Past, Present, and Future,
A Philosophical Essay

by Irwin C. Lieb,
Illinois University Press, 1991

Irwin C. Lieb (1925-1992), BA Princeton, 1947, MA Cornell, 1949, and PhD Yale, 1953, began teaching at the University of Texas, where I later knew him, in 1963. I considered attending UT in 1972, while Lieb was the Chairman of the Philosophy Department (1968-1972); and he seems to have remembered me when I did become a graduate student there in 1975. Meanwhile, he had become Vice-President and Dean of Graduate Studies (1975-1979). Nevertheless, despite the lofty administrative post, he was my advisor in the time until my dissertation committee was formed. He seems to have taken an interest in me because as a student he had read Leonard Nelson and was intrigued that I sought to promote Nelson through my work. His own work, however, did not seem to reflect any use of Nelson's Friesian philosophy.

In 1981, Lieb moved to the University of Southern California (USC), where he had administrative and teaching posts, including Vice President and Dean of the College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences (1982-1986). He gained some general notariety in 1983 by negotiating the emigration of seven Soviet Jewish scientists, "refuseniks," who had been denied exit visas from the Soviet Union. Spending considerable time in Los Angeles and then living there after graduating in 1985, I saw Lieb two or three times before he came down with cancer and passed away in 1992 -- aged a year younger than I am now in 2017. I did not realize how bad he was until receiving an invitation to attend his memorial service [note]. Lieb's friends called him "Chet," but I do not seem to have ever been that intimate.

In Austin, I had taken a seminar with Lieb on time, about which he was writing a book. The book took a while to complete, and it came out just a year before his death. His dedication apologizes for having taken so long. Since he had said a number of striking things about time in the seminar, I was looking forward to seeing the book when published. At first, however, I had some trouble getting into it. Later I met a philosophy professor from USC who had known Lieb and who didn't seem to think that the book was very good. However, perhaps with the greater wisdom, or patience, of age, I am now finding it more accessible and interesting. It has its flaws but also its virtues, not the least of which is such a sustained effort to tackle the subject in the first place. I think that there are few efforts in the history of philosophy to develop an extensive metaphysics of time. Lieb has done that, with a fair number of provocative claims and arguments, even if in the end I must judge the effort unsuccessful.

He also has written a book, without footnotes or bibliography, that pretty much ignores contemporary philosophy -- unlike most academic philosophy, where so-and-so who is at Columbia or Berkeley or Oxford, saying this, that, or the other, is often mentioned every sentence or so, with references opaque to anyone not in on recent literature or debates. Lieb's argument addresses Classical philosophers from Plato to Alfred North Whitehead, with the only exception that I see of Paul Weiss (1901-2002). And while we get his thanks in the "Acknowledgments" to several academic colleagues, the only one of the sort who appears in the text, at least identified by name, is Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000). Some recent doctrines are discussed, but without attribution. This practice appears to contradict Lieb's own advice to me, which was that my work didn't pay much attention to "current" problems and discussion. This, career-wise, wasn't "smart." Indeed, it wasn't.

But I did not find the popular preoccupations in academic philosophy either engaging or edifying, agreeing with Karl Popper's statement that recent philosophy involves a "concentration upon minutiae (upon 'puzzles') and especially upon the meanings of words; in brief .... scholasticism," and with Allan Bloom, who said, "Professors of these schools [i.e. positivism and ordinary language analysis] simply would not and could not talk about anything important, and they themselves do not represent a philosophic life for the students."

Thus, from the evidence of his book, Irwin Lieb did not practice what he preached. The result, however, does represent "a philosophic life." The seminar on time was the only class I had with him, and he was consistently engaging, witty, earnest, and provocative. I wish all my graduate seminars had been at such a level, both philosophically and pedagogically [note].

A basic problem with Lieb's book and his treatment of time is his unproblematic use of the divisions of time as "past, present, and future." As in the title. This is accepted without question, without discussion, and without comparison to any alternatives. Indeed, this is not unusual; and most philosophers dealing with anything about time would probably express some perplexity at the idea that there are any alternatives to the division of past, present, and future. Isn't this self-evident? Yet Lieb himself lived in a time, both as a student and a professor, of so-called "linguistic philosophy," when the role of language was a matter of intense concern in Anglo-American philosophy, and elsewhere, with whole systems built around particular claims about language. Theories and critiques about language sometimes replaced whole areas of philosophy, such as epistemology, metaphysics, or ethics.

Since most of "linguistic philosophy" was actually ill informed about natural languages and was little more than a smoke screen for the promotion of unrelated and generally discreditable philosophical doctrines -- the Logical Positivists were absolutely the worst in that regard -- I cannot count it as a fault that Lieb seems to ignore all of it in his book. Nevetheless, there is an area where informed knowledge about languages might have helped in dealing with time. This concerns the actual inflection of verbs for time, which may use a "tense" system of past, present, and future, an "aspect" system of aorist, perfect, and imperfect, both of those systems, or neither. Sometimes linguistic philosophers or people in linguistics like the idea that languages where verbs have no temporal inflection are used by people who have no awareness of time. This is absurd, but philosophers apparently have not carried that thought forward into the substantive and fruitful project of devoting attention to the aspect systems.

