Smart and Tensed Beliefs

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  • 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.

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  • 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