Natalja Deng – Making sense of the growing block view

Making sense of the growing block view – Natalja Deng (Cambridge)


In this paper, I try to make sense of the growing block view using Kit Fine’s four-fold classification of A-theoretic views of time.
I begin by motivating the endeavor of making sense of the growing block view by examining John Earman’s project in ‘Reassessing the prospects for a growing block model of the universe’ (section 1). Next, I review Fine’s reconstruction of McTaggart’s argument and its accompanying four-fold classification of A-theoretic views (section 2). I then consider three interpretations of Earman’s growing block model: the hybrid growing block (section 3), the purely tensed growing block (section 4), and Michael Tooley’s growing block (section 5). I argue for three claims. First, Finean ‘standard’ versions of these views are less congenial to the growing blocker than ‘non-standard’ ones. Second, the hybrid view is problematic on either version. And third, ‘non-standard’ versions are not fully intelligible. I provide further support for the first and third of these claims and explain why I take them to support a minimal account of passage as succession, which undercuts some of the motivation for Earman’s project (section 6). Lastly, I answer three objections (section 7).

Full paper here.

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  1. I’ve read the Fine paper a couple of times, and it’s always confused me. In using Fine’s disctinctions to set up your paper, the confusions have been inherited. My confusion is quite straightforward. I don’t know, according to Fine, which view I hold.

    I’m not sure what it is for facts ‘to be oriented towards one time or another’, but I don’t know if the Growing-Block is going to want to accept that the facts are orientated towards times. The question of what A-time it is is derived from B-facts about what times exist (Forrest commits himself to this in his contribution, and I think Broad would also sign up to this.)

    Is reality ‘relative to a temporal standpoint’? I’m tempted, in some moods, to say yes. One might put this as follows: It is not possible to take up a standpoint on reality outside of time. In other moods I’m tempted to say no. What time it is is an absolute fact. It is the 24th of August simpliciter, not relative to anything. As time passes, what is absolutely present changes. I’m not sure whether those two answers count as different views or the same way of expressing the same view.
    You say rejecting Absolutism gives you external relativism, which you summarise thus: “So it’s a fact both that the meeting is starting and that the meeting
    will start in five minutes. But these facts compose reality relative to different times.” (p.5)
    If that’s what rejecting absolutism gives me, I want no part in it. It seems to a poor characterisation of what I thought I was getting when I rejected absolutism.

    I’m not sure any of Fine’s alternatives describe the view that everything that exists can be expressed in tenseless terms, but what exists changes as time passes. As a consequence, it’s no surprise to me that none of them deliver the dynamism we were hoping for.

    So I suppose my question is a request for you to convince me that my view is skewered by Fine’s alternatives.

      • Steve Savitt on August 26, 2015 at 4:51 am
      • Reply

      In the argument of Kit Fine’s that Natalja uses to frame her thoughts on the Growing Block, Fine explicitly takes his first premise–that there are tensed facts–to be a fixed point. He then considers the constraints on the available positions, given the first premise (which he calls realism) and the rest of the argument.

      So it is indeed likely, just as Forbes asserts, that none of the alternatives described by Fine describe the view that everything that exists can be expressed in tenseless terms, given the assumed existence of tensed facts.

      I myself think that the unattractiveness of every position described by Fine should lead one to deny his first premise, but (agreeing with Forbes again) Fine’s paper is very hard to understand. However, the subject here is Natalja’s paper…

    • Natalja on August 27, 2015 at 12:01 am
    • Reply

    Graeme, you say that you can’t understand what Fine means by Neutrality, which says that the tensed facts that constitute reality are not oriented towards one time as opposed to another. Think of the tensed facts that obtain today. These tensed facts are oriented towards today: it’s Thursday today, it was Wednesday yesterday, it was Tuesday two days ago – all these share their orientation in the sense that they all make reference to the same perspectival anchoring point, namely, Thursday (today), as that anchoring point. Perhaps I may offer a floral metaphor (in keeping with your celery metaphor). If laid out, these facts would be oriented towards today as the petals of a rose are oriented towards its centre (imagine there being fewer petals at the top, to represent the partial openness of the future). The question about which facts compose reality, i.e. the question of standard versus non-standard realism, amounts to the metaphorical choice between one rose and many, where many roses restore the overall symmetry i.e. remove the orientation towards one time.

