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Introduction: Language, Tense, and Ontology

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Part of the Synthese Library book series (SYLI,volume 293)

Abstract

“The main dispute in the philosophy of time,” writes one recent combatant, “is about the status of the present.”1 Is the present an objective, independent feature of reality or is it merely a subjective feature of consciousness or, at best, a purely relational feature of events? Is time characterized by objective tense determinations like pastness, presentness, and futurity, or are the moments of time ordered only by tenseless relations like earlier than, simultaneous with,and later than? Since J. M. E. McTaggart first distinguished clearly between these two kinds of time, labeling them the A- and B-series respectively, philosophers of time have found it useful to adopt McTaggart’s nomenclature, referring to theories of tensed time as A-Theories and theories of tenseless time as B-Theories. One of the most hotly contested issues in the struggle between A-theorists and B-theorists concerns the alleged ineliminability of tense from language or thought and the implications which this has for the nature of time. Accordingly in this section we shall consider what implications linguistic tense has for an adequate ontology of time.

Keywords

  • Definite Description
  • Temporal Indexical
  • Ordinary Language
  • Tense Operator
  • Tensed Fact

These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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References

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  2. For an account of English grammatical tense, see Otto Jespersen, Essentials of English Grammar (London: Allen & Unwin, 1933). A very helpful discussion of the range of verbal tenses, some of which are not found in English, is provided by Hans Reichenbach, Elements of Symbolic Logic (London: Collier-Macmillan, 1947), pp. 288–297. The A-theorist would want to replace Reichenbach’s “point of speech” with something like “the present moment” but would otherwise find his nine fundamental forms of verbal tense quite illuminating.

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  3. See Richard M. Gale, The Language of Time, International Library of Philosophy and Scientific Method (London: Routledge, Kegan & Paul, 1968), pp. 45–46. For example, in Eskimo, the noun puyok (smoke) has a past-tense form puyuthluk (what has been smoke) and a future-tense form puyoqkak (what will become smoke).

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  9. Smith attempts to provide such a reason. But the argument to which he repeatedly recurs in order to show that purportedly tenseless sentences not merely entail, but are synonymous with, multiply tensed ones is remarkably weak, indeed, counterproductive, viz., that the tenseless version and the multiply tensed version are mutually substitutable salva veritate in belief contexts. Smith claims that if it is true that “John believes that Socrates is wise,” which reports his belief in a purportedly tenseless sentence, then it is also true that “John believes that Socrates was, is, or will be wise” (Smith, Language and Time, p. 191). Or again, with respect to sentences ascribing B-determinations to events, he claims that truth value is preserved if we substitute for “John believes that Plato’s birth is earlier than Aristotle’s” the multiply tensed sentence “John believes that Plato’s birth is and always will be earlier than Aristotle’s” (Ibid., p. 198). Or again, with respect to universal generalizations like “All humans are under nine feet tall,” Smith asserts that this sentence is synonymous with “Being human and not under nine feet tall always was, is, and always will be unexemplified” because these are mutually substitutable in belief contexts (Ibid., pp. 200–201).

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  10. But as recent literature concerning theories of Direct Reference (with which Smith is thoroughly familiar) has reminded us, belief contexts provide very slippery ground for inferences concerning entailments in such contexts. Poor, old John may never have even so much as entertained multiply tensed statements, much less believe them. Maybe he thinks Socrates is (like Athena, the goddess of wisdom) a mythological figure, who never did nor will exist. Maybe he is a die-hard defender of tenseless sentences who refuses to believe that Plato’s birth is now and always will be earlier than Aristotle’s. It seems very likely that Smith’s unique and original analysis of material implication has never even occurred to John, so that he might well believe that universal generalizations are tenseless, rather than multiply tensed sentences. Since Smith holds that substitutability in belief contexts is a necessary condition of synonymy, the failure of purportedly tenseless and multiply tensed sentences to be mutually substitutable in such contexts shows that they do not mean the same thing. Thus, Smith’s argument backfires.

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  11. In any case, Smith notes that mutual substitutability in belief contexts is only a necessary, not a sufficient condition of synonymy. He attempts to close the gap by arguing that purportedly tenseless sentences are semantically correlated with multiply tensed ones in such a way that their parts have the same semantic content; for example, in “Socrates is wise” and “Socrates was, is, or will be wise,” the semantic content of “Socrates” and “wise” in the two sentences is identical, as is the semantic content of “is” and “was, is, or will be” (Ibid., pp. 190–191). But that is precisely the question in dispute! Smith just assumes that if a semantic correlation is consistent with the undisputed semantic content of the two sentences, then this counts as a confirming reason in favor of synonymy. But there is no reason to think this assumption true, since non-synonymous sentences could be mutually entailing.

