Monday, August 29, 2016

Is the A-Theory Properly Basic?

In the last blogpost, we covered the A and B theories of time. I also mentioned the fact that the A-theory, being the theory most comfortable with our tensed language, is the most intuitive.[1] But there is another issue to consider. Is belief in the A-theory of time properly basic? More explicitly, is belief that things are objectively coming into and going out of existence—that time is really passing—properly basic?

First, we should understand proper basicality. I’m not going to explain the whole thing here (I actually want to keep this somewhat brief). However, I will say that some belief is properly basic when one is rational for holding the belief, even if he does not have evidential, non-circular justification for it. Consider, for example, the laws of logic (specifically let’s take the law of noncontradiction). Suppose you cannot quite explain why the law of noncontradiction holds. Suppose (as is the case) you cannot give non-circular justification for why you believe this law. Are you irrational for holding it? No, in fact you are at the height of rationality in holding it, and would be in the depths of irrationality in so denying it. When one tries to articulate the justification for her beliefs, there will come a stopping point (that is, when she tries to spell out just how she knows that she knows, for example). That stopping point is most plausibly a foundation. Some belief is foundational, then, as it is properly basic. Other beliefs may be quite right and rational to hold, but they will be properly based—that is, they will be deduced from properly basic beliefs (or at least can be).

This isn’t to say that properly basic beliefs cannot be defeated; they certainly can. It is a properly basic belief to take one’s perceptive faculties as delivering the truth of the world around you; generally, you can trust what you see as being true. However, this doesn’t mean your eyes can never play tricks on you, or that you can never be wrong. It appears, from our view, that the sun rises; but our best science says that is mistaken.

So, is the A-theory like this? Is belief that time passes such that it is properly basic? Well, it seems that it is. It’s quite intuitive to think that there is such a thing as “now,” and that tensed language describes the truth of the matter. Combining this view with a view of warranted true belief (a theory of knowledge) called proper functionalism will illustrate this.

Proper functionalism is the view that a belief is warranted just in case it is produced by cognitively reliable faculties operating in a proper epistemic environment according to a design plan successfully aimed at truth. Our cognitive faculties do seem to be generally reliable, which is helpful for survival. And, we do operate in an appropriate epistemic environment in general. However, what about the belief that tensed language is true? Is our environment proper for that? I don’t see that we’re in an epistemic environment that’s inappropriate (for example, we don’t have reason to think that an evil demon is manipulating our thoughts so that we merely think time is passing in such a way). And, for Christians especially, we have good reason to think that the design plan is successfully aimed at truth. So it seems then, that the A-theory is both properly basic and stands as warranted, in the absence of a defeater.[2]

Now some may protest: “But won’t this mean just any belief counts as warranted, so long as you believe it?” No, for a number of reasons: first, there are defeaters for any number of beliefs. Second, there are beliefs formed from improperly functioning cognitive faculties (such as would be the case were I suddenly to form the belief that I had made myself invisible through a loud whooshing noise). We could go on, but it wouldn’t be the case that just any and all beliefs would be permissible.

Tensed language is an important part of our lives, and I suspect that it’s nearly impossible to rid ourselves of, even while paying lipservice to the B-theory. Thus, I hold to the A-theory as a quite intuitive one!

[1] I realize this is controversial, and one could be forgiven for claiming that this theory is no more intuitive than the one where spacetime exists as a four-dimensional block. But I submit such a view is not really intuitive at all; rather, it is a view that has been ingrained in us by years of repetition and education. This is not a bad thing, but it’s not intuition. It’s a presupposition—taken for granted, perhaps—but not an intuition.

[2] Of course, one may shrug her shoulders and simply say, “Well, I’ve got your defeater right here.” So be it. My main concern is that belief in the A-theory is properly basic, or at least warranted in the lack of a good defeater.



  1. From the perspective of the apologist, A-theory is required for the Kalam to succeed. With that in mind, is it really a good idea to support A-theory with other, even more controversial premises like foundationalism or proper functionalism?

    I myself reject foundationalism, and in particar I deny that *any* belief is "properly basic." A belief might be basic, but if so, it's hard to see in what sense a basic belief could ever be justified or warranted, and hence properly basic. Even if it failed to be *irrational*, that doesn't make it rational. Something like the law of noncontradiction, for example, helps shape what we mean by "rational," but it is itself neither rational nor irrational, that I can see. It is, instead, just something we happen to believe, and which we find nearly impossible to deny.

