Time, Change and Freedom: Introduction
Smith (Quentin)
Source: Oaklander & Smith - Time, Change and Freedom: An Introduction to Metaphysics
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  1. The word "metaphysics" has become a part of popular culture and almost everybody thinks they know what "metaphysics" means. This is unfortunate for philosophers, for the popular meaning of "metaphysics" is very different from the philosophical meaning. Popular metaphysics deals with such topics as "out-of-the-body experiences," levitation, astral projections, telepathy, clairvoyance, reincarnation1, spirit worlds, astrology, crystal healing, communion with the dead and other such topics. Popular metaphysics consists of notions that for the most part are inconsistent vsith science or reason. Private and unverifiable experiences, fanciful speculations, hallucinations, ignorance of science and the misuse of logical principles are typical of the ingredients found in popular metaphysics. Given the difficulty and the enormous time and effort it requires to think in a logically systematic way and to understand current science, it is not surprising that more people are attracted to popular metaphysics than to philosophical metaphysics.
  2. Philosophical metaphysics, the subject of this book, is at the far end of the spectrum from popular metaphysics. Philosophical metaphysics is both consistent with, and in part based upon, current scientific theory, and it uses logical argumentation to arrive at its results. For example, if current science informs us that the universe began to exist 15 billion years ago with an explosion called "the big bang," then metaphysics will take this theory into account in formulating theories about the beginning of time and the universe. Moreover, philosophical metaphysics takes logical consistency as a necessary condition of truth. In popular metaphysics, one can say "I don't care if there is a logical disproof of my theory; I still believe my theory because I feel in my heart that it is true." But one cannot get away with this in philosophical metaphysics; if one's theory has been shown to be logically self-contradictory, then one abandons the theory.
  3. Philosophical metaphysics aims to answer two sorts of questions:
    • 1) What is the basic nature of reality and what are the basic kinds of items that make up reality?
    • 2) Why does the universe exist?
  4. The question about the basic nature of reality has usually been called "ontology," after the Greek word ontos (beings). Ontology is the study of beings, the study of What Is. The question about why the universe exists has for centuries been regulated to a second area of metaphysics, "philosophical theology," after the Greek work theos for divinity. In the present book on Time, Change and Freedom we shall deal with ontology. In another volume, "Craig (William Lane) & Smith (Quentin) - Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology" (1993), philosophical theology is addressed, the study of why the universe exists and whether or not there are reasons to believe there is a divinity. In this second volume, I have shown that there can be an answer to the metaphysical question, "Why does the universe exist?" that does not appeal to any divinity, but to certain laws of nature, such as the laws of nature that Stephen Hawking has discussed in his book, "Hawking (Stephen) - A Brief History of Time - From the Big Bang to Black Holes" (1988). Since the question of why the universe exists has been for centuries associated with the question of whether God exists, it has come to seem natural to associate the words "philosophical theology" with this branch of metaphysics. A more neutral title of this branch might be "explanative metaphysics," the branch of metaphysics that attempts to determine if there is an explanation of why the universe exists.
  5. The present volume is on ontology. What are the general features of reality, what sorts of beings make up reality and how are the various sorts of beings related to each other? From the very beginning, time has played a central role in ontological studies. Perhaps the earliest influential metaphysical theory was Plato's. Plato divided reality into two sorts, depending on how it stood in relation to time. For Plato, true being or full being belongs to the everlasting, the permanent, whereas imperfect being, the impermanent, belongs to the realm of what comes to be and passes away in time. This reliance on time to divide basic categories of being became even more prominent in medieval metaphysics, where concepts related to time, specifically eternity, were understood as the paradigm of being itself. 'To be" in the full and perfect sense is to be eternal, and anything else "is" at all only to the extent that it imitates the eternal mode of being. With modern thinking, we find less emphasis on eternity, but more emphasis on time as the central feature of reality. We find Kant saying that time is the fundamental way in which the mind understands reality, and in twentieth-century existential theory we find Heidegger saying that time is the meaning of Being itself.
