Duration Enough for Presentism


This paper considers a problem for dynamic presentism that has received little attention: its apparent inability to accommodate the duration of events (such as conscious experiences). After outlining the problem, I defend presentism from it. This defence proceeds in two stages. First, I argue the objection rests on a faulty assumption: that duration is temporal extension. The paper challenges that assumption on several different ways of conceiving of temporal extension. This is the negative case and forms the bulk of the paper. Second, after diagnosing the error leading to the identification of duration with temporal extension, I outline a new presentist-friendly account of duration that avoids the problem. In particular, a non-reductive account of duration is offered that treats it as a primitive quality which bestows its possessor with a certain modal quality: that the possessor potentially does not change whilst there are changes in its environs. This is the positive case. Together the positive and negative cases provide presentism with an interesting and novel way of overcoming the problem of duration.

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  1. 1.

    A non-exhaustive sample includes objections from, grounding truths about the past (cf. Sider 2001, Ch. 2, §3) and truths about transtemporal relations (cf. Sider 1999), making sense of singular propositions about the non-present (cf. Mozersky 2011, §4), distinguishing past from future (cf. Diekemper 2005), unifying time (cf. Pezet forthcoming b), and its purported incompatibility with relativistic physics (cf. Saunders 2002).

  2. 2.

    Motivations include, but are not exhausted by, mere prejudice (cf. Prior 1977, pp. 282–284), its commonsensical status (cf. Zimmerman 2007, §7), ontological parsimony (cf. Bourne 2006, pp. 68–69; Tallant 2013), defusing McTaggart’s paradox and its variants (cf. Percival 2002), allowing for true redemption (cf. Pezet 2018), explaining the conservational character of natural laws (cf. Pezet 2019), assisting endurantism in overcoming the problem of temporal intrinsics (cf. Merricks 1999; Pezet 2019), and uniquely supporting an adequate account of desire satisfaction (cf. Pezet, forthcoming a). Though, I think presentism has more going for it than this list suggests.

  3. 3.

    Noteworthy support for dynamic presentism comes from, but is not exhausted by, Bigelow (1996), Bourne (2006), Crisp (2007), Hinchliff (1988), Markosian (2004), Prior (1970), and Zimmerman (2007).

  4. 4.

    Robin Le Poidevin provides the following more sophisticated expression of this thought:

    …there is experimental evidence that, as we would expect, there are temporal limits to our capacities for stimulus detection: the absolute threshold for external stimuli (the point at which a stimulus becomes perceivable) is a function not only of the intensity but also of the duration of that stimulus, the relevant values varying with sense modality and circumstances.[…] it would be wholly anomalous if this did not also apply to internal stimuli. So, since a conscious state is one that, by definition, we are aware of, it is reasonable to assume that it must last for a minimum amount of time to be conscious at all. (2011, pp. 460–461).

  5. 5.

    Actually, presentism does not strictly preclude non-present reality, so long as it is also present reality; the claim is that only present things exist, not that non-present things do not exist. However, I ignore this technicality for now, since, arguably, although it does not go against the letter, it goes against the spirit, of presentism. Yet, I later explain that the division of reality into universal planes of time, which are assumed primary bearers of presentness or non-presentness, fits badly with presentsim, and this technicality may hold true to the spirit of presentism after all, suggesting a solution to the problem of duration for presentism.

  6. 6.

    Though, it is not just to presentism to which this objection should apply. Any temporal metaphysic that would confine the reality of experiences to the present would be similarly in conflict with the extensionalist approach to the specious present. This includes versions of the growing-block theory (cf. Forbes 2010, Ch. 3, 2016; Forrest 2004, 2006)—whereby temporal dynamism is combined with the claim that merely past and present, but not merely future things exist (No-Futurism)—and the moving-spotlight theory (cf. Cameron 2015, Ch. 4; Skow 2015, Ch. 10 and §12.2)—whereby temporal dynamism is combined with the claims that, all past, present, and future things exist (Eternalism) and the distinction between pastness, present, and futurity captures an irreducibly real aspect of reality (Tense Realism). These theorists each combine their temporal theories with Experiential Presentism—the thesis that there are only present experiences.

  7. 7.

    For discussions of this issue see Craig (2000), Dainton (2010, §6.11), Gale (1971), Harré (1996), Hestevold (2008), Le Poidevin (2004, p. 488), McKinnon (2003), Schlesinger (1991), and Tallant (2010).

  8. 8.

