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The ‘Does time exist?’ trap

John Berndt and Henry Flynt

November 2010



       One of us (Berndt) had the idea of putting together the time-dependence of verbal thought (1966 Mathematical Studies, e.g. Conclusion 6.2) and the ‘Is there language?’ trap (Primary Study, 1964) to arrive at the ‘Does time exist?’ trap.

       The key was reflecting that time is the only dimension in which one’s mind “genuinely” has location.

       We can do even better than taking ‘Time exists’ as the subject. We can take the following as the subject:


       There is past-to-future procession in lived experience.


One reason why this is preferable is that it throws temporality into relief, and one of us (Berndt) called for an inquiry into temporality.

       If there is past-to-future procession in lived experience, it must be possible to ask whether there is. (To ask substantively—non-vacuously.) But if the question can be asked, the answer is already affirmative: because verbal thought proceeds.

       The naive reader will be self-congratulatory that such a vital result has been gained so cheaply. But it has been gained too cheaply: it is an empty result.

      From the other side,


       There is no past-to-future procession in lived experience.


falsifies itself.

       If the correlative question cannot be asked without an affirmative answer being guaranteed—if the question and the assumption of an affirmative answer are one—then the answer doesn’t say anything.

       So, a claim of past-to-future procession in lived experience is vacuous. It is the collapse of temporality.

       One can invent a lot of assertions about the world that collapse because of indirect self-validation. ‘Thought exists’, ‘experience exists’, ‘words exist’. Or see “Extracts from Personhood’s Self-Cancellation” in Art Journal, Summer 1982. The ‘Is there language?’ trap is the core of all of these cases. But the ‘Does time exist?’ trap sharply illuminates the hyperfragility of temporality.



Afterward for the academic philosopher

Henry Flynt


       At the moment (2010), academic philosophy has embraced two tenets which might seem to neutralize the above exhibit.

       Currently it is posited that “definitional truths” can supply information about the world, i.e. contingent information. David Kaplan (1977); Saul Kripke (1980). The case in point is ‘I am here’. ‘I am here’ is not diminished as knowledge of the world by being “definitionally true” like ‘A bachelor is an unmarried man.’

       That, by the way, is not a new position; it is the old logic which was famously employed in proofs of God.

       Today’s professors might say the same of


       There is past-to-future procession in lived experience.


(I don’t know whether they would; it lacks indexicals or demonstratives.)

       Further, academic philosophers now posit that propositions are crystallized independently of (human or conventionalistic) language and have a timeless existence in Heaven. (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is an adequate reference for all of this.) One can see that this would neutralize the collapse of ‘Time exists’. ‘Time exists’ is just there, timelessly and without language and without an affirmer, in an eternal Heaven. But not much has been gained, because if truth is possible only in timeless eternity, then Berndt and I win.

       Note how the new/old dispensation illustrates itself by proving the timeless eternity in Heaven from a few words thought in an armchair. Cosmic knowledge is so cheap, it’s unbelievable.

       By the way, how does the proposition ‘I am here’ supply information about the world without language, without an affirmer, existing changelessly in eternity?

       If you wait, the party line in academic philosophy always changes (changes back). They never admit that a reversal has occurred, and they continue to treat their predecessors as idols even though they have reversed them, and they forget that their predecessors fought bitterly the tenets they now espouse. (There wasn’t much talk about changeless eternity in Heaven in philosophy departments for most of the twentieth century.) I spoke to Don Garrett in his office at NYU on 22 November, and he didn’t know that the classic modern philosophers repudiated synthetic a priori truth. Nothing beats amnesia/nescience.

       The bottom line is that academic philosophy exists for the benefit of the institution, a.k.a. the sinecure. That is why I avoid being lured into disputes with academic positions.