Metaphysics, Time, and History

Friday 19 April 2024

Nick Nielsen
9 min readApr 21, 2024
The Recording Angel, here depicted by William Blake, bears some resemblance to the perfect chronicler in Arthur Danto’s thought experiment differentiating chronicle from narrative.

There is a philosophy of history program at the University of Oulu in Finland that regularly hosts speakers, with these events available both live and over Zoom. I have been listening to these whenever I have the opportunity to do so, although they usually start at about 6 am Pacific time. Given my late night habits, getting up early is difficult for me, and I have often reflected that I would be better off in terms of my schedule if I lived in Europe, as these European events would be at a better time for me, and events hosted in the US would be in the late evening or night, which would be much better for me than early morning, when I have to wake myself up with an alarm and I am scarcely coherent.

The most recent speaker in the Philosophical Studies of History program at Oulu was Matias Slavov, who gave a talk on “Metaphysics of Time Lurking within Historiography: considering the (equal) existence of past, present and future.” Since the relationship between philosophy of history and philosophy of time is of great interest to me, I made a point of getting up early to listen to this. I enjoyed the talk (which is available on Youtube), but it was a comment in the ensuing discussion that made me think further. The comment referred to the idea of a perfect chronicler, which is an idea due to Arthur Danto. Danto’s work on the philosophy of history sought to demonstrate that the logical structure of a narrative sentence is something distinct from a chronicle. A narrative sentence (distinctive to history) explains the meaning of an earlier event in terms of a later event. For example, we say that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo was the trigger of the First World War, which is not something that could have been known at the time of the assassination. Indeed, the fact that we call the First World War and First World War and not the Great War is a result of further developments in the twentieth century, when an even greater war followed what up to then had commonly been called the Great War in English speaking countries.

Danto formulated a thought experiment of a perfect chronicler who exhaustively chronicles everything as it happens, and then shows how even a perfect chronicler cannot capture the meanings captured in narrative sentences. The discussion following Slavov’s talk brought in the idea of a perfect chronicler, but as the discussion proceeded I realized that there could be two distinct conceptions of what constitutes a perfect chronicle, and thus two conceptions of a perfect chronicle that would result from the work of a perfect chronicler. A chronicler might be perfect in virtue of 1) exhaustively recording every detail of what happens, as it happens, or 2) in virtue of knowing every detail of what happens, past, present, or future, but only knowing and recording these events in the present tense. The latter conception might be called an omniscient chronicler to distinguish it from a perfect chronicler.

Both perfect and omniscient chroniclers are impossible in practice. Are both impossible in principle? What kind of principle would forbid an exhaustive chronicle of what happens, as it happens, and would this be the same (or analogous, perhaps an extended sense of the previous principle) principle as would forbid an omniscient chronicle? The problem of making a distinction between being impossible in practice and being impossible in principle is often invoked but rarely explained. Probably any explanation would take us too far into the metaphysical weeds to give any kind of quick account of the idea. The obvious objection to the omniscient chronicler that would not arise in relation to the perfect chronicler is that of future contingents: an omniscient chronicler implies the most rigid determinism conceivable. It is worth noting that a great many contemporary arguments for determinism — unrigorous though they may be — do not make a claim to being exhaustive. Many determinisms allow for either epiphenomena or the liberty of indifference or both. But if an omniscient chronicler is also a perfect chronicler of the future, that means that everything down to the most trivial and insignificant detail would have to be determined for it to appear in the chronicle of an omniscient chronicler.

We can make a distinction between a perfect chronicler, whose work is exhaustive but unfolds with time, and an omniscient chronicler, whose work is necessarily deterministic.

I won’t go into an exposition at present (not least because I don’t have an exposition to give), but it would be interesting to consider the problem of freewill and determinism in the context of philosophy of history, since this seems to offer a lot of interesting possibilities, such as the problem above for an exhaustive chronicler. Without having thought it through carefully, it strikes me prima facie that the kind of arguments used for determinism are analogous to arguments used in history to justify a given account as being objective. Both implicitly appeal to a scale of values in which some events (or actions) can be safely identified as significant and therefore in need to explanation, while other events (or actions) can be safely identified as insignificant and therefore do not require any explanation. This is the weak point, the Achilles’ heel, and I suspect that even the most hyperbolic and hubristic forms of determinism would give way if this point were driven home unflinchingly.