There is considerable irony in this. Languages with the most complete combination of tense and aspect systems include Modern English and Classical Greek. People in philosophy generally have some knowledge of one or the other of those languages but seem unaware of the aspect systems. And this is nothing new. Greek philosophers themselves did not notice the aspect system in their own language but began the tradition of thinking exclusively in terms of past, present, and future. Yet in the subjunctive and imperative moods, Greek verbs are only inflected for aspect. Thus, Aristotle's analysis of "future contingency" in On Interpretation would have been stronger and made better sense as "imperfect contingency." Yet Aristotle overlooked, we might say, this aspect of the matter. And it is noteworthy that to some linguistic philosophers, this should be impossible. Aristotle would have been required and compelled by the grammar of his language to think about aspect as well as tense. But he didn't -- which discredits certain claims in linguistic philosophy. Thus, the structure of his language did not compel him to think about the world, reflectively, in a certain way, despite using the language and its structure (unreflectively) every day of his life.

The further irony is that, while I have no idea how observant he was, Irwin Lieb was Jewish -- at least the memorial service for him that I attended was conducted by a rabbi -- and this probably means that as a child he studied Hebrew to a greater or lesser extent. But Hebrew is one of the languages that only inflects for aspect -- in fact, as is typical, only for the perfect and imperfect (often called "perfective" and "imperfective") aspects. This is not unusual, and this type of inflection can also be found in the related language of Arabic and in the (quite) unrelated languages Russian and Japanese. Thus Lieb, in order to be insensible of aspect inflection, needed to ignore his native language as an American, the language of his religion, and the language, Greek, with which, as a traditionally educated philosopher, he may well have had some kind of familiarity. Actually, the aspect system probably was not even identified as such in the grammar that used to be taught in primary and secondary education -- where now no grammar may be taught at all (it's elitist). At least, if Lieb had no interest in linguistic philosophy, his neglect might be understandable. But the linguistic philosophers themselves, sometimes openly contemptuous of natural languages (thanks to the Positivists), cannot have the same kind of excuse.

Well, one might think, so what? What difference does it make if we are aware of temporal aspect as well as tense? Well, time looks a bit different. The perfect and imperfect can both be used as present tenses. The perfect is for actions just completed ("we've just had dinner"), and the imperfect for those continuing ("we're having dinner right now"). But then the imperfect stretches into the future, and can be used for the future tense; and the perfect stretches into the past, and can be used for the past tense. Where ambiguity would be a problem, Arabic uses particles, , qad, to specify the perfect as past, and , sawfa, to specify the imperfect as future. This actually fits into Lieb's analysis and system better than the tense divisions. An important contention by Lieb is that the present contains two processes, the coming-to-be and the passing-away. Philosophers have mostly ignored the presence of the latter, and this duality is something that we just do not see in previous philosophy. So Lieb has an important insight.

But it is all the clearer what this means when we look at aspect rather than tense. There we already have the duality. Also, Lieb argues at length that the past and the future are real; but with the perfect and imperfect, the reality of the past and the future is already included when we affirm that the perfect and imperfect are real in the present. In the first place, this at least alters the terms of the metaphysical challenge. Thus, if we begin with the idea that things do not exist in the past and the future, then Lieb must argue that, in some sense, they do. On the other hand, if we allow that things exist in the perfect and imperfect, the problem contra Lieb, more challenging, is to argue how each aspect must itself be divided into the real and the unreal. The burden of proof has shifted, to Lieb's advantage. It is a shame that Lieb could derive no benefit from this.

Accepting the dualism of perfect and imperfect immediately suggests a connection to traditional metaphysics. In Aristotle, the substances of the world consist of form and matter. Form is what is actual (, actualitas), fixed, and definite. Matter is what is potential, possible, and powerful (, potentia). This opens a door big enough to drive a truck through. Form is obviously what is aspectually perfect. Matter is obviously what is aspectually imperfect. Just how this works is to be determined. Are perfect and imperfect time functions of form and matter; or is it the other way around? Which underlies which? Whichever it is, Lieb, tied to tenses, has missed his chance here, where traditional Aristotelian form and matter seem rather too passive and inert for what would be demanded of them. Without the tools of aspect in hand, it never occurs to Lieb to just upgrade the Aristotelian conceptions. The imperfect, as "matter," is future time flowing to the present, while the perfect, as "form," is present time flowing into the past -- even as Lieb says that "Aristotle's doctrine about the form and matter of substances can be thought of as a static analogue of this kind of forming, the inner and outer activity" [p.156]. The perfect and imperfect would animate the "static analogue."

