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Rob Gressis

Just for the record, here is why I worry about persistence conditions and material constitution: I worry about it because I worry about the persistence conditions and material constitution of people. I think this really has applications: e.g., is it possible for my consciousness to be downloaded into a computer and for me to survive? Would I survive a hemispherectomy? If I'm a purely material being, is it possible for me to be resurrected? I'm also pretty concerned about non-human animals. As for apples, tables, and electrons, I'm not that concerned about them.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Rob: But of course that's a very different issue -- personal identity -- and very interesting one to boot. Personal identity isn't about "persistence conditions"; it's about the nature of what we are!


Marcus: I believe you may have misrepresented the argument. On my understanding, 30 miles per hour is a rate in a way that 1 second per second is not. The former is equal to 30 miles / 60 minutes = 1 mile / 2 minutes, which is a rate (not simply 30/60 = 1/2, which is not), while the latter, because the units cancel, truly is equal to 1. But I too am unsure of the significance of this argument. I like the Onion test. Maybe: ``Lonely Solipsist Joins Online Dating Service With Poor Results''

Marcus Arvan

Hi M: Thanks, I get the difference. A difficult thing about blogging is that you want to make quick points and avoid being tedious. The basic point I was trying to make, though, I think, still stands. Skow's diagnosis -- that the argument rests on simple confusions about the nature of measurable quantities -- seems almost entirely obvious (to me, at any rate), at just a first glance.

Instead of saying that time moves forward at a rate of a second per second, one might as well have said in the first place that time just proceeds in *seconds*. That's plainly a coherent position, it's "what was intuitively meant" by the claim that time moves forward at a second per second, and it has no air of paradox in it whatsoever (as far as I can see).

The "one second per second" talk was just a bad way of saying an otherwise coherent thing (time moves forward in seconds) -- and the result was academic papers that treated a bad way of talking as a serious philosophical problem.

Rob Gressis

Yeah, but Marcus, if people are material beings, then issues of personal identity seem to me to be pretty related to issues of material constitution and persistence over time.

Marcus Arvan

Rob: I disagree, for reasons I've mentioned before. I don't think there is a legitimate problem of constitution at all. All there is is matter (actually, I would say, information, but that is neither here nor there). We then happen to call certain configurations of matter "tables," "chairs", and "people." Tables, chairs, and people *exist* just insofar as there is matter/information we call by those names. No interesting philosophical problem there. Exactly *which* configurations we call by those names and under what conditions ("persistence conditions") is a linguistic issue, not a metaphysical one.

Personal identity, as I see it, is a different issue: one pertaining to the question of whether there are any configurations of matter that have any special significance as a natural kind that we call "persons" for significant, objective metaphysical reasons. This, as I see it, is a very different question. But maybe I'm wrong.


I think I may be sympathetic to the spirit of what you say, but not the letter. I do think there's a genuine problem that PvI raised (though I don't know if Skow solved it), and I think what you say in the post is very misleading for people who don't know the background debate.

So there's a dispute between A-theorists about time and B-theorists about time. A-theorists say that B-theorists can't capture the sense in which time really passes . All they can capture is the idea that time is just another dimension, like space (which we don't tend to think passes in any sense interestingly analagous to the sense in which time does). If I remember the dialectic right, the PvI argument is an argument that this sense of genuine passage that the A-theorist is appealing to just doesn't make sense--if time genuinely passes, then it should pass at a given rate, but there's no good answer to the question "how fast does time pass?"

If I'm right about the dialectic, then your claims in the original post amount to saying that it's just obvious that the A-theorist is right here; it's obvious that there is a good sense in which time passes but space doesn't, that the A-theorist can appeal to in making her argument. I don't think that's obvious at all. If the A-theorist takes your suggestion and reformulates her claim about time's passage as the claim that "time is measured in seconds" it's doesn't seem to be at all disanalogous to a claim like "space is measured in inches", and the B-theorist can make sense of it.

What I'm sympathetic to is the idea that there are a lot of pseudoproblems in philosophy, and I'm also sympathetic to the idea that problems of material constitution (and probably some problems about time) are some of them. But I don't think it's remotely obvious (and I think it's probably wrong), just from what you've written in the above post, that the primary example you picked was a good exemplar.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Daniel: you may be right about PvI's original dialectic. I agree it's an interesting metaphysical question whether B-theorists can make sense of time's passage. I have no problem with that genuine problem. It's the dialectic about the coherence of "1 second per second" that I have an issue with. This dialectic seems to me a mistaken one based on a bad use of language, and quite irrelevant with respect to the deeper metaphysical problem PvI raises. But maybe I am wrong about this too.

Marcus Arvan

Although I might also add that I don't see why the B-theorist simply saying time progresses in descrete packets -- call them quantum-seconds -- isn't a sufficient answer to PvI's original dialectic, either. Sufficiently close discrete instants could by all means give rise to an apparent flow of time. They do in online video games, which are comprised by nothing more than discrete packets of 1's and 0's.

Moti Mizrahi

Marcus: As you know, I am definitely on board with making philosophy papers less tedious. As far as judgments about "importance," "usefulness," and the like are concerned, I have some doubts. After all, even science was once ridiculed as unimportant and useless (e.g., Swift's Gulliver's Travels).

The paradigmatic useless question, "How many angles can dance on the head of a pin?," strikes most of us as a waste of time probably because most of us don't believe that there are angles to begin with. But for someone who believes that there are angles, this question might be important after all.

My point, I guess, is this: we should aim to make philosophical work less tedious, not by filtering out questions, but rather by filtering out answers (e.g., those that are too long, rambling, sketchy, incoherent, etc.)