  6. Time plays an equally fundamental role in twentieth-century analytic metaphysics, which is the metaphysical tradition to which the present book belongs. We shall take time as the key to our entry into metaphysics and as the unifying theme of our discussions of the various sorts of beings. The understanding of the nature of substances, events, persons, changes, eternity, divine foreknowledge, fatalism, the universe, all require that we understand how these kinds of items are characterized in terms of their temporal characteristics or their relation to time. If we want to understand the universe, we want to know if time began to exist or whether the past is infinite. If the universe began to exist, can there be empty time that elapsed before the universe came into existence? Questions about everyday objects also involve temporal notions. The understanding of things, events, changes, personal identity, free will and the like also requires an imderstanding of their relation to time. For example, a substance (such as a table) is a thing that endures through successive times, whereas an event is often understood as a substance possessing a property at a certain time. A change is a substance having one property at one time and losing that property at a later time. Metaphysical issues about freedom also involve time; for example, the question about whether we have free will and about whether we are "fated" to live our future lives in a certain way depends on how present time is related to future time. Indeed, the very questions, "What is reality?" or "What is being?" cannot be answered without bringing in the notion of time. For example, does reality consist only of the fleeting present, what is occurring now? Or is reality extended into the future and the past, such that the future and the past are equally as real as any time we choose to call "the present"? Furthermore, does reality divide into two realms, the eternal and the temporal, or does reality consist only of time and its occupants?
  7. These and other metaphysical questions are addressed in the three parts of this book and the Appendix.
  8. Part I"Smith (Quentin) - The Finite and the Infinite" – deals with issues pertaining to the finitude or infinitude of time.
    • Dialogue 1 discusses the beginning of time;
    • Dialogue 2 discusses infinite past and future time, and
    • Dialogue 3 discusses the question of whether time consists merely of the events in the universe or is an independent "substantial" reality that would continue to "flow on" even if there were no events.
    • In Dialogue 4, we shall consider several definitions of divine eternity and discuss whether or not it is possible for there to be an eternal being.
  9. In Part II"Oaklander (L. Nathan) - Time and Identity" – we shall turn to issues of change, temporal passage and personal identity. Things persist and retain their identity through time and change. But what is identity through time? What is change? These questions are addressed in Dialogue 5. Dialogue 6 on the passage of time addresses the issue of whether The Present is the sole reality or whether all times (be they 500BC, 1994 or 1999) are equally real. Dialogues 7 and 8 are about the nature of personal identity and how personal identity is related to time.
  10. In Part III"Oaklander (L. Nathan) - The Nature of Freedom" – three issues about freedom are discussed.
    • In Dialogue 9, there is a discussion of whether or not we are fated to live our future lives in a certain way.
    • Dialogue 10 considers if it is possible for us to make free choices if God exists and foreknows every choice we will make.
    • In Dialogue 11, there is a discussion of whether or not all our decisions are caused by past events and, if so, whether that is compatible with our decisions being "free" in some sense.
  11. The Appendix"Smith (Quentin) - Physical Time and the Universe" – addresses topics that are closely related to current scientific theories, especially Einstein's Theory of Relativity and current cosmological theories. Physics, and especially physical cosmology, has developed extensive theories about time and the universe that are confirmed by the observational evidence. The task of the metaphysician is to interpret the significance of the physicist's equations for an understanding of time and the universe. Many of the most unusual, or possible, features of the universe are originally based on physical theories rather than purely philosophical theories. We shall analyze the meaning of the scientific theories of time-travel into the past, of splitting universes, theories that our universe occupies a time series that branches off trom a background "trunk-time," that time could be closed like a circle, that what is real and present is relative to one's reference frame, and related topics.
