Motto : Crapula ingenium offuscat. Traduction : "le bec du perroquet qu'il essuie, quoiqu'il soit net" (Pascal, Pensées, L : 6/107).


Ce blog est ouvert pour faire connaître les activités d'un groupe de recherches, le Séminaire de métaphysique d'Aix en Provence (ou SEMa). Créé fin 2004, ce séminaire est un lieu d'échanges et de propositions. Accueilli par l'IHP (EA 3276) à l'Université d'Aix Marseille (AMU), il est animé par Jean-Maurice Monnoyer, bien que ce blog lui-même ait été mis en place par ses étudiants le 4 mai 2013.


Thèmes de recherche : Métaphysique analytique, Histoire de la philosophie classique, moderne et contemporaine,

Métaphysique de la perception et de la cognition. Austrian Philosophy. Méta-esthétique.

Philosophie du réalisme scientifique.



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mardi 11 juin 2013

Three Flawed Distinctions in the Philosophy of Time

Erwin Tegtmeier


There are three distinctions in the philosophy of time which I want to examine. It is worthwhile to examine them because they are basic. I mean the distinctions between A-series and B-series, between synchronic and diachronic identity, and between perdurance and endurance.

1.   McTaggart's  Two Kinds of Series

It was the Hegelian McTaggart who first distinguished between the A-series and the B-series. Following C. D. Broad, who extensively commented on McTaggart's philosophy, this distinction was adopted by almost all analytic philosophers of time, though they disagreed with the conclusion to which McTaggart arrived on the basis of that distinction, namely that time is unreal. Today, philosophers of time even group themselves as either A-theorists or B-theorists.
However, McTaggart's distinction arises from a misunderstanding of Russell's ontology of time. He calls the series generated by the relation 'earlier than' "B-series" and takes it to be the time according to Russell's view. The A-series, which he contrasts to the B-series, is generated by the tenses present, past, and future. He analyses the tenses as relations to a present.
Now, McTaggart emphasises that the A-series changes (what is future to a present, becomes present and finally past with respect to it etc.) while the B-series does not. Then he argues that the gist of time is change and that therefore the B-series is not really temporal. He characterises the B-series as static and the earlier-relation as a mere temporal order relation. Now, what he actually does is a bit more complicated  (he introduces a pure order series, the C series, and derives the A-series by combining A-series and C-series), nonetheless it comes down to the opposition between A series and B series which has become standard. Only the A series brings and represents change, the B-series does not. So, McTaggart thought and so the A- and the B-theorists today think.
But the popular opposition of order and dynamics mislead here. When Russell describes a relation as an order relation, he means only that it obeys certain formal laws and he does not imply at all that it is somehow static. A static model of some piece of reality leaves out the temporal dimension or, at least, takes into account only what is simultaneous. In that sense Russell's ontology is not static at all. It includes temporal relations and temporal relations other than simultaneity.
As to McTaggart's argument that the B-series cannot be temporal because it does not change, it is  misleading and wrong mainly for two reason. Firstly,  the task is to analyse ontologically the general structure of temporal phenomena, the task is to analyse the dynamics, not to dynamise the analysis. The task of science, including philosophy, is to find out what the entities involved in its research object are and what their laws are; it is to describe and explain, not to imitate the object. Secondly, the A-series remains changing just because the ontological analysis leading to it is incomplete: the changes in the holding of the tense relations are  left out in the analysis. As soon as they are taken into account, we have no longer a changing series.[1]
Let me briefly symbolise and visualise what I mean. I begin with a McTaggartian A-series:
F(e,g)
N(e,g)
P(e,g)
where e is some event, g is a present, F is the relation 'is future with respect to', N is the relation 'is present with respect to' and P the relation 'is past with respect to'. Now, since F, N and P are incompatible, their conjunction would lead to a contradiction. This contradiction does not appear because the column of the three sentences contain an iconic representation, as Peirce calls it, i.e., a representation by  the configuration of symbols (by the spatial downwards order of the sentences) rather than by a symbol. It is just the iconic representation which creates the impression of dynamics. As soon as it is transformed into a symbolic representation this impression disappears. However, the transformation merely makes explicit the complete analysis.
The downwards order of the sentences is understood to represent an earlier-relation between the event being future, present and and past with respect to g. No contradiction arises because what the three sentences state is not meant to be simultaneous. However, when the earlier-relation is represented by a symbol (take E) and thus the analysis completed we get E(F(e,g), N(e,g)) & E(F(e,g), P(e,g)) & E (N(e,g), P(e,g)). But this is a B-series. Similarly, we arrive at a dynamic series, as McTaggart demands it, if we substitute in a B-series the symbol for the relation which generates that series by an iconic representation of it. 
Undoubtedly, a temporal phenomenon is always a change, if it is not a change in a persistent object then it is a change in the situation, as, e.g., when two tones occur one after the other. And an earlier-relation or rather a relational fact with the earlier-relation from which change has been abstracted to have pure order is an absurdity since the order is meant to be according to time. Order is always order in a certain  dimension. Moreover, if one looks more closely how Russell introduces temporal relations, one cannot discover any indication for the impossible attempt to abstract the order aspect from the perceived  temporal phenomenon. On the contrary,  in accordance with his empiricist principle of acquaintance Russell introduces the relation 'earlier' ostensively[2] with respect to a full-fledged temporal phenomenon such as a  sequence of two tones, e.g., a c-tone and an e-tone. This phenomenon of the c-tone resounding and then the e-tone resounding is as dynamic as anything can be and not at all static. Russell explains that the relation 'earlier' is just the relation we hear holding between these two tones.