To approach the major problems with Lieb's treatment, let me begin with a quote in medias res:

The past consists of what was becoming definite in a present; it became fully definite in being past. The past consists of what is fully actual. While individuals are present they are becoming definite and actual, and the completion of that process is their being past. Individuals are transformed when they become past, and the most prominent change in them is that their singularity is lost. In the present, individuals are singular and extended; they resist and oppose one another. They are spatial and outside one another. None of these features becomes past. What becomes past is the definiteness the individuals have achieved from inside themselves, and the definiteness of each individual is joined with the definiteness of all the other individuals that were their contemporaries. Together, they are the achieved definiteness of a moment of the entire world, joined to the past to which they have conformed. There is one whole past. There is no space in it and it has no length; duration and spatiality are only in a present time. [p.126]

Key features of Lieb's metaphysics are on display in this passage. Most important is the assertion of the actuality of the past, within which individuals remain actual, as they have been in the future and the present. Lieb's whole system is built on the actuality of individuals in past, present, and future. However, we note that there is something distinctive about individuals in the present. They are "singular," which is an attribute that they have achieved in the present but then lose, as asserted here, as they become past.

So what does it mean to be "singular"? Lieb really does never explain how this differs from being "individual," except that it is something that individuals are in the present but not otherwise. This is a problem because the "singular" in logic simply means an individual. Socrates, in not being a universal, is a singular. So Lieb's terminology is threatened with a redundancy and a distinction without a difference. But what would the difference be? Well, he uses "singular" where anyone else might use "exist." Individuals exist in the present, but not in the past or future. Since Lieb wants to say that the past and future, and their individuals, both exist as much as the present, he has some explaining to do; and I really don't see that he ever does it. Leaving the terms "individual" and "singular" where the only differentiation in the meaning is that "singular" is a substitute for "exists" may add up to no more than a bit of sophistry.

This is disastrous for his theory, since his most basic claims, and all of his argument and theory, are tied to it. Thus, if in becoming past, individuals lose their singularity, their extension, their causal interaction with others, and even their duration, why not just say they lose everything, as in "they cease to exist" and all their features disappear with them? What is preserved by the past, Lieb says, is the "definiteness" achieved in the present. Indeed, they only become "fully definite" in being past. However, this raises another difficulty. What difference does this full definiteness make? If individuals lose their capacity to "resist and oppose one anthoer," i.e. causally interact, then their "definiteness" cannot affect anything else and make any physical difference. It is lost, just as much as in the traditional view that things become nothing as they become past.

In the effect of the past on the present, Lieb is more than a little careless. He is sensible that the formation of the present is dependent on immediately past conditions; but in considering the "historical past" he does not carefully distinguish between the immediate past and the more remote past. The more remote past cannot have an effect on the present, as he concedes, except by way of causal products that still exist in the immediate past. Lieb can write about the information possessed by historians as though it has been directly caused by the remote past. He otherwise knows that this does not happen. The "weight of the past" consists only of causal fragments in the immediate past. That which fades from the immediate past can be immediately lost. In trying to reconstruct the past, we have evidence that suffers from the problem of a "noise to signal ratio." The noise increases over time, as the past becomes more remote, and this is a function of a fundamental law of nature, namely, entropy. Thus, the evidence that remains from the past, which is all that we have access to, erodes and decays, which means it becomes more chaotic as disorder overwhelms order.

With aspect, we can make a distinction that Lieb does not. The immediate past is, of course, the perfect aspect in the present. It is an active part of a causal event, representing the conditions that occasion the application and manifestation of a natural law, resulting in an effect; and it possesses the definiteness Lieb attributes to the past. However, the perfect aspect outside the present then constitutes the increasingly remote past, and it is not the active part of any causal event. It has lost all the features that Lieb has detailed; and even the definiteness that he says it retains and, apparently, perfects(!) is lost to any interaction with present individuals. That might leave us wondering, what difference does it make to say, as Lieb does, that the past exists? It's features are lost to any means of interaction with the present. Lieb can obscure this because the immediate and the remote past are lumped together, without the distinction we must make between the perfect aspect in the present and that which is not. So Lieb's argument for the existence of the past seems to rest on an ambiguity that is allowed by his neglect of temporal aspect, allowing him to speak of "the past" both in terms of active presence of the perfect and the inactive state of the remote past, which is the perfect aspect outside the present.

We see another peculiar feature of Lieb's theory in the following quote:

Singularity is a moment of the being of individuals, it is the present moment, and when individuals are singular they continuously reconstitute themselves as time continously passes into and through them, making them past. Individuals are not identical over a period of time in the same way that Aristotelian substances or [Paul] Weissian actualities are the same, without a change of their being; they are the same by reconstituting themselves, by forming their future being to continue what they already are, and by having what they already are continuously become more and more definite and then finally definite as past. Singular individuals are moments of self-formation in the being of individuals. The passing portions of individuals are their being as past contribute to this forming. They contribute to the growing definiteness in singular individuals. [p.155]

First of all, here we have a discussion of "singularity" that makes a number of assertions about it but does not clarify the obscurity of its nature or argue for the cogency of Lieb's use of the concept. Instead, we see another important feature of Lieb's theory, that individuals in the present are in the act of continuously "reconstituting themselves" as "moments of self-formation." They "continuously become more and more definite," but not completely so until they are past.