  12. What will the reader leam from this book on metaphysics? The reader will not leam something in the same sense that she might in reading a textbook on chemistry or biology. There is no established body of knowledge in metaphysics. On virtually every subject, there is widespread disagreement among metaphysicians. One reason for this difference between science and metaphysics is that scientific theories lead to predictions of observations that can be used to settle disputes. For example, if one theory predicts that the earth revolves around the sun, and another theory predicts that the sun revolves around the earth, then there is a way to resolve the dispute, for example, by observing the sun and earth from the vantage point of a rocket in outer space. However, the subjects that are studied in metaphysics do not lead to predictions of observations and consequently, disputants in this field must rely on logical argument from premises and try to demonstrate logical fallacies in the argument of their opponent. The opponent typically responds by arguing that some of the premises are false, or by claiming that the conclusion does not follow from the premises, or by revising his own theory to render it immune to the argument. This process of argument and counterargument tends to go on indefinitely; consequently, progress in metaphysics is measured not by definitive results but by the increasing sophistication of the theories that defenders of opposing positions develop.
  13. But this is not to say that there are no right answers in metaphysics. There are right answers, but the issues are so complex and difficult to resolve that it is extremely hard for us humans – fallible products of evolution2 that we are – to arrive at definitive and universally accepted answers to the questions. Perhaps the problem is that the human species is intelligent enough to ask metaphysical questions and to develop arguments for certain metaphysical positions, but not intelligent enough to provide definitive answers to these questions. Some may conclude from this that we should concentrate on questions that are easier to answer, such as scientific questions, but this conclusion is unworkable. It is unworkable because we cannot help but adopt and live by various metaphysical beliefs. For example, we must live as if there is an eternal God or as if all that exists is matter and organisms that exist in time. And we must live as if we have free will or as if we are "fated" to do everything we do. Metaphysics deals with the rock-bottom issues that no one can escape, unless they live their lives in a coma. The only choice is to adopt a sophisticated and well thought out metaphysical theory or to accept glib and simple-minded answers to the questions. The point of this book is to stimulate the reader to develop a well thought out metaphysical theory on the various metaphysical topics discussed in this book. What will be learned from this book is not a body of truths but rather a set of arguments and counterarguments for various metaphysical positions. For example, the reader will learn some of the main arguments for the thesis that we have free will and some of the main arguments that we do not have free will. We hope that the reader will assess these arguments and counterarguments on her own and try to make up her own mind on each of the issues.
  14. The disputational nature of metaphysics explains why we have adopted a dialogue form for Parts I to III of this book. A dialogue presents metaphysics in its true nature, as a sustained debate between opposing philosophers on each of the various metaphysical topics. To present arguments for only one side of the issue, as do many metaphysical books, creates an impression of bias and disguises the truly controversial nature of the subjects.
  15. However, we do not use the dialogue form in the Appendix. The Appendix explains, interprets and draws conclusions from Einstein's Theory of Relativity and current physical cosmology. As we draw closer to the sciences, there is less room for debate and disagreement. There is widespread agreement about the fundamentals of Einstein's theory and hence a dialogue or debate form would be inappropriate for explaining his theory. There may be some disagreement about how to interpret Einstein's theories, but these disagreements are not so pervasive and intractable that a dialogue and debate format is required. Thus, the Appendix is an expository essay that lays out the fundamentals of Einstein's theory and contemporary physical cosmology and discusses the metaphysical implications of these ideas.
  16. This book aims to present original theories we have developed and yet at the same time be accessible to beginners in the field. The new theories advanced will make it of interest to philosophy professors and graduate students, and its accessibility to beginners will make it suitable for use by the general public and in undergraduate courses on metaphysics, philosophy of science and the introduction to philosophy. In an effort to make the book as accessible as possible, we have placed a glossary, study questions and suggestions for further reading at the end of each dialogue and at the end of the Appendix. We have provided the diving board, but once the reader takes the dive into the abyss of metaphysical complexities, the reader's own reasoning powers will be the only guide. The rational struggle for metaphysical truth is a struggle unto death and perhaps the one absolutely certain metaphysical thesis is that death - after allowing us to skirmish for a brief while - will proclaim its silent victory. But the time is not yet, so let us enter the skirmish.

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