‘It was’—that is the name of the will’s gnashing of teeth and most secret melancholy.
Contemporary philosophers who study time disagree about its fundamental nature. Philosophical debate about this topic has in the last century been dominated by two competing views. These views are the A-theory and the B-theory of time.
According to the A-theory, times (e.g. the year 1908, the day you were born) objectively have tense properties like presentness, pastness, and futurity (these are called ‘A-properties’). For instance, 1908 objectively has the property of being in the past and the moment at which the sun dies objectively has the property of being in the future.
In contrast, B-theorists do not think that A-properties objectively apply to times. Rather, times only have A-properties relative to perspectives. For instance, 1908 is present relative to people in 1908, although of course it is not present relative to our perspective. The most we can objectively say, according to B-theory, is that some times are earlier than, later than, or simultaneous with others (these relations are called ‘B-relations’). For instance, 1908 objectively has the property of being earlier than 2019. This is not a perspectival fact; it was just as true for people living in 1908 as it is for us today.
We are creatures that are oriented towards the future and away from the past. Yet B-theorists argue that we should not project this idiosyncratic feature of human experience onto the objective world. The most powerful consideration against A-theory is that it looks to be inconsistent with physics. According to special relativity, there is no such thing as absolutely simultaneity, which means that for any two spatially separated events, there’s no perspective-independent answer as to whether those events occurred at the same time. It follows that there is no perspective-independent present and that A-theory is false. B-theory, however, is consistent with the relativity of simultaneity. For this reason, many (including me) believe that B-theory is the true theory of time. You probably should to.
As innocuous as this might sound, B-theory is actually quite weird. It forces us to rethink many of our beliefs about ourselves. For instance, it is natural to think that we are wholly present at each moment that we exist. But because they hold that there is no objective present moment for someone to be wholly located at, B-theorists are compelled to say that persons (and other ordinary objects) are stretched through time in much the same way that roads are stretched through space. You are a kind of spacetime worm that has both spatial parts and temporal parts (e.g. a part that is turning five, a part that is experiencing your first kiss). All your temporal parts are just as real from a tenseless, objective perspective as the one that is currently reading this blog. It’s just that they aren’t located here and now.
This idea is counterintuitive. Arthur Prior highlighted one aspect of its counterintuitiveness in an argument against B-theory. It goes something like this. Think of the most acutely painful experience you have ever had. When that experience ended, you probably felt a great deal of relief. It would have been reasonable for you to think, “Thank goodness that’s over!” Yet such a response is reasonable only if A-theory is true. For while it is reasonable to be relieved if the pain is objectively in the past, it’s not clear why you should be relieved by the mere fact that the pain occurred earlier than your thought, which is all it means to say that the pain is “over” according to B-theorists. Plus, if B-theory is correct, then your earlier temporal part is stuck with that pain, since it is tenselessly experiencing it. Rather than relief, it seems that you should feel horror and pity for your earlier temporal part.
Prior’s argument brings out in an especially forceful way how our thinking about our own lives occurs in an A-theoretic framework. Part of what it is to be a person with plans, projects, hopes, desires, regrets, reliefs, and so on is to think of oneself as moving towards the future and away from the past. For this reason, it is probably impossible to fully integrate B-theoretic thinking into one’s practical outlook.
Still, it seems to me that accepting B-theory should affect how one thinks about what it means to be a mortal with a finite amount of time left on this earth. B-theory entails that the passage of time is an illusion. Recognizing this casts in a softer, more equivocal light the feeling that one’s time is growing short, that one is, with each passing second, careening towards a moment wherein one will suddenly cease to be part of the furniture of the world. True, your current temporal part has considerably fewer temporal parts ahead of it than your five-year-old temporal part does. True, you will not exist at any times later than your death. But it is unclear why this should provoke any special regret or dread. For it’s not as if when you die, you suddenly become a fixture of the objective past while time and the present flow on without you. There is a very real sense in which your entire life—a short, vibrant streak across spacetime—constitutes an utterly indelible mark on the world. Your birth and death merely convey information about where in the universe you are located. It is sometimes intelligible to regret that you are in one place and not another (e.g. you might be sad you missed your cousin’s wedding). But none of this is worth getting too worked up about.
This outlook is not entirely stable for creatures like us, of course, and adopting it wholeheartedly, even if that were possible, would obscure a great deal of what is important in human life, like the bads of deprivation and decay and the goods of gain and progress. But I’ve found that in reflective moments I can adopt this mindset for a short time. And I’ve found that the results percolate into my less reflective moments. The thought of death and grief stings just a tiny bit less. And it seems to me that my choices somehow become imbued with a greater significance and permanence. For my actions and experiences do not pass away. They are not slowly enveloped by the fog of the past. They are, for those parts of me that live them, in a sense eternally recurrent. And this fact has the smell of something that matters.
 Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Walter Kaufmann, Random House, p. 139 (1995).
