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A Short Argument for Eternalism


A Short Argument for Eternalism


Scott Ryan


I present a very short argument that some version of eternalism must be true. The argument in brief is that temporal relations must be either real or unreal (that is, must either obtain or fail to obtain between moments of experience at different times); that if they are not real, then eternalism is trivially true; and that if they are real, then eternalism must be true in order for them to obtain.

By eternalism we shall mean here that there is some significant sense in which all of time exists tenselessly, timelessly, or eternally—that, in short, the more-or-less common-sensical view that the present moment winks into existence out of nothingness and then winks out again is false. As T.L.S. Sprigge notes in his essay “The Unreality of Time,” eternalism need not be taken to mean that time is literally unreal; it can be understood as a claim about what time is really like, i.e., the true nature of whatever it is in the real world that answers to the name of “time.” We are not concerned here with variants of the eternalist view, and our argument does not claim to tell us which version is the correct one.

Partly in order to avoid questions of relativistic physics and partly because I tend to agree with Sprigge that the noumenal reality behind the phenomenal physical world consists of innumerable finite centers of experience, I shall focus here specifically on moments of experience rather than events in physical spacetime.

Consider two such moments, for example my eating of a peanut butter sandwich for lunch yesterday and my recollection of that experience today. It seems unproblematic to say that the first moment of experience temporally precedes the second. There seems to be a real relation between the two such that the first comes before the second and the second comes after the first.

The question for the non-eternalist is whether that temporal relation really obtains. If “before” and “after” are not real relations, relations that in fact obtain between two objectively existing moments of consciousness, then it seems that time is unreal and eternalism follows trivially.

But if they do obtain, then the non-eternalist faces a worse difficulty. For if all that is ever real is the present moment, then there is never a time at which both moments of experience exist, and so at least one of the relata always fails to exist. Granting that my eating of the peanut butter sandwich yesterday does not exist now, if there is no sense in which it exists timelessly, then it simply isn’t “there” to be in a relation of “coming before” to the moment of my recollection. If past and present never coexist in any eternal sense whatsoever, then it should be simply meaningless to say that one comes “before” the other; the past simply fails to exist, and therefore can’t be “related” to anything.

A non-eternalist might reply to this argument by saying that the past does continue to exist, but only as past—that when the Moving Finger, having writ, moves on, each moment acquires a quality of “pastness” that differentiates it from the present moment without making it fall out of existence altogether.

I think this will not do, primarily for the reason Sprigge makes clear in his essay. My experience of eating a peanut butter sandwich has a certain quality of presentness that is simply part and parcel of the experience; without that quality the experience would not be what it is/was, and indeed would arguably not be an “experience” at all. (Sprigge’s own example, which has the advantage of great vividness, is a toothache.) If that moment of experience is not eternally “there” with that very quality of presentness, then it is no longer available as a temporal relatum, and when I say that the experience of eating the sandwich comes “before” my recollection of it, I am referring not to the experience itself (which no longer exists qua experience) but to its ghost. Surely this is not what we mean to say when we say one experience precedes another; the view that began by apparently cleaving to common sense in the end departs from it egregiously.

Unless some version of eternalism is true, then, we cannot even meaningfully say that one moment of experience precedes or follows another. That seems to be a pretty big problem for non-eternalists.


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