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Prior’s Thank-Goodness Argument Reconsidered

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Arthur Prior’s argument for the A-theory of time in “Thank Goodness That’s Over” is perhaps his most famous and well-known non-logical work. Still, I think that this paper is one of his most misunderstood works. Because of this, much of its brilliance has yet to be properly appreciated. In this paper, I suggest that the explanation of this is that it has been treated as though it were following (what has been mythologized as) the standard model for a piece of Analytic philosophy. That is, it has been assumed that what Prior was doing was deductively demonstrating the truth of a proposition which can be discussed via any sentences with the same semantic content. Here, I argue that this assumption is wrong on two fronts:

  1. (1)

    Most importantly, the strongest reading of the structure of Prior’s argument is as an abduction rather than as a deduction.

  2. (2)

    Many of the most important lessons of the argument are lost by focusing on the bare propositional content of its premise and conclusion statements. In other words, we can learn as much from the manner in which this argument is presented and expressed as we can from that which is expressed.

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  1. 1.

    I assume familiarity with this terminology throughout. For its origin, see McTaggart (1908). For a contemporary introduction, see the SEP article on Time.

  2. 2.

    Since it’s the B-fact I am thanking goodness for and that fact exists and is exactly the same during my pain as after.

  3. 3.

    This is an extremely misleading phrase since the propositions expressed by these statements are contingent. Rather, what past thinkers have been picking up on is that these statements are analytic (they are, at the very least, epistemically analytic). In Kaplan (1989) terms, the statement is a logical truth of Kaplan’s Two-Dimensional Logic of Demonstratives, since true in all contexts of utterance, even though it will always express a proposition which is contingent, since false in some circumstances of evaluation.

  4. 4.

    In structuring this argument, I am invoking the work of one of Prior’s favorite philosophical logicians, C.S. Peirce, whom Prior called “a very great logician indeed” (Prior 1962) and admitted was the precursor of his views on self-reference and the semantics of proper names (Prior 1963). While Peirce changed his mind throughout his career on what to call it (e.g. ‘abduction’, ‘hypothesis’, ‘explanation’, ‘retroduction’) and precisely how to represent this form, he always thought that abduction was a distinct form of ampliative inference. The form I use here seems to have been the closest to Peirce’s settled view, from (Peirce 1958, p. 5.189): “The surprising fact, C, is observed. But if A were true, C would be a matter of course. Hence, there is reason to suspect that A is true.”

  5. 5.

    Many thanks to Kit Fine and James Doyle for helpful feedback making me recognize the importance of this discussion.

  6. 6.

    That these facts were used as evidence on the issue of the metaphysics of time makes Prior’s work particularly relevant given that there are many who think that this issue is settled by the Special Theory of Relativity. For a particularly well-known example of this, see (Putnam 1967).

  7. 7.

    I think that there are at least two reasons the institution of philosophy ought to be interested in investigating Prior’s work on these matters. First, they have much to add to the debates appearing in the influx of interesting work on metaphilosophy from the last 15 years. Second, by focusing on issues relevant to ordinary life, they could help with the serious PR issues facing the discipline.

  8. 8.

    This brings us to the end of the remarks with which I think Prior would be sympathetic. Rather, much like Kripke said of his (1982) (“...the present paper should be thought of as expounding neither ‘Wittgenstein’s’ argument nor ‘Kripke’s’: rather Wittgenstein’s argument as it struck Kripke...”), the present section should be thought of as expounding the style of Prior’s argument as it struck LaVine.

  9. 9.

    That we need to come up with such sources of determining data comes from perhaps an idiosyncratic reading I have of Quine’s confirmation holism arguments. In particular, I do accept that experimental results never formally determine a unique theory for verification or falsification. That is, from the standpoint of the formal logic and experimentation, there are equally rational but incompatible choices to be made for the best theory. That said, I do not accept that this means there will always be equally rational but incompatible choices to be made for the best theory simpliciter. Rather, what this means is that there must be some further determining data other than logic and empirical observation.

  10. 10.

    The way in which a proponent of something like the Logical Positivist stance could derive their verificationist criterion from an ethical position has already been dealt with in (Chick and LaVine 2014, pp. 142–144).

  11. 11.

    An adequate treatment of these issues would deal with experimental-philosophy based challenges to the very enterprise of using intuitions in philosophy such as (Swain et al. 2008). Unfortunately, while I think something like an alternative explanation that their data instead shows ‘know’ to be context-sensitive is possible, a defense of this is outside of the scope of this paper.

  12. 12.

    Here, ‘side-effect’ was stipulated to mean ‘a foreseen consequence of one’s intentional behavior which one is ambivalent about’.

  13. 13.

    While there is lots of this which would most likely make Prior shudder, going back to one of Prior’s idols, Peirce, we see similar sentiments expressed. In his (1878), immediately following his famous “The Fixation of Belief” and How to Make our Ideas Clear”, Peirce says that while “It may seem strange that I should put forward three sentiments, namely, interest in an indefinite community, recognition of the possibility of this interest being made supreme, and hope in the unlimited continuance of intellectual activity, as indispensable requirements of logic. Yet, when we consider that logic depends on a mere struggle to escape doubt, which, as it terminates in action, must begin in emotion, and that furthermore, the only cause of our planting ourselves on reason is that other methods of escaping doubt fail on account of the social impulse, why should we wonder to find social sentiment presupposed in reasoning?”.

  14. 14.

    It might be of interest to the reader, if for no other reason than the existence of the problems that meta-philosophical views have had with self-application historically, to note that another clear case of application of this view is to itself. That is to say, if we adopt the view that we should allow ethical views to drive metaphysical views, we will immediately find further reason to believe this very view. Metaphysics seems to be difficult, constantly steeped in conflict, and bound for perpetual controversy, but we do not want this to be the case with ethics. We are not quite so disturbed by metaphysical disagreement as we are with ethical disagreement. So, if we adopt the (arguably) metaphysical view that ethical views should drive metaphysics and point out that we believe it’d be a good thing if ethics drove metaphysics rather than the other way around, then we will further solidify this very belief.

  15. 15.

    That we can use this deductive argument, along with the deduction theorem, in order to establish conditionals of this kind within an abduction is particularly important in the wake of recent objections given by Herman Cappelen against the idea that abduction plays a large role in philosophy. In his well-received (2012), Cappelen claims (cf. pp. 169–171) that, because thought experiments eliciting singular judgment C are often accompanied by arguments from theoretical premises, P, to singular judgment, C, this means that there can’t be an abduction from C to P occurring. This is simply false, though, as the model above shows. As I see it, the deduction is just a sub-proof of the ultimate abduction.

  16. 16.

    Oddly enough, this increase in the amount of historically-ignorant work has come during the same period when the history of Analytic philosophy has come into maturity as its own sub-discipline.


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This paper is much better as a result of many discussions I’ve had during its long development. These include comments from audiences at SUNY Potsdam, the University at Buffalo, and Balliol College, Oxford, as well as extremely helpful feedback from, among others, David Curry, Maureen Donnelly, James Doyle, Kit Fine, David Hershenov, Tim Murphy, and anonymous reviewers for the Arthur Prior Centenary Conference. Most importantly, I need to thank Krista Medo for always reminding me of the importance of asking “who cares?”.

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Correspondence to Matt La Vine.

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La Vine, M. Prior’s Thank-Goodness Argument Reconsidered. Synthese 193, 3591–3606 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-015-0904-0

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  • Prior
  • A-theory
  • Abduction
  • Meta-philosophy
  • Hume’s Guillotine
  • Public philosophy