 This distinction was introduced by J. M. E. McTaggart in “The Unreality of Time” Mind, vol. 17, no. 68, pp. 457-474 (1908).
 Not all A-theorists believe that the future and the past exist. For simplicity of explication I am going to restrict my discussion to a version of A-theory according to which the past and the future do exist (this version of A-theory is often called ‘the moving spotlight theory’).
 Strictly speaking, this view (called ‘four-dimmensionalism’) is not entailed by B-theory. But a B-theorist can deny it only by denying that ordinary objects persist through time.
 Prior, Arthur. “Thank Goodness That’s Over.” Philosophy, vol. 34, iss. 128, pp. 12-17 (1959)
 There is another side to Prior’s coin. If B-theory is correct, then every pleasurable experience you have ever had and will ever have is tenselessly being experienced by one of your temporal parts. Yet it might not make sense for you to look forward to those experiences, since the temporal part that is looking forward to those experiences will never experience them.
I recently spent a good amount of time in the office of my local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). In my experience, the DMV is an unhappy place. Typically one must go there to pay a tax, take an exam, or do something else unpleasant. One can count on the fact that one’s task will require one to populate a surfeit of detailed forms with the most banal autobiographical information possible, and, on top of that, one will likely have to queue for a long time in a dreary, crowded room with uncomfortable seats only to be told by an official that one has filled out the wrong forms and that one must start the entire process again.
It seems likely that in every society there are certain commonly shared experiences that typify in important ways characteristic features of life in that society and for this reason occupy a special place in the society’s collective consciousness. I think that visiting the DMV is one such experience for those of us who live in the United States. If you live in the United States, then you’ve probably been to the DMV at least once, and you’ve probably experienced a familiar sort of nebulous dissatisfaction with what goes on there. Try telling someone you’re going to the DMV, and you’ll likely get a sympathetic look and a horror story of some sort (similar things happen when you tell someone you’re getting your wisdom teeth removed). The DMV is one of the regular points of physical contact most of us have with the sprawling, depersonalized bureaucracies that form the foundation of our society. The rigidity and impersonality of the process, combined with the prima facie inconsequence of the tasks one is required to perform, tend to grate on creatures like us.
I’d like to suggest that the experience of going to the DMV is a microcosm of the experience of living in a society with a highly complex bureaucracy. In particular, I suggest that the emotional position one finds oneself in at the DMV represents in miniature the emotional position that our society tends to put us in. Let me explain.
The nebulous dissatisfaction one is prone to experience while visiting the DMV is, I think, a natural reaction to a rather bizarre, unpleasant, and perhaps sometimes unreasonable social situation. Normally in social situations dissatisfaction manifests itself in the form of attitudes that are directed at persons. Some of these, such as resentment, indignation, and disapprobation, are rooted in a perceived lack of good will or regard on the part of the attitude’s object towards oneself or others. Other attitudes, such as anger, exasperation, and disdain, are not inherently interpersonal but nevertheless often are directed at persons. Person-directed attitudes such as these play a role in regulating and ameliorating the interactions of individuals who inevitably have different points of view. They partly constitute the affective lens through which we perceive the world and our place in it, and without them human life and relationships would be unrecognizable. The problem is that these person-directed attitudes are often naturally elicited by, and yet inappropriate in, the DMV.
To make my point entirely concrete, let’s consider a specific case. In California, new residents are required to register their vehicles within sixty days, and to be registered one’s vehicle must first pass a rigorous smog test. A certain first-year philosophy graduate student and new California resident discovered that his car could not pass a smog test without expensive repairs, which he could not afford. Consequently, this graduate student delayed registering his car for some time. Eventually, however, this student was compelled to register his vehicle. His visit to the DMV for that purpose was, by most metrics, a disaster. Our hero had to queue for over an hour, bungled the paperwork at least once, and—murderer at the door!—was honest about how overdue his registration was, which resulted in his paying an exorbitant penalty.
I hope it will not take too great a feat of imagination to envision this student’s mental state. He was indignant about having to pay such a large penalty for failing registering his vehicle sooner even though he could not afford to do so. He was resentful that he had to queue so long in order to pay this unreasonable penalty. No doubt these attitudes were less than ideally rational. They were also entirely human and entirely understandable.
The difficulty for our student was that there was no person at which these natural attitudes could be appropriately directed. After all, he would have been mistaken if he had directed these attitudes towards anyone he actually encountered at the DMV. It’s true that DMV clerks were a cause of the unpleasantness. They took his money; they refused to hear his pleas. But, like cogs in a machine, they were not responsible for it. The same goes for the DMV managers and even, I think, individual California legislators, all of whom have little to no effective control over the policies that the clerks are required to enact. The requirements imposed upon the student were social requirements, and yet there was no particular person who was responsible for them. The requirements were a product of the rigid and impersonal machine of state. Our student, then, found himself in an unsettled position. He experienced person-directed attitudes that were in one way apt, and yet there was no appropriate target of those attitudes. There was a mismatch between the student’s emotional repertoire and his social environment, which required him to suppress rather than express his emotions.
