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On Whether B-Theoretic Atheists Should Fear Death


In this paper I revisit a dispute between Mikel Burley and Robin Le Poidevin about whether or not the B-theory of time can give its adherents any reason to be less afraid of death. In ‘Should a B-theoretic atheist fear death?’, Burley argues that even on Le Poidevin’s understanding of the B-theory, atheists shouldn’t be comforted. His reason is that the prevalent B-theoretic account of our attitudes towards the past and future precludes treating our fear of death as unwarranted. I examine his argument and provide a tentative defense of Le Poidevin. I claim that while Burley rightly spots a tension with a non-revisionary approach to our ordinary emotional life, he doesn’t isolate the source of that tension. The real question is how to understand Le Poidevin’s idea that on the B-theory, we and our lives are ‘eternally real’. I then suggest that there is a view of time that does justice to Le Poidevin’s remarks, albeit a strange one. The view takes temporal relations to be quasi-spatial and temporal entities to exist in a totum simul.

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  1. 1.

    Silverstein 1980, 2000. Bradley 2004, 2009, p. 82, footnote 18.

  2. 2.

    Note that the claims are not directly opposed, since Silverstein’s concerns the (dis-)value of death, whereas Le Poidevin’s concerns reasons to fear death (though Le Poidevin is not explicit about this distinction). Note also that Le Poidevin’s suggestion seems broad enough to pertain not only to attitudes towards one’s own death, but also that of others.

  3. 3.

    Le Poidevin 1996, ch. 10. Le Poidevin 1995.

  4. 4.

    For recent defenses of the moving spotlight view see Skow 2012; Deasy 2014. Another example of an eternalist A-theory is the minimal A-theory in Sullivan 2012.

  5. 5.

    Burley 2008a.

  6. 6.

    Mellor 1981, 1983. MacBeath 1983.

  7. 7.

    A further question that is often put to B-theorists in this context is this. Why are certain tensed emotions (such as relief, nostalgia etc.) appropriate only after events, and others (such as dread, anticipation etc.) appropriate only before events? But as Mellor already notes, A-theorists are in no better a position to provide an explanation here than B-theorists (e.g. why feel dread only towards future events?). Moreover, it’s not clear that all our tensed emotions are appropriate. What’s clear is that the temporal asymmetry in our attitudes is curious, and interesting evolutionary explanations of this and other temporal biases have been given (Dyke and Maclaurin 2002; Suhler and Callender 2012).

  8. 8.

    Burley 2008a, p. 269.

  9. 9.

    Burley 2008a, p. 269.

  10. 10.

    Burley 2008a, p. 269/70.

  11. 11.

    Burley 2008a, p. 271.

  12. 12.

    Burley 2008a, p. 262. Burley may agree, since in another publication he discusses this point (Burley 2008b). There, he distinguishes between alethic and ontic eternalism. The latter is the obviously implausible view I discuss in the next paragraph, which he too dismisses. The former is the view that there are eternal truths (e.g. that one existed), which he rightly says is not exclusive to the B-theory. He also discusses the prospects of a potential third view, factual eternalism, which he takes to collapse into ontic eternalism: there are eternal facts (about one’s life). I agree that this by itself doesn’t constitue a genuine alternative; however, in the next section I sketch what I take to be a genuinely distinct, albeit strange view in the vicinity.

  13. 13.

    See (Prosser 2012) and (Paul 2010) for more B-theoretic explanations of an illusory experience of time as passing.

  14. 14.

    ‘Nun ist er mir auch mit dem Abschied von dieser sonderbaren Welt ein wenig vorausgegangen. Dies bedeutet nichts. Für uns gläubige Physiker hat die Scheidung zwischen Vergangenheit, Gegenwart und Zukunft nur die Bedeutung einer wenn auch hartnäckigen Illusion.’ (Einstein 1972, p. 538; my translation)

  15. 15.

    Le Poidevin 1996, p. 146.

  16. 16.

    Le Poidevin 1996, p. 135.

  17. 17.

    Le Poidevin 1996, p. 145–6.

  18. 18.

    I’d like to thank philosophers at eidos (the Genevan Centre for Metaphysics), an audience at the Pacific APA 2014, and anonymous referees. The work was done while I was a member of the SNSF project ‘Intentionality as the Mark of the Mental’ (Sinergia, CRSI11-127488), the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame, and the Templeton World Charity Foundation project ‘Theology, Philosophy of Religion, and the Natural Sciences’. The opinions expressed are my own and don’t necessarily reflect those of any of the above.


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Correspondence to Natalja Deng.

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Deng, N. On Whether B-Theoretic Atheists Should Fear Death. Philosophia 43, 1011–1021 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-015-9638-y

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  • B-theory
  • Death
  • Time
  • Le Poidevin
  • Eternalism