Tensed Belief

Dissertation, University of California Santa Barbara (2011)
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Human beings seem to capture time and the temporal properties of events and things in thought by having beliefs usually expressed with statements using tense, or notions such as ‘now’, ‘past’ or ‘future’. Tensed beliefs like these seem indispensable for correct reasoning and timely action. For instance, my belief that my root canal is over seems inexpressible with a statement that does not use tense or a temporal indexical. However, the dominant view on the nature of time is that it forms, with space, a four-dimensional continuum where time does not encompass private perspectives or an absolute, fixed present. This ‘tenseless’ theory of time encounters a challenge in integrating tensed belief, because it cannot easily explain what constitutes a tensed belief in a tenseless world and how such a belief works inside our cognitive network to bring about the actions it does. Providing such an account is the main goal of this dissertation. I argue here that the correct way to proceed would be to utilize philosophical theories dealing with indexicality, as the puzzling features of tensed belief are shared with beliefs expressed by first-person or spatial indexicals. In chapters II and III I expand the dominant theories about indexicality (Lewis, Perry, Kaplan) and apply them to tensed belief. I show that each is in certain respects incomplete or inadequate. My preferred account critiques the preceding theories as mis-attributing the indexicality involved to a fully conceptual element in the way people think about time. I argue that we should instead connect tensed belief to not fully conceptual elements thought. For support I turn to work in perceptual psychology that connects beliefs about space to perceptions of spatial features. In chapter IV I develop an analogous argument about temporal thought and discuss how mental representations involved in perceptions are constitutively related to the formation and preservation of tensed beliefs. Combining this story with a tenseless theory of time should give us a complete, metaphysically uncontroversial, account of the way a tensed belief functions in reasoning and produces timely action.
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