Is the head of this pin circular? If so, then of course there aren't any angles! ;)

Moti Mizrahi

Thanks, Matt! I meant angels, of course :)

Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa

I strongly disagree with the Onion Test criterion. Just about anything can be made to sound silly.

We wouldn't limit a biologist to research that makes for good coherent soundbytes that get to the heart of the matter in a way that makes it sound interesting. We shouldn't so limit a philosopher either.


I think this case is a good illustration of what worries me about all this talk of the profession being too tedious. As far as the first-order debate goes, Skow's paper takes a relatively unusual position in phil time. Whenever someone says that time flows, asking "oh yeah, then how fast does it flow?" is a traditional way to immediately end the debate. So someone who thinks that time flows has two options: give up, or try to respond to what everyone takes to be a fatal objection. Now, it may seem to you that the solution is obvious. It seems to me that it's wrong. But that's not the point. What's important is that if you're going to respond to a flip objection, then you're going to have to say some trivial things. The alternative is to say that flip objections should be the end of discussion in philosophy, and that seems wrong to me.

Along the same lines, I think the problem that I (and probably others) have with something like the Onion test is that the entire *point* of the Onion is to be flip. Satire *just is* a form of misrepresentation, so it hardly seems fair to judge some debate based on a misrepresentation of it. But I was told long ago that I have no sense of humor, and maybe that's what I'm missing here.

The real point I want to make, though, is that I (and probably others) are worried about placing restrictions on philosophical projects like this because 'is interesting' is a taste predicate if ever there was one. It would not be hard to convince me that vanilla ice cream objectively tastes better than fecal ice cream. I can't even imagine what it would mean for one thing to be objectively more interesting than another, philosophical project or otherwise. This is just driven home by the fact that I think Skow's paper is part of an interesting debate, whereas I think personal identity is the biggest snoozefest that philosophy has ever seen. But so what if I think that? That's why I don't work on personal identity.

But presumably people don't really mean 'interesting' when they say that philosophy debates need to be more interesting. They mean something more like Glymour's "valued by scientists", or our parents' "useful for getting a job". I find both of these notions horrifying proposals. Indeed, I can't think of any proposal that isn't scary to me: I, like many others, am studying what I'm studying because I find it completely enthralling. But I work in a small subfield that no one really ever talks about on blogs like Leiter or here. So if we try to make an "interestingness" criterion, there is no way in hell that my subfield is making it, because all that's going to track is popularity. And as Moti has pointed out, popular opinion has been wrong before (though I don't think I really needed to cite Moti to convince you of that).

Lewis Powell


I am not sure you realize that you are taking a range of controversial nominalist/conventionalist positions, lionizing them as the obvious correct answer, and then, basically, suggesting that anyone who disagrees with you is engaged in pointless, confused projects.

I worry that this particular axe you have to grind against metaphysics (and the frequency with which you use this blog to grind it) is inconsistent with the blog's mission of providing a safe and supportive forum for early career philosophers. If I were a graduate student or early career researcher working on material constitution, I would not find posts like this one (or any of the numerous others you have, trashing metaphysics) conducive to the safety or security of this forum.

Apart from that, the fact that you find certain answers to certain questions obvious does not seem like a particularly good reason for the rest of the profession to stop discussing those questions.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Lewis: fair point. Maybe I should stop grinding it. I guess my thought was that it's possible to grind these axes -- and discuss metaphilosophy --without being unsafe or unsupportive. I've always tried to say, "Look, I could be wrong about this stuff. I'm happy to listen to, and take seriously, dissenting views." Maintaining a safe-and-supportive forum while also venturing into controversial issues is a tough line to tow. Perhaps I've pushed the boundary too far here. In other words: I get your worry, so I'll cool it on this stuff.

J: point well taken. But I'm not sure you're right that judgments of importance are just matters of taste. We can, do, and (I think) should make judgments about what is or is not important. Why? Because, as philosophers, I assume none of us think we are seeking trivial truths, but rather philosophically important ones. And so there are always tacit -- and dare I say important (pardon the pun) -- assumptions about what is important. Assumptions that I think are worthy of discussion and debate.

Jonathan (and Moti): I should probably clarify something. I don't in any way mean to "limit" what philosophers examine. I say let a thousand flowers bloom. My point was about journals and professional acclaim. I want to say: the profession, including top journals, should attach priority to publishing/recognizing important stuff, as opposed to merely clever stuff.


I'm not sure about the Onion test, but I think there's some kind of important test that a lot of philosophy fails. Very often we're working with some model of some mysterious thing, such as, say, thoughts. The model has all kinds of interesting formal properties, cool implications, etc. (This is the "cleverness" part, often enough.) But the very basics are simply not understood. Think for example of how philosophers blithely speak of contents of people's thoughts as possible worlds, or operations of some kind on such entities. I suspect that no one has ever had any real grasp of the idea that in believing something -- believing that Nixon had a big nose, say -- one is somehow mentally involved with these mind-bogglingly complex, abstract entities. Are any of us smart enough to actually think about any one world, or more than a very small part or aspect of it? If not, how is it supposed to work that mundane beliefs are somehow modelled by relations to these things? I realize the question may sound a bit dumb or naive. That's my point. We don't really have more than a dumb, naive (mis)understanding of the basic concepts on the basis of which we then construct these theories and arguments. We just don't really know what we're talking about. Maybe it often feels tedious because we have a gut-level knowledge of this. We know the castles are built on sand, however pretty the architecture may be if you ignore the foundations. So we also know that, whatever may be fashionable this year, it'll probably crumble away shortly leaving nothing but the same old sand to play with...

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