Smart and Tensed Beliefs

  • Published on

  • View

  • Download

Embed Size (px)


  • Smart and Tensed Beliefs

    Vasilis Tsompanidis

    Received: 30 December 2008 /Revised: 17 May 2009 /Accepted: 22 June 2009 /Published online: 18 July 2009# The Author(s) 2009. This article is published with open access at

    Abstract The aim of this paper is to defend a prototype B-theory answer toMcTaggarts Puzzle about Time. Smart hopes to solve the issue by pointing to theanthropocentricity of temporal A-notions. There is one important problem: explainingPrior cases (for instance being relieved that a painful experience is over) in B-theoreticterms. First, it is argued that the problem is how to explain the nature of the subjectstensed belief in Prior cases; the essential indexicality of the concept now. Then it issuggested that Smart could utilize Burges framework for dealing with de re beliefsand a way of formalizing tensed beliefs is proposed. The last section of the paper dealswith the exact role of the formalized indexical element. If these three steps are workedout, we might have an explanation of the facts involved in Prior cases withoutmentioning any A-facts. Hence an important problem to a Smart-influenced B-theoryis solved, and McTaggarts Puzzle answered in an adequate manner.

    Keywords Time . Tensed beliefs . Smart . Indexicals . Perry . Burge . Here . Now


    At the beginning of the 20th century, J. McTaggart presented the most prominentargument in twentieth century philosophy of time that purported to prove that time isunreal. According to McTaggart:

    Positions in time, as time appears to us prima facie, are distinguished in twoways. Each position is Earlier than some and Later than some of the otherpositions. [] In the second place, each position is either Past, Present, orFuture. The distinctions of the former class are permanent, while those of thelatter are not. If M is ever earlier than N, it is always earlier. But an event,which is now present, was future, and will be past1.

    These are the famous A-series and B-series notions, where the A-series of eventsis given by the descriptions past, present and future, while the B-series is

    Philosophia (2010) 38:313325DOI 10.1007/s11406-009-9217-1

    1McTaggart (1927), pp. 9-10

    V. Tsompanidis (*)Philosophy Department, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA, USAe-mail:

  • strictly in terms of the relational concepts earlier, later, as well as simultaneouswith. McTaggarts argument proceeds to claim:

    (M1) there can be no time unless it has a dynamic element (that is, on his view,unless there is an A-series) and(M2) there can be no A-series, because the supposition that there is an A-seriesleads to contradiction. Hence(C) Time is unreal.

    This is a very rudimentary formulation ofMcTaggarts claims, leaving out most of hisarguments for M1 and M2. However, it is useful for the ensuing discussion, as the mostusual way to block the conclusion is to deny one of the two premises. For instance, aB-theorist about time would use something like the following thesis to deny M1:

    The B-property thesis: There are no genuine A-properties; talk that appears tobe about the possession of A-properties by times, events or things can becorrectly analyzed in terms of B-relations among those entities.

    The additional details of McTaggarts arguments will not concern us at the moment.What will concern us is the answer to McTaggarts view of time given by J. J. C. Smartin his (1963) article The Space-Time World. Smart disagrees with McTaggartsdescription of change in events and, consequently, (M1). He wishes to show that theA-series does not represent anything fundamental about the world as it is. In his view,the B-series is the primary and perfectly real one; he is the quintessential B-theorist.

    Smarts starting point and overarching idea is that the A-notions are anthropo-centric, in a way similar to the Aristotelian view of the universe that prevailed beforethe Copernican revolution in Astronomy. Let us present his positions as they areprogrammatically stated in the beginning of his paper (1963, p.295):

    S1. A-notions have significance relative only to human thought and utterance.They do not apply to the universe as such.S2. Tenses contain a similar hidden anthropocentricity.S3. B-notions do not.The following positions are also clearly stated in his (1963):S4. The world is a four-dimensional continuum of space-time entities.S5. There is no change in the actual world.S6. Truth-conditional analysis: Take statement A: e is happening nowuttered at tu. Then an utterance u of A is true iff e HAPPENS at tu. Similarly forall tensed statements like A. {verbs in capitals are tenseless}S7. Token Reflexivity: An utterance u of now means the time of thisutterance, and an utterance of A means: e HAPPENS at the time of thisutterance. Similarly for all tensed statements like A.S8. Eliminability of tense: Tenses of our ordinary language are to be analyzedaway, since tensed sentences are equivalent to some tenseless sentence.

