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Tuesday, 25 June 2013

A-ism blues

Last week I was lecturing on A-ist realist alternatives. To be sure, A-ism (the thesis that time is made by events and not merely by a succession of states) is plausible but McTaggart threw a curse on it by being convinced that it makes realism about time impossible. What I always found attractive in A-ist realisms is that they tend to consider reality as filled with points of view, with perspectives, with positions. The relative becomes true and this seems like the way forward to consider alternatives to a plot metaphysics where reality is to be contemplated as a view from nowhere. But if we consider the issue of time alone, it is indeed hard, as McTaggart had it, to be both A-ist and realist. To be sure, realist A-isms would probably be the best way to be realist about events (that ought to be past, present and future but cannot be past, present and future at the same time). As far as time is concerned, however, things look bleaker...

Consider first standard A-ist realism: presentism. This is the thesis according to which only the present time exists. Well, it is at least a bit of time so we are faring better than anti-realism about time. Or are we? The now is either a span of time (with a duration) or a point in time with no duration at all. If it is a span of tie with a duration then obviously the A-series paradoxes come back in their full force and are not dispelled by presentism itself. If it is a point with no duration it is not clear what really we are being realist about - the spectre of McTaggart's unreality of time is back. Now, let's move to neutral or non-standard realisms, as Kit Fine calls them. First, the realist position that gives up the idea that reality is absolute and claims it is relative to a tense perspective (there is past reality, present reality, future reality and no such thing as reality tout court). Well, this seems to be a way to exorcise events. Nothing ever happens as reality is split in a way that nothing turns into something else except when they move from one perspective to another. The A-series itself is not real in any perspective and, as there is no reality beyond perspectives, it is plainly not real. The second form of neutral or non-standard realism is fragmentalism, the position advocated by Kit Fine. Fragmentalism adds a perspective-free layer to reality, an über-reality, composed from the assemblage of the different perspectives. Über-reality is not coherent and it is not indexed in terms of tense. As a consequence, it is a B-ist reality where no event can even take place. In fact, in fragmentalism, there are no events in the realities relative to tense perspectives (as in the first non-standard realist position) and no event in über-reality. It is a type of B-ism (and as such it entails anti-realism about events).

Is there a way out for a realist A-ist? I'm sure there is. Maybe the way forward is to bite the bitterest bullett and swallow the idea that reality is neither absolute nor coherent and never neutral. In other words, take the A-series as face-value and connect reality with a tense position (a position in time) and stop trying to organize the A-series in its allegedly simpler components. Maybe A-ism should start out with a straightforward defense of events and then move on to time as the (real) home for them. Time is not prior but rather is composed by events (and the rhythm of their repetition).

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