The past is very important to us. It is where we find the origins of our culture as well as our own roots. There is a whole industry involved in finding out about the past. Bookshops are full of history books. Universities all have history departments. But we can never go back. We shall never know how the flowers smelled in the garden of Epicurus. Everything past is no more; it has fallen into the dark backward and abysm of time. How then do we know anything about it at all? How do we know whether a particular event has even happened? Philosopher Sophie Botros addresses these complex issues in her new book - "Botros (Sophie) - Truth, Time and History: A Philosophical Enquiry". As she considers these matters, she finds herself forced to wonder whether the past exists at all.
- Once we begin to think about it we may be struck by what a queer idea the apparently ordinary idea of the past existing actually is. It’s an idea played on in Orwell’s 1984 when O’Brien2 – an Inner Party member – tries to persuade the hapless everyman – Winston – that the past isn’t set in stone but is infinitely manipulable by present interests. O’Brien asks “Do you really think there exists somewhere or other a place – a world of solid objects – where the past is still happening3?” This disorienting feeling that the past may be a non-entity can even affect our sense of the present. Consider that eerie feeling sometimes elicited by the sound of a ticking clock at the dead of night. Everything is in flux – a relentless succession of present moments endlessly processing toward annihilation4.
- In the first two parts of my book I argue that the past – at least as an independent entity – does not exist5 – that there is only the present.
“The past does not exist independently of the present”.
- To start, I will use a simple thought experiment – I call it the “moving platform” …
Imagine yourself sitting in a room when your friend enters from your left, passes in front of you, and ends up on your right. From a fixed position in space, it seems6 you can track her movements smoothly, continuously from left to right. It is possible to observe a moving object while not oneself being in motion. If we consider time, however, the situation is quite different. There is no analogous freedom in time to remain stationary yourself while your friend moves. The clock continues to tick for all of us. It is as if, when it comes to time, all observers are constrained to remain on a moving platform which is the present – the now. There seems to be a discontinuity here that does not assail space.
- If we object that I can obviously remember how she looked just a moment ago – how she moved her arms and such-like – but these are present memories, and however direct they may seem, are subject to time and change just like any other evidence7. They cannot assure us that past events have stayed unchanged8 while time flows on.
- Realists9 would anyway themselves object to this way of using memory to shore up the past. But they would say it gets things the wrong way round. For them it is past events themselves – by their existence10 – that guarantee(s) the genuineness of our memories, not vice-versa.
- Sceptics might – for the sake of argument – agree with us realists11 that with a present-tensed statement such as “there is a violent rainstorm today” – its truth-conditions – the sheets of rain driving diagonally across the sky, the splashing and thudding of water-drops on the bird-bath – which for us the statement is about – which make it true – are just what we would point to if anyone asked for its meaning.
“There is a violent rainstorm today. Truth conditions: Rain-lashed street. Dark whirling clouds. Raindrops in the birdbath …”
- But take the past-tensed statement “there was a violent rainstorm yesterday”. Here, sceptics will point out, that it is the puddles lying in the street today – our memories today – of yesterday’s rainstorm that we would recognise as supporting the truth of the statement. But realists will protest that they are merely evidence from which we infer yesterday’s rainstorm. They are not what makes it true – that can only be yesterday’s rainstorm. But yesterday’s rainstorm is no longer there for us to point to. It cannot drench us12 – it has vanished for ever.
“There was a violent rainstorm yesterday. Puddles today. Today’s memories of yesterday. Damp coat in the hall today …”
- In order to save the notions of truth and meaning – the sceptic demands that we take the puddles and memories to be themselves13 what the statement is about, what makes it true, what gives it meaning. And we would be indignant. Sceptics have apparently robbed us of the dark whirling clouds, of the raindrops falling in the birdbath … and substituted a pale concoction of present evidence.
“Sceptics demand: That today’s puddles are what the statement “there was a rainstorm yesterday” is about.”
“Sceptics claim ‘There was a rainstorm yesterday” is not about yesterday’s storms … it is about today’s evidence of storms.”
- There is one last stand for realists. We can, they will insist, have a conception of truth conditions independently of any evidence we might have – or even if we have no direct contact with the conditions. The secret – they would say – lies in the truth-value link, a principle of enormous intuitive power that anyone would deny at their peril. Today I am making this video and I know with absolute certainty that “I was making this video a year ago today” will be true in a year’s time. It will be true whatever the conflicting evidence states then.
- It is just conceivable that – suppose some catastrophe – that all our memories had been wiped out, including my own, and that the video was destroyed on completion. The sceptics who are confined to evidence existing then will have therefore to deny this obvious truth.