         2.The Distinction between Diachronic and Synchronic Identity

The terms “diachronic” and “synchronic” have been adopted from linguistics. “Synchronic” means roughly  “simultaneous” and “diachronic” “non-simultaneous”. Thus “synchronic identity” refers to identities between simultaneous entities and “diachronic identity” to identities between non-simultaneous entities. Now, strictly identical entities, entities which are one and the same (where there is thus only 1 entity involved), are always simultaneous. Not all simultaneous entities are strictly identical, of course, but all entities which are temporal and strictly identical are simultaneous. Simultaneity is reflexive and strict identity holds only between an entity and itself. That any temporal entity is simultaneous to itself is true independently of whether the entity has a short or a long duration. That an entity has a relatively long duration does not prevent it from standing in the simultaneity relation to itself. Obviously, a long duration does not prevent it from being  strictly identical with itself either. Therefore, all temporal entities whatever their duration are simultaneous and strictly identical, which entails that “synchronic identity” is pleonasm.
 If "synchronic identity" is a pleonasm, then "diachronic identity" is a contradictio in adjecto. Being strictly identical implies being  synchronic (simultaneous) and being synchronic implies, of course, not being diachronic (non-simultaneous). Thus the contradictoriness follows by the law of hypothetical syllogism.
We have noted already that even objects of long duration are simultaneous to themselves and not later or earlier than they themselves. However,  the relations 'earlier' and 'later' do occur in connection with a persistent objects and that is what may mislead the users of the term "diachronic identity" to think there is non-simultaneity in such an object. Yet, this non-simultaneity concerns only our contacts with the object, not the object itself. One contact with the object occurs later or earlier than another. That does not make the object later or earlier than itself, of course.
 It seems that the term  "diachronic identity" is used to conceive of the persistence of an ordinary object through time and change. We ordinarily like to say that a object "remains the same" or “remains identical” instead of saying merely that it "persists". The former phrase though implies already an ontological analysis of the phenomenon of persistence, if it is used in philosophy, namely that persistence grounds on strict identity, i.e., that the ordinary thing remains strictly the same while changing. The phenomenon of persistence has to be taken to involve only the relatively long duration and the continuity of an ordinary object. To claim that there only one entity underlying this phenomenon implies already a specific ontological analysis. As in any empirical science, the phenomena of ontology are less clear and specific than their theoretical analyses.
On the whole, there are three different ontological analyses of the phenomenon of persistence:

1. the substance analysis
2. the strong serial analysis
3. the weak serial analysis

According to the substance analysis an ordinary object is simple and remains literally the same in spite of its changes. According to the strong serial analysis an ordinary object is a series of momentary things and remains literally the same in spite of its changes and in spite of the circumstance that we meet diverse members of the series at different times. We meet the same series though we meet diverse members of it. According to the weak serial analysis only the momentary stages of the ordinary object exist. Only the members of the series exists, not the sries as a whole. Hence, it cannot  be literally the same during time and change. According to this analysis the persistence of the ordinary object is not grounded on strict identity, but on close causal connections between its momentary temporal parts. The main  theoretical, ontological difference in the background between the weak and the strong serial view is the acknowledgement of a series as an entity in addition to its members which the former view presupposes and the latter view does not.
Now, what to make of the distinction between synchronic and diachronic identity? If "diachronic identity" is taken to describe the phenomenon of persistence, what about "synchronic identity"? If it were a synonym of "strict identity of simultaneous entities", then it would be true independently of what ontological analysis is  right that diachronic identity is synchronic identity, with the “is” being the “is” of strict identity. We noted that even permanent objects are simultaneous to themselves. Thus, we arrive again at a non-distinction.
Even if "synchronic identity" is taken to mean simply "strict identity" it would still be true according to the substance and the strong serial view that diachronic identity is synchronic identity (i.e. strict identity), according to the substance and the strong serial view. And the last "is" again expresses strict identity and hence the sameness of diachronic and synchronic identity.
Obviously, this strict identity does not hold under the weak serial view. However, under the weak serial view there is diachrony (non-simultaneity), namely between between the momentary stages of the ordinary object. Thus one could express a complaint about the composite term "diachronic identity" pointedly by saying that if there is diachrony (with objects as weak series) there is no strict identity and if there is strict identity (with objects as substances or strong series) there is no diachrony (non-simultaneity).[3]
The tripartite classification into substance, strong serial, and weak serial views is intended to be an alternative to Lewis' dichotomy and to be an alternative that is based on a more sophisticated and sound ontological background than that of Lewis.


