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«DOI: 10.1080/05568640902933460 Published: 01/01/2009 Link to publication Citation for published version (APA): Hansson Wahlberg, T. (2009). 4-D ...»

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4-D Objects and Disposition Ascriptions

Hansson Wahlberg, Tobias

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Philosophical Papers



Published: 01/01/2009

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Citation for published version (APA):

Hansson Wahlberg, T. (2009). 4-D Objects and Disposition Ascriptions. Philosophical Papers, 38(1), 35-72. DOI:


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Download date: 16. Oct. 2016 Preprint version; published version appears in Philosophical Papers, 2009, Vol. 38, No. 1, pp. 35-72.

4-D Objects and Disposition Ascriptions Tobias Hansson Wahlberg Lund University Abstract Disposition ascription has been discussed a good deal over the last few decades, as has the revisionary metaphysical view of ordinary, persisting objects known as “four-dimensionalism”. However, philosophers have not merged these topics and asked whether four-dimensional objects can be proper subjects of dispositional predicates. This paper seeks to remedy this oversight. It argues that, by and large, four-dimensional objects are not suited to take dispositional predicates.

1. Introduction Disposition ascriptions abound. We say of objects that they are fragile, flexible, soluble, elastic, explosive, toxic, corrosive, magnetic, edible, charged, and so on. But not only are disposition ascriptions ubiquitous, they also play an important practical role in our daily life. If someone says “Careful, that one is explosive!”, then, unless we have very strong reasons for thinking that the object referred to does not satisfy the dispositional predicate, we will adapt our behavior accordingly. So suppose now that we are presented with a metaphysical theory of ordinary objects according to which they rarely, if ever, satisfy dispositional predicates. Would the presentation of such a theory lead us to change our behavior towards ordinary objects? Or would its counterintuitive implications lead us to reject the otherwise (we are supposing) theoretically fruitful metaphysical theory? Or would we perhaps persist with our old behavior, accepting at the same time that in reality most of our dispositional predicates are not true of ordinary objects?

In this paper I shall present what appears to be a telling test case: I will argue that standard four-dimensionalism – i.e. the view that ordinary objects are not threedimensional, enduring entities, but four-dimensional aggregates of temporal parts – is a theory of the kind just indicated: that is, it is a theory of ordinary objects according to which those objects rarely, if ever, satisfy dispositional predicates.

2. A taxonomy of dispositional predicates Dispositional predicates can be categorized into three broad (not mutually exclusive)


Di) Predicates that ascribe to the entity in question an ability to change intrinsically, while surviving, under certain conditions. Examples are “x is flexible”, “x is elastic”, and “x is inflatable”.

Dii) Predicates that ascribe to the entity in question an ability to perish in a specific way under certain conditions. Examples are “x is water-soluble”, “x is explosive” and “x is fragile”.

Diii) Predicates that ascribe to the entity in question an ability to affect entities distinct from itself under certain conditions. Examples are “x is poisonous”, “x is corrosive” and “x is magnetic”.1 In the subsequent sections I will argue the following: If the standard 4-D Formula for time-indexed predication (to be explained in Section 3) is accepted within the context of Perhaps a fourth category could have been included here, namely predicates ascribing to the entity in question an ability to change relationally. I think, however, that many would be hesitant about allowing such a category as a sub-category of dispositional predicates. Consider Ed. Ed’s only sibling, Liz, is childless. If Liz were to have a baby, Ed would become an uncle – a fact we might choose to express by saying that Ed is “uncle-able”. But does the fact that Ed is uncle-able mean that Ed has a disposition to become an uncle, in the sense that “x is uncle-able” is a dispositional predicate truly applied to Ed? That seems somewhat strained. Normally we think that the manifestation events of dispositions can be released only when the subject of the disposition ascription is situated in certain contexts. But Ed may become an uncle wherever he is, no matter how far he is from the stimulus event of his sibling having a baby.

Moreover, some would argue that becoming an uncle is not even a real event but merely a so-called Cambridge event, and that it therefore cannot constitute a genuine manifestation event. Given these reservations, I have decided not to consider this “fourth” category in this paper, although I believe that the problems pointed out in Section 4 and Section 5 apply readily to the predicates in it.

disposition ascription, four-dimensionalists will face serious difficulties with all the predicates in the first category and many of the predicates in the second and the third categories (Section 4). If, on the other hand, the standard 4-D Formula is rejected, and dispositional predicates are held to apply “non-derivatively” to four-dimensional objects (i.e. not via their temporal parts), predicates in the first and the third categories turn out to be applicable only if highly suspect counterfactuals are accepted; moreover, predicates in the second category now turn out to be straightforwardly unsatisfiable by fourdimensional objects (Section 5). Three-dimensional objects escape these difficulties (so I argue in Section 6). The paper ends with a survey of possible four-dimensionalist responses, all which are shown to be problematic (Section 7).

3. Four-dimensionalism

Four-dimensionalism is a revisionary theory about the metaphysical nature of ordinary, persisting objects, such as cars, trees, sticks and stones. It presupposes a certain conception of time, the so-called B-theory of time. We need to have a quick look at the B-theory before going on to consider four-dimensionalism.

The B-theory of time can be succinctly put as the conjunction of three theses:

(a) All times (times that from our position in time appear to be either present, past or future), and their contents, are ontologically on a par; together the co-existing times constitute a “timescape” or “block-universe”.

(b) There are no temporal properties of being present, being past or being future (the so-called “A-properties”), only the temporal relations of being earlier than, being later than and being simultaneous with (the so-called “B-relations”).