“Sceptics would have to concede: ‘No memories … no video … mean that Sophie was not making a video a year ago’”
- But the sceptic will reply that you have merely used a rule – the transformation of a present-tensed statement made now into a past-tensed statement envisaged as being made in the future. What makes you suppose that this gives you ingress into the past? Your representing of the past isn’t the past at all. It’s the present; it’s me, making this video, now. You can’t assume that the transformation sanctioned by the truth-value link will hold in the future when we actually arrive there, and so give us access to a past such as it will reveal itself then. The debate is inconclusive. It depends on how we weigh the truth-value link against moving platform considerations which, as we have seen, suggest very strongly that we cannot view other times from some timeless viewpoint other than the present. So we cannot vindicate the truth-value link claim that our true present-tense statement may also serve as a true statement about the past when made in the future.
- In my view, the belief that the past has some independent existence must – in the end – be given up. You might find this a little frightening, but I hope that I’ve persuaded you that trying to keep it gives us – gives philosophers – some problems and in fact getting rid of it solves some outstanding problems.
- So long as we believe in the past as existent we’re unable to resolve a paradox inherent in the almost banal idea of things persisting through change. Consider a green leaf turning brown in autumn. You will agree that it has to be the same leaf that was green that is now brown. If it was a different leaf – a brown leaf – it could not be said to have lost its greenness. But the great philosopher Leibniz14 stipulates – surely incontrovertibly – that a thing cannot be itself and yet have divergent properties. So it seems that the leaf must be the same leaf in order to lose its greenness; but, in order to be the same leaf it must retain its greenness, which is a paradox. Some people will say “well, this is just philosophers’ problems”. Of course things persist within limits, depending on the kind of thing they are. But to this, it will be replied, are you suggesting that it requires less than identity15 to persist?
- These are deep and difficult questions. All I will say here is that in my view identity is an atemporal relation. It cannot accommodate the unidirectionallity of time’s arrow. After much argument, I conclude in my book that the paradox can only be resolved if the leaf’s having been green is accorded less reality than the leaf’s being green now. This leads me finally to demote the past and to conclude that only present things exist.
- But how does this help with the contradiction?
- On one version of presentism, presently existing entities such as the leaf are bearers of past-tensed properties – such as “having been green” – and present-tensed properties – such as “being brown”. The contradiction is apparently resolved because – for presentists – “having been green” is no more like “being green” than “not being green”. But this is difficult to comprehend.
- On another version of presentism, past times are thought of as existing in the present as stories, but this is metaphysically cumbersome.
- My proposal – which accords a crucial role to historians – affirms realism as regards presently-existing objects, including historical texts – the tomes you see lying on bookshelves – but suspends it as regards the non-existent past, which is their subject matter.
“A Realist Present and a Coherentist Past”.
- I’m influenced here by the celebrated philosophers of history – who are also historians in their own right – R. G. Collingwood and Michael Oakeshott – who – being idealists – thought of truth16 as a function of interpretation, not of what actually existed in the past.
A treatment of fictional truth may illuminate. For example, the answer to the question “how can a proposition ‘Romeo loves Juliet’ be true since neither person exists?” It is plausibly replied “because it is actually about Shakespeare’s play, and that does exist.” This reply satisfies the realist demand for an existent truth-maker for the fictional statement, but refuses to follow realists in breaking down the statement into its component parts: subject “Romeo”, object “Juliet”, relation “loves”. Seeking truth-makers for all of them would just be a misunderstanding of literary discourse.
- This is analogous to how I approach a historical text. From one viewpoint it can function as a truth-maker, acceptable to presentists for the claims it contains. For example, “Henry V was the victor of Agincourt” is in my view about the historical text in which it figures. It would be a misunderstanding of historical discourse to insist on breaking this claim down and seeking truth-makers for its component elements. Its content, I suggest, is governed by coherentist principles.
“Historical Texts as Truthmakers”.
- When realists protest “‘Henry V was the victor of Agincourt’ is about a real historical personage and a real battle and that history isn’t fiction or otherwise historians could make up whatever they liked”, I reply “that is not so; historians are held to extremely rigorous standards in interpreting their evidence.” And in any case, how can it possibly help to refer to that shadowy realm that O’Brien mocked, which no historian has ever been able to access, in order to check a single of his conclusions?
- My proposal asks you to respect the text in and for itself, not to look through it. It asks you to assess the coherence of the interpretations – to observe how compendious descriptions such as “The Hundred Years’ War” anticipate their outcome. To note the narrative art that is used in shaping and pacing events, bringing to the past its depth and resonance.
