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pathways (letters)

27 March 1998

Dear George,

Thank you for your letter of 17 March, with your essay, 'Some Aspects of Time'.

You are right to distinguish, in your letter, between the regret, or sorrow, or sadness that one feels at the thought of the things that make life desirable no longer occurring, and the dread or awe that one feels faced with the prospect of one's non-existence as such. It is the second, rather than the first, that I understand by the 'fear of death' (or, the 'fear of death as such').

It is of course true that we cannot rule out the possibility that when our bodies die, we shall find our selves still alive in some other form. This is the basis of Pascal's famous wager. Assign any probability to the hypothesis that you have an immortal soul, low as you like. Given that the punishment for disbelief in God, or disobedience to His commands is everlasting torment (you can assign a probability to that too, if you like), then the risk, howsoever small you calculate it to be, is not worth taking. The rational thing is to believe and to strive to live a virtuous life.

Apart from the possibility that I shall outlast the death of my physical body, however, I can't see any grounds for 'anticipation' or 'excitement'. Perhaps there is, though, a sense of excitement at the prospect of that very last journey that one takes on one's death bed.

— o O o —

We had a schoolmaster at my prep school who used to ask, 'How goes the enemy?' 'Twenty past eleven, Sir.' It is curious, this personification of time. My day is ruled by the clock. Between dropping the two elder girls at primary school and the youngest at nursery, then picking them up again, I have about five hours for a 'day's' work. Sometimes the enemy is a slow computer, sometimes one of those niggling tasks that eats up far more time than I expected, or sometimes doors locked by the cleaners, or lifts that won't come.

One philosopher remarks in his book on time that time is a 'promiscuous concept'. It gets into so many questions. In your essay, you raise quite a number that had not occurred to me as included in the philosophical problems of time, although they are certainly matters of human concern.

Are there, though, questions about time that are central, questions that cannot be re-phrased as questions about the things we do in time, or the things that occur in time and so on? For me, there are two main questions that stand out. One concerns the reality of the past. It is a worry analogous to Berkeley's attack on the reality of 'things outside the mind', and perhaps one that does not strike most persons as a serious problem. But it is by no means a problem dreamed up by academic philosophers...

The second problem arises from our awareness of the 'nowness of now'. There is no true statement that one can make that captures the truth that the time is now. (Just as there is no true statement one can make that captures the truth that there is such a person as I.) It is the sheer fact of perspective, temporal or personal. You await an event that lies in the future. Then it is happening. Then it has happened. The difference seems to be not in the world itself but somehow in us. Yet how can that be?

Regarding Relativity, I don't see how it is possible to make the basic point without some minimal use of maths. Books which try to avoid maths altogether give an impression of understanding. I must confess, I have read and 'understood' accounts of relativity, with and without the maths (Einstein wrote a surprisingly accessible introduction, there is also one by Bertrand Russell) and still find that something eludes me. It is as if one knows what one has to say but no clear picture corresponds to it. (To which the physicist would reply that we should give up trying to form a 'picture'.)

Richard Swinburne in Space and Time emphasises the valuable point that relativity is an empirical theory. Philosophical argument over 'absolute' vs. 'relative' conceptions of space and time does not require any assumptions concerning the factual truth or falsity of that theory. (In the terminology of possible worlds, if a philosophical theory of space or of time is true it is true in all possible worlds. Whereas the truth of the theory of relativity is simply its truth in the actual world. In other possible worlds, the physical laws might have been such as to make Newton's theory true.)

I owe you a tutor's report on the work you have done for the Pathways course and a certificate. I shall send those shortly!

Yours sincerely,

Geoffrey Klempner