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On being stuck in time

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It is sometimes claimed that non-human animals (and perhaps also young children) live their lives entirely in the present and are cognitively ‘stuck in time’. Adult humans, by contrast, are said to be able to engage in ‘mental time travel’. One possible way of making sense of this distinction is in terms of the idea that animals and young children cannot engage in tensed thought, which might seem a preposterous idea in the light of certain findings in comparative and developmental psychology. I try to make this idea less preposterous by looking into some of the cognitive requirements for tensed thought. In particular, I suggest that tensed thought requires a specific form of causal understanding, which animals and young children may not possess.

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  1. Davidson (1982) is an obvious contemporary example.

  2. For some other versions of this claim, or at least similar claims, made at various points in the history of philosophy see, e.g., Aristotle (1930, 453a4–13), Schopenhauer (1999, p. 30), Bergson (1988, pp. 93f.), Dennett (2005, pp. 168f.). In psychology, influential sources for the claim that animals’ cognitive life is restricted to the present include Koehler (1927, p. 272) and (as one referee has pointed out to me) Donald (1991, p. 149). Of course, it is not necessary to see this claim as being in competition with the claim that the deep discontinuity between humans and other animals turns on the fact that the latter lack language. Bennett (1964), whom I will discuss below, is one example of a philosopher who thinks that the two claims are connected.

  3. The experimenters actually removed the cached items before testing to ensure that the birds were not able to base their searches on olfactory cues. There was also a control involving scrub jays that were not given the training trial, but then went through the same test phase.

  4. See, e.g. Zentall (2005), see also Hoerl (2001), for a similar point.

  5. Of course, the former type of notion may also be seen as employing tense, i.e. the present tense. I will shortly try to make a case for saying that the crucial distinction at issue here is indeed one between notions that employ tense and notions that do not employ tense at all, even though we might have to use present tense morphology to capture the latter in English.

  6. I am simplifying the dialectical situation here. Bennett (1976), from which the first quotation in this paragraph is taken, actually goes on to criticise the argument from Bennett (1964) that I have sketched. He suggests that non-linguistic behaviour might, after all, warrant the ascription of separate past and general beliefs, if there is a range of different behaviours the animal engages in that can be explained by attributing a past belief that combines with a number of different general beliefs or vice versa. Smith’s (1982) paper, from which the second quotation is taken, considers this suggestion and argues that it underestimates the strength of Bennett’s (1964) argument, i.e. the undercutting strategy can be made to work even in cases where there is a range of behaviours as envisaged by Bennett (1976). For the purposes of this paper, I will assume that Smith’s defense of Bennett’s (1964) argument is sound.

  7. See also the discussion of Campbell’s (2006) views below.

  8. On some accounts of propositional attitudes, we should actually hold back from crediting the dog with beliefs at all if the argument offered here is correct. Elsewhere in this paper, I also speak of animals’ (and childrens’) ‘model of the world’, which is perhaps a more neutral expression.

  9. This is not to say that this is the only cognitive role timing mechanisms can play. Peacocke (1999), for instance, develops an account according to which a sensitivity to temporal relations, mediated by such mechanisms, does in fact also have a crucial role to play in understanding the past tense. However, he also notes that “[t]o possess a sub-personal mechanism which is, when functioning properly, [...] temporally sensitive is of course not yet to have mastered temporal thought” (Peacocke 1999, p. 90), which is in effect the same issue that is at stake in the above quotation from McCormack (2001).

  10. There are also cases in which it might be more appropriate to say that the function of the timing mechanism is to suppress certain elements of the model for periods of time. This type of description might be applied, for instance, to capture the role interval timers have in preventing hummingbirds from revisiting a food source for a certain period of time, thus allowing the food source to replenish (cf. Henderson et al. 2006). I should also add, here, that we need to allow that the model an animal operates with might be fairly disunified, or, as we might also put it, that an animal might be seen to operate with several different models, which are updated in different ways and on different timescales, relative to different sets of practical purposes. I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for alerting me to this latter point.

  11. A similar thought is fleshed out further in McCormack and Hoerl (1999), who relate research on children’s acquisition of scripts to a view in linguistics according to which aspectual notions (e.g., completed, ongoing...) are grasped before tensed ones (e.g., past, present...) (see Wagner 2001, for a recent discussion). McCormack and Hoerl (1999) suggest that children’s recounting or re-enacting scripts might indicate an ability to mark events successively as, e.g., ongoing vs. completed, as they go through the script. This ability appears to be more primitive than a grasp of tenses, though, in that it need not involve use of the notion of the time at which an event happens. A child might first think of an event as ongoing, and then as completed, without being able to grasp, say, at the time when she thinks of the event as completed, that there was a time when it was ongoing. In contrast, thinking of an event as past, say, arguably involves assigning it a position in a domain of times, as is also brought out by the quotation from Campbell (2006) above.

  12. Both types of imagination mentioned here might require the ability to set aside current desires or other mental states in imagination. The development of this ability is explored in experiments carried out, e.g. by Atance and Meltzoff (2006) and by Suddendorf and Busby (2005), which claim to investigate the development of mental time travelling in children. However, precisely because that ability might be required for either form of imaginative exercise mentioned above, it should be clear that there is a further aspect of mental time travel that those experiments don’t tap into.

  13. A similar distinction is sometimes drawn in the literature on the development of counterfactual reasoning. It has been argued that some developmental studies might have over-estimated children’s command of counterfactuals, because the correct answer to the counterfactual test question could be arrived at by engaging in purely hypothetical reasoning, whereas children of a similar age fail counterfactual tasks that require ‘thinking back in time’ and considering the particular events that actually happened. See Beck et al. (2006) for discussion.

  14. See also Martin 2001, p. 280, writing about episodic memory: “The infant needs to make sense of how there can be specific, and hence actual, events of which it has [...] conscious awareness, but which are nevertheless not part of the present scene”.

  15. There is in fact a range of the type of ‘temporal-causal’ relationships exemplified by Atance's task, in which an overall outcome depends on the order in which two or more events happen. Children’s understanding of these types of relationships has also been explored, using quite different methodologies in Povinelli et al. (1999) and McCormack and Hoerl (2007). In these studies, children under 4–5 years typically perform quite poorly, indicating a lack of a grasp of the relevant temporal-causal relationships.


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Many of the lines of thought developed in this paper emerged from discussions I have had over the years with Teresa McCormack. The paper itself started life as my contribution to a symposium on mental time travel that she organized at the 2006 meeting of the European Society for Philosophy and Psychology at Queen’s University Belfast, where the other symposiasts were Cristina Atance and Thomas Zentall. Later versions of the paper were also presented at seminars at Macquarie University, Sydney, and at the Australian National University, Canberra. I am very grateful to the audiences at those different occasions, and to two anonymous referees for this journal, for a variety of helpful comments. Work on this paper took place within the context of the AHRC Project on Causal Understanding.

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Correspondence to Christoph Hoerl.

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Hoerl, C. On being stuck in time. Phenom Cogn Sci 7, 485–500 (2008).

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