Ostrich presentism


Ostrich presentists maintain that we can use all the expressive resources of the tensed language to provide an explanation of why true claims about the past are true, without thereby paying any price in terms of ontology or basic ideology. I clarify the position by making a distinction between three kinds of explanation, which has general interest and applicability. I then criticize the ostrich position because it requires an unconstrained version of the third form of explanation, which is out of place in metaphysics.

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  1. 1.

    While qualitative parsimony is almost universally acknowledged as a theoretical virtue, quantitative parsimony is sometimes regarded with suspect. I will not question here the point that quantitative parsimony is a theoretical virtue, neither will I pursue the issue whether presentism is also qualitatively more parsimonious in some interesting sense. Quantitative parsimony, in connection with presentism, has been advocated as a virtue by Bourne (2006, p. 68) and Tallant (forthcoming a).

  2. 2.

    I leave aside here the problem of singular propositions about past objects and the problem of relations between present and past objects (see Davidson 2003; Keller 2004; Torrengo 2010). Both problems are clearly related to the two mentioned in the text, but they raise further complications that are immaterial to my main point.

  3. 3.

    I am using the locution “to be about” for interpreted sentences (viz. claims) without proper names or indexical as follows: in order for a statement p to be about X’s, and to be about property (being an) X, it is sufficient that p contains the predicate X. To talk about the X’s is to use a sentence that is about the X’s.

  4. 4.

    The distinction between eternalism and presentism can be stated in terms of this notion of “simple existence” or “existing simpliciter”; cf. Sider (2006; 2011, pp. 242–245), Crisp (2003), and Torrengo (2012). An alternative is to resort to the tense-logical “it is always the case” operator and formulating the distinction as a disagreement over the claim that “it is always the case that only what is present exists” (see Correia and Rosenkranz 2011; Markosian 2004). A further alternative is presented in Tallant (forthcoming b). Endorsing such alternatives would require a certain reformulation of what follows. I do not consider here the possibility of defining presentism in terms of ontological priority (see Baron 2013, p. 16; López de Sa ms.).

  5. 5.

    Slightly more formally:

    • (1′F) (∃x) (Dinosaur(x) & Located-in-the-past (x))

    Typically, the eternalist will also endorse a tenseless view of reality, and thus she will not consider “Located-in-the-past” to express a tensed property, but rather to express a tenseless relation between the time of utterance of a claim and some (possibly different) time. (Alternatively, she will consider tensed properties as less fundamental than tenseless relations, and reduce them to the latter). A more apt paraphrase for the tenseless variety of eternalism is the following

    • (1′F*) (∃x, t, t0) (Dinosaur(x) & Located-at (x, t) & t < t)

    (where t0 is the time of utterance, and > is the tenseless relation of being later than.) Here I am assuming that both the eternalist and the presentist accept a tensed view of time, in order to reduce the “noise” from further differences between the two positions that are irrelevant to the ontological distinction on which I am focusing.

  6. 6.

    Slightly more formally:

    • (1″F) WAS ((∃x) (Dinosaur(x)))

    where “WAS” is the sentential past tense operator.

  7. 7.

    As the seminal article by Dummett (1969) made clear long ago. For the specific problem of eliminativism, see Bourne (2006, pp. 40–41) and Parsons (2005); see also Dolev (2007). An alternative to eliminativism is the “quasi-truth” solution advanced by Sider (1999), who does not endorse it, and by Markosian (2004), who endorsed it at the time. However, quasi-truth is advanced as a solution for the problems of singular propositions and cross-temporal relations (see note 2), and it works only (if it works at all) if the problem of the ground of general propositions about the past—such as the one expressed by (1)—is solved. Probably the best option for the eliminativist is to embrace an error theory, see Daly and Liggins (2010).

  8. 8.

    See Ludlow (1999), Dainton (2001), and Markosian (2013). Markosian allows that if the laws of physics are indeterministic, certain propositions about the past which an eternalist would regard as true may lack true value. Thus, the position is in part eliminativist.

  9. 9.

    Adams (1986).

  10. 10.

    Bigelow (1996). Other versions that are problematic in this sense have dispositional (Parsons 2005) and distributional (Cameron 2011) properties as grounds. Ersatz grounds are also a case at issue (Bourne 2006; Crisp 2007); however, a discussion of ersatzer presentism lies beyond the scope of this paper.

  11. 11.

    This may be seen as an application of what Merricks (2007) calls “the relevance constraint”, even though he applies it only with respect to truth-maker theories, and not in general to the grounding (see Sect. 4). See also the “tracking assumption” of Baron (forthcoming).

  12. 12.

    See Sanson (ms.), Tallant (2009b), Merricks (2007), and Sanson and Caplan (2010) who make a similar point about tensed determinations. For criticism, see Torrengo 2013. Tallant (2009b) generalizes the strategy to at least the modal case. See also the criticism in Krämer (2010), and the reply in Tallant (2010a). Kierland and Monton (2007) have a position that seems to be in between the reductionist one and the ostrich one: they maintain that presentists can explain truth about the past in so far as they take “the past” to be a genuine determination of the present world.

