Eternalism from the green grocer

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Or at least from someone relatively equivalent. Is there anyone more qualified to represent the views of the average American than Laura Ingalls of Little House fame? I witnessed her statement of something that, at least on the surface grammar, seems to involve an ontological commitment to non-present times. [For those unfamiliar with the philosophy of time, eternalism is the view that all times (and things existing at those times, which for convenience I'll not worry about here) equally exist, just not at once. Some people deny it by saying that past times no longer exist and future times don't yet exist, but that begs the question by assuming not existing now entails not existing at all, whereas existing in the past and existing in the future to do seem to involve existing, just not existing now.]

The A&E Biography of Melissa Gilbert was on last night. Sam was always a huge Little House fan, but Gilbert's husband Bruce Boxleitner played John Sheridan on the best TV show ever made, Babylon 5, and Melissa made an appearance for a couple episodes as someone I shouldn't mention since I want all my friends to watch the series from beginning to end once I get it all on DVD, and I don't want to spoil anything. Sure enough, he made an appearance last night as well, and they did mention the show that I expected wouldn't even get a nod.

Now Melissa seems to be an eternalist. She probably hasn't been educated with a lot of philosophy of time, and she was America's little sweetheart for such a long time, that I think we can take her views as indicative of the general public. She made a very interesting comment about the day her father figure Michael Landon died (unless it was the day she found out he was having an affair -- I'm not 100% sure which it was). She said, "It was a very bad day. It still is."

Sam somehow thought she was talking about how the anniversary of that day is still a very bad day, but she gave no contextual indication that that was what she meant. It seemed to me that she was saying that the very day he died is still bad. Even if she meant the anniversaries are still bad, she was talking about them as if they exist, and they don't exist according to presentism, which says only the present time exists. My way of reading it doesn't require eternalism (all times exist) but only at bare minimum a growing block view (the past and the present exist but not the future). Saying the anniversaries are still bad, when not all of them have occurred yet, and when you're not talking about any particular anniversary but ones as they come up, which has a sense of potentiality, signaling you're including future ones, seems to move to the full eternalist view. So even on Sam's reading of her statement, which I thought less likely, her surface grammar gives reason to think she has eternalism as an assumed framework.

Now I'm aware that there are ways to try to reduce any of this talk to presentist or other non-eternalist claims. I think such reductionism will fail, but that's not the issue. The issue is whether people assume eternalism, presentism, or any other view. I've seen many presentists and growing block theorists claiming that their view is the common sense view. I just don't think that's true. The only reason it seems true is because of the fallacious argument I mentioned above (that because something doesn't exist now it must not exist at all at any time). Once you see the fallacy there, the reasons for thinking presentism is commonsensical are undermined. Once you look at statements like Gilbert's, it's clear that at least some of what we say assumes the existence of other times (and the existence of things at other times).

2 Comments

Just curious - how does eternalism and presentism relate to McTaggart's A, B, and C views of time?

I don't know what a C view of time is, and I've been working on philosophy of time since 1994. Maybe I've just forgotten something in the McTaggart paper, but I don't know of a third series.

McTaggart talks about an A-series, which has everything in terms of past, present, and future. A-theories of time say there's something irreducible about such terms. The most common A-theory is presentism, which says only present things exist. Some people think the terms are irreducible but also think the past exists in addition to the present. This is the growing black view. Others say the terms are irreducible but all the times exist, but then it's not clear in what sense the terms are irreducible. This view is hard to maintain, but it's called by some the moving spotlight view of time.

All these views believe in an A-series in addition to the B-series that contains just the before, simultaneous with, and after relations. Eternialists believe that all A-talk is supervenient on B-talk. It's now the standard view among philosophers, though some of the A-theorists that remain insist that our language requires A-theoretic terms that can't be analyzed in B-theoretic ways. In the end, I think the arguments favor eternalism, as most metaphysicians have concluded.

This post was just a way to show how sometimes people really believe in the reality of the past and future anyway. Unless you can get the moving spotlight view to work, which most people haven't been able to see how to do without having empty or circular definitions, that means at least some of our claims assume eternalism, since those are the only two views with the reality of things at all times.

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