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Explanation and the A-theory


Propositional temporalism is the view that there are temporary propositions: propositions that are true, but not always true. Factual futurism is the view that there are futurist facts: facts that obtain, but that will at some point not obtain. Most Atheoretic views in the philosophy of time are committed both to propositional temporalism and to factual futurism. Mark Richard, Jeffrey King and others have argued that temporary propositions are not fit to be the contents of propositional attitudes, or to be the semantic values of natural language utterances. But these discussions have overlooked another role that the A-theorist’s posits struggle to play: the role of facts in explaining other facts. Focusing on the case of action explanation by reasons, this paper presents the challenge that explanation poses for factual futurism. It then brings that challenge to bear against propositional temporalism and the A-theory more generally. My argument saddles the factual futurist with surprising commitments concerning reasons, facts and explanation. The futurist might accept those commitments and pay the price. The alternative-which I prefer-is to reject factual futurism, and with it the A-theory.

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  1. There are many similar definitions of ‘propositional temporalism’ in the literature, which tend to differ slightly from mine and from each other. See: Deasy 2014, 28 (cf. Deasy 2015, 2078); Sullivan 2014, 474; Russell 2017, 167; Dorr, Cian, Counterparts (draft, February 7, 2015), p. 2. The terms ‘factual futurism’ and ‘futurist fact’ are mine.

  2. I discuss this factivity assumption further at the end of Sect. 2.

  3. The phrase ‘her reasons’ here picks out what are often called ‘personal reasons’ or ‘motivating reasons.’ A personal reason is a reason for which someone does something, as opposed to a reason why she ought to do something (a normative reason). For more on different kinds of reason, see Alvarez 2016.

  4. Also: I take it factual futurists will think we frequently state futurist facts using ordinary sentences like ‘it is raining’ (cf. Deasy 2015, 2078–2079). The facts we state using those sentences are surely sometimes our reasons for doing things, such as uttering those sentences.

  5. You might think there is no such thing as the fact that Biden is not the 46th US President at w-NOTBIDEN, on the grounds that there are no negative facts. I ignore this complication for simplicity: it’s not important for the present point.

  6. The preceding two sentences will not communicate the widely held view concerning modality (as I intend them to) if ‘actualized’ and ‘in fact’ are indexicals like ‘here’. That was David Lewis’s view of ‘actual’ (Lewis 1986, 97–101). But the non-indexical use of ‘actualized’ (and ‘in fact’) should be sufficiently familiar for my sentences to convey the view I intend.

  7. For different approaches to rendering the A-theorist’s position more precise, see Deasy 2015 (2073–2074) and Dorr, Cian, Counterparts (draft, February 7, 2015), pp. 4–8. Deasy defends the “moving spotlight theory”, which has received considerable attention recently, and which is clearly committed to factual futurism and propositional temporalism. See also Cameron 2015 and Skow 2015. (Cameron accepts the theory, and Skow rejects it.).

  8. For helpful discussion of monadic truth, see Cappelen and Hawthorne 2009, esp. 1–5. Ross Cameron (2015, 5–6) and Daniel Deasy (2015, 2078) (who both defend versions of the A-theory) make it explicit that they are concerned with monadic truth (truth simpliciter). Meghan Sullivan (another A-theorist) does not use the phrases ‘monadic truth’ or ‘truth simpliciter’, but it seems to be monadic truth she is concerned with (Sullivan 2014, 474–476). By contrast, Berit Brogaard (2012, e.g. 170–173) apparently defends the view (“temporalism”) that there are propositions that are true-at-some-times but not true-at-others. Responding to Brogaard’s book, John Hawthorne (2015, 617–618) distinguishes between (what I call) propositional temporalism and the doctrine Brogaard defends. See also Dever (2015, 606–607), who argues that there is “no serious or resolvable dispute” between Brogaard’s “temporalism” and her opponent’s position.

  9. This way of expressing my claim concerning the semantics of (S2) is not ideal, since it involves using the context-sensitive simple past ‘was’ in the metalanguage. But I trust the reader can resolve the context sensitivity appropriately. Clearly, I intend ‘was’ to pick out the same time Bernard picks out by ‘was’ – that is, the time of his utterance of (S1).

