Future Contingents and the Logic of Temporal Omniscience

Noûs 55 (1):102-127 (2021)
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At least since Aristotle’s famous 'sea-battle' passages in On Interpretation 9, some substantial minority of philosophers has been attracted to the doctrine of the open future--the doctrine that future contingent statements are not true. But, prima facie, such views seem inconsistent with the following intuition: if something has happened, then (looking back) it was the case that it would happen. How can it be that, looking forwards, it isn’t true that there will be a sea battle, while also being true that, looking backwards, it was the case that there would be a sea battle? This tension forms, in large part, what might be called the problem of future contingents. A dominant trend in temporal logic and semantic theorizing about future contingents seeks to validate both intuitions. Theorists in this tradition--including some interpretations of Aristotle, but paradigmatically, Thomason (1970), as well as more recent developments in Belnap, et. al (2001) and MacFarlane (2003, 2014)--have argued that the apparent tension between the intuitions is in fact merely apparent. In short, such theorists seek to maintain both of the following two theses: (i) the open future: Future contingents are not true, and (ii) retro-closure: From the fact that something is true, it follows that it was the case that it would be true. It is well-known that reflection on the problem of future contingents has in many ways been inspired by importantly parallel issues regarding divine foreknowledge and indeterminism. In this paper, we take up this perspective, and ask what accepting both the open future and retro-closure predicts about omniscience. When we theorize about a perfect knower, we are theorizing about what an ideal agent ought to believe. Our contention is that there isn’t an acceptable view of ideally rational belief given the assumptions of the open future and retro-closure, and thus this casts doubt on the conjunction of those assumptions.

Author Profiles

Brian Rabern
University of Edinburgh
Patrick Todd
University of Edinburgh


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