Common Misunderstandings of the Tenseless Theory of Time

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I was glancing through the new issue of Themelios to see which articles to save to read later, and I noticed a review of a new book on time and timelessness that included a nice summary of a common confusion in many online conversations I've had about the B-theory of time, which is often (and in this review) called the tenseless theory of time:

What is often misunderstood is that the tenseless theory of time is, in fact, a theory on time and change. Holland, like most others, treats the tenseless theory of time as if it were about timelessness. The idea seems to be that a tenseless theory of time gives us a world where all moments are equally, wholly, simultaneously, and timelessly present to God. But the tenseless theory of time does not give us this. All it gives us is a theory about what is true at certain times without any reference to tense. An example of a tenseless truth is <Wipf & Stock publish Richard Holland's book on February 20, 2012 at 8:00am>Granted, this proposition does not change its truth-value like <Wipf & Stock will publish Holland's book tomorrow> does. But the tenseless proposition still gives us a proposition about what is true at a particular time. Even if the tenseless theory did entail a particular ontology of time whereby the past, present, and future all exist, it would not give us a state of affairs where all moments of time are simultaneously present to God. This is because all moments of time are not simultaneous together, even on a tenseless theory of time.

The reviewer goes on to explain how this problem occurred in the book being reviewed.

There are two other problems I've encountered with people arguing against the tenseless theory of time, involving confusions of a different sort. I think the most common is the pretense that the tenseless theory of time amounts to the view that nothing changes, that all objects at each time are always at those times, that there is no succession of moments, and so on. The B-theory, static view of time, or tenseless view of time says nothing of sort. All it says is that time consists of moments in a succession of before, after, and simultaneity and that none of those relationships are reducible to tensed propositions. Rather, tensed propositions are grounded in the relations before, after, and simultaneous. There is no objective present, past, or future. Those terms are relative to what moment in time you're speaking of (or speaking at). But there's never any denial of change, of ordering in time, or of anything like that. And adding a timeless God to the picture doesn't change any of that. It's still true for God that the moments in time happen in an order and that the things in time change. It's just that God's own experience of those moments in time isn't temporally ordered (but that doesn't mean God is unaware of the order of the events in time, as a number of my students have wrongly taken the idea of atemporality to imply).

The other problem I see regularly is confusing this theory of time with a completely different theory about persistence of objects through time, namely the four-dimensionalist or temporal parts view. The latter view is a theory about how an object persists through time, whether it is by enduring through time, being wholly present at each moment it exists at or being spread out across time as a four-dimensional object with parts at times. In fact, most people who hold to the tenseless theory (or B-theory) of time are not four-dimensionalists. But many people who try to argue for an alternative theory of time, in my experience, want to start with arguments against four-dimensionalism, which is a view about an entirely separate issue.

Update: I should say that there's a fourth, which is where the review starts, which is to distinguish between ontologies of time (i.e. whether only the present exists, the present and the past, or the past, present, and future) and theories about how tensed and tenseless propositions relate. Philosophers have been tying these issues together, and it's only very recently that metaphysicians have begun to tease them apart. Several top philosophers of time still don't understand that these are separate issues. The above issues involve distinctions that most philosophers get right but that undergraduates in my classes or people discussing philosophy or theology online, outside the academic context of formal training in philosophy, often get wrong. I blame people less for the fourth error, since top metaphysicians still don't see that distinction.

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