  13. 13.

    Or a plurality of entities (see Dasgupta ms.), but for simplicity of exposition I will focus on the singular case.

  14. 14.

    See Correia (forthcoming), Cameron (forthcoming a), Fine (2012). Armstrong seems to think that necessitation is at least as important as explanatory relevance: “p (a proposition) is true if and only if there exists a T (some entity in the world) such that T necessitates that p and p is true in virtue of T” (Armstrong 2004, p. 17). Although in what follows I will use the “in virtue of” locution as expressing an explanatory link, I am aware that not all philosophers agree, cf. Liggins (2012) (and also Schaffer 2009 is cautious on this point). For a reading of “in virtue of” and “grounding” as expressing explanatory link in an “objective” sense, see Audi (2012).

  15. 15.

    Is answering (TMQ′) utterly trivial for the eternalist? Armstrong seems to think so: “What truthmaker can be provided for the truth <Caesar existed>? The obvious truthmaker, at least, is Caesar himself” (Armstrong 2004, p. 146). However, notice that at least within a tensed framework, it does not seem that past entities per se would do the job; we also need tensed facts concerning their temporal location. Consider again (1): while dinosaurs can be seen as the truthmakers for the claim that “Dinosaurs exist (simpliciter)” (which the eternalists consider true in its unrestricted reading), there is nothing in the fact that dinosaurs exist simpliciter that would make it the case that they existed (in the past). If the eternalist takes tensed properties as genuine, she needs to acknowledge tensed facts as truthmakers of TptECs. That is not to say that the eternalist is no better off than the presentist, even within a tensed framework. Indeed, she has the advantage of having to expand neither her ontology nor her basic ideology in order to provide constituents of the facts or states of affairs that ground TptECs. But she still has to admit those facts as further entities.

  16. 16.

    Cf. Armstrong (1997) and Rodriguez-Pereyra (2005).

  17. 17.

    See, for instance, Lewis (2001) and MacBride (2005).

  18. 18.

    Tallant (2009a).

  19. 19.

    How to spell out the idea of “genuine property” is a notoriously difficult question. Lewis (1986) talks of “perfectly natural properties”, Fine (2001) of “real properties”, and Sider (2011) of “joint carving properties”. Luckily, we do not need to enter into the details. What we need is some way or other to distinguish between the properties that emerge in the substantial metaphysical doctrine that we accept (those expressed by its primitive predicates), and those that do not. (GI) is about the former.

  20. 20.

    Although, of course, if a philosopher appeals to some entities and properties that she already accepts, she will provide a “contextually cost-free” metaphysical explanation.

  21. 21.

    And, thus, she is denying (TM-max). This is clear if we consider Cameron’s (forthcoming a) characterization of truthmaker maximalism as the tenet that “brute truths are a subset of the pure existence claims, and every true proposition is either brute or is true in virtue of some brute proposition” (Sect. 5). Remember that a past tensed existential truth is not an existential truth, neither does it entail one, since the existential quantifier, once embedded in a past tense operator is no longer ontologically committal. (The same holds for so-called “negative existentials”; they are not existential claims.) Existential claims are those whose main operator (the one with the largest scope) is an existential quantifier.

  22. 22.

    As I am characterizing it, ostrich presentism has similarities with other “deflationist” or “non-serious” versions of presentism; see Prior (1960), Craig (2003) and Hudson (1997). Hinchliff (1996) is presented by Brogaard (2006), Keller (2004), and Davidson (2003) as a Meinongian, but as a deflationist (or “frivolous”) presentist by Markosian (2004). Especially in the light of his Hinchliff (2010), I think he is better classified as a deflationist presentist. Here I want to make a point not of exegesis, but of theoretical difference. Meinongians (Reicher 2006) accept non-existent objects in their ontology; deflationists claim that an object x does not need to exist or be in order for x to instantiate a property P. Do they claim that they can thus also explain why certain attributions of P to x are true? I think that in the past the debate was not focused on the grounding problem, and so this point is not clear. However, present-day ostrich presentists clearly state so.

  23. 23.

    A similar though is in Tallant (2009a), from which I take the expression “no-ground” cheating.

  24. 24.

    See Sider (2001, pp. 39–41), who argues against the Lucretian variety of presentism. Distributional properties have also been charged with being hypothetical (see Tallant and Ingram 2012 and the reply by Cameron forthcoming b). Note that even if cheaters of kind (a) could defend their position either by providing an articulated explanation of how the grounding takes place (see Crisp 2007, who defends Lucretian presentism along those lines) or by insisting that the properties she is appealing to are not of the “wrong” kind (see Parsons 2004), such defenses cannot be endorsed with respect to cheaters of kind (b).

  25. 25.

    As an example from the contemporary literature, consider van Inwagen’s view that live organisms exist, while ordinary objects do not, and that ordinary existential claims about the latter are false. The view can be considered to be preferable because it is more parsimonious only in so far as it can explain why many claims about ordinary objects seem to be true nonetheless. van Inwagen (1990), Merricks (2001).