    Here is one interpretation of Smarts argument against M1: The token-reflexivity oftensed sentences (S7) plus the eliminability of tense (S8) leads almost straightforwardlyto the position that present-ness (or past-ness or future-ness) is in the mind of theobserver and could not exist without people or language. In this case there would be noutterances to fix the meaning of the term now, on which the notion of the past depends.

    314 Philosophia (2010) 38:313325

  • This is how Smart thinks that he can reveal the hidden anthropocentricity of the A-seriesnotions and hence support his S1 and S2.2 B-notions, on the other hand, do not haveany such anthropocentricity (S3). And if S4 is correct, to describe the world as it reallyis (or, less strongly, as science depicts it), we do not need the A-series at all. Followingclaims S1 to S4, together with S5 (change does not really exist), McTaggartsargument can be seen as a pseudo-problem, and the notion of events changing(becoming past or present) as an illusion forced upon us by the inefficiency ofordinary language3. We seem to have an intuitive argument against McTaggarts (M1).

    Do we need to buy all of Smarts positions to formulate a similar intuitiveargument against (M1)? The worry is that some of them are not at all intuitive. Forinstance, the most unintuitive position that Smart presents is the eliminativist claimabout change (S5). But the same argument would go through if we replaced (S5)with the slightly weaker perdurantist claim: (S5) change is just difference betweentime slices of four-dimensional solids. Similarly, even though claims (S2) and (S6)are quite plausible, it does not follow that it would be plausible to argue for a widelyeliminativist view of tenses as meaningful constructs (Smarts S8). Besides beingused widely by everyone, it looks like they also have significance towards ouractions and, consequently, the world as a whole. I think therefore that the correctpath of a B-theorist would be to try to explain tensed talk in some way and avoid, atleast at the outset, the more extreme eliminativist position. But if we manage toexplain tenses and temporal notions in a way that avoids using A-notions, while atthe same time revealing in a different way their hidden anthropocentricity, we cankeep Smarts (S1) and thereby retain his rejection of McTaggarts (M1). Similarly,even though his S7 has been widely attacked as a wrong theory about meaning, it isrelevant only to the extent that Smart uses it to argue for the anthropocentricity of A-notions. So if we can replace it with a semantic theory about tenses that is free oftoken-reflexivity problems,4 and manage to reveal the anthropocentricity in adifferent way, we will have a steadier ground to argue for a B-theory of time.


    Even after these possible modifications, however, there is a set of cases describingconcerns about time that escape Smarts easy classification as essentially involvingonly B-properties. Here are just two of them:

    Case 1 the Prior Problem5:

    I am getting off the dentists chair after a particularly painful root canal. Being averseto pain, I am thinking the thought R: I am relieved that my root canal is over.

    2 Tensed verbs contain the same anthropocentricity, as they can be seen as just coupling the verbsmeaning with a specific A-notion.3 This is because (M1) suggests that we need the A-series to account for change in events.4 For instance we could use Salmons (2003) theory about tenses that keeps tenseless propositions, thusgiving Smart a step towards arguing for the anthropocentricity of tenses. I do not wish to indicate that thisissue is an easy task- for instance I find Q. Smiths criticisms in his (1993) very persuasive. However, Ithink that in the best case these criticisms leave the issue unsettled, rather than delivering the mortal blowto the B-theorist.5 From Richard (2003) based on Priors example in his (1959).

    Philosophia (2010) 38:313325 315315

  • Case 2:

    I am an absent-minded graduate student who wakes up relatively late one morningfor class. I am thinking the thought C: The class is starting now. Consequently, Idecide to run faster to catch the bus and the last part of the class.

    In both cases I seem to use an A-notion to describe a feeling about an A-property (thepast-ness of my root canal or the present-ness of my class start). A B-theory wouldhave to explain how I come to have such an attitude if M1 is false and times cannothave A-properties. In case 2 the problem is more acute, as I seem to act on my belief,so there are robust consequences of a tensed belief that the B-theorist should explainwithout resorting to A-notions. The heirs of McTaggart in contrast could theorize thatthe action results from either a conscious deliberation on an A-fact or an apprehensionof an A-property, thus having a first step to defend (M1). Hence, the B-theorist needsan explanation in both cases. Why am I relieved in case 1? Why do I run in case 2?Smart has a more particular problem since it looks like his S1 is in direct jeopardy: itappears that A-notions do in fact have significance relative to actions and thus theuniverse. He would thus need a B-theoretic explanation of both cases to argue that A-notions have significance relative only to human thought and utterance.