In all of this, Lieb is in effect in a running battle, not just with Aristotle and others, but with physics. Occasionally he notices that a scientific physical theory of matter is out there, but he avoids a direct confrontation, sometimes even seems to classify "atoms" or "particles" as not being "individuals" in the way that he uses the term, and on top of it sometimes even seems to confuse the terms of Greek Atomism with modern particle physics. Indeed, modern particles would not fit well in his theory.

The worst case for Lieb's whole theory is the nature of the photon. Photons are field quanta of electro-magnetism, have zero rest mass, and spontaneously move at the velocity of light. This means that, in terms of Special Relativity, time does not pass in the frame of reference of the photon. This reality, if it is one, threatens to falsify Lieb's entire theory of time. The passing of time is fundamental to Lieb's metaphysics, since individuals only remain "singular" in the present by "reconstituting themselves"; but according to Albert Einstein, time does not pass at the velocity of light. Photos cannot "reconstitute" themselves because they do not exist in the kind of time that allows for change. There can be no change if time does not pass. And, indeed, nothing about a photon changes in the course of its existence.

This is only the beginning of the trouble. Even a particle like an electron, which does not move at the velocity of light, possesses the characteristics of a classical substance. Lieb doesn't accept this. But a substance does not need to "reconstitute" itself because it endures through time in its essence. The character of a classical substance is that it is durable, separable, and identical. This fits electrons as well as Aristotelian substances. But if an electron as a Liebian "individual" must continuously "reconstitute" itself to endure, it is not clear what sort of physical process this could be. Indeed, physics will allow no such process. The electron endures because its character is defined by certain conserved physical properties, such as mass, lepton number, charge, etc. The position and momentum of the particle can change, without change in the nature of the particle. A physical process can change an electron into something else, but no physical process is necessary, or even possible, for an electron to endure as it is. This is now built into the foundations of physics.

It is not clear to me why Lieb needs to reject the conception of the classical substance. In the whole book, the impression we get of the passage of time is like a head wind, in which time blows out of the future, is processed by individuals in the present, and then blows away parts of them, or perhaps all of them, into the past. The idea that the wind might just whip around certain things, substances, doesn't seem worth considering. Why this commitment? The precedent seems to be Whitehead's "actual entities," whose momentary existence precludes substance but then also, as in Buddhist metaphysics, leaves the problem of identity. If a thing now is identical to the thing that existed a moment ago, or years ago, something must endure; but I do not think that Lieb addresses or considers this issue -- assuming the continuity of identity in individuals without responding to the "momentariness" difficulties that arise in the metaphysics of Whitehead or Buddhism. And if individuals consist of matter, then they are a sum of particles whose durability and identity is posited in modern physics (although individual identity can actually be lost in quantum superpositions).

Nowhere is Lieb's metaphysics so awkwardly shadowed by modern physics as in his treatment of Greek Atomism from pages 172 though 175. Although ostensively a discussion of Greek Atomism, at moments this also seems to encompass atoms or particles in recent physics, as when Lieb says about multiple "forces" that act on atoms that "Currently, there are thought to be even more" [p.173]. "Currently" what and by whom? He does not let us know. What is he talking about? I can't say. Indeed, the whole discussion of "forces," if it is only about Greek Atomism, seems to go well beyond the sophistication of Greek materialism yet is also pointless in badly misrepresenting what a "force" is in modern physics. A particularly confusing, or confused, passage is this:

It is difficult to understand how a moving atom transmits a force and how and when that force is efficacious. It seems that it should be efficacious all along or at least that it should be expended all along; it is implausible that a carried force should diminish or disappear and then increase or reappear when it is transmitted in a collision. Still, if a force is efficacious while it is carried in an atom, there is some question as to why it does not continuously accelerate the atom that carries it. When, where, and how impressed, latent, or potential forces are efficacious and why they are not dissipated is at best an obscure matter. We are uncertain, even now, what forces do. [p.173, color added]

The consolation that Lieb is only talking about Greek Atomism, if we wanted to comfort ourselves that way, is instantly exploded by the "even now" that is added here. One thing we certainly know is that a "force" is not "carried in an atom." In motion, a particle or atom, or macroscopic body, "carries" kinetic energy, not a "force." The "force" does not "diminish or disappear" or dissipate because of the principle of the conservation of energy. This is not an "obscure matter" but one of the most fundamental principles in physics.

