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Friday, February 15, 2013

Does the Roman Empire Still Exist?

Ask anyone on the street. "Of course not," they will reply (unless they are Philip K. Dick). "That ceased to exist centuries ago."

"How about dinosaurs? Do they exist today?"

"Are you nuts? They went extinct millions of years ago."

"Krakatoa?"

"Well, no, it blew up."

"All right then: Napoleon?"

"Well, if you believe in an immortal soul, perhaps but as a human being: no."

You go on and on like this, for hours. Finally, you say, "So, you then would agree with Oakeshott and me: the past does not exist?"

But no! Even though it is "simple, common sense" to say that all of the things that made up the past no longer exist, apparently it is absurd to note that rather obviously, then, the past, emptied of all those things, has ceased to exist as well. Kekes, in fact, writes, "Oakeshott's view of history... is obscure and often appears to be absurd, as, for instance, in claiming that the past does not exist..."

Apparently, if we wish to avoid "needlessly paradoxical claims," we must believe something equivalent to holding that, while every single dinosaur is gone, somehow "dinosaurs" still exist.

(And to try to weasel out of this by saying that something like the past exists, but just not in the present, is to abuse the present tense of the English language: if something does not exist in the present then we may say it did exist, or it will exist, but not it exists.)

6 comments:

  1. I don't know where I picked this up (I know it wasn't Oakeshott), but I am of the belief that only the present exists. The past is only remembered and/or cataloged, and the future has not yet happened, only the now exists. Whoops, there it goes, now it's gone forever.

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  2. To understand what the other side is saying, you have to distinguish between tensed and tenseless existence. The Roman empire exists tenselessly, but does not exist at every region in the four-dimensional spacetime block.

    When the B-theorist says that "the Roman empire does not exist," what he means is that "the Roman empire does not exist right now"—which in his view, is perfectly analogous to saying "Barack Obama does not exist right here."

    I agree with your presentism, by the way. I just don't think this criticism hits the target.

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  3. Bill Vallicella has written on presentism and anti-presentism and concludes:

    "In my experience, the problems associated with time are the most difficult in all of philosophy."


    http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2010/12/what-is-presentism.html


    I know thinking about time makes my head swim.

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  4. Gene,

    In a response to a question about idealism and evolution you answered:

    "Or there is Berkeley's route: God experiences all of reality, all the time, and was there experiencing it before the first living being arose."

    Couldn't the same argument be used here - the past Roman Empire exists in God's mind?

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    Replies
    1. Interesting, rob: I'm thinking about this.

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  5. Apparently, if we wish to avoid "needlessly paradoxical claims," we must believe something equivalent to holding that, while every single dinosaur is gone, somehow "dinosaurs" still exist.
    You mean something like this in hopes of avoiding this? Which is why when presented with philosophical arguments, the trump card is this.

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