Projects

I have lots of projects underway. At the moment we, in the philosophy lab, are doing a lot of experimental work on the way people think about and experience time, and on the way this influences people's preferences and decisions. You can check out some of this work here.  At the moment there are two big projects underway, one on time and temporal phenomenology, and one on temporal preferences. You can check those out below.  

Time and Temporal Phenomenology

How does the world seem to us to be, temporally speaking? Many philosophers defend the view that you and I live in a four-dimensional or block universe. This is the view that past, present, and future events/objects all exist somewhere in spacetime. Other times are rather like other places: they exist, they are just not located right here and now. On this view, time does not really pass. At least, it's not the case that certain events really are objectively present, and others past, and others future. And it's not the case that present moment moves or changes. So it's not the case that the future is really coming towards us (or us towards it) and the past moving away for us (or us away from it).  All events are simply arrayed somewhere and somewhen in spacetime, including all of our past and future selves.

Many of us think that this view is supported by our best science. But, equally, many philosophers think that it does not seem to us as though we are living in such a universe. They think that it seems to us as though time does pass, and as though there is some real, objective, difference between past and future locations. They think it seems to us as though the future is approaching us and the past receding. This, they say, it why it makes sense to be glad that bad things are over and done with, and to dread future bad things. 

My aim is to defend the idea that it seems to each of us just as we might expect it to seem if we lived in a static block universe.  To show this, at the philosophy lab we have been working on lots of experiments that aim to probe how it is that things seem to people. We are interested in whether it really does seem to people as if the future is approaching and the past receding. We are interested in whether people represent time as passing (that is, whether their mental model of time is as of time passing). We are interested in whether people think that what it would take for our world to count as one in which time passes, is for it to contain a special moving present moment. We have empirical work that probes all these questions. 

Some of this work suggests that people do in fact believe that time passes (or many of them do) even though they do not report that it seems to them, in experience, as though time passes. That's weird! So, we are interested in trying to explain why this might be. One possibility is that people believe that future events are malleable and under their control in a way that past events are not, and they think that which events really are malleable in this way changes as time passes. At the moment we are experimentally testing the idea that it is because people imagine that the future is not yet written, but the past is, that they come to believe that time itself passes. 

Ultimately, the aim of this project is to provide a nuanced account of how we think about time, and how we experience time, and how these connect to our world being a block universe. 

We all have preferences for where in time events are located. For instance, you probably prefer to have the tasty chocolate cake right now, rather than in two days time (even if the cake will be just as tasty in two days time). This is known as near-bias. You probably also prefer that the painful dental procedure happened yesterday, not tomorrow. This is known as future-bias. In the philosophy lab we've been doing lots of experimental work on future-bias, which has been pretty neglected compared to near-bias. We have lots of work that aims to work out the conditions under which people show those preferences, and why. For instance, do people only show future-bias about their own experiences, or also the experiences of others? Do they only show them for certain kinds of experiences? Will people still prefer to locate unpleasant things in the past, and pleasant ones in the future, if the value of each is the same?  For instance, will people prefer, say, 10 unit of pain in the past, compared to 1 in the future (the answer is yes, they will). 

These sorts of preferences are interesting and important, because we've shown In earlier work, that there is an association between being near-biased and being future-biased. People show both kinds of bias together. What's more, being biased in these ways can make people overall worse off. That's obvious in the case of near-bias: obviously if you prefer, say, $1.00 now, over $10 in three days time, you will be worse off. You are also worse off, overall, if you prefer 10 units of pain yesterday to 1 tomorrow (at least, you will be if those preferences can influence your behaviour; there is recent research that suggests it can. We are investigating this right now). 

So, we are interested in what it is that causes people to show BOTH of these kinds of bias. So far we have investigated the idea that theres is a connection between these kinds of bias and the ways people experience time itself, and what they believe about time. For instance, it might be that because some people tend to think that future events are coming towards them, and past events moving away from them, that it seems reasonable to disvalue past events compared to future ones, and to disvalue far future events over near future ones. We have experimental work that looks at whether the way people represent time itself, or the way they experience time, has an impact on whether or not they show these kinds of biases. This is important. So far preliminary work suggests that maybe by getting people to think about time in terms of a block universe world - in terms of them having various selves located in both the past and the future -  people might be inclined to be less near and future biased. There is much more work to be done here, but we are hoping to have a fuller picture of what explains both biases, together, in the coming year. 

Decision Making and Temporal Preferences