All this may strike you as a tad melodramatic. It is. But I think the student’s conundrum at the DMV typifies a much broader phenomenon. Our social lives are structured by bureaucracies that are to a large extent self-standing. Without them our form of life would not be possible. And yet, as is well known, bureaucracies can reify and propagate all manner of injustice, unreasonableness, and idiocy. This is one of the most salient moral problems of our age. Unfortunately, most of our most important moral emotions—indignation, resentment, disapprobation, and so on—are in the first instance person-directed. They are (at least partly) the product of millions of years of evolution in social environments characterized almost exclusively by face-to-face interactions with familiar conspecifics. Our evolutionary history did not equip us with emotional capacities entirely fit for life in our world, and this, I speculate, causes a great deal of discomfort and misplaced emotions. Take a minute to recall some instances when you felt frustration while interacting with a representative of some inept organization, and you’ll get an idea of what I mean.
What is the upshot of all this? If I am on to something here, then we should recognize that it is part of the (post)modern condition that we do not have emotional capacities which fit entirely well with many of the social and moral problems we face. There will be great temptation to direct apt emotions at inapt targets, and a great dissatisfaction when we cannot. I suspect that one of the reasons it is so collectively cathartic to skewer a public figure who has done something wrong, especially when that wrong embodies broader social trends, is that our moral emotions finally have full purchase. But in frustrating situations like our student’s DMV visit where they do not, we must somehow come to grips with the fact that catharsis is unavailable. And we must find a way to navigate these situations without relying unrestrainedly on emotions which, in other social contexts, serve us well.
 These are examples of what the philosopher Peter Strawson called ‘reactive attitudes’. Strawson, “Freedom and Resentment” in Freedom and Resentment and Other Essays, pp. 1-28 (2008).
Note: I wrote this piece several years ago and have shared it with a few friends since then. I'm posting it here after the 1st of January, which of course temporarily decreases its relevance for readers, but I hope it will be of some interest nonetheless.
If you’re anything like me, you associate New Year’s with ambitious resolutions to do thinks like drink less, eat healthier, and exercise every day. And if you’re anything like me, the majority of these resolutions are soon abandoned, casualties of indolence, overwork, or forgetfulness. Yet many of us who are bad at sticking to resolutions keep making them, year after year. Why?
New Year’s affords us a valuable opportunity to reflect on our lives and commit to improving them. We could do this at any time, of course, but the new year imparts to our commitments a communal significance that makes them feel more substantial. We make resolutions because we want to utilize this opportunity. This is surely a worthy motive, but I’m convinced our method is mistaken. We shouldn’t make resolutions. Instead, we should make promises. We’re more likely to keep them.
To see why, note that there are important structural differences between the type of commitment involved in a resolution and the type involved in a promise, which make it more likely that promises will be kept. Commitments, in general, are made to someone. Resolutions are commitments made to oneself, but promises are commitments made to someone else. This difference has important consequences for how others can hold you accountable for your commitments.
If you make a commitment to yourself, no one else is entitled to demand of you that you keep it. This might not deter a busybody from doing so, but the point is that in making a resolution, you are really only accountable to yourself. On the other hand, if you make a promise to someone, you become accountable to them. They are entitled to demand of you that you keep your promise because you owe it to them to do so. The very fact that a promise, as opposed to a resolution, is not a wholly private affair may provide you with extra motivation to stick with it, but even if it doesn’t, the demands of a solicitous promisee probably will.
My contention here shouldn’t be overstated. The details of why any particular New Year’s commitment ends in failure will depend on the idiosyncrasies of both the person making the commitment and their situation, and promises are no panacea. But the interpersonal nature of promises affords them extra significance relative to self-directed resolutions, and it’s commonsensical to think that this extra significance is likely to be advantageous. Indeed, studies have shown that interpersonal support is a predictor of success in the long term.
To whom should you make your promise? A promise to a stranger is likely to be worse than a resolution. For your promise to be effective as a mechanism for change, it’s important that you select someone who cares about you and sees you often enough to monitor your progress. In my opinion, you should try to find someone who is willing to exchange New Year’s promises with you, because this introduces an element of reliance and camaraderie that can strengthen your resolve, just like having a gym buddy.
At their best, New Year’s resolutions are steps toward self-actualization that reflect the best life we can imagine for ourselves. But no matter how strong one’s resolve, resolutions involve a relatively cheap form of commitment and, as a result, have relatively tepid motivational power. One only risks letting oneself down. The ancient Romans rang in the new year, not with resolutions, but with solemn promises to Janus, the god of beginnings and endings. This year, if you’re serious about committing to change, you too should make a promise.
Here’s to endings and, Janus willing, new beginnings.
 Norcross, Vangarelli. “The Resolution Solution: Longitudinal Examination of New Year’s Change Attempts.” Journal of Substance Abuse, 1, 127-134 (1989).