Questions from McTaggart, Part 1

Folks, it’s time for some summer fun.  And everyone knows what that means — it means McTaggart!

Here’s a question McTaggart wondered about.  McTaggart’s discussion of the question appears in The Nature of Existence, vol II., Chapter LXVII. 

Suppose that pleasure is intrinsically good, and that the value of a pleasure is partially a function of how long it lasts.  If there are two pleasures, p1 and p2, that are otherwise equal, but p2 lasts twice as long as p1, then p2 is twice as good as p1. 

Suppose also that there are timeless persons, i.e., persons that exist but do not exist in time.  Suppose one of those persons has a feeling of pleasure.  How intrinsically valuable is that feeling?

(Grant that we can make sense of timeless persons having mental states.)

McTaggart thinks that the answer is "infinitely valuable", regardless of the intensity of the pleasure.  Is he right?

11 Replies to “Questions from McTaggart, Part 1

  1. If we hold (incorrectly, I would think) that the value of a pleasure is entirely a function of how long it lasts, then it looks like there’s no principled way of assigning a value to a timeless pleasure. How could you? Call it infinitely valuable or call it worthless. Or say that it’s worth 9.758 utils. Any answer is as good as any other.
    But the value of a pleasure probably depends on more than just duration. So pick whichever additional factors you like: the intensity of the pleasure, the type of pleasure, the source of the pleasure, or whatever. Now consider two pleasures, p_5sec and p_timeless, which are identical in all of these additional respects. (Say, each is the pleasure of eating a grape jelly bean that was purchased with one’s hard earned cash). The only difference between them is that p_5sec lasts for 5 seconds and p_timeless is timeless. So how do we compare the two? It looks like we don’t! We can, in principle, compute the value of p_5sec. But we cannot, in principle, compute the value of p_timeless, since one of the parameters is simply missing.
    This leads me to suspect that talk of timeless pleasure is a mistake. What is a pleasure anyway? Is it a type of experience? I suspect that experiences are necessarily temporal. i.e., They are the kinds of things that exist in time and have a duration. That there are no timeless pleasures strikes me as a reasonable line to take.

  2. I have no idea how to answer this question. It may not be an accident that the only instance of a timeless person that has ever been defended by anyone, namely God, is also supposed to be pure act and not the passive subject of experiences or feelings, properly speaking.

  3. Hi Heath,
    Not so! McTaggart held that time is unreal, that there are selves, that selves feel pleasure, love, have knowledge, and perception.
    Also, not all theists who think that God is outside of time buy the claim that God is pure actuality either.
    But I’m with you — I’m having a very hard time here. Unlike Alex, I don’t think that any answer is as good as any other. 9.87 utils is not a good answer. Any finite amount of utils seems equally arbitrary. That leaves the following possibilities:
    1) it is equal to the value of an instantaneous pleasure (other values, such as intensity, kind, whatnot, being equal).
    2) it is equal to the value of an infinitely long pleasure. (McTaggart’s answer)
    3) it is of no value
    4) its value is incommensurate with the value of any pleasure that occurs in time.
    Option 1 might seem initially attractive, since it might seem that both an instantaneous pleasure and a timeless pleasure have a zero duration. But I think there is a metaphysical difference between having 0-units of a quantity and not having it at all, so I’m unmoved by this consideration.
    I’m not too into option 3 — since a timeless pleasure is a pleasure, it ought to have some value.
    I’m liking option 4 best right now. It’s one McT didn’t consider.

  4. Kris, why does being ‘arbitrary’ rule out an answer as being a good (in the sense of possibly correct) answer? I guess I can see why it does, if we assign values. We’d need a reason to assign 9.87 utils, and there isn’t one. Is that what you were thinking?

    I think there is a metaphysical difference between having 0-units of a quantity and not having it at all.

    Can you explain? For example, does a photon have zero rest mass, or does it not have rest mass at all? Does a mushroom have zero units of intelligence, or does it not have intelligence at all?

  5. Consider this proposition:
    McP: If (pleasure is intrinsically good & longer lasting pleasures are ceteris paribus intrinsically better), then a timeless person’s pleasures are infinitely valuable.
    I suspect that McP has a false antecedent. The trouble is with the first conjunct.
    First, though I won’t argue for it here, I do not think that pleasure is intrinsically good in the sense specified by Moore. That is: I do not think that pleasure is good-in-itself (i.e., “good from the point of view of the universe”), no matter who experiences it, no matter what anyone wants or values or believes, and no matter what its consequences. For various reasons, I believe that this concept of intrinsic value is uninstantiated: it ain’t true of nothin’.
    Second, let us evaluate McP as if it were using a welfare-related notion of intrinsic value (“non-instrumentally good for S”).
    The experience of pleasure might invariably augment the well-being of certain sorts of organisms. Perhaps it is even true of human beings that, if they experience an episode of pleasure, then that directly benefits them to some degree (even if it happens to cause other things that are directly bad for them). But the discussion of well-being presupposes a great deal of context. In particular, we need to understand the nature of the beneficiary (the thing that supposedly can be benefitted or harmed). Exactly what is it? Can it act? Can it think? Is it alive? What is a normal life like for this sort of thing?
    On my view, pleasure fits into the human motivational / agential profile in a way that allows us to say that, yes, it is directly beneficial to a human person to experience pleasure, at least to some small degree, even if they don’t want it. Others will no doubt disagree. But we cannot say that pleasure is absolutely, and in any context whatsoever, directly beneficial for any type of creature.
    What if we confine our attention exclusively to the entity in question: a timeless person. Would pleasure be good for a person existing outside of time?
    Is it coherent to think that there are things existing outside of time? Not on certain nominalistic metaphysical pictures. Even if it were coherent, could a person be such a thing? Probably not: personhood involves agency which involves action. How can action take place without time? Is it coherent to think that one of these purported timeless persons could experience pleasure? I think Alex is correct to believe that pleasure is necessarily a psychological state that applies only to creatures existing within time. If a timeless person could experience pleasure, would the pleasure be good for it? Again, we’d need to know a lot more, even if we were just trying to write the script for a really far-out (coherent) cartoon. Where did this thing come from? Does it have goals? Can it know things? Is it mortal?
    This is the sort of question that gives philosophers a bad reputation. It’s just too abstract and detached from reality for us to have any traction.