    One argument for a more general case I find compelling relies on the duration of influence. In particular, the influence of events is seemingly proportional to their duration; whatever is duration less, as with the limit case, should thus be without influence. But events are influential, so they must ultimately have duration.

  9. 9.

    Much to the detriment of tenseless semantics—such as token-reflexive (cf. Mellor 1981, 1998) and date accounts (cf. Beer 1988; Williams 1992)—of tense.

  10. 10.

    For a plausible model of metaphysical indeterminacy, see Barnes and Williams (2011).

  11. 11.

    “Space-like” related things are entities situated at events (points in space–time), such that those events are separated by a space–time distance that cannot be reached from one to the other via travelling at, or less than, light-speed.

  12. 12.

    The past and future light-cones of an event (a point in space–time), e, that a thing occupies, consists of those events, e*, separated by a space–time distance equal to or less than can be reached from e* to the e via travelling at light-speed (past light-cone), and events, e**, separated by a space–time distance equal to or less than can be reached from e to the e** via travelling at light-speed (future light-cone).

  13. 13.

    I assume here that co-existence would be sufficient for co-presentness on this version of presentism. Of course, presentists could develop an account where co-existence is merely necessary, but not sufficient for co-presentness. However, for the most part, any metaphysical indeterminacy the special theory of relativity brings about for those additional criteria for co-presentness, over and above co-existence, would likely be resolvable (be determinate) in a similar fashion in many cases of enduring entities, and thus pose no further problems.

  14. 14.

    For further details of relativistic physics, I refer readers to Maudlin (2012) as an excellent starting place.

  15. 15.

    For example, it undermines the presentist solution to McTaggart’s paradox and the problem of temporary intrinsics (cf. Le Poidevin 2004, p. 488; Tallant 2010), and the extent of the present seems objectionably arbitrary (cf. McKinnon 2003, p. 319).

  16. 16.

    Note, the actuality of durational events is—given our earlier acceptance, for current purposes, of the extensionalist approach to the specious present—simply taken for granted here.

  17. 17.

    Understand instant of time to contrast with interval of time, such that the former is not, but the latter is, composed of other times.

  18. 18.

    The unreality of duration is surely on a par with the unreality of time in terms of controversy. It should not be accepted lightly. Nevertheless, it is an interesting option that might be explored elsewhere.

  19. 19.

    These are sometimes called gestalt properties. For an example of the distinction between resultant and emergent properties, see Kim (2006, pp. 292–293).

  20. 20.

    Though, this way of understanding instantaneous velocity is controversial. See for example Armstrong (1997, pp. 76–78), Bigelow and Pargetter (1990, §2.6), Carroll (2002), and Tooley (1988).

  21. 21.

    There has been much recent interest in irreducible temporal distributional properties. See for example Cameron (2011, 2013, 2015, §4.3) and Tallant and Ingram (2012a, b, 2015).

  22. 22.

    Some might find this statement puzzling given that Cameron (2011, 2013) purports to employ temporal distributional properties in defence of presentism. But I agree with Tallant and Ingram (2012b), that what Cameron (2011, 2013) calls ‘temporal distributional properties’ are not really what he claims they are—they do not appear to be “temporally distributed” in any meaningful sense. They seem to be synchronically, rather than diachronically, temporally emergent properties. Although, his properties may point both towards the non-present and present state of an object, they “point” to how the bearer is at other times, that cannot be by being distributed over its bearer’s extension over those times (which, for presentists, do not exist). Rather, the “pointing” must seemingly be something more like intentionality, some kind of representational aboutness towards the non-present. Perhaps this kind of representational “pointing” may partly explain what Sider (2001, pp. 40–42) found suspicious about Bigelow’s (1996) Lucretian properties, in addition to their lack of intrinsic difference-making. After all, such representational qualities seem unnatural.

    Another worry Cameron (2011) fails to remove, by shifting to properties pointing to the present, as well as the non-present, is the lack of an explanation of how these pointing properties ensure the world is the way they represent it. The lack of a mechanism to explain the connection between the non-present and the instantiation of these properties is understandably a cause for suspicion of foul-play. This is the kind of problem raised by Tallant and Ingram (2015; see also Bourne 2006, pp. 45–46).

  23. 23.

    See Cameron (2015, Ch. 5) for an account of metaphysically underdetermined, rather than merely metaphysically unsettled or indeterminate, facts.

  24. 24.

    Maybe some restriction to sparse or fundamental properties is required here to force P5 on presentists.

  25. 25.

    Strictly speaking, those advocating synchronically emergent duration would not need to reject P5*, since they would deny the possibility of the antecedent. But, given the absurdity it would reduce the antecedent to, plausibly the counterpossible conditional would not then be sincerely assertable.

