The moving spotlight theory


The aim of this paper is to describe and defend the moving spotlight theory of time. I characterise the moving spotlight theory as the conjunction of two theses: permanentism, the thesis that everything exists forever, and the A-theory, the thesis that there is an absolute, objective present time. I begin in Sect. 2 by clearing up some common misconceptions about the moving spotlight theory, focusing on the discussion of the theory in Sider (Writing the book of the world, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2011). In doing so, I also fill-out the barebones picture of the moving spotlight theory as the conjunction of permanentism and the A-theory. In Sect. 3 I show how moving spotlighters can avoid the two common objections to their view, the McTaggartian argument that the view is contradictory, and the epistemic argument that the view implies that we should believe we are not located at the present moment. I conclude that the moving spotlight theory does not deserve its current relative unpopularity.

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  1. 1.

    The name ‘permanentism’ for this thesis is due to Williamson (2013, p. 4).

  2. 2.

    Four-dimensionalists include Mellor (1998), Sider (2001), and Smart (1987). Presentists include Bigelow (1996), Crisp (2003), Markosian (2004), Prior (1968), and Zimmerman (2008).

  3. 3.

    This is not the standard way of defining theories of time. Typically, theories are defined in terms of the A- and B-theories and how they answer the following pair of questions: Are there past things? Are there future things? Four-dimensionalists answer ‘yes’ and ‘yes’ to these questions, whereas presentists answer ‘no’ and ‘no’. The problem with this way of defining theories of time is that it is hard to say what it is for something to be ‘past’ or ‘future’ in the relevant sense, as the predicates are supposed to apply to objects and events as well as instants.

  4. 4.

    Arguably, the B-theory entails permanentism: if the B-theory is true then every proposition is permanent (either always true or always false), and if every proposition is permanent then in particular all the ontological facts are permanent, in which case everything exists eternally.

  5. 5.

    Of course, most presentists are transientists according to whom many things begin and cease to exist over time. One could try to refine this definition so that A-theories according to which e.g. just one thing begins and ceases to exist over time do not count as presentist theories; however, I think this project is doomed to failure.

  6. 6.

    Arguably, transientism entails the A-theory (contra Cappelen and Hawthorne 2009, p. 96): if there is change over time in what there is, there are temporary ontological facts and therefore temporary propositions, and if there are temporary propositions then there is an accurate instant (where an instant t is accurate iff for all propositions P, P is true at t iff P is true simpliciter; see Dorr Unpublished MS, Counterparts). However, arguably, an instant t is accurate iff t is absolutely present.

  7. 7.

    For recent (sympathetic) discussions of the moving spotlight theory see Skow (2009) and Sullivan (2012).

  8. 8.

    For example, see Bourne (2006), Smith (2010), Deng (2012), and Parsons (2002). Note that Parsons argues that moving spotlighters can avoid the McTaggartian argument by adopting a counterfactual theory of tense.

  9. 9.

    Similarly, Brogaard and Marlow (2013, p. 636) distinguish ‘passage’ and ‘the moving spotlight theory’. It seems clear from what they say that both theories are permanentist A-theories, and therefore versions of the moving spotlight theory.

  10. 10.

    I assume that all properties supervene on the fundamental properties.

  11. 11.

    Strictly, classic MSTers don’t have to hold that the one and only temporary fundamental property is the property of absolute presentness. For example, suppose one wants to eliminate instants of time from one’s ontology in favour of events. In that case, one could be a classic MSTer according to whom the only temporary fundamental property is the property of occurring, or taking place, simpliciter.

  12. 12.

    ‘Presento’ names the instant it is now.

  13. 13.

    Or, even better: it will be that φ iff at some instant t such that the present is earlier than t, φ.

  14. 14.

    Bourne (2006) is explicit that his argument is directed against the moving spotlight theory; Smith’s (2010) argument is directed against ‘the A-theory’, although it seems clear that the version of the A-theory he has in mind is permanentist.

  15. 15.

    Of course, unlike the substitutional analysis, this is not an operator reductionist analysis of ‘at t’ (as it contains the temporal operator ‘A’ on the right-hand side).

  16. 16.

    Smith actually directs the argument against ‘the A-theory’. However, as mentioned above, it seems clear that Smith’s argument is directed against permanentist A-theories; in particular, Smith talks about the ‘spacetime diagram’ which represents the world as it according to the A-theorist.

  17. 17.

    Smith allows that moving spotlighters could reject the following argument if ‘instant’ refers to ‘hypertime’ (although according to Smith the view would then be subject to further objections). Here I assume that ‘instant’ refers to ‘normal time’.

  18. 18.

    Bourne’s (2006) argument above seems to rest on the same mistake. See also Parsons (2002, p. 9), who holds that given the A-theory, one can always infer (for example) ‘x is past’ from a sentence of the form ‘At future instant t, x is past’. Of course, this leads to contradiction given that, for example, at some future instant t, 2066 is past.

  19. 19.

    Bourne (2002) and Braddon-Mitchell (2004) put forward an analogous argument against the growing block theory (defended by Tooley 1997), and Lewis (1986, p. 93) seems raise an analogous argument against the modal A-theory. There is no obvious reason why the response described in what follows could not be modified by growing blockers and modal A-theorists to respond to those arguments.

  20. 20.

    This argument is famously put forward by Putnam (1967); see also Baker (1974).


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I am very grateful to Cian Dorr, John Hawthorne, Josh Parsons, Timothy Williamson, and Dean Zimmerman for many useful comments on this paper.

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Correspondence to Daniel Deasy.

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Deasy, D. The moving spotlight theory. Philos Stud 172, 2073–2089 (2015).

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  • Metaphysics
  • Time
  • The A-theory of time
  • The moving spotlight theory
  • McTaggart’s argument