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Time for Presence?


It is, I think, possible to generate a variation of McTaggart’s (Mind 17:457–474, 1908) paradox that infects all extant versions of presentism. This is not to say that presentism is doomed to failure. There may be ways to modify presentism and I can’t anticipate all such modifications, here. For the purposes of the paper I’ll understand ‘presentism’ to be the view that for all x, x is present (cf. Crisp (2004: 18)). It seems only right that, at a conference devoted to McTaggart’s work on time, we continue to pursue new ways in which his now infamous arguments remain relevant to us today.

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  1. See Oaklander (2004: 51–62) for a thorough explication and defence of the paradox.

  2. I don’t consider the presentism espoused by Bigelow (1991), for reasons due to Oaklander (2004: 71–76), or the version defended by Craig (2000) due to Oaklander (2004: 101–115).

  3. We could reply, here, that similar arguments ought to repudiate any ersatz analyses—in the case of modality, for instance. Not so. Non-temporal ersatzers typically try and reduce some other notion to representations. Thus, the modal ersatzer tries to analyse the notion of possible worlds in terms of representations. Crucially, the presentist ersatzer isn’t trying to do that. The presentist ersatzer doesn’t try and reduce times to these representations, but claims that ersatz times can make true talk about things that will be just like the present moment. Thus, the modal ersatzer’s modal talk is about possible worlds where possible worlds are representations, but the presentist ersatzer’s talk is not about times other than the present (else they aren’t a presentist) but is about representations of those times.

  4. The ersatzer might insist that the representations can’t get it wrong, it’s a brute fact that ersatz times reflect the way that the world really was. But, in the case, they surely owe us some explanation of how it is these presumably unchanging and a causal abstract objects succeed in accurately representing. Without some explanation of how it is that ersatz times reliably track how the world turns out, it seems utterly incredible that the ersatz times get the right result.

  5. Notice: there doesn’t seem to be an analogous objection to B-theory. If (for the sake of illustration) we allow that God created the world, as it is, only five minutes ago, then all of our ‘earlier than’ relations terminate in a point five minutes ago. There are no times before that, so there can be no difference between what’s true about the past and how the past really was. The B-theorist removes the possibility of the problem by having the truth-maker for talk about the past, and the past itself, being the one and the same thing. Since the presentist denies that the past exists, they cannot avail themselves of the same move.

  6. If the presentist takes a leaf out of their modal counterparts’ book, they might claim that ersatz times are in fact times and so remove the gap between representation and existence. The difficulty with this claim is two-fold: first, it would violate the presentists claim that ‘only the present exists’; second, it seems to be false. It’s surely an analytic claim that a time can be occupied by a concrete object. Since no ersatz time can be occupied by a concrete object, no ersatz time can be a genuine time.

  7. I’m indebted to an anonymous referee for making this point.

  8. I’m grateful to another anonymous referee for making this point.

  9. Where a part is ‘gunky’ if it has proper parts and all further proper parts themselves have proper parts. I take it that the options presented are exhaustive and map onto the gunky/pointy/span options available in contemporary mereology. See McDaniel (2007) for discussion.

  10. I’ll set to one side here how this account would deal with present tensed sentences. I worry that we’ll end up having to allow that ‘x is present’ is true because, for all x, x is present. So we’ll end up with a mixed tensed-tenseless semantics. The coherence of that may be doubted. The only attempt to do something like reconciling the two views appears in Tooley (1997). See Oaklander (2001) for my reasons for thinking that such moves will fail.

  11. I’m supposing here that the meta-language states our ontological commitments.

  12. With an eye to the wider dialectic it’s worth noting that the presentist (and “tensed” theorist in general) typically argues against their opponent by attempting to show that the opponent cannot adequately preserve the truth of tensed sentences. Were the presentist to then also fail to preserve the truth of intuitively true sentences, then the presentist would substantially weaken their own dialectical position.

  13. Again, I owe an anonymous referee thanks for this suggestion.

  14. I’m obviously assuming that the arguments above are sufficient to warrant rejection of the ersatzer B-theory solutions that could generate something akin to a tenseless base for these tensed claims.

  15. The only other way for the presentist to generate duration would be to say that the present was past, present and future. That, clearly, commits us to the paradox.


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Correspondence to Jonathan Tallant.

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Thanks to all participants at “Time on Trial: One Hundred Years of McTaggart’s Argument against Time”, April, 2008, West Virginia, for comments and discussion.

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Tallant, J. Time for Presence?. Philosophia 38, 271–280 (2010).

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  • McTaggart
  • Presentism
  • Philosophy of time