Sunday, May 23, 2004

On the Spatial and Temporal Limitations of Life

Our lives have definite limits both in space and in time. At any given time, my body occupies a vanishingly small portion of space, and if one were to plot my path over time, the resulting space-time ‘trajectory’ would pass through an exceedingly small number of spatiotemporal positions. And yet my spatial limitations do not bother me. What bothers me is that my life is approaching a temporal limit. Setting aside questions of a possible survival of bodily death, this temporal limit looms as a sort of calamity, unlike my spatial limits which I accept with equanimity. It bothers me that my life will not extend much beyond three score and ten, but it bothers me not at all that my height does not extend beyond 6' 1". I suspect that this difference in attitude, the difference between dread at coming to an end in time, and equanimity at coming to an end in space, is shared by most of us. If the difference in attitude is justified, it would seem to point to a fundamental difference between spatial and temporal limits, and thus between space and time.

Yet not everyone sees it this way. Lanza del Vasto writes, “We are not as high or as broad as the mountains: has it ever come into our heads to complain? Why then complain of having a limit in time?” (Principles and Precepts of the Return to the Obvious, Schocken, 1974, p. 33.) Del Vasto seems to be suggesting that the difference in attitude toward our spatial and temporal limits is not justified, and that there is no fundamental difference between the two sorts of limit.

Del Vasto’s view makes sense if we think of space-time as a four-dimensional manifold of which time is one of the dimensions. To think in this way is to assimilate time to space by thinking of times other than now as existent, just as we think of places other than here as existent. No one thinks that only events occurring here exist while events occurring elsewhere do not exist; why not then think of events earlier and later than the present as just as real, just as existent, as events occurring in the present? To think in this way is to think of past events as events earlier than present events, future events as events later than present events, and present events as events simultaneous with one another. What this amounts to is a replacement of pastness, presentness, and futurity, conceived of as nonrelational temporal attributes, with the relations, earlier than, simultaneous with, and later than. In the terminology of McTaggart, it amounts to a reduction of A-properties to B-relations and a concomitant reduction of the A-series (events as ordered by the A-properties of pastness, presentness, and futurity) to the B-series (events as order by the
B-relations of earlier than, simultaneous with, and later than.)

Suppose we say that a B-theorist is someone who asserts that, at ontological bottom, all there is to time is the B-series. The B-theory implies that there is no temporal becoming. Future events do not become present, recede into the past, and then become ever more past. There is no absolute NOW to which events approach, and from which they recede. There is no temporal dynamism: all events are fixed in their relations to one another in a static four-dimensional block universe. Thus, if E1 is later than E2, E1 is alway later than E2. The ontological corollary of this lack of temporal dynamism is that all events are equally existent. Hence, on the B-theory, nothing comes into existence, or passes out of existence. A sort of temporal/ontological egalitarianism reigns: each event exists equally at its position in the four-dimensional space-time manifold. Since no time has the temporal privilege of being NOW absolutely, no time (or object or event at that time) has the ontological privilege of existing in a way that past and future times and events do not exist. Existence cannot be identified with temporal presentness, for the simple reason that, on the B-theory, there is no irreducible nonrelational property of temporal presentness. Since nothing can gain or lose temporal presentness, nothing can gain or lose existence. It follows that the existence I fear losing in the future is an illusion: I will not lose existence in the future (i.e., at some time later than the time of this keystroke) any more than I lose existence where my feet end and the floor begins. No doubt, my existence is temporally limited: I do not exist at all times. But why should this bother me if I am not bothered by the fact that I do not exist at all places?

Therefore, if the B-theory is true, then Del Vasto is right, and there is no justification for different attitudes about ending in space and ending in time. Indeed, Del Vasto is right only if the B-theory is true. Therefore, the question whether he is right is equivalent to the question whether the B-theory is true. If, on the other hand, the B-theory is false, and time is not exhausted by the B-series, so that there is an absolute moving Now that confers existence on events, then Del Vasto is wrong, and we are justified in feeling differently about ending in space and ending in time. For if the last event in the sequence of events comprising my life is getting ever closer to the
moving NOW, then, when this last event becomes present, the NOW as it were confers existence upon it. That’s the good news. The bad news is that this moving NOW as MOVING, “giveth but also taketh away”: it confers existence on the last event in my life only take it away again in the next moment. The moving NOW, in the process of creating destroys. So, given that my life is concentrated in its last event (since all the earlier events no longer exist), when that last
event passes out of existence, I pass out of existence. And that is precisely what I dread. The A-theorist’s answer to Del Vasto, therefore, must be that at my temporal limit, I cease to exist, while at my spatial limits I continue to exist in the sense that all the other spatial points that I occupy continue to exist. Time, unlike space, has something to do with existence: X exists if and only if X has the temporal property of presentness, a property whose exemplification is, unfortunately, ever shifting. The NOW of our experience is a nunc movens; I myself would prefer a nunc stans, a standing NOW. But that is just to say that I would prefer eternity over time, real eternity, not that miserable substitute that Nietszche serves up under the title, das ewige Wiederkehr des Gleichen.

To sum up. Most of us feel differently about our spatial and temporal limits. This feeling is veridical, revelatory of reality, only if the B-theory is false and the A-theory is true. To credit this feeling, therefore, is to commit ourselves to the A-theory. For the feeling, if taken seriously as a veridical feeling, entails certain very general facts about the world. This leads me to a very interesting metaphilosophical conclusion: ordinary feelings and attitudes commit us to metaphysical positions. This is of course distinct from saying that these feelings and attitudes provide evidence for these positions.

Metaphysics, like philosophy generally, is unavoidable. The only question is whether or not we will have a consciously and rigorously articulated metaphysics, or instead one that remains an uncritically accepted tacit presupposition.