3.   Lewis' Distinction between Perdurance and Endurance

Lewis' distinction concerns just the phenomenon called diachronic identity. i.e., the phenomenon of the persistence of an ordinary object. He claims that there are two kinds of ontological views of the phenomenon of persistence, those viewing it as perdurance and those viewing it as endurance. I object that Lewis' distinction is based on a wrong analysis of the phenomenon of persistence. He defines persistence, perdurance, and endurance as follows:
"Let us say that something persists iff, somehow or other, it exists at various times; This is the neutral word. Something perdures iff it persists by having different temporal parts, or stages, at different times, though no part of it is wholly present at more than one time."[4]
Clearly, the issue is not existence but temporal location, more precisely the temporal location of objects such as trees and houses and men. To indicate the dates of birth and death of a person, e.g., is to locate the person temporally.
Which are the temporal locations? Lewis refers to times. This is, strictly speaking, absolutist talk. It presupposes the view that there are temporal absoluta, i.e. a continuum of time points or a temporal continuum with time points as boundaries. According to the relational view time there are no time points, not even a relationalist equivalent of time points. The equivalents would have to be relational properties and  being categorially different  they could not play the same roles as time points. Moreover, there are arguments against the existence of relational properties.[5] Therefore, Lewis characterisation of persistence and hence also his distinction of the two alternative analyses of persistence is not exhaustive. It leaves out relational analyses without noticing it.
The relationist in the philosophy of time has to derive temporal locations from the relation of simultaneity to entities used as standards of time measurement. Now, the relation of simultaneity holds only between entities which have a duration of the same length. That is why a persistent object cannot be located at a temporal interval of short or even point-like duration.
Basically, Lewis defines persistence as mutiple temporal location. This makes no sense for the relationist. One may even wonder whether it makes sense for the absolutist with time points. First of all, a persistent thing has to be located at an interval comprehending various time points. In what way can it also be located at those time points? Is it temporally not just too big for a time point?
It seems that multiple temporal location prima facie does not make sense neither in the relationtist  nor in the absolutist view. Only if one adds presentism can one see the basis of the idea of multiple temporal location. This may be a surprise since Lewis is an outspoken opponent to presentism. However, there are other indications of a hidden presentism in Lewis' philosophy of time.[6]
Multiple temporal localisation is strange, indeed. Localisation of a thing at all time-points of its duration is like ascribing to a rod of a length 10 cm also all the lengths shorter than 10 cm. More importantly, multiple temporal localisation is totally inappropriate with respect to the phenomenon of persistence. Temporally scattered or interrupted entities such as the beats of a drummer are multiply localised temporally, but persistent object are by definition and nature temporally continuous.
The background of the strange idea of multiple temporal localisation is presentism according to which, to put it in absolutist terms, only what is at the respective present time point exists and what is at all the other time points does not. Hence, according to presentism at each present time point the world is restricted to what is at that time and therefore temporal location has to be a piecemeal affair building on time points. Now, presentism seems to be the Common Sense view but when explicated as a philosophy of time it runs  into great difficulties and turns out to be untenable.[7] The common sense view works to a certain extent because it is not taken strictly, because, e. g., not momentary but extended presents of various length are assumed. The main point is to restrict the world to an extension where no change occurs since the aim of the restriction is to avoid the contradictions of change.
The tripartite classification into substance, strong serial, and weak serial views, is, as was mentioned already, meant to be an alternative to Lewis' dichotomy. Comparing the two classifications the question arises where to place the strong and weak serial view in Lewis' dichotomy. Remember Lewis' wording “persists by having different temporal parts, or stages, at different times”. It is not applicable according to the weak serial view which implies that there is nothing which persists and that the phenomenon of persistence is based solely on the close causal connection between the members of the series. And the strong serial view fits into Lewis' classification only if the series as a whole is not located temporally. These are other respects in which Lewis' classification is not exhaustive. It excludes several views of persistence.
Lewis understands the ontological problem of persistence as the question whether a persistent object has multiple temporal localisation or not.  Against that, my tripartite distinction amounts to the claim that the ontological problem of persistence is to tell how much a persistent object is integrated or unified. The three views correspond to three degrees of unity. The substance view assumes the highest degree of unity in a persistent object, the weak serial view assumes the lowest degree.


[1] s.  E. Tegtmeier: Der Hyperdynamismus in der Ontologie der Zeit. Eine Auseinandersetzung mit Brentano und McTaggart. Logos 1 (1994))
[2]  s.   B. Russell: On the Experience of Time. Monist 25 (1915)
[3]            The distinction between synchronic and diachronic identity seems to have come up in the attempt to make sense of Aristotle's metaphysics, see: E. Tegtmeier: Individuation, Identity, and Sameness. A comparison of Aristotle and Brentano, in: The Object and its Identity. Topoi Supplement 4
[4]            s. D. Lewis: On the Plurality of Worlds. Oxford/Cambridge (Mass.) 1986, p.203
[5]            s. R.Grossmann: Russell's Paradox and Complex Properties. Nous 6 (1972)
[6]            s. E. Tegtmeier: Warum Lewis' Unterscheidung zwischen Mitdauern (perdure) und Währen (endure) verfehlt ist. in: Löffler (Hg..) Substanz und Identität. Paderborn 2002
[7]            s. E. Tegtmeier: Der Hyperdynamismus in der Ontologie der Zeit. Logos 1 (1994)

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