- Historians, I suggest, by both their narrative techniques and their intellectual powers play a crucial role in the creation and construction of the historical past, and perhaps the past more generally.
- This Transcript was arrived at by (repeatedly) listening to (a downloaded copy of) the video. It is hopefully fully accurate.
- Passages uttered by the narrator are indented.
- I’ve made my own decision as to how the text spoken by Sophie Botros should be segmented into paragraphs, though this is usually obvious from the video.
- The transcript cannot recreate the full audio-visual effect. The video is very professionally done, and very helpful as regards understanding the import of the book – "Botros (Sophie) - Truth, Time and History: A Philosophical Enquiry" – as a whole.
- Occasionally clarificatory text appears on-screen in the video. I’ve added this to the transcript – within quotation marks and in italics – where it doesn’t simply repeat what’s been said in the audio.
- The reason I’ve made this transcript is twofold:-
- To check that the audio can be fully heard and understood – which it can be! Occasionally, I couldn’t catch a word or phrase, but managed to iron out all these difficulties with a bit of repeat listening.
- To provide a convenient way of commenting on and criticising the exposition and argument within the video. Of course, serious discussion of the argument must address the text of the book, but this is at least a start in that direction.
- My comments appear as footnotes, and are in general directed towards Sophie rather than the general reader.
- Isn’t O’Brien something of a monster in 1984? A member of the thought police. See Wikipedia: 1984 - O'Brien.
- Isn’t it certain, therefore, that Orwell disagrees with what O’Brien has to say about history. Indeed, Winston Smith (Wikipedia: 1984 - Winston Smith) works in the Ministry of Truth rewriting history to bring it into conformity with the Party’s propaganda message.
- So, is it wise to quote O’Brien and this whole process in support of your case?
- Of course, it is an ad hominem fallacy to object to what is said merely on the basis of who said it, but in this case Orwell seems to suggest that the very idea that “the past … is infinitely manipulable by present interests” be viewed with horror.
- I thought there was an interesting parallel in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Therein, Macbeth makes the famous and demoralising speech on hearing of the suicide of Lady Macbeth …
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
— To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
→ Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17-28)
- Are we supposed to go along with this? Is the fact that it is said by a monster about to get his comeuppance supposed to make us view it as sour grapes, or might this really be Shakespeare’s view, placed in the mouth of a monster for fear of the Jacobean thought police? It is wonderfully expressed, of course, and there are a lot of tropes that resonate with your book.
- Isn’t this a travesty of what eternalists think is the case?
- Isn’t it rather like a video-recording? Video’s aren’t always playing, but could be played by someone with the equipment to do so?
- Now admittedly, this is beyond the powers of human beings in general – and historians in particular. But traditionally past events have been thought to be written in a book – the recording technology of the time – in which everyone’s deeds were recorded, and which God could call to mind … or not … depending on his mercy.
- Have you read "Lebens (Samuel) & Goldschmidt (Tyron) - The Promise of a New Past"? The paper is on-line, available from the link on my page. The credits thank Hud Hudson and Dean Zimmerman for helpful discussions. There’s also a critique of Dummett’s foray into criticism of the Mishnah (actually a rather vague allusion to “Jewish theology”) – which he thinks claims that “it is logically impossible to alter the past, so to utter a retrospective prayer is to mock God by asking Him to perform a logical impossibility”) in his "Dummett (Michael) - Bringing About the Past".
- I came across Sam Lebens when we were research students at Birkbeck. A fellow research student was delivering a paper critical of "Wegner (Daniel) - The Illusion of Conscious Will", and Sam thought the book so obviously wrong it wasn’t worth reviewing. Not that he’d read it; it just disagreed with Sam’s theology.
- I have to say I’ve not felt this, and initially misunderstood what you were saying. It’s the “ticks” or moments that go to oblivion.
- It sounded more like a worry about the inevitability of future doom – and reminiscent of Macbeth’s speech cited above.
- How you feel in the dead of night no doubt reflects your beliefs and preoccupations, rather than being a guide to them.
- Even if we deny that the past exists, this doesn’t imply that what and who existed in the past is identical to the best current evidence for these events and entities.
- Metaphysics is separate from epistemology. More on this later.
- Well, it might seem that you can, but the present – if that’s all that exists – doesn’t allow you to track your friend without relying on memory. Still, almost everyone is agreed that you can stop still in space – at least relative to other objects moving with the same velocity – and take a look around, while the same isn’t true of time – you can’t look at different temporal parts of an object without waiting for time to tick on.
- Of course, you can look back in time and see things across the cosmos as they were billions of years ago; things that will have faded into non-existence during the time it’s taken for light to get from them to us.
