradox".

But that account can't be right, at least not if the paradox under consideration was a paradox of nature, because no infinite number of natural objects can sum up to a finite size, and in fact it is doubtful that there are an infinite number of natural objects at all.

I propose that what really happened is that Zeno's paradox was never about the natural world; it was a paradoxe of a particular set of concepts used to think about the natural world. When mathematical limit theory was invented, this was not a discovery of a new fact about nature; it was a discovery of a new formalism for talking about nature--and this new formalism did not have the same paradoxical problems as the intuitive concepts used in Zeno's paradox. Limit theory is not a solution to Zeno's paradox; it is a new formalism in which Zeno's scenario is not a paradox. Zeno's paradox was an artifact of a particular way of thinking about the world.

I think that something similar applies to other problems in metaphysics, including the one being discussed here. I'm not trying to say that metaphysics is just a language game or that our language about metaphysics is meaningless, but I am suggesting that we have limits to what we can conceive of.

There may be areas such as time, where we simply do not have access to a conceptual system that's fits all of reality, so we have to make do with a collection of conceptual systems for particular purposes. For some purposes an eternalist conceptual system works, for other purposes a presentist conceptual system works, these two conceptual systems might be fine individually, withing their restricted sphere while not being compatible with each other, and while neither is fully competent to discuss all aspects of time.

Re Dave's comment, there is another narrative that runs something like this:

"philosophy began in Ancient Greek times with a set of problems that people tried to solve using reason without appeal to authority or superstition. Gradually these problems (such as the problem of limits, or the problem of how the universe began to exist) were solved by Science. What we call 'philosophy' is simply the residue of the problems that Science has not yet addressed. The field of philosophy is continually contracting. One day Science will solve all problems, and philosophy will cease to exist".

I think that's a terrible story, but that's how it goes.


I agree with you that the above is a "terrible story."

There is a core set of problems that are not amenable to solution by any positive science.

But we disagree about this: " ‘The riddle does not exist. If a question can be framed at all, it is also possible to answer it."

I say that there are problems that are genuine but are insoluble by us.

I should write a separate post on this.

>>I should write a separate post on this.

You should. Mary Midgley's headmistress on whether you can think X clearly if you cannot say X clearly.

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