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  12. Smith does present another consideration in favor of his position, viz., that no timeless states of affairs exist. This seems to be the principal argument for the meaning equivalence of typical mathematico-logical sentences and their conjunctively tensed counterparts, since the belief context argument would in this case be manifestly mistaken, as many philosophers do believe the tenseless sentences but do not believe the multiply tensed versions. Smith argues that abstract objects like numbers, properties, and so forth, are all temporal because they undergo relational change in being referred to successively by temporal agents. Since they are temporal, the purportedly tenseless sentences about such entities are really synonymous with conjunctively tensed sentences (Ibid., pp. 204–214). Similarly, purportedly tenseless sentences ascribing B-determinations to events are synonymous with conjunctively tensed sentences ascribing everlasting presentness to the events’ state of being B-related. Since there are no timeless states (as seen above), this state must be temporal. If two events are B-related, they are presently B-related, whether the events are past or present (Ibid., p. 197).

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  13. With regard to the argument against timeless abstract objects and states, I think one might be justifiably skeptical whether the sort of “Cambridge change” envisioned by Smith is a sufficient condition of its subject’s being temporal. The argument assumes without justification that being referred to by x is a real property that a thing acquires or loses. But the defender of timeless entities could regard sentences involving reference to such entities as true de dicto, not de re. Thus, “John believes that 2+2=4” means that John believes the tenselessly true sentence “2+2=4”, but does not mean that he believes of 2 and of 4 that 2 added to itself is 4. If his beliefs are not de re, then 2 and 4 do not acquire and lose the property being referred to by John. Hence, 2 and 4 could exist timelessly despite the fact that John makes reference to them at various times.

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  14. But let that pass. The salient shortcoming of Smith’s case is that he fails to justify the underlying presupposition that tenseless truths cannot refer to temporal entities. That this assumption is moot is evident from the fact that sentences ascribing B-determinations to temporal events are purportedly tenseless. How then does the demonstration that all entities and states are temporal go to show that there are no tenseless sentences about such things? Even if the tenseless sentences entail their multiply tensed counterparts, how does that prove that they are synonymous, that the former are not in fact tenseless? Once again, Smith is forced to recur to his arguments about belief contexts and semantic correlations, which are in the case now under consideration manifestly inadequate. It seems to me, therefore, that Smith has failed to show that there are no tenseless sentences.

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  15. Gale, Language of Time, pp. 42, 51.

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  16. E.g., multiply tensed sentences, sentences containing the adverb “always,” tensed sentences which are broadly logically necessary, etc. The definitions also exclude a range of tenseless sentences from expressing B-statements, since only statements describing temporal relations between events are allowed.

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  20. I omit from indexical status expressions indicating what is actually the case, though some thinkers, notably David Lewis, have defended actuality as an indexical notion. According to Lewis, what is actually the case varies from context to context, where the context is or includes the possible world in which the sentence is purported to be true (David Lewis, On the Plurality of Worlds [Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986], p. 93; cf. idem, “Anselm and Actuality,” Noils 4 [1970]: 185). Lewis’s comparison of “actual” with the temporal indexical “present” is suggestive and merits our discussion in the sequel.

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  21. Most notably by David Kaplan, “On the Logic of Demonstratives,” in Contemporary Perspectives in the Philosophy of Language, ed. Peter A. French, Theodore E. Uehling, Jr., and Howard K. Wettstein (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1979), pp. 401–412; so also Palle Yourgrau, “Introduction,” in Demonstratives, ed. Palle Yourgrau (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 1–8. Kaplan later repented of this misleading terminology, favoring the term “indexical” (Idem, “Demonstratives: an Essay on the Semantics, Logic, Metaphysics, and Epistemology of Demonstratives and Other Indexicals,” in Themes from Kaplan, ed. Joseph Almog, John Perry, and Howard Wettstein [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989], p. 490). Unfortunately, he still misconstrues a demonstrative as an indexical requiring an associated demonstration (Ibid., pp. 490–492). However, in his “Afterthoughts,” in Themes, pp. 587–588, he correctly states, “…the meaning of a demonstrative requires that each syntactic occurrence be associated with a directing intention…. The need for a directing intention to determine the referent of a demonstrative still allows us to distinguish the true demonstratives from the pure indexicals.”

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  22. Very often, the precise contradictory is asserted; but this is erroneous, as is pointed out by Howard Wettstein, “Has Semantics Rested on a Mistake?” Journal of Philosophy 83 (1986): 196.

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  23. Kaplan, “Demonstratives,” pp. 490–491.