It is not "difficult to understand" how a moving body transmits a force. As the application of a force may have accelerated the body to the velocity it possesses, a collision results in a deceleration (under the same Newtonian rule of F=ma), transmitting kenetic energy to the impacted body and accelerating it. This is Physics 101. Since neither body "carries" the force, no question arises about whether "it should be efficacious all along or at least that it should be expended all along." The force was already expended. Nor does any question arise over whether "it is implausible that a carried force should diminish or disappear and then increase or reappear when it is transmitted in a collision." Again, no "force" is "carried" by an atom, particle, or body. It cannot "diminish or disappear" because all that is "carried" by the body is energy, which is conserved and so cannot be created or destroyed. So no "force" needs to "increase or reappear" in a collision, since some or all of the kinetic energy of the body becomes the force that accelerates the impacted body. There is no "question as to why it does not continuously accelerate the atom that carries it." The atom "carries" no force, only kinetic energy.

Again, there is nothing obscure about this, as long as one is aware of the difference between force (the Newton, N=kg*m/s2) and energy (the Joule, J=kg*m2/s2). Since Lieb has no mention or discussion of energy in this passage, or indeed, as far as I have noticed, in the entire book, he is lacking the basic materials to answer the questions that he raises here. Nor can we, again, console ourselves that this is only the primitive physics of the Greek Atomists, for Lieb betrays his thinking that these issues have not changed since then and, if they had, he then owes us some treatment in the book of the modern physics of force and energy since, as energy is the ability to do work, it is requisite for any physical changes that would ever be evident with the passage of time. We don't get that treatment, nor any awareness that his constant assertions about the activity of individuals in the present has a physical reality requiring the passage, not just of time, but of physical energy. But since the durability of a photon or electron over time does not require the expenditure of energy, this is a falsifying embarrassment to his entire theory. There is also the not inconsiderable irony that the Aristotelian term for the actuality of a substance, , actually is the modern word "energy."

Lieb's discussion continues with more indications of confusion between past and present physics:

The time for the expenditure of forces is different. Forces are carried by atoms: an atom may transmit some or all of the forces that are in it, but it can never be without some force, and that force is always being expended on or from inside it. Inside an atom, then, there is always a passing expenditure of force, and no clocks or other motions can measure it. There is only an indirect measure of an amount of force, calculated by inferring the force from the motions of atoms. Since force is not dissipated, the total force for all the atoms is thought to remain the same, though there has been recent speculation that the quantity of force in a closed system of particles might be reduced over a period of time. [p.174, color added]

Any, perhaps fading, hope that Lieb is only talking about Greek Atomism cannot survive the references to force being "calculated," which the Greeks never did, and to "recent speculation," which cannot mean "recent" Greek Atomists. His paragraph continues with similar, painful confusion.

The situation within modern atoms is somewhat different than with the previous references to moving and colliding atoms. Atoms are indeed held together by forces, namely the strong nuclear force and the electromagnetic force that holds electrons to the nucleus. If this is what Lieb means, he doesn't make it very clear; and if so, he apparently does not understand that these forces are not "expended" and do not experience "a passing expenditure." That has no physical meaning. As long as the nucleus and the electrons maintain their charges, electrical force will hold the atom together; and since the charges are conserved quantities, they cannot be "dissipated." The forces they exert not only are "thought to remain the same" but must remain the same under the currently understood laws of physics. If there is some "recent speculation" that a "closed system of particles" can lose energy (not "force"), violating the conservation of energy, I have missed what it was all about. And Lieb, without footnotes, gives us no reference.

Just how bad this is, and how inexcusable, we can see in one last quote on this issue:

It is not a factual matter whether forces can be dissipated:  the classical notion of force precludes dissipation. A force that can be dissipated -- whatever "dissipation" means -- is a force differently construed:  it is a kind of thing that can cease to be or cease being expended, and so construed it also would have to be the kind of thing that can come about. [p.175, color added]

However, there is no "classical notion of force" that "precludes dissipation." Thus, there is no principle of the "conservation of force," and Lieb here must be, again, confusing "force" with energy. And since he keeps talking about forces being "dissipated," which in this case seems to be a phenomenon of his own imagination, he cannot just dismiss the idea with "whatever 'dissipation' means." It is his business to tell us what he means by it.

These considerable confusions conceal the challenge that physics represents to Lieb's theory. The principal issues involved are Lieb's rejection of the character of substances and his idea that the persistence of particles, atoms, and bodies over time requires, instead of substantive durability, that they "continuously reconstitute themselves." If the latter is a physical process, then there ought to be some physical theory and evidence of that, which will require an expenditure of energy. But there is nothing of the sort in physics, where the very idea of conserved quantities, like mass, charge, etc., violates Lieb's view of time in the present as requiring some sort of constant process just to preserve itself. So, for Lieb to preserve his theory, he is better off obscuring these problems and avoiding a direct confrontation with the modern principles of physics. It would have been better to ignore them altogether, but his confusion in the matter goes deep enough that he does not seem to realize how vulnerable he makes himself by wandering from Greek Atomism into what he obviously thinks is its modern equivalent. But modern physics is a world of difference from any Greek physics, Atomist or otherwise. And so Lieb seems genuinely unaware of the muddle that his treatment displays and produces.

