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Wednesday, April 29, 2020

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Couldn't the same sort of argument be used to prove that our penal system assumes the reality of the future? What is the point of requiring a man to be sent to prison if the future state of his being in prison does not exist, is merely words with no meaning?

>>What is the point of requiring a man to be sent to prison if the future state of his being in prison does not exist<

The point is to make that future state come to exist.

The past is fixed, wholly determinate, and unalterable. The future needn't be for it to make sense to incarcerate a man.

Not at all. If someone is doing something wrong, we try to prevent them. If they have done something wrong, we punish them. I.e. If the act exists, we prevent it. Punishment, by contrast, is for what has existed, but no longer exists.

Suppose the following: a car kills a child, the child's mother sues the car's driver, and the driver's lawyer argues that no car can have killed the child because cars don't exist. (They're just some lesser item arranged car-wise—particles, perhaps.) I can't help but think that the driver's lawyer is missing something important about the mother's claim.

Likewise (mutatis mutandis) your case above. I can't help but wonder whether the defense is missing something important about the claim that the thief should be punished because of something the thief did in the past. In other words, whether governments, countries, peoples, etc., try to ground law in pre-metaphysical truths as much as possible and descending into metaphysical argument misses the point. (I would really rather avoid making our ability to pass legal judgments dependent on whether philosophers can come to conclusions about substantial metaphysical theses.)

Cyrus,

I am not questioning our legal practices. I am not saying that we should suspend them until philosophers solve the problems about time. I am taking for granted out legal practices, which include holding people legally responsible for their past deeds, and then asking whether those practices makes sense on presentism. I am arguing that they do not. These practices presuppose the reality of the past, which presentism cannot seem to uphold.

Here is a thought experiment.

It is logically possible that the universe began to exist five minutes ago together with fossils, monuments, memories, dead bodies, historical records of all kinds, etc. Suppose this is the case and that there is overwhelming evidence in the present that Smith murdered Jones one week ago. For example, there is the evidence of Jones' dead body and numerous witnesses to the murder who report their memories.

Should Smith be charged with murder? No, since nothing existed at the time he was supposed to have killed Jones.

Is this relevant to presentism or not?

Bill,

Part of why I haven't accepted the full force of many of your arguments is that I intuitively feel there must to be some way for presentists to (i) express to that something was once present, and therefore existed simpliciter, but is now no longer present, and therefore no longer exists simpliciter; (ii) contrast this with something that was never present, and therefore never existed simpliciter; and (iii) trade on this difference in replying to, e.g., your first defense attorney. Similarly, I intuitively feel that even for the presentist there is some meaningful difference between the situation where the world wasn't created five minutes ago and the situation where it was. But I'm not sure I have a good way of expressing the difference (and perhaps the differences are irrelevant).

Sorry about all the stray tos in my previous post. Strange oversight.

Presentism must surely contain the idea that what's present changes with time. So the presentist would say that (an object or event of) the past was factual, not fictional, was actual, not merely possible, was something, not nothing. Why impose the present tense, or indeed no tense at all, here?

History, archaeology, palaeontology investigate not so much the past but vestiges (from vestigium, footprint or track) of the past. Things from the past that are not wholly past, such as documents, artifacts, and fossils that have come down to us. These things are sometimes hidden away in archives and attics, or under the soil, or in rock strata, and have to be discovered. But then comes a process of invention whereby a story about the past is put together that must be consistent with the found vestiges. Sometimes the account is revised in the light of new discoveries. Such an account may well contain truths but we cannot be sure. We can't acquaint ourselves with the wholly past.

My problem with your thought experiment is that it makes the past never to have existed and makes any account we might give of the past into a fiction, a kind of unreality. This is one extreme. The opposite extreme is an ultra-realism that insists that the past must be there somewhen in order that we know it. I'm inclined to think that the truth is some hard to find and narrow to tread path between these two.

Bill,

I am not questioning our legal practices. I am not saying that we should suspend them until philosophers solve the problems about time. I am taking for granted out legal practices, which include holding people legally responsible for their past deeds, and then asking whether those practices makes sense on presentism. I am arguing that they do not. These practices presuppose the reality of the past, which presentism cannot seem to uphold.

You make an interesting point. However, it's worth pointing out explicitly (though I'm sure you realize it) that at best your argument proves that denying presentism is “practically necessary” for the functioning of justice systems. It doesn't actually prove that presentism is false.

A Stoic or Epicurean displays principles, which may not be durable, but which have an effect on conduct and behaviour. But a Pyrrhonian cannot expect, that his philosophy will have any constant influence on the mind: or if it had, that its influence would be beneficial to society. On the contrary, he must acknowledge, if he will acknowledge anything, that all human life must perish, were his principles universally and steadily to prevail. All discourse, all action would immediately cease; and men remain in a total lethargy, till the necessities of nature, unsatisfied, put an end to their miserable existence. It is true; so fatal an event is very little to be dreaded. Nature is always too strong for principle. And though a Pyrrhonian may throw himself or others into a momentary amazement and confusion by his profound reasonings; the first and most trivial event in life will put to flight all his doubts and scruples, and leave him the same, in every point of action and speculation, with the philosophers of every other sect, or with those who never concerned themselves in any philosophical researches. When he awakes from his dream, he will be the first to join in the laugh against himself, and to confess, that all his objections are mere amusement, and can have no other tendency than to show the whimsical condition of mankind, who must act and reason and believe; though they are not able, by their most diligent enquiry, to satisfy themselves concerning the foundation of these operations, or to remove the objections, which may be raised against them. (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Sec. XII, 128)

There is another quote, from one of his letters I think, where he makes the point much more directly. I might dig it out later.

Cyrus: "I intuitively feel that even for the presentist there is some meaningful difference between the situation where the world wasn't created five minutes ago and the situation where it was."

Well of course there is a difference, and I don't see why you qualify 'even' for the presentist.

For the presentist, the fact that the world is only 5 minutes old is radically different from the fact that it is e.g. 4.5bn years old.

Presentists who are not young earth creationists believe it is false that the world was created 5 minutes ago.

Brightly: "History, archaeology, palaeontology investigate not so much the past but vestiges (from vestigium, footprint or track) of the past."

Right, but they are vestiges or records of the past for all that. I.e. we have something expressed by "X is a record of Y", and if it expresses a relation, then one of the terms (the referent of "Y") no longer exists. That's the bullet that the presentist has to bite (and I have no problem with it).

Vallicella: "Should Smith be charged with murder? No, since nothing existed at the time he was supposed to have killed Jones. Is this relevant to presentism or not?"

It's not relevant. Smith should not be charged with murder if he murdered no one. But the presentist can consistently hold that many things, including Jones did exist five minutes ago, although some of them do not exist now (Jones).

We come back to articulating the difference between presentism and anti-presentism. It's not enough to say (and I think you agree) that presentists hold that past things did not exist. For they do hold that some things used to exist. The difference (as you rightly point out) is more subtle than that, and has to do with the notion of tenseless statements.

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