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  24. There are apparent, interesting exceptions to this practice; for example, “Churchill now faced the most critical moment of his career.” For an entertaining discussion, see Quentin Smith, “The Multiple Uses of Indexicals,” Synthèse 78 (1989): 167–191. But I should say, and I think Smith would agree, that in such circumstances the temporal indexicals are in fact tenseless and therefore not truly temporal indexicals (Smith, Language and Time, p. 24, note 3.)

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  25. Hans Kamp, “Formal Properties of `now’,” Theoria 37 (1972): 227–273; see also A. N. Prior, “Now,” Noels 2 (1968): 101–119; idem, Now’ Corrected and Condensed,“ No/is 2 (1968): 411–412; Pavel Tichy, ”The Transiency of Truth,“ Theoria 46 (1980): 164–182. While recognizing the non-redundancy of ”now,“ Tichy ostensibly opposes double indexing because it jettisons the principle that propositions take truth values relative to a world and a time in favor of the precept that propositions take truth values relative to a world, a time, and yet another time. On the conventional view, he asserts, whenever a proposition is asserted, a unique world is actual and a unique moment of time is current. Accordingly, he proposes to analyze a sentence like ”It will be the case that Brown is not at home now“ as expressing the proposition For some moment u, u is present and it will be the case that Brown is not at home at u. But I think that Tichy is clearly confusing semantics with ontology. Double indexing is a semantical feature of sentences that in no way denies that there is a unique moment of time which is ontologically present. Tichy’s own analysis involves double indexing, since the time referred to by the future-tense operator is not the same time as u. Indeed, his analysis has the virtue of making the indexical time parameter’s independence of the temporal operator perspicuous. Prior himself observed, ”…we can dispense with the non-redundant `now’ in favour of the redundant one. In other words, the non-redundant `now’ is non-redundant only in the sense that you cannot just erase it from a sentence and leave the sense of the whole the same; you can, however, erase it and get something with the same sense by altering the rest of the sentence somewhat“ (Prior, ”Now,“ p. 106).

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  26. For an outstanding account of double indexing and of temporal indexicals in general, see Nathan Salmon, “Tense and Singular Propositions,” in Themes from Kaplan, pp. 354–367. Salmon’s theory of indexicals is based on a semi-Fregean propositional analysis of tensed sentences. On Salmon’s analysis, the semantic basis of a sentence is a propositional matrix, which consists of the referent of the subject of the sentence and the property ascribed to the referent by the sentence’s predicate. The propositional matrix becomes a piece of information by attaching to it a particular time at which the property inheres in the referent. Sometimes it may be necessary to attach a particular location as well to obtain a genuine piece of information or proposition. The propositional matrix serves as the information value base for a tensed expression. “An indexical expression is precisely one that takes on different value bases with respect to different possible contexts” (Ibid., p. 346). As the context of utterance varies, the referent of such expressions varies, as I explain in the text. By contrast, a tensed sentence like “Frege is busy,” while having different information value or propositional content at different times, has the same information value base or propositional matrix, viz. the complex consisting of Frege and the property of being busy. The time is implicitly built into the information value of the predicate, which is why such non-indexical sentences take on different truth values and different information values when uttered at different times, even though the expression is not indexical. For the same reason certain non-indexical definite descriptions like “the senior senator from California” take on different referents and different information values at different times. The distinctive feature of an indexical expression like “I” or “the present senior senator from California” is that it takes on different information value bases in different contexts. “The predicate `be busy,’ the definite description `the senior senator from California,’ and the sentence `The senior senator from California is busy’ all retain the same value base in all contexts. Their information value varies with the context, but not their information value base” (Ibid., p. 369). For example, the information value base of the aforementioned sentence is comprised of the senior senator and the property of being busy, and this base remains the same at all times though attached to different times. But the information value base of “The present senior senator from California is busy” will vary with the context of utterance because the time is included in the value base itself. The semantic difference between these similar expressions does not show up clearly in sentences in which the time attached to the value base is the same time as the time inherent in the value base of the indexical expression, but when double indexing is required because the times differ, the difference becomes clear, e.g.,“In 1913 the senior senator from California was a child” versus “In 1913 the present senior senator from California was a child.” According to Salmon, the function of indexicals like “present” or “now” is “primarily to affect the content base of its operand, eternalizing it and thereby sealing it off from the influence of external occurrences of temporal operators” (Ibid., p. 377).

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  27. Salmon’s characterization of indexicals depends on a Direct Reference Theory, propositions as objects of belief, and a tenseless view of information and is thus too controversial to serve as a general characterization of indexicals. But his focusing on the phenomenon of double indexing as distinctive of indexicals is an insight which transcends his theory. One can agree that indexicals are just those expressions which are such that they would be classed as indexical if Salmon’s theory were correct.

