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How is the asymmetry between the open future and the fixed past to be characterized?


A basic intuition we have regarding the nature of time is that the future is open whereas the past is fixed. For example, whereas we think that there are things we can do to affect how the future will unfold (e.g. acting in an environmentally responsible manner), we think that there are not things we can do to affect how the past unfolded (“what is done is done”). However, although this intuition is largely shared, it is not a straightforward matter to determine the nature of the asymmetry it reflects. So, in this paper, I survey various philosophical ways of characterizing the asymmetry between the ‘open future’ and the ‘fixed past’ in order to account for our intuition. In particular, I wonder whether the asymmetry is to be characterized in semantic, epistemic, metaphysical or ontological terms. I conclude that, although many of these characterizations may contribute to a global understanding of the phenomenon, an ontological characterization of the asymmetry is to be preferred, since it is superior to the alternatives in explanatory power, intelligibility, and in how it coheres with interesting senses of openness.

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  1. Following Strawson (1950), I define ‘statements’ as ‘uses of sentences’. It is sentences which have meaning, but statements which have truth-values and between which logical relations hold.

  2. Cf. Markosian (1995), Tooley (1997), MacFarlane (2003), Diekemper (2004), and Curtis and Robson (2016).

  3. In that sense, even if some future contingents should presently be true (or false), their present truth-value would anyway “not be made inevitable” by facts that are, strictly speaking, facts about what goes on in the present or what went on in the past (cf. Correia and Rosenkranz 2018, p. 110).

  4. Cf. Haack (1974, p. 74), Markosian (1995), Barnes and Cameron (2009, p. 146), Besson and Hattiangadi (2013, p. 3), Le Poidevin (2013, p. 536) and Curtis and Robson (2016, p. 119).

  5. Cf. Markosian (1995), MacFarlane (2003), Diekemper (2004), Curtis and Robson (2016).

  6. Of course, the fatalist argument—even if it is accepted—does not force us to adopt Markosian’s terminology, i.e. to define the openness of the future as the failure of bivalence, but the converse is not true. The rejection of the fatalist argument, especially of step (3), undermines Markosian’s terminology.

  7. This problem is commonly known as “the assertion problem” (cf. Belnap and Green 1994). It should be acknowledged that branching theories of time offer various ways to solve it. For instance, Belnap and Green (1994, p. 382) argue that “[…] it makes sense to assert A when A’s truth value is no settled at the moment of assertion”, since that assertion is an act that has implications (in terms of credit and discredit) for the speaker no matter how things eventuate.

  8. E.g. Von Wright and George (1979), Greenough (2008), Prawitz (2009), Barnes and Cameron (2009, 2011), Torre (2011), Besson and Hattiangadi (2013), Cameron (2015), Todd (2016), Correia and Rosenkranz (2018).

  9. For example, such a proof has been provided by Haack (1974, p. 67).

  10. A possible solution to this objection would be to say, as Thomason (1970, p. 273) does, that Tarski biconditional holds only as a consequence (φ | = true ‘φ’) and not as an implication (so that for some φ, ⊭ φ → true ‘φ’). However, this solution violates the deduction theorem and, therefore, leads to non-classicality.

  11. The failure of [2] and [3] is already noted in Fine (1975) and Machina (1976), respectively.

  12. Williams (1951) and Putnam (1967) are classic statements of the point. For a more recent discussion see Zimmerman (2011).

  13. There are physical processes (e.g. neutral kaon decay) that are sensitive to the past-future orientation, but these processes are too “infrequent” and “exotic” to lead to strong conclusions (cf. Maudlin 2007, p. 117).

  14. Of course, the thesis that the world is fundamentally composed of elementary particles is controversial (see e.g. “wave function realism”).

  15. This possibility of closed timelike curves results from Gödel’s exact solution of the Einstein Field Equations.

  16. A possible answer might be inspired from the compatibilist strategy for solving the classical problem of freedom and determinism: talking about what persons “can (or cannot) do” is ambiguous; many compatibilists claim that “you can (or you have the power) to do something” must be interpreted as “if you wanted (or tried) to do it, you would do it”. In this perspective, the young man can still be held responsible for his crime (even if the world’s history is fully fixed), since ‘to not kill someone’ is something that he is capable of doing (cf. Kane 2007, pp. 10–13).

  17. For example, suppose on Monday I make the prediction that there will be a sea-battle tomorrow. My assertion lacks a determinate truth-value. But come Tuesday, when the sea is fortunately peaceful, I can look back and say that my prediction was not correct. If it had been correct, a sea-battle would now be raging over the sea. It is not the case, so it was not correct. So, since it is determinate that no sea-battle is now raging, I can say that, determinately, my prediction that there would be a sea-battle was not correct. But I cannot say that it was determinately incorrect: it was not, because the future was open with respect to whether things would turn out as predicted (cf. Barnes and Cameron, 2011, p. 4).

