Ontological Becoming

Most likely I will follow up on the chain of thought started in the last post, at some point. At the moment, however, this post (and possibly a few more) will be clarifying some earlier questions.

In this post on causality, I said that the discussion of “true ontological becoming” was not really relevant, and it was not. Nonetheless, there is no harm in explaining the point. Atheism and the City is attempting to maintain a position somewhat like that of Parmenides. The theory of relativity leads in a fairly natural way to a view which includes something along the lines of a four dimensional block universe, or an “eternalist” view. Things appear to change, but as Parmenides claims, this is an illusion. Everything already exists. This might be somewhat different from Parmenides insofar as Parmenides seems to assert that differences are pure illusion, while the eternalist view usually says that when you see different times, you are seeing various aspects of the eternally existing reality.

I said in the post on causality that eternalism vs. presentism is an example of a Kantian dichotomy; both positions , to the degree that they are opposed, rest on a misunderstanding of the relationship between the mind and reality. I will not try to prove this in a fully general way at the moment, but show how this is true with a simplified model of reality.

In the first place, if we want to take these positions seriously, neither one should be understood as saying that we do not have the experiences that we do have. You might think that eternalism would deny that we ever experience things changing. But that is not what Atheism and the City (and other eternalists) actually say:

On my view of causality, if you threw a brick at a glass window it would shatter, if you jumped in front of a speeding train you’d be smashed to death by it. The difference between my view of causality vs the typical view is that on my view causes do not bring their effects into existence in the sense of true ontological becoming.

There is no denial of our usual experiences, but rather it is affirmed that we have them. It is the claim about the true nature of things that is different from the claim of the presentist. Both positions admit that we see things like bricks breaking windows and train destroying objects that they hit.

Consider two simplified universes: an eternalist one and a presentist one. In the eternalist universe, suppose that there are three times, a beginning, a middle, and an end, and an observer that watches time pass and knows the nature of their universe. Things appear to change, but they deny that there is “true ontological becoming.” All times, according to them, exist, but they experience them as a sequence.

In the presentist universe, on the other hand, there are still three times, but they exist only in sequence. The observer here passes through time and knows that they do so.

My position is that these are two different descriptions of precisely the same thing, and asking which universe you are in is like asking whether a table is on the right or on the left. Why is this the case? The basic reason is that the network of relationships described in the (supposedly) two situations is the same, and since this network is form, the form or nature of these two situations is entirely the same.

Let’s look at this in more detail by considering the points where the positions supposedly disagree. Let’s take our observers in the middle of the time period. They try to describe their disagreement:

Eternalist: I appear to be in the middle period, but really I am in all periods. The middle currently appears to exist, but in fact beginning, middle, and end exist.

Presentist: The middle period alone currently exists. The beginning and end do not, although the beginning once existed, and the end will exist later.

Do they disagree about whether the beginning exists or not? The eternalist might say, yes, we disagree. I think the beginning currently exists, the presentist thinks that it does not. But notice “currently.” Does the eternalist think that the beginning exists at the middle time? Of course not: they think it exists at its own time. So why do they say “currently”, when we are discussing their observations at the middle time? Basically, the eternalist is saying that from an abstract point of view, their universe contains all the times, and they are describing this point of view by saying “currently.” The presentist, however, is saying that from a concrete point of view, namely the middle time, only the middle time is present. The presentist is not denying that if you look at the times in the abstract, you cannot tell which one is present; “telling which one is present” is precisely to view them concretely.

Our disputants will insist:

Eternalist: According to the true nature of things, the beginning exists, period. Don’t talk about abstract or concrete or whatever.

Presentist: According to the true nature of things, the beginning does not exist, period. Don’t talk about abstract or concrete or whatever.

The first problem with this is obvious, and applies to both positions. Both positions here seem to want to take “exist” as absolute rather than relative, and this cannot be done.

There is a second problem which applies to the presentist position in particular, as described here. Consider another universe, one with only one time and one observer. How is this universe different from the presentist universe with three times? In each of them, the observer claims that there is no past and no future. Our presentist needs to say that “there really was a past” in order to distinguish their position from that of the single time universe. But what can that possibly mean, if the past is literally nothing at all?

In any case, if it means anything at all, “the past that used to exist” in the presentist description has the same relationship to the middle time that “the past that actually exists” in the eternalist description has to the middle time. As I have been saying, the two descriptions have the same elements, and the same set of relationships. They are descriptions of precisely the same reality.

The disagreement, in other words, is not a disagreement about reality, but about which point of view is the “true” one. But points of view are just that, points of view, and the thing can be seen from each. It is just not the case that one is true and the other false.

This of course used a simplified model, and things in the real world are more complicated. For example, what happens if the future is indeterminate? Would not the eternalist position necessarily differ from the presentist one, in that case?

Explaining Causality

A reader asks about a previous post:

a) Per Hume and his defenders, we can’t really observe causation. All we can see is event A in spacetime, then event B in spacetime. We have no reason to posit that event A and event B are, say, chairs or dogs; we can stick with a sea of observed events, and claim that the world is “nothing more” but a huge set of random 4D events. While I can see that giving such an account restores formal causation, it doesn’t salvage efficient causation, and doesn’t even help final causation. How could you move there from our “normal” view?

b) You mention that the opinion “laws are observed patterns” is not a dominant view; though, even though I’d like to sit with the majority, I can’t go further than a). I can’t build an argument for this, and fail to see how Aristotle put his four causes correctly. I always end up gnawing on an objection, like “causation is only in the mind” or similar. Help?