    Proper functionalism strikes me as even more dubious. Does proper functionalism serve as a definition of warrant, or does it instead take warrant as an independent concept, and link that concept with externalist criteria like adhering to our design plan? If it is the former---just a definition of "Warrant"---then proper functionalism is not a substantive theory. If it is the latter, then what is the independent concept being employed and why should we conclude it meets the proper functionalist criteria?

    Finally, I don't see why B-theory requires us to deny that there is such a thing as "now," and so B-theorists needn't reject tensed language. Isn't it better to accept the reality of temporal existence (God exists in time right now) and simultaneously accept the reality of nontemporal existence (God exists timelessly)? (In any case, why not say the same thing about the universe---that it exists both now in the present and *also* timelessly as a four-dimensional spacetime manifold---?) If we really had to choose between the two, then perhaps temporal existence would be more intuitive. Then again, perhaps it would be far less intuitive considering the strange discoveries we get about time from physics. Fortunately, for the B-theorist I see no reason we must reject one or the other.

    1. Hi Ben, thanks for writing in! There are very few, if even any, uncontroversial premises in philosophy, where by "uncontroversial" we mean something like, "Accepted by all professional philosophers" or something of that ilk. Graham Priest, for example, rejects the law of noncontradiction (as traditionally understood, anyway); and yet this is quite fundamental for many philosophers (outside of a dialethic dialectic, anyway). And in any case, it's odd to say that the law of noncontradiction doesn't count as rational (that is, we're not rational to accept it). I'm not sure what account of rationality is employed, but in any case most of my readers will not reject the law or its rationality in accepting it (after all, it's supposed to be, initially, a law of thought or rationality. Denying its rationality is, in a sense, tantamount to denying that it's a law. Which is fine. But is far more controversial, as far as I can tell, than claiming there are at least some beliefs that are foundational in some sense, and that the believer is rational in holding them.)

      For some literature on proper functionalism, I refer you to Plantinga's Warrant trilogy--but specifically Warranted Christian Belief. Obviously, the entire trilogy is about warrant (the other books are Warrant: The Current Debate and Warrant and Proper Function--these are great books for epistemological study).

      As to the B-theory, while it is true McTaggart's formulation was in terms of "series," A and B theories of time are about "A-properties" and "B-properties," and a B-theorist asserts, among other things, that there are no fundamental A-properties or relations; all such properties are really about B-properties and relations. Thus, being future is not a real property relative to some event. Instead, it is a relative property on a relational order, or being later than t. "Future" is just a name, or an indexical, assigned to that further B-concept. Thus, while the B-theorist can say "X is happening now," B-theories are tenseless, and mean really "X is happening at t," or "X is simultaneous with t" on an ordering relation. Basically, there is no tense on B-theories, by definition.

      Perhaps what you might want is a hybrid view (it seems to be what you are suggesting), or an A/B theory hybrid. I have a tough time viewing it as coherent, as do others, but it's not unheard of. Anyway, that's far afield. If any beliefs are properly basic, I think A-theory is one of them. Though it is worth mentioning, as I do, that properly basic beliefs are not indefeasible.

    2. Randy,

      Yes, I've read some of Plantinga's stuff, and I have pdf copies of the warrant trilogy in case you want to refer me to particular page numbers. But I don't see how he has addressed my concerns.

      Allow me to clarify what I am asking. Plantinga, in giving a theory of warrant, is giving a theory of knowledge. But I don't really understand what it means in the first place to give a theory of knowledge.

      To see what I mean, forget Plantinga for a moment, and consider the following simpler example.

      RODERICK: Knowledge is precisely JTB.
      EDMUND: But here is an example of where Jones is justified in believing that he owns a ford, and his belief is true but now knowledge; so knowledge couldn't just be JTB.

      Now, what exactly is it that Roderick and Edmund are disputing? Are they disputing *definitions* of knowledge? Presumably not. Instead, it looks like we have a pre-existing concept of knowledge in mind, and we want to analyze that concept by breaking it down into component parts. Or at least, that's the impression I get from disputes like the above.

      But what happens when we disagree on how to interpret/use/etc. the underlying concept? For instance, what happens if Roderick replies---"I disagree; Jones *does* know that he owns a Ford"---? Do disagreements like this have a rational resolution, or are Roderick and Edmund just using different concepts of knowledge?

