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Friday, December 08, 2023


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“The literary merit of Alain's writing is in evidence in the concluding sentence. My only quibble is with the typically Gallic exaggeration: what happens is never what we expected? Ah, the French love of the universal quantifier!”

Yes, they do, as in this famous passage of Les Pensées (Vanité, fragment 33/28), where Pascal speaks of the past, present, and future (the original and my translaton):

Que chacun examine ses pensées, il les trouvera toutes occupées au passé ou à l’avenir. Nous ne pensons presque point au présent, et si nous y pensons, ce n’est que pour en prendre la lumière pour disposer de l’avenir. Le présent n’est jamais notre fin. Le passé et le présent sont nos moyens, le seul avenir est notre fin. Ainsi nous ne vivons jamais, mais nous espérons de vivre, et nous disposant toujours à être heureux, il est inévitable que nous ne le soyons jamais

If each of us examine his thoughts, he will find them all completely concerned with the past or the future. We almost never think of the present, and if we think if it, it is only to take light from it in order to dispose of the future. The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means, only the future is our end. Thus, we never live, but we hope to live, and [since] we are always disposing ourselves to be happy, it is inevitable that we never should be.

Well, at least the great Pascal writes 'almost never.' Thank you for the bilingual presentation of that marvellous passage.

Thanks for your interesting post, Bill. Alain wrote:

"Neither the past nor the future can harm us, since the one no longer exists and the other does not yet exist."

The view of time articulated here seems to be presentism, as your subtitle suggests. But suppose eternalism is true: past, present, and future exist, though the past and the future don’t exist here in time (i.e., now).

Even on eternalism, the practical point about keeping to the present seems to hold: neither the past nor the future can harm us (or, perhaps more precisely, our relevant person-stages) now. And that point might console us from time to time – such as when one listens to Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”:


And yet you are right to quibble with the exaggeration:

>>what happens is never what we expected?<<

Quite plausibly, if we are careful planners, we are reasonable to expect that the future will be something like what we expect. Indeed, the virtue of prudence requires that we be properly concerned about the future. Suppose that we ought to be prudent. Then we can do so, and thus the future is at least somewhat expectable.

On presentism, then, the future can be expected, to some degree. Even on eternalism, one might argue that “any person-stage has reason to promote the wellbeing of any other person-stage that is part of the same person as that stage.” (Kristie Miller calls this the “axiom of prudence.” See Prudence and Perdurance, Oxford Studies in Metaphysics, V. 13, Feb. 2020)


Hi Elliot,

Penetrating comments, as usual. Hard to believe that the song to which you linked is 14 years old already.

You make a good point in your penultimate paragraph: That future events are in some measure predictable/expectable is a presupposition of prudence.

As for presentism in the philosophy of time, I do not see why so many are attracted to it. But I won't rehearse the powerful objections to it. There are also objections to eternalism. By my lights, neither is true. If the two are logical contradictories, but neither is true, then we face an aporia in the strict sense. The discursive/dianeotic intellect bangs up against an insurmountable impasse.

>>But suppose eternalism is true: past, present, and future exist, though the past and the future don’t exist here in time (i.e., now).<<

Your formulation needs improvement inasmuch as it gives the impression that on eternalism past, present, and future events are not in time. But of course they are: given that my eating breakfast is earlier than my blogging, both events are temporally qualified and thus in time. The eternalist does not deny the existence of time; his characteristic claim is that time exists alright, but is exhausted by (and this identical to) McTaggart's B-series, the series of events ordered by the B-relations, earlier than, later than , simultaneous with.

Bill, your improvement on my characterization of eternalism is good. Thank you for providing it. You’re right that, on eternalism, past, present, and future events are in time. They are temporal events ordered by the relations of earlier than, later than, and simultaneous with.

>>As for presentism in the philosophy of time, I do not see why so many are attracted to it.<<

I recently noticed that, according to a 2020 PhilPapers survey, about 40% of philosophers accept or lean toward eternalism, while about 18% accept or incline to presentism and only about 17% support growing-block theory. The relevant question is near the end of the survey.


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