Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Function of Clocks and the Purpose of Tensed Thoughts

So it's been a long while since my last post. The end of the quarter, vacations, illnesses, a desire to fast from the blog world for a short time to recover, and a bad bout of food poisoning all conspired to keep away for a while. This is the first time I've looked at any blog in a while, so hopefully I'll start to get back into the swing of things and get back into posting on my own blog and having discussions on others. It'll be interesting to see what happened in some discussions I was involved with when I suddenly went MIA.

In any case, this post is a follow-up to the previous one. I'm not really happy with the argument of the last post - there are a number of points that are really weak or where the argument I now think isn't so good. So I'm going to try another take on why we need tensed thoughts here in this post. (Where the "we" in question is just finite, spatiotemporal agents who act at only particular times and places adjacent to their own particular times and places and do so as a result of (sometimes) deliberation and (all the times) intention)

Since we are talking about creatures which act at a time, for action, we need to coordinate the proposed action with time or else any success we meet in our endeavors will be a wild accident at best. So given information about a time at which I am located and need to act at, I need to be able to act reliably at that very time. This requires keeping track of the time in some way. To be reliable in coordinating temporal information with action, then, we need to make certain temporal information relevant in the proper way or action - or intention-in-action-producing at the relevant times. So, in other words, we need a clock-like system which somewhat reliably coordinates action with which times are appropriate to act at and so which representations are appropriate to act on.

Now consider an odometer. An odometer represent a lot of different speeds. But that by itself is not its function - its function is to indicate (via the pointer) what the speed of the vehicle currently is. So lots of speeds are represented but only one in particular is represented as the speed of the vehicle - and this is done without explicitly representing anything but the speed itself. Now consider a carbon monoxide detector where a light labeled "Carbon Monoxide" lights up whenever the compound is present. Clearly, this detector represents carbon monoxide but its function is to detect the presence of carbon monoxide. So when the light is lit up, it represents carbon monoxide as present - even though its presence is not itself explicitly represented. This works even if the detector tokens a full representation which doesn't mention the presence of carbon monoxide, so long as the function of the system is still the same. So if the light is labeled "Carbon Monoxide is Very, Very Bad", the lighting up of the light and thus the system's coordination of the presence of the compound with the representation is still representing carbon monoxide as present despite this fact being extrinsic to the representation itself.

What we can learn from looking at these few examples is that if it is the function of a system to detect, indicate, or otherwise track that some F is G, and it does this by tokening a representation of F, it thereby represents F as G. Now apply this to clock systems. Clock-like systems can represent a lot of different times or be involved in coordinating times with representations which explicitly refer to a lot of different times. It is the function of the clock-like system to track the current time. And by doing so, it represents that time as being present or being now. So a clock-like system is essentially a tensed system - simply put, just a system for keeping track of the time.

What a tensed system like a clock in effect does is to attach temporal representations to the appropriate time in such a way as to be in a certain way infallible. This is especially apparent in the case of representations where time is not explicitly represented at all and yet which are still only about temporal matters (and are hence in this sense tensed) - the time enters into the represent implicitly or is represented by itself. An explicit NOW concept is perhaps at least partly a placeholder making explicit the implicit presence of the current time. Tensed systems and representations, then, constitute a kind of direct access to time that we need as agents to act.

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