  10. The word ‘was’ in the embedded clause of (S2) apparently involves a semantically vacuous past-tense morpheme, in that the time the embedded clause describes is not prior to the time the matrix clause describes when it says ‘Anna’s reason … was …’. In this way, the move from (S1) to (S2) seems to involve something like the Sequence of Tense (SOT) phenomena observed in English and some other languages, which have been extensively discussed in contemporary semantics. The central example of SOT concerns indirect speech reports. Suppose Janet said yesterday, “John is at the store”. Today I might say, ‘Janet said, “John is at the store”’. Alternatively, I might report the same speech act via an indirect speech report: ‘Janet said that John was at the store’—again, the ‘is’ changes to a ‘was’ (Kusumoto 1999, 38–73). I am not sure whether to assimilate the phenomenon exhibited by (S2) to SOT. One relevant piece of evidence comes from Polish and Japanese. Unlike English, these languages do not exhibit the SOT for indirect speech. However, they pattern with English in utterances like that of (S2), in that (very roughly) the equivalent of ‘it is raining’ in (S1) changes to the equivalent of ‘it was raining’ in (S2). But however the phenomenon I identify for ‘reasons’ reports relates to SOT, it seems natural to read the embedded clause of (S2) as involving a vacuous past-tense morpheme. Thanks to Natalia Karczewska, Yuuki Ohta and Andrés Soria Ruiz for helpful discussion of these points.

  11. As I noted above, the use of the context-sensitive simple past ‘was’ to make these claims is not ideal, but the reader should easily be able to resolve the context-sensitivity. The time I intend the claims to pick out is the time of Bernard’s earlier utterance (S1), when Anna was hailing the taxi.

  12. It is generally accepted that ‘explains why’ and other phrases we use to state explanations (like ‘because’) are factive. Jonathan Dancy (2000, 132–133) claims that some explanation-stating phrases are not factive, but retracts that claim in Dancy 2014 (89–90).

  13. The claim about ‘ψ’ is not needed for my argument, given that my focus is on facts that explain rather than facts that are explained.

  14. The focus of the present paper is on facts that explain, rather than on facts that are explained. As such, it does not matter for my purposes which fact(s) the phrase ‘she was hailing the taxi’ picks out in S3-ALTERNATIVE. Still, it is plausibly the case that a merely former fact cannot be explained any more than it can explain. If that is so, the futurist will need ‘she was hailing the taxi’ to pick out a fact that still obtains at the later time, like the always-obtaining fact that Anna is hailing the taxi at t.

  15. Of course, other facts might have been among her reasons for hailing the taxi – such as the fact that she dislikes getting wet. And maybe some of these facts figure in the later explanation. But that would not fill the gap in the later explanation left by R.

  16. I have altered Prior’s case so it applies directly to factual futurism, but my version captures the same phenomenon as his. For a recent defense of Prior’s argument, see Pearson 2018.

  17. Indeed, Hyman 1999 argues that some fact is someone’s reason only if she knows it. See also Hawthorne and Stanley 2008, 579.

  18. Of course, it is not the only way for her to go – but she will need some such machinery to deal with cases like Clare’s.

  19. Note that this particular puzzle case does not arise for the non-futurist (B-theorist). The non-futurist denies that there are any futurist facts (or temporary propositions), so there won’t be any cases in which someone comes to know or believe one.

  20. As I explained above, throughout this paper I am concerned with the monadic properties of truth and obtaining – not relational properties like truth-at-t and obtaining-at-t (where ‘t’ picks out a time).

  21. Of course, there is another sentence Bernard might have uttered that does not have this feature:


    If Anna’s reason for hailing the taxi would have been that it was raining, then the fact that it was raining explains why she would have hailed the taxi.

    But in uttering (S3′′) he would surely say something false.

  22. Or: that fact would have been among my reasons. This distinction does not matter for the present case.

  23. Keep in mind throughout that the fact cited need only be part of the explanation of my concluding as I did.

  24. For the phrase ‘personal reason,’ see fn. 4 above.


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Thanks especially to Cian Dorr, and also to David Chalmers, John Hyman, Natalia Karczewska, Yuuki Ohta, Andrés Soria Ruiz, Michael Strevens, and the anonymous reviewers for Philosophical Studies.

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Storrs-Fox, D. Explanation and the A-theory. Philos Stud 178, 4239–4259 (2021).

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