  26. 26.

    For some defences of B-theory, see Le Poidevin (1991), Mellor (1981, 1998), Mozersky (2015), Oaklander (1984, 2004), and Sider (2001).

  27. 27.

    Dummett also made this point when he wrote: ‘To say that time is unreal is to say that we apprehend relations between events or properties of objects as temporal when they are not really temporal at all. We have therefore to conceive of these events or objects as standing to one another in some non-temporal relation which we mistake for the temporal one.’ (1960, p. 503).

  28. 28.

    The Causal Theory of Time (cf. Mellor 1998, Ch. 10) offers a notable reductionist exception here. But this theory is beset with difficult problems (cf. Smart 1971).

  29. 29.

    For pertinent discussions of issues surrounding chronons, see Dainton (2010, Ch. 17) and van Bendegem (2011). I am unqualified to adjudicate, but trust van Bendegem (Ibid., §3.2) that it is a myth that certain accounts of quantum mechanics are committed to chronons and modern physics supports their reality.

  30. 30.

    This corresponds to the so called Epochal Theory of Temporal Becoming (cf. Whitehead 1927-1928; Ford 1974; Schlesinger 1991), where time unfolds in brief temporally extended chunks: ‘…that in every act of becoming there is the becoming of something with temporal extension; but that the act itself is not extensive, in the sense that it is divisible into earlier and later acts of becoming which correspond to the extensive divisibility of what has become.’ (Whitehead 1927-1928, p. 69). It contrasts with the Sweeping Theory of Temporal Becoming for a temporally extended present (cf. Dainton 2010, §6.11; McKinnon 2003; Hestevold 2008), whereby, like a conveyor—Hestevold (2008, p. 334) makes nice metaphorical use of a spotlight sweeping across a stage here—events both flow into one end of the extended present (from the future), through its full temporal extent, and out the other end of the extended present (into the past).

    Prima facie the epochal theory may seemingly offer quite a strange account of temporal becoming. But it garners justification in avoidance of certain problems for temporal passage. In particular, it avoids a Zeno-type problem for temporal passage, that troubled Whitehead: ‘…Zeno understated his argument. He should have urged it against the current notion of time itself, and not against motion, which involves relations between time and space. For, what becomes has duration. But no duration can become until a smaller duration (part of the former) has antecedently come into being […]. The same argument applies to this smaller duration, and so on.’ (1925, p. 127). Similarly, Craig worries: ‘How can time progress instant by instant, since instants have no immediate successors?’ (2000, p. 167). Schlesinger (1991), however, has different aims, and uses an epochal theory of temporal becoming to deliver a meaningful rate of passage, in response to objections that temporal becoming is incoherent because there can be no meaningful rate of passage (cf. Smart 1949; Williams 1951).

  31. 31.

    Indeed, Fine argues more broadly for the superfluity of times given the reality of tensed facts, in that, times will only enter into tenseless facts, but the role of tenseless facts is already played by tensed facts. As such, ‘…the ontology of times will […] be strangely divorced from what is happening in time; for we will have some tenseless facts that specify the abstract structure of time and some tensed facts that indicate what is happening over time, but without any apparent connection between them. Thus we see that […] there seems to be no room for an ontology of times within a realist tense-theoretic metaphysics.’ (2005, p. 309).

  32. 32.

    This proposal is seemingly bolstered by relativistic physics, whereby the different acceleration of things determines the varying amount of personal time undergone by each, for instance, with entities starting and finishing at the same spacetime positions.

  33. 33.

    Some might question whether the size of chronons within a personal time varies. It seems to me that such questions are nonsensical, since no diachronic comparison of size can be made here (cf. Poincaré 1904). Though, of course, two chronons within a personal timeline may have different temporal extent in external time.

  34. 34.

    Some might worry that chronons will still not be long enough to support conscious experiences, given their neural correlates each have greater brevity. However, all this requires is that conscious experiences be supported by those neural correlates that are the constituents of chronons at each chronon throughout their duration. And it seems reasonable to expect this to be so.

  35. 35.

    However, at points Craig (2000) seemingly claims the extent of the present is context-sensitive. For comments to this effect, I agree with Oaklander that, ‘Whether it is coherent or not, it is certainly not presentism.’ (2002, p. 90). Not all events, complex as well as simple, should be construed as wholly present. That would lead to complex events being wholly present, whilst some of their constituents fail to be even partly present. But otherwise, I disagree with Oaklander. Since the position described satisfies the presentist thesis, of course it is genuinely a form of presentism. The error here is thinking presentism is a single theory, rather than a cluster of theories related by a common thesis.