    In a trivial sense the B-theorist can explain what is going on in these two cases bypointing to the tensed belief as the direct cause of my actions, as Mellor (1998) does.In case 1, I am relieved because {I believe that my root canal was over}. In case 2, Irun because {I believe that the class is starting now}. I am very sympathetic toMellors account of the problem. The cause of the subjects action in Prior cases isuncontroversially the relevant belief that the subject has. This is not just a technicaldetail in the case; it is something that the A-theorist is forced to accept. Not only isthis because there are complicated counterexamples where the action does not occurwhen the subject is seriously mistaken about the temporal order of things; it isbecause everyone would agree that in the absence of the relevant beliefs, the agentwill not take the action she usually takes. Now the A-theorist cannot proceed to thestrong claim that A-facts are required as causes of action in Prior cases. Even if A-facts existed in the world, the dialectic would go, an agents action could be fullyexplained without mentioning them. I take it that this highlights an elementary andcorrect point: the primary cause of an action in a Prior case is an A-belief.6

    However, Mellors account is not satisfactory for the purposes of this paper.For onething, a trivial explanation is not a full explanation at all. Even if we agree with Mellorsargument for the importance of tensed beliefs, what we absolutely need as B-theorists isa positive account of their emergence. In addition, we need a clear and correctexplanation of the precise content of a true now-belief (e.g. the belief, when true, thatmy class is starting now). But Mellor does not give us such an account. In short, we

    6 This point might seem controversial because it is plausibly argued that reasons for acting in thestraightforward cases are facts and not beliefs (for instance in Hyman 1999). But even under this view,beliefs are utilized to explain defective cases where the facts alone cannot explain the action taken; so if A-facts do not exist, we can still give a (now ubiquitous) belief-based explanation (I am indebted to MarkosValaris about this point). Moreover, I think that there might be some room to argue that there is adifference between reasons to act and direct causes of actions, which can be treated (per Davidson) asessentially belief and desire pairs, thereby pushing back the need of an A-fact.

    316 Philosophia (2010) 38:313325

  • need a new argument to (i) explain the now-ish part of the content of a tensed beliefand (ii) reveal the hidden anthropocentricity of A-notions. We also have two over-arching constraints: (i) our account should not use or involve A-notions and (ii) itshould be consistent with, if not conducive to, Smarts main tenets (S1S6).

    It is clear that Smarts token-reflexivity analysis S7 will not help in explaining thesituation, as I might not have uttered anything in any of the two cases. Since themeaning analysis of S7 centers in utterances, it cannot easily explain unutteredthoughts. Neither will a possible date-theoretic alternative analysis of the meaning of

    () e is happening now as something like(): e HAPPENS (at t),

    where (at t) would be any B-theoretic way to fill out the time of the happening.7 To seewhy, let us suppose in case 2 that I knew all along that my class starts at (tC) however we decide to cash out this time stamp. However, I didnt run until I thought C(The class is starting now). Similarly, I was not relieved that my root canal wasearlier than a time (tR). We can even suppose that I knew all the relevant B-theoreticfacts about my root canal. Intuitively, I was relieved only because it was over, i.e. inthe past. It seems that in both cases I am having irreducibly tensed beliefs. Morespecifically, the relevant content of my beliefs that leads me to action (or relief) has anirreducibly tensed component.

    It seems, however, that we can locate the source of our troubles in a single word:the word now. For instance it seems straightforward that thought R is equivalent tothought R: I am relieved that my root canal was earlier than now. Less strongly, atleast the troubling aspect of the thought that we are trying to explain (the past-nessof the root canal) is the same as in thought R. If this is true, though, it looks like theproblem could be formed in terms of beliefs containing indexical elements (sincenow is one of them).

    But there are well-known problems in the area of indexicals that look similar tothe Prior problem. For instance we can have Perrys case of himself hearing JohnPerry is making a mess without necessarily apprehending that he is making a mess8

    or the following:

    Case 3

    I am abducted from my house in Santa Barbara...


View more >