Friday, May 9, 2008

Is Tense Common Sense? (Plattitudes, Attitudes, and Experiences)

Tensed theorists often claim that their theories are common sense. Growing block theorists claim their theory is the common sense view, moving spotlight folks claim theirs is the common sense view, presentist claim theirs is the common sense view, etc. And this is somehow supposed to provide evidence or at least a presumption in favor of their pet version of the tensed time. But what on earth makes them think this in the first place? I suppose it must involve things like fitting various common platitudes and asymmetric attitudes about time or our experience of time or agency. But I'm skeptical about their claims, to say the least. Note first that it's pretty implausible that each of these views is the common sense one or general common sense. And I think that it's a fair piece of evidence against the identification of, say, a view like presentism with common sense that many people find the debate between it and an opposing view like eternalism to be simply vacuous at best. If common sense is indeterminate enough to leave up in the air an issue such as that between eternalism and presentism, I think that's pretty good reason to say that presentism is not the common sense view. It seems to me in general that common sense is either indeterminate between or vacillates between tensed and tenseless views of time. My money would be that common sense doesn't on it's own go either way, though individuals may take it a step farther in one direction or another. Ordinary thought simply does not deal in such high powered metaphysics to a great enough extent in this area to go either way.

But what about all those platitudes, attitudes, and experiences? Well, tenseless theorists can accept and explain all of these too! It is not contrary to the tenseless theory to say, in ordinary speech, that, for instance, time flows or that "time keeps on slippin', slippin', slippin'...into the future". Or even that "the future is not yet and the past is no more". What I think tensed theorists are latching onto isn't the plausibility of their own theories but the apparent implausibility of tenseless ones as accurate accounts of what's behind such platitudes, attitudes, and experiences. Sometimes when one looks at tenseless theories of time, it can seem that something is missing in accounting for such things. Tensed theorists, I take it, think they can give us what they think are the things are felt to be missed. But, I contend, they actually fail precisely in this regard in almost the same ways and in general at least as bad as (as sometimes worse than) tenseless theorists. (See Alan's post here and our discussion following for a possible example of the sort of stuff I'm talking about in this post)

This last fact - that the apparent gap between our attitudes, platitudes, and experiences, on one hand, and tenseless views, on the other, is just as bad if not worse between our attitudes, platitudes and experiences and tensed views - usually goes unnoticed (though not always - many people have pointed this out in particular cases of these gaps). This is at least partly because of tensed theorists' misleading terminology and (mis?)appropriation of 'common sense talk' as well as intricate ontologies and metaphysics hidden (or put aside to avoid committing to any particular view) behind the soothing, ordinary speech. It all lends an air of authority and authenticity and faithfulness not possessed by most tenseless theorists' talk, largely because tenseless theorists often eschew common talk and often seem to be denying its worth (sometimes this is precisely because, unfortunately, they are!). This is also due to the prevalence and entrechedness of the common misperceptions of what tenseless eternalists believe (see my earlier post on this).

No theory, however, can fill in the gaps I've mentioned - something will always seem missing from any account. Tensed theorists think that because tenseless theorists "fail" in this regard that they therefore succeed, but that is simply not so. In my dissertation, I am arguing that this is true, show that the most plausible account of our mind's access to, uses of, and representations of time explain where these gaps come from - and do so in a way that is in itself neutral between the two big camps. And that this is just one piece in a larger fabric of our conscious, perspectival access to the world and all the associated perspectival/nonperspectival gaps that arise because of it. Tensed theorists in time - as well as other folks in other areas - make a peculiar mistake relating to our representations' relation to the world, one that is widespread in areas from metaphysics to ethics. Or so I argue. So there is absolutely no support for tensed theories from common sense - not even from our plattitudes, attitudes, and experiences.

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