  18. To clarify further, the ‘metaphysical indeterminacy’ account, since it analyses the openness of the future in terms of the world being “stuck” between various states, presupposes that these states exist; while it is clear that all of them cannot share the same ontological status. After all, even assuming that both tomorrow’s sea-battle and its peaceful alternative exist, only one of these states will be actualized. There must therefore be a difference between these two states: one must “less obtains” than the other. As Barnes (2016, p. 123) admits, the indeterminate degree of obtaining to which her account is committed covers two possibility: “[…] perhaps the state of an object indeterminately instantiating a familiar property, or perhaps the state of an object instantiating the non-familiar property of being indeterminately F.” In other words, either the indeterminate degree of obtaining concerns the instantiation of the property, or the property itself. However, both the notions of indeterminate instantiation and indeterminate property are mysterious.

  19. Of course, this objection could be prevented by denying that openness and vagueness are two phenomena of the same kind. After all, perhaps vagueness is merely a semantic deficiency of language that can be treated with, for example, a supervaluationist account of truth and validity (Fine 1975, Keefe 2000). In other words, this objection does not rule out the possibility that Barnes and Cameron (2009, 2011) might be wrong about vagueness, but right about the openness of the future.

  20. It is worth noting that this cosmological scenario is also taken seriously by physics. For example, the “Big Crunch” refers to one possible scenario for the ultimate fate of the universe, in which the expansion of the universe will slow to a halt, reverse into contraction, and implode back to a state of infinite (or near infinite) density, pressure, temperature, and curvature (cf. Misner et al. 1973, p. 771).

  21. Setting Barnes and Cameron’s account aside, it is possible to characterize the openness of the future in terms of metaphysical indeterminacy without being committed to the existence of any future state. For example, one could hold that while there is no future ontology, there are brute facts about what will happen, and that it is metaphysically indeterminate which of these brute facts obtain. However, although this option can allow for the radical sense in which the future may be said to be open, it is unattractive, since it leads to a dilemma. Either the past exists or the past does not exist. If the past does not exist, then it has to be treated as equally open (the asymmetry collapses). If the past does exist, then this option treats the fixity of the past and the openness of the future as being sensitive to different kinds of features of the world in a way that is ad hoc. Indeed, if the fixity of the past is, in some way or other, to be explained by the past ontology, then, due to considerations of parity, the openness of the future should be explained by the future ontology in just the same way.

  22. Of course, someone who denies the existence of the future is not forced to accept the ‘no fact of the matter’ account of openness. He is not even forced to say that the future is open in any sense whatsoever: he could hold, for example, that while there is no future ontology, there are brute facts about what will happen (cf. Cameron 2015, pp. 194–195).

  23. The grounding requirement on tensed truths, mentioned by Correia and Rosenkranz, is a stronger principle than the one accepted so far: for p to be truth, the worldly conditions for p’s truth would have to obtain; and for p to be false, the worldly conditions for p’s falsity would have to obtain. However, this plays no essential role in the debate.

  24. However, there might still be a way to delineate open future indeterminacy (conceived as there being no fact of the matter) from other sorts of indeterminacy (especially quantum metaphysical indeterminacy): whereas open future indeterminacy involves that there is no relevant ontology at all (there is simply no future), quantum indeterminacy merely involves that there is no determinate ontology (there are states of affairs whose constitutive entities have determinable properties but no unique determinate of these properties). The openness of the future might thus be singled out as being the only sort of indeterminacy that presupposes a real lack in the ontology.


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I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to Fabrice Correia, Claudio Calosi and the members of eidos (the Centre for Metaphysics), Claudine Tiercelin and the members of GEM (Groupe d’Études en Métaphysique), Esa Díaz-León, Dan López de Sa and the audience at the PERSP Metaphysics Seminar, Richard Glauser, Uriah Kriegel and Sven Rosenkranz for their helpful comments. I am also grateful to two anonymous referees for reports which helped to improve the paper considerably. Finally, I would like to thank Lauréline Dartiguepeyrou for her love and patience. Work on this paper has been funded by the European Commission’s HORIZON 2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie European Training Network DIAPHORA, under grant agreement H2020-MSCA-ITN-2015-675415.

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Grandjean, V. How is the asymmetry between the open future and the fixed past to be characterized?. Synthese 198, 1863–1886 (2021).

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  • Open future
  • Indeterminism
  • Future contingents
  • Bivalence