Lieb's treatments of possibility and of natural law leave me confused about what his theory adds up to. Possibility and natural law are both about the power and potential of coming-to-be, which means the imperfect aspect and so, in Lieb's terms, the future. However, Lieb has some sort of problem with this, which I'm not sure I even understand. To get into it, let me look at some things Lieb says:

The idea that most helps us to understand them, discussed earlier, is that individuals have depth and that they act outward from their depths even while they are forming themselves anew in those depths. Individuals are not unchanging substances or actualities whose changes or actions are incidental to what they really are. They are always changing, and they are not distinct from their changes, but they also last, and they do this by reconstituting themselves continuously. [p.111]

We've already got some of this picture, but I have not previously mentioned the business of the "depth" within which individuals are "forming themselves anew." This metaphorical "depth" is never explained, as far as I can tell, in any literal terms. Lieb uses a lot of metaphor. Time comes from within these "depths" and passes outside individuals in the course of their becoming past. I have said that Lieb's view of time is like a head wind -- "Time comes into individuals" -- which we might think comes from the outside, somehow; but Lieb actually has it coming from within.

From this, we might get the idea that Lieb is using something like Aristotle's view of matter, which is the power, the , contained in individuals. But Lieb explicitly contradicts this:

Individuals have insides, they have depths, but they do not have reservoirs of power inside them. [p.112]

But if time from the future comes throught the "depths" of individuals, it is hard to see how the power and possibility of the future is not just such a "reservoir." But Lieb does not take advantage of this. I can't say that he has a more sensible alternative; and I think it is revealing that Lieb uses a word like "incidental" when the classical, Aristotelian theory of substance would say "accidental" (accidens) instead. Discussion of the structure of substance or essence (, essentia) and accident is something that we might expect from someone rejecting the classical idea of substance. But we don't get it. Otherwise, elaborating his ideas, we do get:

The passing time in individuals changes them by making them act outwardly and, as they act, by turning them inside out. Times does this as it itself passes outward from inside individuals to free itself from the hold individuals have on it. It thereby binds itself more closely with the time that had been inside other individuals and with the time that was outside them as the space of the present. [p.112]

The connection of time with space in this is entirely metaphorical and never given much of a literal explanation. Individuals getting turned "inside out" is a nice metaphor, but it is not something that we can literally see. The best I can do as an explanation is that as future time comes out of the "depths" into the present, it adds a new coming-to-be of the individual, when then, in passing outside, also passes into past time, adding and completing definiteness to the individual. Since real space only exists in the present, the coming-to-be of the individual empties into that, adding to the common pool created by all other individuals doing the same thing, in the present space that already existed outside them all in the first place. Elsewhere, Lieb has the idea that individuals dominate time in the future and that time overcomes individuals in the present and then dominates them in the past [p.114]. I can't say, after reading the whole book, what this really means. Metaphor dominates the theory. Individuals being turned "inside out" is a nice image, but I can't say what the literal metaphysics is supposed to amount it. Whether it is wind or water emptying out of individuals into the common space, we might want to know what that stuff is. Well, it's time; but then in a whole book of a theory about time, time remains essentially opaque.

Can possibilities explain that things change, or are changes better explained by the effectiveness of a real past rather than by something apart from time? [p.118]

Unfortunately, the proper metaphysical problem is not to ask "Can possibilities explain that things change," but to ask how our metaphysical theory can explain possibilities. Also, as we see here, Lieb's approach seems to be to load the answer into the past; but the past is actually devoid of possibility. It is fixed and definite, as Lieb admits himself. The future contains what is possible; and Aristotle's matter contains the power and potential of the future. Yet Lieb does not avail himself of what seems to me the quite obvious move, which is to collapse Lieb's idea of the actual future into the "depths" of Aristotelian matter, which is "inside" individuals precisely because it is the "underlying" thing -- -- of individuals. Despite repeated discussions of Aristotle, Lieb somehow never really gets into details like this.

We choose among possibilities, or we think we do, and we enact what we have chosen. [p.119]

Choosing and enacting themselves require power (, potens), which cannot be supplied by the past, where all is fixed, definite, and impotent. It is not at all obvious where this power comes from in Lieb's metaphysic. The obvious answer should be the "depths" where the indefiniteness and openness of the future pours into the indivdiual. But, as we have seen, individuals "do not have reservoirs of power inside them." So Lieb leaves us with a blank wall. And Lieb keeps adding bricks to that wall:

For Aristotle, the possibilities or potentialities of substances have no reality in themselves. The forms of everything that can possibly occur are already actualized in substances, somewhere and in some way... There is no separate domain of forms, no separate possibilies. [p.123]

Really? And why is this necessarily so? And if there is "no separate domain of... possibilties," what is the point of having a separate metaphysical domain of "matter" () that is really defined as containing "possibilities or potentialities"? Of course substances have no potentiality "in themselves" as substances, since the form () of substances is defined as the actuality () of things. It is the matter that does the job of containing the "possibilities or potentialities." But Lieb abandons Aristotelian matter as inert.

