17 April 2013

Sometimes, it's hard to care about philosophy

An alert reader of mine, the astute Jonathan M.S. Pearce, commented the other day on my post about William Lane Craig and philosophies of time (the "substantival" versus the "relational" view of time) referencing an essay about something called the "block universe". I hadn't heard of it before, but essentially the block universe says that the past, present and future all exist and are equally real – basically meaning that time would just be a useful fiction that we use to measure the relationship between events (or points in space), rather than something that actually "exists".

I caught myself reading several lengthy essays on this stuff, reading all about "presentism" versus "eternalism" and all this other jibber jabber. I read quite a few chunks of Sean Carroll's book From Eternity to Here, which talks about all of these obscenely esoteric subjects in a lot of detail. My brain was being twisted in knots by all the bizarre possibilities of these different philosophical viewpoints, and I mulled over which, if any, were persuasive to me.

And then it hit me: Who fucking cares?

I subscribe to what Stephen Hawking coined as model-dependent realism. This says that there is no theory (or 'model')- dependent view of reality, and that it is essentially meaningless to mull philosophically over what's real and what isn't – all we can do is construct models of reality with less or more predictive and explanatory utility. That makes vastly more sense to me than any other philosophical proposition on the nature of reality that I've ever heard, and I've heard lots.

So when I thought back to presentism versus relationalism, it hit me that there's absolutely no way, quite possibly even in principle, to derive any kind of useful model of reality from this obscure gobbledygook. How could we demonstrate that the past doesn't exist, or that the future already exists? It's like William Lane Craig using the "Neo-Lorentzian interpretation of Special Relavity", which says that there actually is a privileged frame of reference in space-time – except it's totally undetectable and the claim can't possibly be falsified. Even if it's there, how could we know? And if we can't know, who cares?

What it all boils down to then is precisely what turns me off to a good deal of philosophy: it's just intellectual and linguistic masturbation. Like,  "If you take this word to mean that, just think of the implications! It totally transforms reality!" For the life of me I can't think of the least bit of pragmatic or scientific value in fussing over the A- versus B-theories of time, the substantival versus relational view of time, or presentism versus eternalism. Who fucking cares?

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