Provoked into thinking about ideal chroniclers and their work, another idea occurred to me. The truth value of a tensed proposition should be understood not only relative to the state-of-affairs described by the proposition (i.e., the proposition the truth value of which we are attempting to ascertain), but also relative to the state-of-affairs in which (or during which) the proposition in question is formulated. Thus we can distinguish between a proposition made in the past about (what was then) the future, and a proposition yet to be formulated in the future about an even further distant future. We can further distinguish between a proposition made in the past about a former future that is now (in the present) past, and a proposition made in the past about a future that still lies in the future (for us in the present). I don’t know if these distinctions have, or will come to have, any (philosophical) utility for me, but I find them to be interesting and worthwhile, so I will keep them in the back of my mind to pull out should the occasion call for them.

A question we can formulate regarding above distinctions is whether they can only be formulated in the A-series (pastpresentfuture), or, if they are formulated in the B-series (beforeduringafter), whether the apparent strangeness of them simply vanishes, because it is the egocentric present that draws us insistently into seeming temporal paradoxes, and when we translate the apparent paradoxicality of the A-series into the non-egocentric B-series, no information is lost in the translation (the sense of the proposition is retained), but the paradoxicality evaporates. This observation, in turn, suggests a further reflection: are there propositions that can only be formulated meaningfully within the A-series, or propositions that can only be formulated within B-series, but which are impossible to formulate in the complementary temporal series? And another question: are there propositions that can be formulated exclusively in the A/B-series but which demonstrably result in the loss of information when translated into the complementary idiom? If so, we can get a little more precise as to exactly what is distinctive about the A-series and why is seems to generate paradox. If we can narrow in on the distinctiveness of the A-series, we might find that it involves some intrinsic properties that distinguish it and which then ought to be the proper focus of philosophical analysis.

The analysis of time into an A-series and a B-series is due to J. M. E. McTaggart, whose work I mentioned in my video on Robert Heilbroner — not because Heilbroner’s thought is intrinsically related to that of McTaggart (manifestly, it is not), but because I found in Heilbroner a pretext to introduce these ideas. However, thinking about McTaggart again resulted in my realizing something that had not previously occurred to me: the A-series is a qualitative conception of time, the B-series in a comparative conception of time, and time given as a number on a continuum is a quantitative conception of time. Thus these conceptions of time perfectly reproduce Carnap’s schematism of the introduction and development of scientific concepts. This, then, invites a Carnapian analysis of time concepts in the convergence upon a scientific conception of time.

J. M. E. McTaggart originated the analysis of time into an A-series (past — present — future) and a B-series (before — during — after), and in his book The Nature of Existence postulated a further C-series.

Loosely related to these themes of time and history, the previous weekend was the Consilience Conference, which is the brainchild of Gregg Henriques, with substantial input from John Vervaeke and many others. Last year I also eavesdropped on the Consilence Conference, meaning that I listened to most of it but didn’t actively participate. Again, this was partially a function of how early it started — at 6 am for me. Henriques’ distinctive formulation of the thresholds of emergent complexity calls these thresholds “joint points,” and at some point in the Consilence Conference (I can’t remember who said it or when or in what context) someone compared a future “joint point” to come (what David Christian would call the ninth threshold, since he identifies eight major emergent complexity thresholds to date) to the technological singularity, and also to the concept of the “Omega Point.” If you’re curious about this, look it up. I realized in context, as I had realized listening to the Oulu discussion, that a future emergent complexity threshold can be understood in two ways: 1) a new emergent that becomes the basis of further unknown and unknowable emergents (call this the ordinary conception of emergence), or 2) a new emergent that is the end of all emergents, i.e., the final emergent to appear in a finite sequence of emergent complexities — the emergent to end all emergents (call this the conception of final emergence).

I don’t think I have ever previously considered the possibility of a final emergent, but it is an intrinsically interesting idea. Arguably, the idea of final emergence is implicit in any finite universe with a natural history. I have myself posited the possibility of a period of cosmological history that can be called “peak complexity,” at which point the universe is as complex as it can get, and after which time thermodynamics dictates that the universe will only become steadily cooler and simpler. As I said, I find this to be an interesting idea, and clearly the context in which this idea was suggested to me had strong eschatological overtones. While interesting, it is also a highly linear way of thinking about complexity. It could be that in the future evolution of the universe, even as old forms of complexity necessarily fall away because of the thermodynamic running down of energy flows, new forms of complexity continue to appear, no less unprecedented than past forms of complexity, though at lower energy levels. Freeman Dyson’s conception of eternal intelligence is a form of complexity that is consistent with the scenario I have described here.