The aim of this workshop is to bring together philosophers and psychologists with a shared interest in examining ways in which our thinking about things in time appears to exhibit a past/future asymmetry. The workshop is held within the context of the AHRC Project ‘Time: Between Metaphysics and Psychology’. The aim of the project is to examine to what extent research in psychology can bear out and explain the idea that there is a deep contrast between time as it figures in our everyday thought and experience, and time as portrayed by modern science. Arguably, one key aspect of this contrast is that there are fundamental differences in the ways in which humans think about the past and the future, respectively, whereas modern physics treats past, present and future as exactly the same.
In slightly more detail, we might want to distinguish between at least three different ways in which our everyday thinking about time seems to exhibit a past/future asymmetry:
We seem to have a tendency to think of the past and the future themselves as being two quite different regions of time – e.g., to think of the past as ‘fixed’ whereas the future is ‘open’.
We explicitly adopt different emotional attitudes towards certain events, depending on whether they are past, present or future – e.g., anticipating the visit to the dentist with fear, and feeling relieved about it when it is over.
There are also less direct ways in which our judgements about events are sensitive to whether they lie in the future or the past. When asked only about a past or a future event, people will award more compensation for future compared to past harm, or charge more for future compared to past work—although these effects disappear when they are directly asked to make a past/future comparative judgement.
The workshop will examine how these asymmetries might be explained. Is there a single explanation for all the psychological phenomena that exhibit a temporal asymmetry, or do they reflect a number of different psychological factors? To what extent, if any, can (some of) these cognitive asymmetries be construed as rational or adaptive? How do they relate to other ‘arrows’ discussed in the literature on time, such as the causal arrow or the epistemic arrow?
One set of questions of particular interest to the AHRC project concerns the relationship between temporal asymmetries in our attitudes, and our tendency to think of the differences between the past and future in metaphysical terms. To the extent that we rationalize to ourselves taking asymmetrical attitudes towards the past and the future, the way we do so often seems to have a distinctively metaphysical flavour. Yet, it is unclear how differences between the past and the future as such could make such asymmetrical attitudes rational, and there are good reasons for thinking that the true explanation of attitudinal asymmetries in fact lies elsewhere. If this is so, though, why is it that we nevertheless seem to take the metaphysical character of time to be relevant? Why does it seem that it is something about the very pastness of the visit to the dentist itself that warrants feeling relieved about it?