Causation and the Arrow of Time

Alexander R. Pruss
Baylor University
“We are always already thrown into concrete factual circumstances, facing possibilities that we need to come to grips with. By choosing some we exclude others, thus making them no longer possible. What we are thrown into is the past and present, and the possibilities loom ahead of us, though we may try to turn our back on them. The future is the home of the possibilities while the present and past define the circumstances in which we make our choices, circumstances we can no longer affect.” Or so we might say, and there is something right about this way of talking. Our basic conception of ourselves as agents is radically temporally asymmetric. And so we adopt asymmetric metaphors for time: we talk of time having a direction, as flowing from the future, through the present, to the past, closing possibilities that once were open; or perhaps we think of time as a measure of our own movement from the past to the future. Such metaphors are of very limited value. To think of time as having a direction spatializes time; to think of time as flowing or of ourselves as moving in time is to invite the question of how fast it is flowing or how fast we are moving (at one second per second, perhaps, one might quip, thereby inviting the question of why it cannot flow at two seconds per second instead).             Although the metaphors are flawed, we need to come to grips with an inextricable asymmetry between past and future in them. As agents, we deliberate about the future, while the past we can only bewail or rejoice over. We know the future not only through theoretical knowledge, but also through the intentional knowledge that the agent has of the effects she intends to produce. We think a life that started in years of sorrow but ended in great joy is preferable to one that started with a great joy and ended in years of sorrow..
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