Sunday, July 21, 2013

A Short Look At William Lane Craig's "Refutations" Of The B-Theory Of Time


Over at the website Closer To Truth, which is a site about an agnostic who goes around interviewing philosophers and scientists to try to find answers to the biggest and deepest mysteries of the meaning of existence and the universe, there is a profile of William Lane Craig. In it, they summarize his arguments against the tenseless theory of time. I want to quickly address them here.

Craig's done his homework to try to put this theory to rest, but I think he ultimately fails. I'm not going to go into detail here, but I will add a few thoughts how I think each of his refutations are ultimately baseless.


I. Arguments for the Tensed Theory of Time

A. Tensed sentences, which can neither be translated into synonymous tenseless sentences nor be given tenseless, token-reflexive truth conditions, correspond, if true, to tensed facts.

Craig here is making the case that since our language is constructed around tensed perception (e.g. before, during, and after), then it means the tensed theory of time is likely true. But this is baseless. Yes languages make temporal distinctions, but linguistic social constructs like tensed words do not dictate what the ultimate physical nature of time is, and function merely as a pretense to the tensed theory of time. Under a tenseless of time, we can still use tensed language out of convenience and practicality.

B. The experience of temporal becoming, like our experience of the external world, is properly regarded as veridical.

Our perception of all kinds of things are intuitively based on our limited knowledge and our subjective experiences of the world. Craig here relies so heavily on his intuition, as he often does, but science has shown us time and time again that our intuition and perception of reality is not sufficient to understand it. That's why we need science to understand how it really is.


II. Refutation of Arguments against the Tensed Theory of Time

A. McTaggart’s celebrated paradox is based upon the misguided marriage of a tenseless ontology of events or things with objective temporal becoming, as well as the unjustified assumption that there should exist a unique, complete description of reality.

McTaggart's paradox can be summed up with the following argument:

1. Future, present and past are incompatible properties, but
2. in time every event appears to possess them all, and
3. these two propositions entail the contradiction that events have incompatible properties.

I think what Craig may be saying here is that an event's properties are time dependent, as a tensed theory would entail, but that McTaggart is holding a tensed view of events to a standard that is best explained in a tenseless view of events where all events are ontologically equal and thus a completed description of reality is found. My rejection of the tensed view is not based on any paradoxical semantic argument, whether it is well founded or not, it is on the data we get from physics that lean towards the tenseless view being true.

B. The passage of time is not a myth, but a metaphor for objective temporal becoming, a notion which can be consistently explicated on a presentist metaphysic.

But presentism cannot explain the relativity of simultaneity and the equations of special relativity and quantum mechanics. Physicist Paul Davies notes, “Nothing in known physics corresponds to the passage of time.” This is why most physicists and a large percentage of philosophers see time in the tenseless view. "We do not really observe the passage of time" Davies writes, "what we actually observe is that later states of the world differ from earlier states that we still remember. The fact that we remember the past, rather than the future, is an observation not of the passage of time bit of the asymmetry of time."*


III. Refutation of Arguments for the Tenseless Theory of Time

A. Temporal becoming is compatible with Relativity Theory if we reject space-time realism in favor of a neo-Lorentzian interpretation of the formalism of the theory.

There has been a lot of buzz in the blogosphere over Craig's adoption of the neo-Lorentzian interpretation of special relativity. Here's what the critics are saying: it's unverifiable and therefore unfalsifiable. The neo-Lorentzian view of SR tries to sneak in an objective reference time frame that the tensed theory presumes by positing some kind of undetectable metaphysical "aether." Oddly, since Craig is often quite fond of appealing to authority to make his argument, here he ignores the vast majority of physicists and adopts a tiny minority view of SR mainly on theological grounds and the accusation that scientists have given way to positivism and verificationism. He apparently expects scientists to gleefully embrace metaphysical claims that are theologically motivated and that cannot be verified like he does.

B. Time as it plays a role in physics is a pale abstraction of a richer metaphysical reality, omitting indexical elements such as the "here" and the "now" in the interest of universalizing the formulations of natural laws.

In the tenseless theory of time, every moment of time is stretched out in a 4D block universe, or a spacetime "manifold" as Craig is fond of calling it. So no moment in time is "privileged" in the way the tensed theory of time makes it. Craig's objection seems to be largely aesthetic due to the diminished significance of the present moment, and his feelings that this dilutes metaphysical reality. But "here" and "now" still exist in the block universe, they are just relative to other points in the block which determine its "hereness" and "nowness."


IV. Arguments against the Tenseless Theory of Time

A. In the absence of objective distinctions between past, present, and future, the relations ordering events on the tenseless theory are only gratuitously regarded as genuinely temporal relations of earlier/later than.

It is true that temporal relations would be relative to other points in time that also exist ontologically. Time is more like a physical coordinate in the block universe under the tenseless theory. It seems however, like this is another objection based on semantics and linguistics.

B. The claim that temporal becoming is mind-dependent is self-defeating, since the subjective illusion of becoming involves itself an objective becoming in the contents of consciousness.

Here Craig tries to offer us a knock down defeater to the tenseless theory. I don't quite understand how experiencing a "becoming" subjectively, necessarily entails an objective becoming in the contents of consciousness. I'd need him to flesh out this objection a little more for me to sink my meat hooks into. But any conscious experience would be subject to the block universe as everything else would.

C. The tenseless theory entails perdurantism, the doctrine that objects have spatio-temporal parts, a view which is metaphysically counter-intuitive, incompatible with moral accountability, and entails the bizarre counterpart doctrine of transworld identity.

OK here Craig makes a number of points. In a block universe, objects would have spatio-temporal parts similar to coordinates in a 3 dimensional grid. In Craig's world it seems nothing can exist that isn't intuitively obvious. That's his main problem. Physics tells us many things are counter-intuitive: evolution is not intuitive, time dilation and length contraction are not intuitive, and nothing in quantum mechanics is intuitive. The moral accountability that Craig needs to exist is one in which we are free agents held accountable to god. A block universe does have moral implications because everything you do and think is fixed. But this is a false dilemma, because the kind of moral accountability Craig is requiring is dependent on theism being true, which the tenseless theory on time is not generally compatible with. Even absent a tenseless theory on time, things like mental illness, sociopathy, psychopathy and genetic predispositions for violent behavior can successfully nullify the god hypothesis with respect to their incompatibility with a loving deity. And if transworld identity is bizarre, (the idea that objects can exist in more than one possible world simultaneously) then Craig has to explain why this is not bizarre for god, who's suppose to live in all possible worlds.

D. The tenseless theory is theologically objectionable, since its claim that God and the universe co-exist tenselessly is incompatible with a robust doctrine of creatio ex nihilo.

The fact that the tenseless theory of time is not compatible with theism's creation story is precisely why it can be used as a great argument against religions like Christianity and Islam. But to be fair, Craig's arguments here are intended for a theistic audience so of course he appeals to their desire to maintain a plausible outlook for god. But I as an atheist need not worry, as Craig's point here outlines for the atheist why the tenseless view on time is so damaging to the theistic worldview.

* Davies, Paul (September 2002). "That Mysterious Flow" Scientific American 287 (3): PP. 82-86.

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