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  28. See A. N. Prior, Time and Modality (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957), pp. 9–10; idem, “Changes in Events, pp. 8–10, 14–15; idem, ”On Spurious Egocentricity,“ in Papers on Time and Tense, pp. 17–23.

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  29. Kaplan errs, therefore, in asserting that “yesterday” is an indexical and “one day ago” is an iterative temporal operator (Kaplan, “Logic of Demonstratives,” p. 412). Compare “It will always be the case that John yawned yesterday” and “It will always be the case that John yawned one day ago.” The expression “one day ago” refers to the time of the speaker’s present and is not comparable to “on the preceding day.” Thus, “One day ago it was the case that one day ago it was the case that John yawns” does not mean “John yawned the day before yesterday,” for the second token of “one day ago” within the scope of the first requires an independent temporal reference point, unlike the iterative “on the preceding day.”

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  30. Salmon, “Tense and Singular Propositions,” p. 360.

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  31. The fact that the sentence must be tenseless might lead one to infer that verbs are, after all, temporal indexicals, since the extension of the sentence varies with c. But even so, verbal tenses do not require double indexing but can be iterated indefinitely with only single indexing; and this serves to distinguish verbal tense from temporal indexicals.

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  32. Care must be taken here, since as Goodman, Structure of Appearance, p. 368, points out, “past,” “present,” and “future” are often used as two-place B-predicates and are in such cases tenseless. See also George N. Schlesinger, Aspects of Time (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980), p. 133. If Smith is correct, they can also function as A-non-indexicals.

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  33. Smith takes this to be not only their linguistic function, but also their semantic function (Smith, Language and Time,p. 111; cf. idem, “Temporal Indexicals,” Erkenntnis 32 [1990]: 5–25).

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  34. Smith, Language and Time, pp. 116–120; cf. pp. 74–77.

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  35. Smith’s point is even more obvious if we change the tense of the copula in accord with either single or double indexing, e.g. “It will be the case tomorrow that the storm was occurring now” and “It will be the case tomorrow that the storm will be present.” In ordinary language we often shift the tense of the verb to conform to the time of reference. The artificiality of using tense operators on present-tense verbs obscures the meaning evident in ordinary language.

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  36. Prior, “Now,” p. 104.

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  37. Hector-Neri Castaneda, “`He’: A Study in the Logic of Self-Consciousness,” Ratio 8 (1966): 130157; idem, “Indicators and Quasi-Indicators,” American Philosophical Quarterly 4 (1967): 85–100; idem, “Omniscience and Indexical Reference,” Journal of Philosophy 64 (1967): 203–210; idem, “On the Logic of Attributions of Self-Knowledge to Others,” Journal of Philosophy 65 (1968): 439–456. For a readable secondary account, see Esa Saarinen, “Castaneda’s Philosophy of Language,” in Hector-Neri Castaneda, ed. James E. Tomberlin, Profiles 6 (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1986), pp. 187–214.

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  38. Castafieda, “Omniscience,” p. 206.

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  39. Of course, one cannot infer that Privatus actually uttered the indexical word; perhaps he said, “I’m arriving this afternoon” or “I’m arriving at 3:00 p.m.” But to the same degree, uncertainty as to the actual words in oratio recta also persists when we have a so-called quasi-indexical. Perhaps the Kaiser said “This is a rainy day” or, looking at his calendar, “May 15 is a rainy day.” In both these cases, the point is that the persons believed something which could be expressed with present-tense indexicals like “now” or “today.” Cf. Saarinen’s complaint that, unlike “he himself,” “then” and “there” do not inevitably attribute to someone the use of their indexical counterparts and are not therefore real quasi-indexicals (Saarinen, “Castaheda’s Philosophy of Language,” p. 201). I agree with Castafieda that this merely represents a deficit in natural language (Hector-Neri Castaneda, “Reply to Esa Saarinen,” in Castaneda, pp. 349–350.

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  40. Castaneda himself confessed, “I cannot, however, muster a formal argument to show this” (Castaneda, “Indicators and Quasi-Indicators,” p. 96). There is a very interesting exchange of views concerning the related issue of whether the proposition expressed by the quasi-indexical clause is the same as that expressed by the corresponding indexical clause in oratio recta in Robert Adams and Hector-Neri Castaneda, “Knowledge and Self: A Correspondence between Robert M. Adams and Hector-Neri Castaneda,” in Agent, Language, and the Structure of the World,ed. James E. Tomberlin (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1983), pp. 293–308, and Hector-Neri Castafieda, “Reply to John Perry: Meaning, Belief, and Reference,” in Agent,Language, and Structure, p. 327. Although Castaneda gives up this claim, it seems to me that Adams’s argument calls into question not so much this claim as the claim that someone who knows that another person knows that p also knows that p.

