Source: pp 114-115, Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy (1 ed, 1999) by Simon Blackburn. See page 15 of 18. Please advise if I should reproduce two pictures omitted below (which I omitted to minimise post length).

But suppose you don't know what is going to happen, but it is known, perhaps to God. Or just: it is knowable. We think, as we deliberate, that the future is open, but the past fixed. But suppose the future is as fixed as the past is. Thus we think like this: [Picture omitted.]

-- where the arrows represent open possibilities, spreading out from now.
[1.] But perhaps this way of thinking is illusory. Perhaps the truth is only seen from a "God's eye view", or what has been called the "view from nowhen". From this perspective, time is laid out like a celluloid movie film; a frame of the film corresponds to the events at any one time. Given the way the world works, we can be aware only of past frames (sometimes people think that prophets can 'see' future frames). But there is no metaphysical asymmetry between past and future: [Picture omitted.]

If that's the truth, we might think, surely it is as useless trying to influence the future as it would be to try to influence the past. If God has this view, he must be looking at our efforts, and laughing.

Please explain the bolded: What is metaphysical about asymmetry?

From reading these few paragraphs (from The Big Questions: Philosophy, by Simon Blackburn), here is my conjecture of the meaning of [1]: Only God can accesses the 'view from nowhen', which resembles a movie film that can be unrolled infinitely and that already depicts our past and future as already having been decided. In contrast, humans see only the past and not the future.


It might be easier to explain this question's answer backwards.

The adjective "metaphysical" in the context of philosophy has both a large meaning and practically no meaning.

On what are called following McTaggart A-theories of time, there is a metaphysical difference between past and future. That difference means: things in the past have already happened and are set whereas things in the future have yet to happen. In terms of their metaphysics, the past existed (and exists now as the story of what happened), the present exists (has being, is real), and the future does not yet do so (the things that will exist then do not yet exist as that which exists then).

To make it a little more practical:

On an A-theory view,

The chair I was sitting in 5 minutes ago does not exist anymore.
The chair I am sitting in exists.
The chair I will be sitting in five minutes does not yet exist.
The fact that I was sitting in the chair 5 minutes ago continues to exist as a set fact.
The fact that I will be sitting in a chair in 5 minutes is meaningless.

Thus, past and future differ metaphysically. because past and future make it so that things in the past differ from things in the future.

B-theory of time:

The chair exists at time x 
The chair exists at time y
The time I am writing this is y.
The chair exists at time z

where x, y, and z are times. there's no difference in existing between x,y, and z. It doesn't matter that y marks now.

The use of the prefix "metaphysical" in "metaphysical asymmetry" is shorthand. Specifically, it's shorthand for the claim there's a metaphysical difference between things in the past and things in the future. Thus, on those views like the A-theory, it matters if something has or has not yet happened -- i.e. the "yet" indicates there's a flow to time where what has happened has a different character than what is happening or what is yet to happen (the precise nature of this character will vary depending on the view in question).

In contrast, in the "view from nowhere" theory there's nothing metaphysically different about what we call "past", "present", and "future". These are just synonyms for relative time markers and it's irrelevant to the truth of things whether these time markers lie ahead or behind the time marker of things we experience as present. Existence is unlinked on this account.

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  • Thanks. 1. Thus, past and future are metaphysical different because they make is so that things in the past : Does this sentence equal what you intended to write? 2. I do not understand The prefix "metaphysical" refers to the fact that there's a metaphysical difference so on this "view from nowhere" theory there's nothing metaphysically different about what we call "past", "present", and "future". The first independent clause states there's a metaphysical difference, but then the next states there's nothing metaphysically different? – Accounting Jan 24 '16 at 3:42
  • @LePressentiment I've done my best to revise the sections in question. They were unclear. – virmaior Jan 24 '16 at 6:27
  • Thanks for the revision. I modified one sentence which (I think) is not what you had intended? – Accounting Jan 27 '16 at 23:33

The term metaphysics has several meanings as virmaior explains. One meaning considers metaphysics a philosophical discipline with ontology as its main component.

Ontology deals with the concept of existence: Objects and situations are either real or possible or impossible.

The general understanding is that reality moves through time, it passes the observer: Objects and situations of the past did exist, objects and situations of the present just exist, while certain objects and situations in the future are possible or impossible, i.e. they can exist or cannot exist.