  26. 26.

    The tradeoff is often depicted as being between ontological parsimony and ideological complexity. I think that is a misleading way of putting it. Increasing ideological complexity means adding a primitive ideology (or a doctrine of some sort); this is not just a matter of increasing conceptual complexity, but entails substantial metaphysical costs (see Sider 2011, p. 12; Krämer 2010; see also Pickel and Mantegani 2012). For instance, if a defender of the “no-table view” introduces primitive properties in her theory to explain facts about “table experiences”, the ideology that she endorses will be less parsimonious than that of the ordinary view.

  27. 27.

    Certain philosophers accept an unrestricted composition principle, to the effect that any combination of simples corresponds to a existing composite object; those who accept a restricted version of the composition principle maintains that some but not all combinations of simples corresponds to an existing composite object; the “mereological nihilists” think that no combination of simples corresponds to an existing composite object. See van Inwagen (1990).

  28. 28.

    Note that the problem of motivating a restriction to the plain explanation that we can accept is not, for the “no-table view” supporter the same as that of providing a principled way to restrict the composition principle to non-tables—namely the problem of finding a non-arbitrary way of restricting composition, see Lewis (1992, 79ff). The reductionist “no-table view” supporter has the problem of not slipping into mereological nihilism (according to which no composite object exists, see note 28). However, she cannot deny the existence of atoms in providing metaphysical explanations of ordinary existential claims about composite objects. While in so far as ungrounded explanations are accepted, it is difficult to see what could prevent someone from accepting ungrounded truths about simples too (if she accepts claims about simples at all).

  29. 29.

    Remember that we have granted that the presentist can solve the ontological commitment problem by maintaining that quantifiers within the range of past tense operators are not committal. My thanks to a referee for pointing out that the analogy fails here.

  30. 30.

    Westphal (2006, p. 4) endorses a similar principle; Heathwood (2007) criticizes it.

  31. 31.

    Baron (forthcoming) argues against the idea behind (GI″) on the ground that cross-temporal modal relations are incompatible with presentism. Although I am sympathetic to his criticism, I will not pursue this line here.

  32. 32.

    Totality facts are introduced by Armstrong (1997); reified absences by Kukso (2006). Cameron (2008) has defended (TM-max) against the objection from negative existentials by arguing that the world itself is intrinsically such that it excludes the existence of truthmakers for the positive counterparts of TnECs.

  33. 33.

    It is also clear that Lewis does not want to equate the case of negative existentials with that of past tensed truth. Quite the opposite, in fact:, he warns us against this a few lines after.

  34. 34.

    One way to cash this out is to take TnECs as ungrounded truths. Another way is to claim that their truth explanation is the fact that their negation lacks a truth-maker, and to take such an explanation as ungrounded (Tallant 2010b).

  35. 35.

    The principle is close to what Kit Fine has called the thesis of World Actualism “Two possible worlds that agree on the behavior of the existents cannot differ on the behavior of the nonexistents” (Fine 1981, p. 295).

  36. 36.

    Cf. the thesis of World Presentism by Hinchliff (2010).

  37. 37.

    The intuitive principle that the past is (largely) independent from the present (IP) can be formulated as the negation of (PP).

    • (IP) It is not the case that any two worlds that differ with respect to what exists and what genuine properties are instantiated by what exists must also differ with respect to what existed and what genuine properties were instantiated, are instantiated and will be instantiated by what exists.

    Sanson and Caplan (2011), in discussing the problems that arise for the presentist in explaining the truth of TptECs, have formulated the thesis of the Independence as “Not all truths about the past supervene on the present”. According to them, inflationary reductionists deny it because the extra entities or properties that they accept have the function of “perfect records” of the past, and can ground TptECs. Note that the ostrich can accept the thesis of independence in Sanson and Caplan’s formulation, in so far as she maintains that many truths about the past do not supervene on anything—because they are ungrounded or grounded on the falsity of their negation.


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Thanks to Bryan Pickel for suggesting the label “ostrich presentism”. For useful comments and discussions on previous versions of this paper, thanks to Francesco Berto, Guido Bonino, Ray Buchanan, Claudio Calosi, Marta Campdelacreu, Ben Caplan, Stefano Caputo, Fabrice Correia, Damiano Costa, Ciro De Florio, José Diez, Laura Felline, Aldo Frigerio, Akiko Frishhut, Cody Gilmore, Alessandro Giordani, Carl Hoefer, Dan López De Sa, Diego Marconi, José Martinez, Elisa Paganini, Sven Rosenkranz, Pablo Rychter, Moritz Schulz, Albert Solé, Beppe Spolaore, Stephan Torre, Achille Varzi, Alberto Voltolini, Richard Woodward, Elia Zardini. For financial supports, thanks to the projects FFI2011-29560-C02-01, FFI2011-25626, and CSD2009-00056 of the Spanish Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovacion (MICINN).

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Torrengo, G. Ostrich presentism. Philos Stud 170, 255–276 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-013-0211-x

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  • Presentism
  • Eternalism
  • Truth-making
  • Explanation
  • Ontology