- Attempts to meddle with the past are futile. While this nugget of folk wisdom serves as a respectable guide to action, its utility is standardly conceived as arising from the general inability of anything to influence the past. This explanation, though, oversimplifies the complex architecture of fact and fiction responsible for the reasonableness of not trying to affect the past. It makes little genuine progress in understanding the asymmetry of influence because it fails to distinguish two significantly different kinds of explanation.
- The first kind appeals to the fixity of the past as a strict, fundamental, metaphysical or scientific fact that guarantees the inefficacy of all attempts at past-directed influence.
- The second kind of explanation says that in virtue of the reasonableness of the folk wisdom, we interpret ‘influence’ in a way that ignores those senses in which the past can be influenced so that “nothing can affect the past” is rendered true largely by definition.
- A fruitful analogy1 is the concept of solidity.
- One might say the reason it is useful to treat a boulder as if it were solid is because the boulder really is solid.
- But this platitude does not distinguish the false explanation that boulders are solid through and through from the true explanation that, although the boulder mostly consists of empty space between its atoms, its chemical bonds give rise to a cluster of complex macro-properties like rigidity and impenetrability that make it effectively solid for most ordinary practical purposes. Taking ‘solid’ to denote this imprecise cluster of imprecise properties makes it literally true that the boulder is solid by discounting respects in which the boulder is not solid.
- One strategy for explaining the folk wisdom that affecting the past is futile follows the first kind of explanation by arguing that it is in the nature of time or somehow built into the universe’s fundamental structure that the past is fixed or that any lawful dependence of the past on the present is not genuine influence. The strategy advocated in this chapter elaborates on one version of the second kind of explanation. Rather than the fixity of the past being a foundational metaphysical fact, there are numerous respectable senses in which the past can be influenced. Yet, because of a complex assortment of conceptual and physical relations, past-directed influence, also known as ‘backward’ influence, turns out to be critically different from future-directed influence in its practical impact. Our ordinary conceptualization of reality incorporates this pragmatic asymmetry by counting only the future-directed influence as genuine influence. Using the second kind of explanation is arguably preferable because it posits less metaphysical baggage and — more important — clarifies intricate connections between influence, causation, time, and chance, better than in accounts of the first kind.
For the full text, see Kutach - The Asymmetry of Influence.
- I’m deeply suspicious of this analogy.
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