Events, Topology and Temporal Relations

The Monist 79 (1):89--116 (1996)
Abstract
We are used to regarding actions and other events, such as Brutus’ stabbing of Caesar or the sinking of the Titanic, as occupying intervals of some underlying linearly ordered temporal dimension. This attitude is so natural and compelling that one is tempted to disregard the obvious difference between time periods and actual happenings in favor of the former: events become mere “intervals cum description”.1 On the other hand, in ordinary circumstances the point of talking about time is to talk about what actually happens or might happen at some time or another. We talk about ‘now’ and ‘then’ in an effort to put some order in our description of what goes on. And since different events seem to overlap in so many different ways, a full account of their temporal relations seems to run afoul of a reductionist strategy. This raises two philosophical questions. The first is whether we can actually go beyond time, as it were, i.e., whether we can take events as bona fide entities and deal with them directly, just as we can deal with spatial entities such as physical bodies or masses without confining ourselves to their spatial representations. This is a controversial issue (though probably not as controversial as it used to be), and ties in with a number of unsettled problems concerning, e.g., the structure of causality or the definition of adequate identity and individuation criteria for events. 2 The second question is whether we can perhaps do without time, i.e., whether we can dispense with time points or intervals as an independent ontological category and focus only on actual or potential happenings, in opposition to the form of reductionism mentioned above—in short, whether we can account for the temporal dimension in terms of suitable relations among events. This is also a highly controversial issue, and relates to the classical dispute concerning relational vs. absolutist conceptions of (space and) time.3 It is this second question that we intend to focus on here..
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