On the opposite, the view illustrated in your quote holds that all objects and situations just exist. It is the observer who moves through time. The example of the film is good illustration. The observer can neither change the future, nor the past, he is not an actor in the film.

Concerning ontology the latter view makes no difference between past, present and future. Reality is ontologically neutral with respect to the concept of time - I consider "neutral" here a better term than "symmetric". From the viewpoint of any observer there is no causal asymmetry concerning past and future, because he cannot influence neither. That’s a fundamental symmetry concerning the impossibility of causal interaction.

The view from your quote is also discussed in cosmology when dealing with the concept of spacetime. See Chapter 5 “The Frozen River. Does time flow?” in Greene, Brian: The Fabric of the Cosmos. 2004

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When you ask : "What is metaphysical about asymmetry?" it is important to note that it is not asymmetry that is metaphysical; rather it is our model of time that is metaphysical. We can model time in a number of ways as a linear ordering of successive moments.

In a symmetric model, usually called the block universe model, both the past and the future are fixed. This is expressed by saying that the model is symmetric and corresponds to the "God's eye view" being considered.

In an asymmetric model, usually called the growing block universe, the past is fixed while the future is open. Here the symmetry of past and future both being fixed is lost and we express this by saying that the model is asymmetric.

The God's eye view quoted corresponds to the symmetric model. Therefore, the author highlights that there is no metaphysical asymmetry between past and future since, in the God's eye view model, both past and future share the property of being fixed. The term "metaphysical" is used to express the metaphysical nature of our models of time.

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For free-will it is essential that a person does not believe the future is written. The future should be believed to be open, as your diagram depicts.

enter image description here

If any kind of being is supposed to exist that can see the 'written' future, and free-will is to exist, it would have to be from a dimensional perspective outside of time. For example, if the humans are brains-in-vats and all their life and free-will is played out in a virtual environment which another type of being can view at any time-frame.

There may be some irony that a promise of divine justice casts one's life into a virtual environment. As if to say one is not in the real world. Here is a follow-on Derria quote, for your interest:

The future is not present, but there is an opening onto it; and because there is a future, a context is always open. What we call opening of the context is another name for what is still to come.

Justice - or justice as it promises to be, beyond what it actually is - always has an eschatological dimension. I link up this value of eschatology with a certain value of messianism, in an attempt to free both dimensions from the religious and philosophical contents and manifestations usually attached to them: philosophical, for eschatology, the thought of the extreme, the eschaton; or religious, the messianism in the religions 'of the book'. Why do I claim that justice is eschatological and messianic, and that this is so a priori, even for the non-believer, even for someone who does not live according to a faith determined by Judeo-Christian-Islamic revelation? Perhaps because the appeal of the future that we spoke of a moment ago - which overflows any sort of ontological determination, which overflows everything that is and that is present, the entire field of being and beings, and the entire field of history - is committed to a promise or an appeal that goes beyond being and history. This is an extremity that is beyond any determinable end of being or of history, and this eschatology - as extreme beyond the extreme, as last beyond the last - has necessarily to be the only absolute opening towards the non-determinability of the future.

It is perhaps necessary to free the value of the future from the value of the 'horizon' that traditionally has been attached to it - a horizon being, as the Greek word indicates, a limit from which I pre-comprehend the future. I wait for it, I predetermine it, and thus I annul it. Teleology is, at bottom, the negation of the future, a way of knowing beforehand the form that will have to be taken by what is still to come.

(Jacques Derrida, "A Taste for the Secret", page 20)

To return to your question on symmetry, a human with free-will should believe in asymmetry. On a higher dimension of time this may be an illusion, and the virtual human environment may indeed be symmetric, but the what is the status of the 'real' higher dimension. Is it symmetric or asymmetric? or does the question no longer apply because of the nature of the higher dimension.

Either way, on the human level it would be an illusion to believe in symmetry because then one could not take choices or function at all.

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  • 1
    This seems to at a minimum be a really indirect way to answer the question. Is it really necessary to talk about free will in general and go an excursus to Derrida to explain what "metaphysical asymmetry between past and future" mean in general thought? – virmaior Jan 24 '16 at 6:29
  • In retrospect I was interested to introduce the thought that religious or spiritual faith is possible without the future being 'written'. There are just some aspects of religion that treat the future as 'written', and those aspects don't necessarily have to be accepted. – Chris Degnen Jan 24 '16 at 11:54

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