      My concern with proper functionalism is similar. To the extent that a person can be warranted without having any internalist-type justification, I just don't care about that kind of warrant. Consider the following exchange.

      ALVIN: I believe that God exists.
      BEN: Oh? What are your reasons for believing that?
      ALVIN: It just seems right to me. I don't believe it on the basis of underlying premises or arguments.
      BEN: Then you're not warranted, and being irrational.
      ALVIN: Actually, as long as God really does exist, I am warranted and rational, because I am operating properly according to my design plan in believing it.
      BEN: That's ridiculous. Designed or not, whether God exists or not, you don't have any *reason* to believe God exists.
      ALVIN: I don't mind not having a reason, as long as I am operating according to the design plan.
      BEN: Well, I *do* want reasons, and I mind quite a bit when I find that none are available.

      What exactly is going on in the above exchange? Are Alvin and Ben supposed to share a pre-existing concept of warrant? Or are they talking past each other by using different concepts? Or does Alvin want to persuade Ben to adopt a new definition of warrant? Etc.

    3. Hi Ben, thanks for your response! In response to the knowledge issue, most people take themselves to be debating what constitutes knowledge; that is, what functions as the set of jointly necessary and sufficient conditions the presence of which confers knowledge. Plantinga's discussion of warrant is not identical to his theory of knowledge, but rather it is a degreed property the presence of which, in sufficient degree, qualifies as knowledge (along with other conditions, such as the proposition's being true and its being believed by the subject at hand).

      Adjudicating disputes often comes down to the costs involved: for example, some particular argument's conclusion may be resisted on the cost of denying realism about science or something. But many are not willing to make that cost otherwise, and so for them this option isn't open. For those for whom the option is open, well, so be it. That discussion can take place on that level, or we can be content to leave it. That's largely up to whomever the discussion participants are. So in the dialectic of proper functionalism, all Plantinga seeks to do is to content that, probably, if the Christian God exists, then the believer is warranted in thinking that the Christian God exists, where warrant is taken to be a person with cognitively reliable faculties operating in a proper epistemic environment according to a design plan successfully aimed at truth. There are, interestingly, naturalistic attempted versions of this (though I would imagine a telos might be hard to come by). Internally, so to speak, Plantinga succeeds just in case on the theory of warrant he gives a believer is probably warranted in the case that God exists. Externally, so to speak, Plantinga succeeds just in case his theory of warrant is correct (or rather, at least probably correct) if God were to exist. It comes down to a debate with externalism and internalism with proper functionalism. However, there are internalist versions of foundationalism (in fact, initial versions of foundationalism were given by internalists), so in taking this back to the main point, an internalist could conceivably agree (depending on their type of foundationalism or criteria for proper basicality) that the A-theory of time is properly basic. :)

  2. The A-theory of time cannot be properly basic, because a properly basic belief, as you mentioned, cannot exist if there's a defeater to it, and we've had a defeater for the A-theory of time since 1905: the special theory of relativity.

    Human language says nothing about what fundamental reality really is. You should consider the words of physicist Brian Greene:

    "Don't confuse language with reality. Human language is far better at capturing human experience than at expressing deep physical laws."

    In other words, human language is not tuned to the way nature works at a fundamental level, and to think our tensed language has any impact on fundamental reality makes that mistake.

    1. Thanks for commenting! Well that won't work, will it? There are a couple of problems:

      1. Your discussion of nature and language is a non-sequitur. One could grant the quotation and your conclusion could still be false.

      2. The quote itself assumes (its usage by you does, anyway) that time is a physical construct.

      3. You assume a particular interpretation of STR, with seemingly no recognition that there is more than one.

      4. When one has a potential defeater, it's fair to ask to what degree one holds the belief in question and similarly for its potential defeater. Given that there's no unified theory, and that Einstein himself originally did not take spacetime as a block to be real (but instead a heuristic), I'm far more comfortable in tensed language than spacetime realism (vs. heuristic).

      5. You seem unaware of the actual debate going on even now, which suggests that further reading would benefit you on this subject! I recommend some free resources first (say Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

      6. The defeater must be successful. I include this only in case you were thinking that a properly basic belief is no longer properly basic in cases where potential defeaters are had.

      I hope this helps!


Please remember to see the comment guidelines if you are unfamiliar with them. God bless and thanks for dropping by!