Paper: “The fate of presentism in modern physics”

I just realized that I haven’t posted anything on new papers I wrote for over a year. Since there was a comment this morning on my new paper “The fate of presentism in modern physics”, which is available at the Pitt PhilSci-Archive now, but with the comment being to a different post, I decided to remedy this.

Here is the abstract:

There has been a recent spate of essays defending presentism, the view in the metaphysics of time according to which all and only present events or entities exist. What is particularly striking about this resurgence is that it takes place on the background of the significant pressure exerted on the position by the relativity of simultaneity asserted in special relativity, and yet in several cases invokes modern physics for support. I classify the presentist replies to this pressure into a two by two matrix depending on whether they take a compatibilist or incompatibilist stance with respect to both special relativity in particular and modern physics in general. I then review and evaluate what I take to be some of the most forceful and intriguing presentist arguments turning on modern physics. Although nothing of what I will say eventuates its categorical demise, I hope to show that whatever presentism remains compatible with empirical facts and our best physics is metaphysically unattractive.

The paper is to be published in Roberto Ciuni, Kristie Miller, and Giuliano Torrengo (eds.), New Papers on the Present–Focus on Presentism, Philosophia Verlag, Munich.



Filed under My papers, wuthrich

5 responses to “Paper: “The fate of presentism in modern physics”

    • Thanks for the comments. Needless to say, we disagree quite substantively. I wouldn’t expect to convince you of my position, but let me give three quick responses.

      First, I certainly agree that eternalists still need to explain why it is that we feel so vividly different about the present from how we feel about the past or the future, and hence why presentism appears so ‘common-sensical’. That’s part of the explanatory burden of the eternalist, which I accept remain. But as I have stated repeatedly, including in this paper, it is far from obvious how the presentist can utilize any of the claimed fundamental physical structures to underwrite our common sense intuitions.

      Second, I disagree that a proper understanding of quantum mechanics will vindicate the presentist, as I have also discussed a bit in my “No presentism in quantum gravity”. Or at least, the story with the measurement problem and non-local Bell correlations is much subtle, complicated, intriguing than any quick argument from them to presentism would make us believe.

      Third, you say that before we can even ask whether there is an incompatibility between presentism and relativity, we need to sit down and work out what ‘time’ really is. (In the paper, I discuss some things I have to say to this when I treat Prior and Lowe) But either whatever ‘time’ really is is that we measure by our clocks or it isn’t. If it is, then it is hard to see how the compatibility issue is circumvented. If it isn’t, then you first need to explain what our clocks measure if not time…

      • Hello,

        Clocks measure events due to motion, radiation, etc. We define arbitrarily time in terms of these events. For example, ancient clocks measured the position of the sun. Then, people used sand clocks and later pendulums. Now, modern atomic clocks measure particle transitions. These are all events. We have no idea of what time is. All we do is to count events. If you know, please write a paper and I will be glad to read it and learn what time is.

        Furthermore, while I was reading your reply I stirred my coffee. I hope you do not believe that was an event part of an eternal spacetime and specifically that the turbulent motion of each of the molecules of my coffee were somehow part of this bizarre universe.

        At some point, philosophers of science must come down and meet common sense. If Relativity theory commits to eternalism then it is not a true theory. You also do not need to prove presentism. You can assume it as a self evident postulate and get over with it.

        How long will taxpayers and governments continue financing research of absurd ideas? This is an issue.

  1. Hubert John

    I would like to clear up a few issues. First of all, I am not convinced by the argument you provide against the neoLorentzian view of SR. Proponents of neoLorentzian SR( e.g. William Lane Craig) have published several papers and volumes that I believe responds to your charges on neoLorentzian SR as well as bring their own attack on the usual Minkowski Spacetime. Here I first want to go through the responses to your claims-
    1)neoLorentzian SR isn’t unique in violating Okham’s razor. The space time view also takes an entity( space time) for granted, though it is not necessary. Rather there are several counter arguments against spacetime in Dr. Craig’s published work The Tenseless Theory of Time.
    2)Lorentz SR is not ad hoc and there is no “accident”.
    For example, Simon J. Prokhovnik tries to explain the apparent Lorentz invariance of all material systems via the retarded potential effect. If he is correct, that explains why all material systems are affected by motion relative to fundamental frame. H. E. Ives was able to derive the Lorentz transformations from the laws of conservation of energy and momentum and laws of transmission of radiant energy. Given these basic laws, the Lorentz transformations will hold for any material system subject to those laws.So no accidents.
    Now, arguments against Minkowskian SR-
    1) The primary reason for physicists holding on to it is verificationism and logical positivism. As we all know, when it comes to philosophy, physicists are often ignorant and their views about philosophical positions are often naive and so, obviously they blindly believe in verificationism. In fact the rejection of verificationism by modern philosophy is too complicated for a physicist to understand.
    2) There are several works on neoLorentzian SR and it’s implications on GR, both by philosophers and philosophically informed physicists that you( and no one else,for that matter) haven’t taken into account.

    • Thank you for your comment. I disagree that physicists prefer the standard version of SR over neo-Lorentzian SR just because they are not smart enough to understand the philosophical shortcomings of verificationism. Moreover, there are excellent reasons for that preference, and they are not tied to verificationism–they merely require a rejection of idle wheels in one’s theory. Conversely, the only reason to prefer neo-Lorentzian SR, it seems to me, is an a priori insistence on a particular metaphysics of time that comes under severe pressure in modern physics. Finally, and I may not have stated this sufficiently clearly in the paper, even if neo-Lorentzian SR were true, it wouldn’t help the presentist as that privileged foliation would still necessarily remain undetectable and so could not explain the apparent phenomenology that motivates most presentists.

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