There are temporal asymmetries in our attitudes towards the past and future. For example, we judge that a given amount of work is worth twice as much if it is described as taking place in the future, compared to the past (Caruso et al. in Psychol Sci 19(8):796–801, 2008). Does this temporal value asymmetry support a tensed metaphysics? By getting clear on the asymmetry’s features, I’ll argue that it doesn’t. To support a tensed metaphysics, the value asymmetry would need to (a) not vary with temporal distance, (b) apply equally to events concerning oneself and others, and (c) be rational and judged to be so. But evidence suggests the value asymmetry lacks these features. There are, moreover, independent arguments against its rationality. The asymmetry’s features suggest instead that it arises as an emotion-driven generalisation from a temporal bias concerning our future actions. This explanation points towards mechanisms that can play a role in explaining other instances where we generalise about the past and future, and why we’re tempted towards metaphysical pictures of time.
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I’ll follow Caruso et al. (2008) in treating these cases similarly, but further investigation could show they are distinct.
The value asymmetry implies a preference asymmetry, given other assumptions. Roughly, valuing a good future event more (rationally) implies being willing to swap a good future event for more now than one would swap an equivalent past event, indicating a preference for good things to be in the future and, mutatis mutandi, bad things to be in the past. See Dougherty (2015) for why preference and value asymmetries may not manifest in the same circumstances.
Views that deny non-relative tensed facts while still accepting a primitive direction of time (Maudlin 2007) count as B-theoretic with respect to these arguments.
One might argue that values can be relativised to times, without being relativised to subjective features. However, what time-relative value is relevant to a given subject will still depend on when she is located. So value will still seem worryingly subjective (to the objectivist).
While value and preference asymmetries are distinct (see footnote 3), results in both cases suggest that our asymmetric behaviour can’t be accounted for using merely a tensed metaphysics.
Caution is required in interpreting these results. With the exception of Radu et al. (2011), the future and past questions may have been intermingled. If so, past discounting may simply be an artifact of future discounting. There are also difficult questions regarding how preferences regarding past events are to be interpreted—I discuss some of these issues below (Sect. 3.3).
Is the asymmetry nevertheless rational? Hare (2007, 2008), and Parfit (1984, pp. 165–167) and Tarsney (2017) argue for the prima facie rationality of preference asymmetries. Others disagree. Sullivan (2018, Ch. 7) argues that preference asymmetries are arbitrary. Dougherty (2011) argues that someone with temporally biased preferences will be led to accept a series of swaps that leaves her worse off overall. Greene and Sullivan (2015), see also Sullivan (Ch. 6, 2018), argue that someone with temporally biased preferences will be led to unreasonably delay pleasures. For criticisms of Dougherty and Sullivan’s arguments, see Hare (2013), Greene and Sullivan (2015), Dorsey (2016) and Tarsney (2017). For criticism of Parfit and discussion of other arguments for temporal neutrality, see Brink (2011).
For more on the emotion asymmetry and the role of emotion in choice, see Newby-Clark and Ross (2003), van Boven and Ashworth (2007) and Gilbert and Wilson (2009). Guo et al. (2012) argue that the value asymmetry is also affected by cultural orientation. Note that acknowledging various higher-level effects on the value asymmetry is compatible with the philosophical points regarding ‘generalising’ that I go on to make.
For example, generalising is required to explain why we bet more optimistically on the future than the past (Strickland et al. 1966), why we judge future actions as more due to the will (Helzer and Gilovich 2012), why we judge past transgressions less harshly (Caruso 2010), and why we judge that future events feel closer (Van Caruso et al. 2013).
While essences often concern immutable features of events, this is not always the case—such as when we essentialise about people’s age (Weiss et al. 2016). Similarly, even though events change from being future to being past, their properties now can still be attributable to essential features of past or future events.
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I would like to thank Christoph Hoerl, Teresa McCormack, Ruth Lee and Patrick Burns for many helpful discussions, and for including me so enthusiastically in their work. I would also like to thank the following people for comments and suggestions: Meghan Sullivan, Alistair Wilson, Natlja Deng, Nick Jones, Tom Dougherty, Scott Sturgeon, Craig Callender, and Tobias Wilsch, as well as audiences at the University of Warwick, and the University of Birmingham. This work was supported by a Research Fellowship at the University of Warwick on the AHRC project ‘Time: Between Metaphysics and Psychology’ (AH/P00217X/1), Principal Investigator Christoph Hoerl and Co-Investigator Teresa McCormack.
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Fernandes, A. Does the temporal asymmetry of value support a tensed metaphysics?. Synthese (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-019-02269-8
- Temporal value asymmetry
- Preference asymmetry
- Attitude asymmetry
- Time bias