    ‘The question of what A-time it is is derived from B-facts about what times exist’ – I take it that the background worry here is whether I am right to think of the growing block view as a realist view in Fine’s sense at all, as opposed to one that, like the block view, takes there to be only tenseless facts, fundamentally.

    I take this line of thought to be closely related to Michael Tooley’s version of the view. My thought here is that the totality fact needed for the entailment of a particular A-time (i.e. the fact that these are all the tenseless facts) can’t itself be a tenseless fact, but must be a tensed fact. That is, for the view to involve an accretion of tenseless facts about what’s the case earlier than or simultaneous with this time, there also have to be changing tensed facts about which of these tenseless facts there are. So I can’t agree that none ‘of Fine’s alternatives describe the view that everything that exists can be expressed in tenseless terms, but what exists changes as time passes’.

    Steve, this is also what I take you to be saying when you say that ‘none of the alternatives described by Fine describe the view that everything that exists can be expressed in tenseless terms’ – I take it you mean the view that adds to this the idea that what exists changes as time passes (since without it we just get antirealism, or the block view, which Fine sets aside in this argument). As I say, it seems to me as though this additional claim locates the view on Fine’s landscape of realist views.

    Of course, all this goes to support only the claim that the growing block view isn’t in principle left outside of the Finean landscape of positions (which I guess is what you mean to say Graeme, when you say it’s not skewered by Fine’s alternatives). Whether I’m right about the dynamism these alternatives deliver is another matter.

    Let me try to make external relativism slightly more attractive to you Graeme. Carefully stated, the view says that both the fact that the meeting is starting and the fact that the meeting will start in five minutes compose reality (which is perhaps what I should have said, as opposed to saying that they’re both facts), and they compose reality relative to different times. Moreover, the composition of reality is irreducibly temporally relative, so there is no way of explaining this in absolute terms, e.g. by understanding the facts as relativized (as on antirealism) or by taking temporally relative composition to mean that whenever one of these times is present, one of the facts composes reality (as on standard realism). It seems to me as though this is one way to gloss the idea that it isn’t possible to take a standpoint outside of time when describing it.

    • Steve Savitt on August 27, 2015 at 8:10 pm
    • Reply

    Let me first agree completely with your remark above direced to me.

    Second, I’d like to add some rienforcement to what you say in reply to objections 2 and 3.

    If John Earman were to say of a view of mine that it was contradiction-inducing, I would more than suspect that my view was untenable. But when he says that Broad/Williams deflationary passage as succession is yawn-inducing, I think that, yes, he understands the view. It’s just what I intended. I do, after all, say in my old paper on that topic that “the notion of temporal becoming defended here is rather plain, homespun, humdrum, deflated, dowdy.” I could have added “yawn-inducing”. I take John’s remark, then, to be a description of the view rather than a criticism.

    But let me add an important caveat. I was explicitly thinking in that paper about passage in pre-relativistic spacetimes. Once you try to get real and think about passage in relativistic spacetimes, then one (I think) is forced to confront the question: If passage is succession, what is it a succession of?

    This question, as far as I can tell, is by no means yawn-inducing. It hs head-scratch inducing. Relativity is supposed to have induced a revolution in the way we think about time, but I think that the outcome of the revolution has been by no means settled with respect to that question.

  2. Is there any merit to the view that rejects both Neutrality and Absolutism? Or is there reason to think it gets the worst of both worlds?

  3. I think it’s interesting that you think of the Growing-Block as a hybrid view. This is an issue that I have seen coming up in a few papers. I agree that, if we think of the Growing-Block like a Static Block with the end cut off, we are in trouble. As David’s paper argues, it is important we make sense of the relation between the past times qua past, and the past times qua once present. A Static Block with the end cut off doesn’t give us the right relation between the past and the once present. (It is nice to see, in fn.4 you nailing Ellis as committed to this view.

