The Experience of Temporal Passage
Frischhut (Akiko M.)
Source: PhD Thesis (Glasgow / Geneva), 10th October 2012
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Abstract1

  1. In this thesis I analyse the notion of temporal passage and whether we could infer that time passes from experience. The thesis is divided into two parts.
  2. The first part is the metaphysical part, which provides the basis for what I argue in the second part. I argue that McTaggart’s paradox against the coherence of temporal passage is based upon and requires a view of time according to which all times exist (A-eternalism), and where temporal passage is conceived as relational change of terms in the time-series with regards to past-, present- and future- properties (A-properties). I reconstruct McTaggart’s paradox as an ontological regress of relational changes, and provide a limited defence of the paradox within the framework of McTaggart’s understanding of time and temporal passage. I then claim that if we understand temporal passage differently, namely as coming into existence simpliciter and going out of existence simpliciter, or ‘absolute becoming’, the paradox can be avoided. I show that this view is best accommodated by presentism, the view that only the present exists. The conclusion of part one is that temporal passage should be understood as absolute becoming of times within a presentist framework.
  3. In the second part of the thesis I argue against a frequently found (but rarely explicitly analysed) argument, which states that we can infer from the experience of temporal passage that time really passes, because the fact that time passes is the best explanation for having experiences of temporal passage. I argue that the argument fails because we either cannot experience temporal passage at all, or not in a way that allows us to infer that time passes from experience. I begin by discussing different types of experiences that one might confuse with experiences of temporal passage. I then argue that the only experience that could be best explained by the fact that time passes would be a perceptual experience of events undergoing absolute becoming. I then assess the claim that we can perceptually experience the absolute becoming of events, or A-change, in the light of three major accounts of temporal perception: the ‘Memory Theory’, the ‘Retentional Theory’ and the ‘Extensional Theory’. I argue that memory based accounts do not allow for experiences of A-change because they deny that we can have, strictly speaking, perceptual experiences of change in general. The retentional theory does not allow for experiences of A-change as A-change. Hence, given the retentional theory of temporal perception, we cannot infer that time passes from experience. The problem with the extensional theory of temporal perception is that it is metaphysically incompatible with presentism and therefore with absolute becoming. I explore two non-standard forms of presentism that are, prima facie, compatible with the Extensional Theory, ‘Compound Presentism’ and ‘Simple Presentism’. Compound Presentism turns out to be incoherent. The extensional theory and Simple Presentism might be compatible, but the combination of these views would not allow us to perceptually represent absolute becoming either. In the last section I defend my argument against two objections, one involving ‘high level properties’, and one involving ‘present-as-absent’ representation in experience. I conclude that we cannot infer from experience that time passes.

Author’s Abstract2
  1. My dissertation offers an analysis of the notion of temporal passage and of the argument that we can know that time passes from experience. It brings two results:
    1. Temporal passage requires a non-eternalist theory of time and can only be coherently analysed in terms of absolute becoming.
    2. We cannot experience temporal passage, at least not in a way that allows us to infer that time really passes.
  2. The dissertation is divided into two parts, where the first part, about the metaphysics of temporal passage, provides the basis for what is argued about the experience of temporal passage in the second part.
    • Chapters two to four focus on McTaggart’s paradox and the question whether the notion of temporal passage is logically and metaphysically coherent. This is important for the continuation to part two of the thesis, for if passage was not a coherent notion, then any further debate as to whether or not we can know that time passes from experience would be redundant.
    • Chapter three offers a novel reconstruction of McTaggart’s paradox as a vicious ontological regress of relational changes, providing a limited defence of McTaggart’s argument within the framework of an A-eternalist understanding of time and temporal passage.
    • Chapter five suggests that the paradox can be avoided if passage is understood in terms of coming into existence simpliciter and going out of existence simpliciter, or ‘absolute becoming’, best accommodated within a presentist framework.
  3. In the second part of the thesis I argue against a frequently found (but rarely explicitly analysed) argument, the ‘Argument from Experience’ (AfE), which states that we can infer from the experience of temporal passage that time really passes because the fact that time passes is the best explanation for having experiences of passage.
    • Chapter six gives a formulation and analysis of AfE and evaluates possible objections. It is suggested that the best objection is to deny that we can have experiences of passage in the first place.
    • Chapter seven specifies that for AfE to work, the content of an experience of passage must be best explained by the fact that time passes. It is then argued that this is only the case for perceptual experiences of events undergoing absolute becoming. The chapter also introduces the notion of ‘A-change’, which is constituted by events undergoing absolute becoming such that A-change occurs if and only if there is an event E1 (Fa at t1) which ceases to exist, and a qualitatively distinct event E2 (Ga at t2), coming into existence.
    • Chapter eight applies these results to the debate of temporal perception: among the major accounts of temporal perception, is there (at least) one account that can accommodate perceptual experiences of A-change in a way that allows us to infer that there is A-change, and thus absolute becoming, i.e. passage? The answer I give is negative. Memory based accounts do not allow for experiences of A-change because they deny that we can have, strictly speaking, perceptual experiences of change in general. Retentional theories do not allow for experiences of A-change as A-change. In other words, given the retentional theory, we could not distinguish between experiences of A-change and experiences of B-change, where B-change merely requires qualitative variation of properties over time but not passage. The problem with the extensional theory of temporal perception is that it is metaphysically incompatible with presentism and therefore with absolute becoming. Two non-standard forms of presentism are explored that are, prima facie, compatible with the extensional theory, ‘Compound Presentism’ (taken from Barry Dainton) and ‘Simple Presentism’. Compound Presentism and Simple Presentism are both views according to which the present time is temporally extended. Compound Presentism turns out to be incoherent. Whether Simple Presentism and the extensional theory of temporal perception cohere, depends on further commitments such as distributional properties. Setting these problems aside, it is argued that even if both, Simple Presentism and the extensional theory of temporal perception were true, we could not perceptually represent absolute becoming.
    • Chapter eight finishes with a response to two objections against my argument that we cannot experience temporal passage, one involving ‘high level properties’, and one involving ‘present-as-absent’ representation in experience. AfE fails because we either cannot experience temporal passage at all, or not in a way that allows us to infer that time passes from experience.

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In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: Footnote 2:

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