It is not my view that the world is a huge set of random 4D events. This is perhaps the view of Atheism and the City, but it is a mistaken one. The blogger is not mistaken in thinking that there are problems with presentism, but they cannot be solved by adopting an eternalist view. Rather, these two positions constitute a Kantian dichotomy, and as usual, both positions are false. For now, however, I will leave this to the consideration of the reader. It is not necessary to establish this to respond to the questions above.

Consider the idea that “we can’t really observe causation.” As I noted here, it does not make sense to say that we cannot observe causation unless we already understand what causation is. If the word were meaningless to us, we would have no argument that we don’t observe it; it is only because we do understand the idea of causation that we can even suggest that it might be difficult to observe. And if we do have the idea, we got the idea from somewhere, and that could only have been… from observation, of course, since we don’t have anything else to get ideas from.

Let us untie the knot. I explained causality in general in this way:

“Cause” and “effect” simply signify that the cause is the origin of the effect, and that the effect is from the cause, together with the idea that when we understand the cause, we understand the explanation for the effect. Thus “cause” adds to “origin” a certain relationship with the understanding; this is why Aristotle says that we do not think we understand a thing until we know its cause, or “why” it is. We do not understand a thing until we know its explanation.

Note that there is something “in the mind” about causality. Saying to oneself, “Aha! So that’s why that happened!” is a mental event. And we can also see how it is possible to observe causality: we can observe that one thing is from another, i.e. that a ball breaks a window, and we can also observe that knowing this provides us a somewhat satisfactory answer to the question, “Why is the window broken?”, namely, “Because it was hit by a ball.”

Someone (e.g. Atheism and the City) might object that we also cannot observe one thing coming from another. We just observe the two things, and they are, as Hume says, “loose and separate.” Once again, however, we would have no idea of “from” unless we got it from observing things. In the same early post quoted above, I explained the idea of origin, i.e. that one thing is from another:

Something first is said to be the beginning, principle, or origin of the second, and the second is said to be from the first. This simply signifies the relationship already described in the last post, together with an emphasis on the fact that the first comes before the second by “consequence of being”, in the way described.

“The relationship already described in the last post” is that of before and after. In other words, wherever we have any kind of order at all, we have one thing from another. And we observe order, even when we simply see one thing after another, and thus we also observe things coming from other things.

What about efficient causality? If we adopt the explanation above, asserting the existence of efficient causality is nothing more or less than asserting that things sometimes make other things happen, like balls breaking windows, and that knowing about this is a way for us to understand the effects (e.g. broken windows.)

Similarly, denying the existence of efficient causality means either denying that anything ever makes anything else happen, or denying that knowing about this makes us understand anything, even in a minor way. Atheism and the City seems to want to deny that anything ever makes anything else happen:

Most importantly, my view technically is not that causality doesn’t exist, it’s that causality doesn’t exist in the way we typically think it does. That is, my view of causality is completely different from the general every day notion of causality most people have. The naive assumption one often gets when hearing my view is that I’m saying cause and effect relationships don’t exist at all, such that if you threw a brick at glass window it wouldn’t shatter, or if you jumped in front of a speeding train you wouldn’t get smashed to death by it. That’s not what my view says at all.

On my view of causality, if you threw a brick at a glass window it would shatter, if you jumped in front of a speeding train you’d be smashed to death by it. The difference between my view of causality vs the typical view is that on my view causes do not bring their effects into existence in the sense of true ontological becoming.

I am going to leave aside the discussion of “true ontological becoming,” because it is a distraction from the real issue. Does Atheism and the City deny that things ever make other things happen? It appears so, but consider that “things sometimes make other things happen” is just a more general description of the very same situations as descriptions like, “Balls sometimes break windows.” So if you want to deny that things make other things happen, you should also deny that balls break windows. Now our blogger perhaps wants to say, “I don’t deny that balls break windows in the everyday sense, but they don’t break them in a true ontological sense.” Again, I will simply point in the right direction here. Asserting the existence of efficient causes does not describe a supposedly “truly true” ontology; it is simply a more general description of a situation where balls sometimes break windows.

We can make a useful comparison here between understanding causality, and understanding desire and the good. The knowledge of desire begins with a fairly direct experience, that of feeling the desire, often even as physical sensation. In the same way, we have a direct experience of “understanding something,” namely the feeling of going, “Ah, got it! That’s why this is, this is how it is.” And just as we explain the fact of our desire by saying that the good is responsible for it, we explain the fact of our understanding by saying that the apprehension of causes is responsible. And just as being and good are convertible, so that goodness is not some extra “ontological” thing, so also cause and origin are convertible. But something has to have a certain relationship with us to be good for us; eating food is good for us while eating rocks is not. In a similar way, origins need to have a specific relationship with us in order to provide an understanding of causality, as I said in the post where these questions came up.

Does this mean that “causation is only in the mind”? Not really, any more than the analogous account implies that goodness is only in the mind. An aspect of goodness is in the mind, namely insofar as we distinguish it from being in general, but the thing itself is real, namely the very being of things. And likewise an aspect of causality is in the mind, namely the fact that it explains something to us, but the thing itself is real, namely the relationships of origin in things.