Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Augustine and the Measure of Time (Part III)

If time is not something mental, then we would have to give some reason for considering it as something more than a measure. The basic Augustinian point, however, would still remain, since our only way of measuring time out is purely mental (and, for any given time, purely present). This raises some interesting questions if we apply it to the A-series and B-series perspectives. Both would have to regard temporal measurement as being carried out entirely by mental operations in the present. We have no instruments for directly measuring temporal variation; even clocks only present regular motions for comparison with other motions, and the 'time' dimension of clocks is measured out by mental remembering, attending, and expecting. We have no acquaintance with temporal differences outside these mental operations.

Does this mean, then that the A-series view is right in putting all the emphasis on the existential priority of the present? Some might argue that, inasmuch as all time is measured only in the present, the present clearly has a certain degree of priority. However, Augustine's position, as was noted above, is perfectly congenial to a tenseless view that makes all times to be on a level, and simply holds that times only are inasmuch as they are when they are present. Time's being measured in the present only means that to have a measure we must be able to attend to it, and operation which marks out the present as a measure of the way in which things are ('present' marks out those things that are present to us). As some proponents of a tenseless view of time have noted, the A-series measures of past, present, and future can be accounted for in terms of belief or mental attitude; and this, in fact, is precisely what Augustine does.

On such a note one might be tempted to say that the Augustinian position leads us right into a B-series position. However, the tenseless proponent has to deal with the moment-bound status of our measurements. If we only are able to measure out the extesnion fo a time interval at some particular time t, then the tensed proponents seem to be onto something when they claim that we start with the present, to which alone we have direct access. This, too, is precisely what Augustine does.

All this is just to say that Augustine's argument doe snot require us to hold either an A-seris or a B-series view of time. The argument goes a little deeper, however, inasmuch as it raises questions for either side--and what is more, precisely the sorts of intuitive questions either side raises against the other. Perhaps more importantly, it shows tha tour measuring 'devices', i.e., our mental operations, with regard to time, do not give us any real clue as to the existence of anything in the world that is either tensed or tenseless. If the A-series or B-series proponents wish to argue that their view indicates something ontological about the world, independently of the manner in which we measure motion in the world, they have to answer the question, "How do we have access to this ontological something independently of the measuring operations of the mind?" For the measuring operations of the mind, if Augustine's position holds, would not seem to bias us one way or the other.

This suggest that there may be a third position, falling into neither the A-series camp nor the B-series camp. On this position the things of the world are neither tensed nor tenselessly time-indexed. Rather, they are potentially measured in either of these ways--they are not themselves tensed, but only tensible, not in themselves time-indexed, but only time-indexable. On such a position, the A-series and the B-series are just two methods of measurement that pick up on different features of this capability for measurement. Their truth-value differences, in turn, would be differences relative to the method of measurement. The two woul be indicating precisely the same reality in differnet vocabularies, and the dispute would then be largely a matter of talking past each other. I say 'largely' because it would still be possible to claim that one is a better method of measurement than the other; but on this position that would be the strongest claim that either side could make. Such a position has the advantage that it does not require a further step beyond Augustine's point about measurement, but simply holds that, as far as considerations about the ontological status of time go, that is as far as anyone need take it.

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