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  41. Mellor, Real Time, p. 56; cf. p. 28, where he admits that unless the B-theorist shows that there is no difference between W and W*, he cannot deny that the A-series describes a real aspect of the world.

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  42. An appellation I adapt from Smith, Language and Time, secs. 1. 2–3; cf. idem, “Problems with the New Tenseless Theory of Time,” Philosophical Studies 52 (1987): 371–392. I prefer my appellation because the theories in question are really theories of language, not time. Reichenbach, for example, held to an A-Theory of time, but a B-Theory of Language.

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  43. Robert C. Coburn, The Strangeness of the Ordinary: Problems and Issues in Contemporary Metaphysics (Savage, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1990), p. 113. Coburn also provides the following argument for a B-Theory: But Coburn presupposes unjustifiably that A-sentences cannot have both tenseless and tensed truth-conditions; otherwise (ii) does not follow. Such a presupposition requires justification. In (iii) and (iv) he tries to justify the denial that tensed truth conditions can be given; but these steps just are the nerve of McTaggart’s Paradox as Mellor exposits it (D. H. Mellor, “Tense’s Tenseless Truth Conditions,” Analysis 46 [19861: 171) and Coburn acknowledges his indebtedness to Mellor on this score (Coburn, Strangeness of the Ordinary, p. 114). Thus, the argument for the B-Theory relies on the positive demonstration that the A-Theory is fatally defective.

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  44. As emphasized by Graham Priest, “Tense and Truth Conditions,” Analysis 46 (1986): 162–166; also Smith, Language and Time, chap. 4.

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  45. Thus, one can have an A-theorist like Michael Tooley, who agrees that if tensed concepts are semantically basic, then an A-Theory of time is correct, but who also insists that if tenseless concepts are semantically basic, it does not follow that a B-Theory of time is correct (Michael Tooley, Time, Tense, and Causation [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997], pp. 18–19). Tooley goes so far as to reject premiss (5) of Coburn’s argument. He holds that there are no tensed facts but that the body of tenseless facts which exist as of any given time varies from time to time. For discussion see the symposium on Tooley’s book featuring comments by Storrs McCall, Nathan Oaklander, and Quentin Smith with Tooley’s responses in Essays on Time and Related Topics, ed. L. Nathan Oaklander, Selected Papers of the Philosophy of Time Society Proceedings, 1995–1999, pp. 2–42. Tooley’s rejection of (5) presupposes that his notion of “actual as of time t” is not a tensed concept. The difficulty, as Smith points out, is that Tooley takes this notion to be an undefined primitive, so that it is far from clear what is meant. Smith charges that as Tooley employs this notion, it appears to be synonymous to “exists earlier than or simultaneous with t, in which case Tooley’s theory is not a dynamic theory of time at all. Tooley repudiates this charge, claiming that Smith himself must assume that these are not synonymous expressions. But, of course, Smith, unlike Tooley, accepts the reality of tensed facts, so that he is able to provide a tensed parsing of “actual as of time t.” Tooley maintains that this crucial notion is not a tensed concept, since it would then not be neutral with respect to various A-theoretical ontologies, implying as it does an ontology according to which past and present entities alone are real and thereby excluding presentist and “full-future” ontologies. But this allegation seems incorrect. For example, A-theorists could leave “actual” as an undefined primitive and analyze “actual as of time t” as “actual by is being present.” A-theorists will just disagree among themselves as to which events are actual once t is present. If such disagreement is not permitted by Tooley’s notion, then it is obviously not essential, as Tooley avers, to a dynamic theory of time. It is extraordinarily difficult to see how anyone with Tooley’s ontology of a gradually accreting past can avoid tensed facts. For at any point in time there will be truths about which proper subset of the set of all tenseless facts is instantiated, and which subset that is is constantly changing. If Tooley tries to avoid this conclusion by saying that such subsets are only instantiated as of a time t, not simpliciter, then we are back to the necessity of a tensed parsing of that notion. Thus, it seems to me, Coburn’s (5) is true. Still, the point remains that the provision of tenseless truth conditions for tensed sentences does not disprove the existence of tensed facts.

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Craig, W.L. (2000). Introduction: Language, Tense, and Ontology. In: The Tensed Theory of Time. Synthese Library, vol 293. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-015-9345-8_1

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