  36. 36.

    It would also make the union of presentism and endurantism (cf. Merricks 1999; Pezet 2019) less tenable, since reality, and its constituents, would have a temporal extent, and could not therefore be so straightforwardly (if at all) wholly present without temporal extension.

  37. 37.

    A sense of the difficulty in conception of the temporal extension of chronons is paralleled by the difficulty Whiteheadian scholars, have had in getting a grip on the epochal theory of becoming (see n. 31). As James Felt explains: ‘A number of Whiteheadian scholars have wrestled, without general agreement, over the meaning to be assigned to the notions of the “earlier” and “later” phases of becoming that are essential to the Whiteheadian analysis. The predominant view has been that the phases cannot be said to take place earlier or later in time, yet it is difficult to see any other meaning that can be attached to this priority.’ (2002, p. 25). The difficulty is perhaps greater for the conception of chronons, where more familiar conceptual resources seem unhelpful.

  38. 38.

    However, it is more accurate to say, something made of atomless gunk is infinitely divided rather than infinitely divisible, since things can be infinitely divisible without being actually divided.

  39. 39.

    However, unlike chronons, gunky time would not help solve worries about completing, through consecutive steps, an infinite Zeno-series, in the straightforward way chronons do. This might be problematic for presenitsts, since, if there is genuine temporal becoming, rather than a mere earlier-later ordering, then, to complete its infinite series’, time would have to count to infinity; even transfinite mathematics does not permit this. Hence Grünbaum’s remarks that, ‘Both classical mechanics and the relativity theory allow that an event can occur successively though not consecutively at each of a continuum of spatial points.’ (1950, p. 143). Nor does gunky time clearly offer the kind of elucidation of the rate of passage Schlesinger (1991) describes.

  40. 40.

    In particular, merely adding labels describing certain parameters of the model—what Dummett (1960, pp. 501–502) described as “elements of convention”—gives no insight into the nature of those parameters.

  41. 41.

    Note: this is different from counting the number of regularities occurring in nature relative to other regularities. None of this requires temporal extension, or duration for that matter. It can be done simply by quantifying over events and their temporal order without recourse to numbers.

  42. 42.

    That is, I agree with Craig that, ‘It is thus wrong-headed to ask how long the present is…’ (2000, p. 178). In response, McKinnon points out: though we might freely admit that, “…strictly speaking, the question ‘How long is existence?’ is a nonsensical one.” There is a related sensible question that can be asked: “…the question of the extent of the present can be sensibly phrased in terms which do not presuppose that ‘How long is existence?’ makes sense. Here is a question for the presentist that does seem to be coherent: ‘What things exist, and what are the relationships that hold between them?’” (2003, p. 321). But this misses the point. Standardly, presentists will not admit temporal relations, and will deny any sensible question of their holding between existents. Presentists can complain that even this new question is wrong-headed.

  43. 43.

    Some may be concerned that, in experiences of mental succession, the mental events that constitute that experience would be like the entity in continuous motion, with each of its states with the motion being instantaneous. That is, assuming there is a continuous flow of mental events within an experience of succession, by parity of reasoning, I should believe that those mental events constituting the experience of succession should be construed as instantaneous, and crucially, they should be construed as durationless according to Duration. If accurate, this might seem problematic, since it was mental events especially that motivated the alternative account of duration in the first place; if the criticism were successful, it would somewhat undercut the motivations for this project. My response: I reject the assumption (italicised); I do not think that experiences of succession are of continuous exchanges of mental events. That would require an infinite capacity for resolution in our mental representations, for which our finite cognitive machinery could not deliver. Rather, I suggest that experiences of succession are constituted by a temporally granular resolution—where continuous movement is captured by a degree of blurriness (or residual neural activation from past excitations) in the object represented—with closely, but discretely, ordered mental events. It is our (automatic) inferential beliefs about those representations that ultimately provide the impression of continuity between those tightly compacted mental events. Indeed, I think this model of the experience of succession is in better keeping with the views of mental events that inspired the search for an alternative account of duration in the paper—recall, for instance, the point, as noted by Le Poidevin’s (2011, pp. 460–461; quoted in footnote 4), of our limitations in the detection of briefly occurring stimuli.


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Pezet, R.E. Duration Enough for Presentism. Axiomathes 30, 391–421 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10516-019-09464-9

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  • Duration
  • Presentism
  • Temporal extension
  • Temporal topology
  • Time