(c) A-statements (utterances of sentences containing tensed verbs and time adverbials such as “now”, “yesterday” and “tomorrow”) are made true by B-facts; the latter do not contain any A-properties and are most suitably described using Bsentences, i.e. sentences containing tenseless verbs and “B-times” (dates or clocktimes).2 On this view of time, which some philosophers argue is entailed by the special theory of relativity (e.g. Putnam, 1967), it is somewhat difficult to conceive of a persisting object as persisting by enduring, i.e. by being wholly present at different times as numerically the same entity. If all times are equally real, how can one and the same entity be wholly present at more than one time?3 Philosophers baffled by the question have tended to think that things located at different times must, strictly speaking, be distinct things. This raises the following problem, however: granted that we want to keep ordinary, persisting objects in our ontology, and granted that persistence involves identity through time, how can we allow for the existence of ordinary, persisting objects in this block-universe of ours?4 Four-dimensionalists typically propose the following answer: by identifying ordinary persisting objects with aggregates or mereological sums of the distinct things at the distinct times.5 More precisely, by identifying ordinary persisting objects with such four-dimensional aggregates or mereological sums whose temporal parts are Some clarificatory remarks are perhaps in order: what thesis (a) involves is basically a denial of there being, what is sometimes called, absolute Becoming and Disappearing: (a) denies that times and their contents come into existence and then cease to be; they simply are. Together the co-existing times constitute a fourth dimension along which the contents of the times exist “eternally”. What thesis (b) involves is basically a denial that there is a metaphysically privileged time: no time is the present, in some profound metaphysical sense. Rather, every time is present relative to itself. Expressions such as “at present” and “now” are to be understood as indexicals, analogous to spatial indexicals such as “here” or “this place” (or analogous to David Lewis’s indexical reading of “actual”). Together (a) and (b) constitute a denial of the idea that time flows, either in the sense of existence constantly changing or of there being a moving Now. Time simply consists in “static” or “eternal” B-relations. What thesis (c) involves is an affirmation that tensed statements have truth conditions along the lines of the following example: an utterance u of “e is past” is true iff e is located earlier than u; an utterance u of “e is present” is true iff e is simultaneous with u; an utterance u of “e will occur in future” is true iff e is later than u. For a book-length defense of the B-theory of time, see Mellor (1998).

Lewis, e.g., writes of the idea: “Endurance calls to mind two things. One is the power of spatial bilocation traditionally ascribed to saints. […] The other is the multiple location in both space and time that is ascribed to immanent universals” (Lewis, 2002, p. 3). Barker & Dowe (2003) go a step further and argue that the combination is contradictory; they are gainsaid, though, by McDaniel (2003) and Beebee & Rush (2003); see also Mellor (1998) for a general defense of endurance in a block-universe. The issue is controversial.

The so-called stage-theorists deny that persistence involves identity (numerical identity) through time.

They hold that persistence involves having temporal counterparts at other times. I discuss this “unorthodox” brand of four-dimensionalism (found in Sider [2001] and Hawley [2001]), in my (xxxx).

See e.g. Lewis (1983, p. 59; cf. 1986, pp. 202-204), Armstrong (1997, p. 102), and Goodman (1951, pp.


spatiotemporally continuous, related by causation, and roughly similar to each other (within the limits set by the relevant sortal S, which the persisting object falls under).6 The aggregates, moreover, are to be maximal: that is to say, no object falling under a “common sense” sortal S is allowed to be a proper part of an S.7 Without this restriction there would be problems with the diachronic counting of ordinary objects.

(How many tables were there in this room today? Only one, as the man on the street would say, or many indeed, as the four-dimensionalist who neglects the maximality principle would say?) Also, baptism would turn out to be a difficult project. (“I hereby name this ship ‘Al’!” Which of the myriads of ships, wholly or partly in front of me, got baptized?) On the four-dimensional picture, then, ordinary, persisting objects turn out to be entities that are extended and have proper parts, not only in the spatial dimensions, but in the temporal dimension too. Consequently, their persistence through time must be understood to consist in their having different temporal parts at different times: they must be taken to perdure through time.8 It should furthermore be noticed that if mainstream physics is correct about there being instants, ordinary persisting objects will turn out to have instantaneous (i.e. three-dimensional) temporal parts. In this paper I shall assume, like most four-dimensionalists, that modern physics is correct in this respect and consequently that objects are four-dimensional aggregates/sums of instantaneous temporal parts (fundamentally speaking).9 Philosophers disagree over whether the “unity” relation is reducible to/dependent on the components stated above or whether it is rather the other way round. Philosophers taking the first position also sometimes quarrel about how the respective components should be weighted. For discussion of the first issue, see Hawley (2001, ch. 3); on the second, see Armstrong (1997, ch. 7). (Again, Hawley is not an orthodox four-dimensionalist, but her chapter on “sticking stages [temporal parts] together” is completely general and applies equally well to standard four-dimensionalism). For the special case of persons – still a sort of physical object according to materialists – see Lewis (1983). It should also be mentioned here that four-dimensionalists who accept the principle of unrestricted mereological composition hold that, apart from the aggregates that correspond to the ordinary, persisting objects of common sense, there are “arbitrary” aggregates with wildly heterogeneous and scattered parts (see e.g. Goodman, 1951, pp. 46-47 and Lewis, 1986, p. 211); these entities, however, are not of interest for the purpose of this paper.

See e.g. Lewis (1983, p. 59); see also Hawley (2001, p. 40).

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