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Contemporary philosophy vs. sanity

A seminar

[The following is a vignette I wrote years ago when studying for my Master's in philosophy. I was taking a class in contemporary metaphysics, and was struck that the insularity and intellectual onanism of academia can, at times, be suffocating.]

Imprisoned in an ivory tower

He came back to himself and realized that for at least a minute he hadn’t heard a word that had been said.

“So, when Ted Sider writes ‘Necessarily, x is part of y at t if and only if x and y each exist at t, and x’s temporal part at t is part of y’s temporal part at t,’ what does he mean by ‘t’? Does he mean like a minute or two minutes, or does he mean a fraction of a second?”

“That doesn’t matter. The point is that given t, whatever it is, x is a part of y at that time if x’s temporal part is part of y’s temporal part at that time. t could be three minutes long or an hour long. This is just a definition.”

“So this half of my pencil is part of the whole pencil right now because the temporal part of this half of the pencil is part of the temporal part of the whole pencil right now? Is that what he’s saying?”

“Yes. That’s a good example.”


“I know that the idea of temporal parts is hard to grasp, but remember that they’re analogous to spatial parts. Objects extend through space by having spatial parts, and they extend through time by having temporal parts. At least, that’s what the perdurantist, or the worm-theorist, argues.”

“Remind me again why it’s called worm theory?” someone chuckled.

“Because an object is conceptualized as stretching through time like a worm, a temporal worm. It has a beginning, a long middle, and an end.”

“So my self yesterday and my self today are just parts of ‘me,’ of the whole me that stretches through time from my birth to my death?”


“Isn’t that counterintuitive? I feel like right now my whole self is present. Or, like, this piece of paper. This is the whole piece of paper right here; it isn’t just a part of the paper. The paper isn’t some sort of abstract object that exists for two years or whatever. It is just this thing right here!”

“Okay, so you disagree with worm theory. But you’re just presenting an intuition, not an argument. David Armstrong and David Lewis have a different intuition than you. You have to defend yours with an argument.”

“I have another question,” someone said. “How can you tell when one part ends and another part begins?”

“Each part is instantaneous.”

“But what does ‘instantaneous’ mean? How long is an instant?”

“That’s a good question. It potentially poses a problem for the worm-theorist.”

“Yeah. Because an instant would have to be infinitesimal, wouldn’t it? If it weren’t infinitesimal then it could, by definition, be divided into shorter instants. But then it wouldn’t be a single instant. But on the other hand, if it is infinitesimal then that presents logical problems.”

“Like what?”

“Well, a temporally extended worm would have to be composed of an infinity of instants if each instant is infinitesimal. But how could an object with a beginning and an ending be infinite?”

“You know, this reminds me,” someone said, “of Kant’s antinomies. It’s a problem for both the perdurantist and the endurantist, isn’t it? It’s a problem with time. Time is illogical.”

“By the way, how would the worm-theorist, or the perdurantist, deal with the problem of instantaneous minds?”

“What do you mean?” said the professor.

“If a mind is instantaneous, like this piece of paper is instantaneous, how is experience possible? Experience presupposes a temporally extended mind that can recognize the passage of time, doesn’t it? An instantaneous mind can’t recognize the passage of time.”

“Some perdurantists address that problem by arguing that the instantaneous experiences of instantaneous minds actually occur within the temporal boundaries of a temporally extended experience—and this experience lasts as long as the temporally extended mind that experiences it.”

“So, in other words, minds that have experiences are actually composed of several temporal parts? But then what connects those instantaneous parts to one another?”

“I don’t understand your question.”

“Actually, that goes to the heart of the problem I have with perdurantism. It doesn’t seem like a very powerful theory to me.”

“Okay… Yes, John?”

“Before you talk about that, I just want to get clear on how all this ties into the issue of mereological sums. In the article we read called ‘I Am Not Now, Nor Have I Ever Been, a Turnip,’ the author tries to put together, as he says, perdurantism and detenserism, which, he thinks, necessitates that one distinguish between sortal and non-sortal predicates. I have a question, though, about—”

“Wait, that’s a little off the subject. We’ll get to that. But first I want to discuss stage theory, which is different from worm theory. Stage theory emphasizes that instantaneous temporal slivers, or stages, of an object, stand in intimate causal relations to past stages and future stages of the object…”

Again, he came back to himself suddenly and looked around at the students scribbling in their notebooks. He remembered he had been daydreaming about that article in the Washington Post describing the plight of the poor in India. His watch told him there was an hour left, and he sighed.

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