  6. Hi Jason,
    I’m trying to destroy the profession bit by bit, one blog entry at a time. More seriously, I don’t think we should be worrying about our reputation, especially when doing history of philosophy. The view that there are timeless entities is coherent, and maybe even true. Whether timeless persons are possible is something I’m not inclined to be dogmatic about. In any event, if you feel you need to know more, the script has already been written — but be warned, volume II alone is 479 pages.

  7. The first graduate course I took was on McTaggert and Gustav Bergmann and the possibility of an ideal language. Still get a headache after @ 40 years when I think of that course.
    Anyway, question: If some being exists outside of time could it have the concept of ‘lasts?’ I take it that concepts dealing with time make sense (they can be developed) only in a world where beings are experiencing time. If beings outside of time are having a feeling it would seem to have to be an ‘immediate’ sensation’ it simply would be. They could not have memories of the experience because memories require time concepts. This being the case their concept of ‘intrinsic’ would not include time concepts so the feeling could still have intrinsic value for them because they define ‘intrinsic’ without reference to time concepts.

  8. Hi Jamie,
    On the question of zero-unit quantities, I’m going to refer you to a nice paper by Yuri Balashov on the topic:
    http://www.phil.uga.edu/faculty/balashov/papers/zero-j.pdf
    (Balashov is not the first person to recognize zero-value quantities, but his arguments are very sophisticated. As a side note, McTaggart agrees that there is a difference — see section 811 of the Nature of Existence volume II.)
    Arbitrariness: Maybe I should back off a bit here. It might be the case that, for any particular n, we could have no justification for holding that a timeless pleasure has the same value as a pleasure of duration n. But it might be that we are justified in holding that there is some n such that the value of a timeless pleasure = the value of a pleasure with duration n.
    Suppose you hold that knowledge and pleasure are both intrinsically valuable, and that there is always a determinate fact of the matter whether a particular item of pleasure is greater, less, or equal in value to a particular bit of knowledge. You might think you could have good evidence for a theory like this, without thinking yourself to have good evidence for many (or even any) particular comparative judgments of value — especially since you can’t offer an explanation of why this bit of knowledge is equal in value to this pleasure of length as opposed to length n-1.
    So let me say this instead: answers 1, 2, 4 above strike me as better answers then the claim that there is some n such that a timeless pleasure has the value of pleasures of n duration.

  9. I can’t help but think it’s weird that the correct answer to the question is that the pleasure is infinitely valuable regardless of its intensity. (And surely its propinquity should matter!)
    I also can’t see the relevance of this piece of information to answering the question:
    If there are two pleasures, p1 and p2, that are otherwise equal, but p2 lasts twice as long as p1, then p2 is twice as good as p1.
    I thought that there was a difference between being timeless and having a life of infinite duration. The former is a matter of standing in no temporal relations, but the latter is not. It seems that if a being stands in no temporal relations, I can’t see that it makes much sense to try to say that states of the being stand in such relations.

  10. Hi Clayton,
    Why should nearness in time matter to determining the value of a pleasure? It might affect how we should feel about the pleasure — maybe it is rationally permissible to get more excited about a future pleasure as the pleasure becomes nearer, or to get more worried about a pain as it becomes nearer. But why think the pleasure gets better or the pain becomes worse as it approaches the present?
    The releveance of the piece of information consists in its being an illustration of how pleasure might be partially a function of duration.
    I agree with you that there is a difference between a life of infinite duration and a timeless life. And, if a being is timeless, then that being’s states must be timeless. So a timeless being’s pleauure has no temporal features either.

  11. Ah, yes, sorry about that, Kris. I wasn’t seriously suggesting that we should take account of propinquity. Propinquity makes me chuckle. Really, I was just expressing the concern that it can’t be simply a matter of duration regardless of what other factors we fill in. That seems just crazy. To the extent that we can have preferences for this sort of thing, I take it we’d all prefer a more intense pleasure on the hypothesis that McTaggart was right to an exceptionally weak one.

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