When Lieb says "separate domain of forms," he is probably thinking of Plato's World of Forms. While Plato's Forms contain all possibilities, a drawback of Plato's theory was always how the Forms themselves occasion change or the "participation" of individual things in the character of the Form. Impressing the Forms on things could be done by the "Demiurge" of the Timaeus, but while Plato's presentation was of the Creation, a theory of ongoing change would require that the Demiurge keep doing this, constantly. There are philosophers, Occasionalists, who have precisely that theory, specifically Malebranche and Spinoza. Thus, perhaps it is not surprising to find Lieb saying in his "Acknowledgments" that "there was a Spinozistic strain in my ideas" [p.257].

Lieb also acknowledges a debt "most of all" to Plato; and this may provide a clue for what is going on here. The "domain of forms" in its definiteness and fixity displays a perfect aspect, which is a feature of the past rather than the future. I have identified this as a bias and a mistake in Western metaphysics. If Lieb incongruously associates possibility with the past, it may reflect this bias. But in the World of Forms, the definiteness and fixity of the Forms means that possibility is really the same thing as necessity, since both are based on precisely the same objects and structure.

Such a theory therefore cannot distinguish between possibility and necessity. This is a grave failure in any metaphysical theory, and it is hard not to attribute a similar failure to Lieb. Apart from something that amounts to actual dismissal of "possibilities," he says almost nothing about necessity, and I'm not sure that his treatment of natural law adds up to anything intelligible.

Possibility, necessity, and natural law all require structures in the source of change. In Lieb's metaphysics, this must mean the future. His future, however, is all "indefinite," and this seems to preclude a structure that would restrict, require, or prohibit particular events. When Lieb says, "The forms of everything that can possibly occur are already actualized in substances," this is a description of Aristotle's metaphysics -- although I'm not sure Aristotle would really want to say this -- but it is not clear that Lieb actually accepts a version of this as referring to the definiteness found in the past. Both versions would mean that everything that can happen has already happened. This could be Nietzsche's "eternal recurrence," but it would be a foolish doctrine given what we know about novelty in the evolution of life, the development of history, and the new inventions in the course of technology -- let alone new ideas in philosophy and science, although, to be sure, it sometimes seems that philosophy does not have that much to show for itself. Again, with Lieb's metaphysics, it is not clear to me where there is a provision for real novelty.

The absurdity of Plato's Theory of Forms () was always the requirement that it covered all universals, natural and artificial, in concrete definiteness. Thus, Plato himself, in the Parmenides, was dismayed that the theory would require Forms for hair and dirt, which otherwise would not be consistent with the idea that the Forms represent perfection and beauty -- as long as the hair is in the shower drain rather than in the numinous glow of the shampoo commercials. And I don't doubt that many farmers and geological specialists in soils can wax eloquent about the beauty of dirt. But Plato's caution can be well taken. In our day, we would need to reflect on the necessity of Forms for televisions, dental floss, footballs, dildoes, and, really, limitless things. This begins to get silly.

So what can we do to correct Lieb's theory? The structure of possibility, necessity, natural law, and universals must reside where there is power, potential, and a sort of indefinite open-endedness. The possibility of televisions must reside in the natural laws that make its technology possible -- all the energy, materials, radiation, colors, etc. that are involved in the product and its functions. The analogies between a television camera, or any modern digital camera, and the vertebrate eye, with lens, focus, and electro-sensitive target surface, are unmistakable. We should also be conscious that camera is Latin for "room," since the photographic "camera" begins with the camera obscura, which simply projects images into a dark room, and that lens is Latin for the lentil (lentilis) bean, which was suggested by the shape of the glass created for magnification as least as early as the 13th century.

In Lieb's metaphysics, these characteristics could only reside in the future, with the reality of the future usefully restated in terms of the imperfect aspect, whose reality in the present is already and automatically included in the conception. What is required, then, is that this imperfect metaphysical foundation, which we can make the upgrade of Aristotelian matter and , is neither entirely definite nor entirely indefinite. It simply must contain abstract structures of necessity that will determine what is possible, impossible, and necessary. There is considerable mystery involved in this, especially when we reflect that out of open possibility emerge entire structures of order, emergent order, whose novelty and unpredictability were the very things that convinced Karl Popper that the course of history, and so the course of the very development of science, was itself radically unpredictable. We start to get the feeling that sky is the limit, even as the sky itself may be without limit. The imperfect aspect cannot be properly conceived without its openness, power, and unpredictablity conceded. The opposite of this, as clearly described by Popper himself, was the rigid and deterministic process of the Hegelian Dialectic, in which the future of history, science, philosophy, religion, and, presumably, technology could all be cranked out with multiple turns of the incoherent structure of Hegelian "logic" -- a conceit inherited by Marx. All of this would have been dismissed by Kant, of course, with his own terminology as der dialektische Schein, "Dialectical Illusion."