- Physicists seem to be agreed that – given special and general relativity – there’s no such thing as a universal present. If you and I are looking at one another, given the finiteness of the speed of light – let alone the sluggishness of our mental processes – what we each see is the image of someone who no-longer exists, if only the present exists. My present is your past, and vice versa.
- Have you read anything by Carlo Rovelli? He’s a bit of a pop star amongst the physicists – the Italian equivalent of Brian Cox. His technical stuff is – like all mathematical physics – inaccessible to non-specialists, and his popular stuff is rather loosely put together philosophically-speaking, but what he believes to be the case with respect to time is summarised in Chapter 13 of "Rovelli (Carlo) - The Order of Time".
- Agreed; but all this says is that our knowledge of the past – such as it is – is always subject to revision, and becomes less and less secure the more remote in time the past events are.
- I agree that nothing can “assure us” that the past is as we remember it or as the current evidence suggests – because – as you rightly say – we can’t go back to check. But the fixedness of the past is one of our strongest intuitions – probably based on the nexus of cause and effect; you can’t tinker with anything without it having a ripple effect; so, if the past had changed, so would the present. Also, what could cause the past to change, if it doesn’t exist?
- Realists about the past. Not the same as “us realists” later on.
- It may be worth remembering that terms like “realist” and “idealist” are technical terms within philosophy, and risk being misunderstood by lay watchers of your video, should there be any.
- Is this so? It’s the past events that caused our memories – even though these memories may now be incorrect; other past and present events affect our memories of particular past events. But do these past events need to still exist to ground this causal chain. Isn’t this just inference to the best explanation?
- Realists about the present, that is.
- It doesn’t seem like much of a claim to be a realist about the present, but it might not even be a coherent notion. Just what do you mean by it? Which segment of time is “the present”? Today? The present instant?
Footnote 13: You make three claims for the statement “There was a violent rainstorm yesterday” vis-à-vis today’s evidence: intentionality (“aboutness”), truth and meaning.
- This reminds me of discussions of computer simulations. A simulation of the weather “cannot drench us”, but can a simulation of the mind think?
- I see a vague parallel here. Yesterday’s weather did drench people. Today’s evidence cannot.
- Intentionality: Our statement is about yesterday’s rainstorm. It’s just not about today’s puddles. Metaphysics just has to make way for this fact, even though we can’t quite make out how it works if the past doesn’t exist – or we might just have to admit that the aboutness must imply that the past must exist somehow. Similarly, Euclid’s thoughts about the equality of the base angles of an equilateral triangle were about that general triangle – an abstract object, not one drawn in the sand.
- Truth: no doubt it depends on your theory of truth. A minimalist theory would just say that the proposition (or statement) that “There was a violent rainstorm yesterday” is true just if there was a violent rainstorm yesterday. This says nothing about puddles, though our rational belief in (the truth of) this statement might do so.
- Meaning: I really don’t buy this. “Rainstorm” means “rainstorm” whenever that rainstorm was. It doesn’t mean “puddle”.
- I don’t think it’s been proved that Leibniz ever stated his Law (the indiscernibility of identicals), but this doesn’t matter because it’s not accepted on his authority when it is.
- It is a very useful principle of synchronic identity and motivates all the discussions about constitution – the statue can’t be identical to its constituting clay because the clay has different modal (and maybe actual) properties to the statue – which can’t survive squashing, though the clay can. All very controversial, of course, and it depends on a belief that some things sometimes persist through time.
- Have you read "Kurtz (Roxanne) - Introduction to Persistence: What’s the Problem?", the introduction to "Haslanger (Sally) & Kurtz (Roxanne), Eds. - Persistence : Contemporary Readings"? It’s available on-line (Kurtz: Introduction to Persistence: What’s the Problem?) and I’ve summarised it and commented on it extensively here.
- In her Introduction, Roxanne Kurtz summarises the debate on Persistence by claiming that there are three non-negotiable theses: Non-contradiction, Change and Persistence which are in tension, especially when supplemented by three further “negotiable theses”: Alteration, Survival and Atemporal Instantiation.
- She does mention philosophers who deny one or other of the non-negotiable theses, but treats them as outside the main debate. I think (agreeing with Kurtz) that denying that some things persist though change does such violence to our common-sense and practical view of the world that giving it up has to be the very last option.
- She also thinks that the various options for the metaphysics of time are orthogonal to issues of persistence, though I wasn’t convinced.
- Well, Derek Parfit notoriously said the “identity is not what matters in survival”.
- I noted that you have no reference to Parfit either in the text or the Bibliography of your book.
- Historical truth only, or all truth?
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2018
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