    One way to think of the relation between the Growing-Block universe and the static Block Universe is to think of the static Block Universe as a finished Growing-Block. So the static Block is just past times with no present times. The static Block universe looks like it’s one in which nothing is intuitively happening because it is a universe in which everything has already happened. To a defender of the ‘Shrivelled past’ growing block, the whole static Block looks shrivelled. Rather than The Growing-Block being a stating Block missing successively less, it is the static Block that is missing something – not just growth, but activity, process and change. These three things being distinctive of the present (according to me).

    Capturing what is needed by our intuitive picture of passage might require understanding what is missing from the static Block, that the Growing-Block has. You are right that the non-shrivelled past ‘hybrid’ view can’t do this (or at least, I agree with you there). I’m not sure yet whether that is a product of how you’re thinking of hybridity, or whether it works on views that stand in a different relationship to static views.

    • Emily Thomas on August 29, 2015 at 9:19 am
    • Reply

    Thanks Natalja, I really enjoyed this. I’d like to see Objection 2 unpacked a bit more, having been immersed for Broad in so long I think that Broad (at least in the 1920s) would agree that the kind of passage you allow for ‘thin and yawn-inducing’. Also, a wider question related to passage – where do you stand on our putative intuition that time has a direction?

    • Natalja on August 29, 2015 at 1:40 pm
    • Reply

    I take that point Steve. Much food for further thought.

    Graeme, in fact one reason Fine prefers fragmentalism is that he thinks it’s better placed to accommodate the relativity of simultaneity than external relativism. At least he suggests that it may have that advantage.

    The way I see it, the idea of a shrivelled past isn’t applicable to the block universe view, so seeing a block universe as shrivelled can’t be right. A shrivelled past involves a (back) block in which there aren’t, tenselessly, things much like there are at the ‘present’ time, but very exotic hitherto unencountered things, and not tenselessly but in some for me hard to understand present past way. It also doesn’t seem right to think of a block universe as a block that has ‘finished’ growing, so that nothing in it is happening because everything has happened already. The point of ‘tenseless’ talk, as I see it, is to remove references to tense, and so to think of the occurrence of events in atemporal terms, not as happening now in a totum simul, not as being such that they have happened, and certainly not as being such that they are happening now in the past.

    Thanks Emily. I’m committed to denying Broad’s view that the passage of time, understood as depending on an objective difference between past, present, and future, and thereby on becoming, is required for time to have a direction (or sense). In this paper I’ve tried to spell out why, by saying why I take Broad’s view of becoming to be problematic. The idea is that there is an aspect of our thinking about time, and its passing, that tends to lead us astray, because we can’t do full justice to it in our models of becoming while still making the kind of sense we’d like to make in this arena. So the suggestion is to accept that models of becoming look different from how that intuitive picture, and much excellent past and present A-theoretic model building, leads one to expect. The idea is that there is less that can be said about passage (at least in a pre-relativistic context), than meets the time-inquisitive eye. About your second question, which also contains food for further thought, my inclination is to think that there is room for a B-theoretic view according to which time has an objective temporal direction.

    1. A shrivelled past involves a (back) block in which there aren’t, tenselessly, things much like there are at the ‘present’ time, but very exotic hitherto unencountered things, and not tenselessly but in some for me hard to understand present past way.

      On my view, the things in the past are exactly the things we have encountered already. But I can’t make sense of what it is for them to be like anything other than what they are like when present. I can only understand what things are like when present because everything I’ve ever experience was present when experienced.

      Similarly I can’t describe what red things look like in the dark. They don’t look like anything, because I can only see colour when there is some light. Just as I think my sofa is still red when I turn the lights off (even though I can’t see it) I think think the past still exists when it ceases to be present.

      I have a story to tell about why the present is special – it is the time where actiality and potentiality meet. So I find it tough to make sense of how things are meant to be on a static Block view, because there is no room for potentiality to meet actuality. There is just how things are. I find making sense of the static Block really baffling, just as if you said that you wanted me to imagine a load of brightly coloured things, but without imagining any light source.

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