In these terms, Lieb ends his book, actually in the "Acknowledgments," with a curious statement:

The most general idea in this essay is that what is real is an unchanging totality; there can be no additions to it, and nothing can be taken from it. This does not mean, however, that things do not change and that there are no novelties. It means that all processes and the passage of time itself take place inside the otherwise unchanging totality. [p.257]

This is an extraordinary bite of speculative metaphysics. It am not sure what there was in the previous entire book that would be the basis for it, or even what kind of datum would enable Lieb to infer anything about "an unchanging totality." Also, it is not at all obvious how "an otherwise unchanging totality" would then actually allow for either real change or novelties. This goes unexplained, and something that wouldn't properly belong in the "Acknowledgments" anyway. Lieb does not seem sensitive to the incongruity between the terms "unchanging" and "novelties." There have been previous theories in metaphysics, as in Atomism or Empedocles, where apparent change and novelties also disappear in a reductionistic theory of "unchanging totality." But even Spinoza, whom Lieb mentions next (as I've noted above), for whom God is certainty the "totality" of reality, doesn't necessarily believe in an "unchanging" totality -- that would all depend on whether judgments about God's "perfection" allow or require novelties or not -- just the sort of muddle Kant could avoid.

Lieb's own reductionism is a metaphysics of "individuals" and "time" -- individuals who somehow become "singular," i.e. "individual," in the present, and where time somehow also produces space in the present, but not elsewhere. How individuals and time then add up to "an unchanging totality" I have not a clue. Nevertheless, however arbitrary or perplexing Lieb's ideas often seem to be, there is a fair amount here that, mutatis mutandis, we can put to use. Altering our perspective from tense to aspect is a revolution for which it is not Lieb alone who represents the ancien régime. This profoundly alters the metaphysical value that Lieb could have derived from both Plato and Aristotle, with fix-ups that I have considering going along. After all, the idea that future time arrives inside individuals and flows out makes a lot more sense if we are talking, as Lieb is not, about an upgrade of Aristotelian matter. So we have multiple "paths not taken" with Lieb, and also a number of opaque claims and assertions, like the "unchanging totality" business itself, that need to be either motivated or rejected.

So I cannot say, and I am sorry, that Lieb has written a great book of enduring value. But it is a challenging book, although sometimes just with points of serious obscurity, and provides food for thought. Something of the sort, and a great deal more, is certainly needed for the metaphysics of time, whose real mystery continues to elude us.

Tense and Aspect in English and Greek

The Metaphysics of Possibility

Childhood's End, the Mystery of Order



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Past, Present, and Future, by Irwin C. Lieb; Note 1

One of my last contacts with Lieb was his response to the article I had just written, "Non-Intuitive Immediate Knowledge," for the journal Ratio in December 1987. He said it was "strong," but I don't remember any other positive or critical comment. This remains my only work published in a proper philosophy journal, the last number of the original Ratio. I'm not sure I heard from Lieb again after that response, and my attention was distracted by my new teaching job, and then marriage.

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Past, Present, and Future, by Irwin C. Lieb; Note 2

Two episodes stand out in my memory of this class. One was when Lieb arranged a visit by the physicist E.C. George Sudarshan (b.1931), the originator of the idea of "tachyons," hypothetical particles that travel faster than the velocity of light. Although no such particles have been observed, they are now a standard part of science fiction. It sounded like Sudarshan was a personal friend of Lieb's. His most striking comment to the class was that the equations of Relativity look like those of fluid mechanics. So space-time was something that flowed, like water. In his theory, Lieb seems to think of time like that.

The other episode was simply a story that Lieb told. During a visit on a nuclear submarine -- I don't remember that Lieb clarified what he was doing there (he had been in the Navy during WWII, although as an aviator) -- the ship was diving. The hatch above the conning tower evidently had not closed properly, and water began to rain down on the bridge crew. The point of Lieb's story was about command. The dive was being conducted by the Officer of the Watch, or of the "Deck," the OOD (which may be rendered "Office of the Day" when the ship is in port). The Captain of the ship waited a long moment for the OOD to give the commands to reverse the dive and surface the ship. But the OOD had frozen, as can happen. Giving the officer his chance, the Captain then took charge and, well, saved the ship. Watch officers are usually, in effect, in training. There is even an officer-in-training under the Officer of the Watch, the JOOD or "Junior Officer of the Deck." I've forgotten the context of the story, but the picture of the scene and the issue made a strong impression. Years later I saw a documentary about a nuclear submarine. The order "submerge the ship" was given by the Captain, and then -- something never shown in movies -- the order passed down the chain of command, and the acknowledgments came back up, more like the scene of shooting the noon sun in a Patrick O'Brian novel.

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