Time Frees Practically

Time and Freedom Book Cover Time and Freedom
Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy
Christophe Bouton. Christopher Macann (Translator)
Northwestern University Press
Paperback $34.95

Reviewed by: Lars Aagaard-Mogensen (Wassard Elea)

In this book, Prof. Christophe Bouton poses “the relation between time and freedom” as a topic for investigation, which proves deeply problematic because, although time is real,[i] we “are quite incapable of mastering it conceptually” and despite the fact that he sets aside “the classical issue of the existence of freedom”, human freedom and the will’s relationship to time has never been explicated adequately. To the aristotelian “quantitative approach” to time, so circular and dissatisfying to many philosophers, Bouton prefers the subjectivist approach, yet not one of pure consciousness of time, but a more pragmatic version: “one that addresses … time … in the light of action, and from that by which it is conditioned: freedom” (13).

While Bouton draws on exegesis throughout this book to find solutions to the problem in earlier works, devoting full chapters to each of Leibniz, Kant, Schopenhauer, Schelling, Kierkegaard, Bergson, Heidegger, Sartre, and Levinas, (and, in passing, Husserl and Ricoeur), he finds in all cases aporia. To pretend that there is sense in Leibniz’s ‘predeterminism’, Schelling’s ‘history of god’, Kierkegaard’s ‘moment of angst to thank god for eternity’, and the like can seem quite odd in the contemporary world. Such waywardness should be left for “scholars” of superstitions, mysticism, and maximum sized ethereal goods. Now since all oeuvres Bouton covers prove not to succeed, and he therefore dismisses, one might wonder why he treats them are so extensively. This directs focus onto Bouton’s own conclusion for discussion.

Bouton’s entire project revolves around this statement: “there can be no causality without time … But the reverse is not true”, (251) because (sic) the experience of human existence is not subject to “the mechanical causality of nature”. Bouton thus splits, quite traditionally, time into two equally real types: on the one hand, the objective, predictable, world time and on the other hand, the subjective, unpredictable time in human consciousness. In other words, Bouton tackles the traditional ping-pong between determinism (fatalism) and indeterminism (free will) – respectively breeding illusion and freedom in human nature. This is grounded in the idea that nature’s course abides by causality, which Bouton identifies with the principle of sufficient reason and necessity with a future consequently determined by its past and present state. As opposed to this, humans’ future, according to what he terms experienced time’s “plasticity” (e.g., 137), abides by a ‘principle of insufficient reason’ representing an unnatural complexity, namely on account of the additional factor to past and present conditions human action is (freely) decided among the possibilities humans create as projects for their futures – which are quite open to any possibility they happen to create. These decisions are unpredictable, and one must wait and see which of those possibilities is realized. Human time is not the same as world time, even granted that all humans are parts of the world. So how does Bouton reunite these two times? According to him, it is through action: “A decision is always caught up in the world; it brings to light the projected future, inserts it into the world under the figure of the present, modifying our day-to-day experience. So it is action that inserts the “subjective” time of individuals into the “objective” time of the world”, (257). But “the power to create (practical) possibilities does not mean that man could ever be the master and possessor of the whole domain of the possible …. he encounters possibilities in situations he has not chosen” (loc.cit.).

This upshot seems quite trivial and reducing the entire issue to a fait accompli by “practice” doesn’t really bring anything to the table. As it has been pointed out, we are disappointed because we are expecting the future, and as soon as it is there, it is present. We want the future to be here, without ceasing to be future, or as Ortega would say: “there isn’t any future, only what we yearn to be”.

One would first point out that indeterminism versus determinism seems to be an unjustified dichotomy. And certainly so, due not only to brute assertion that is unsubstantiated ‘freedom’ (disposing of time as the “immaterial material”), but just as much to the notion of determinism, the power bonding cause and effect – in which ‘power’ is bypassed in silence. But so does Bouton when he bypasses will’s ‘power’ to make decisions, to decide between envisioned possibilities, not to mention the ‘insertion’ into the world. His entire endeavour takes on a definite shine of covert combat of causation. Why that is turned into such a loathsome enemy in phenomenology, loaded with universal time, necessity, and unfreedom, is quite puzzling. Causation can’t really impose time inasmuch as cause and effect are not separate “events” existing at each their distinct time, but rather simultaneous (cf. Hartnack, Journal of Philosophy, 1953), it is an explanatory concept, not a process, in that it divides up one event into two parts, and there are no causes, other than what we pick out and call certain circumstances so. Some chosen members of some set of conditions which are sufficiently likely to produce events, results, states that we like to bring about, reproduce, summarily called effects. Since the number of circumstances to choose from is indefinitely large, in each instance some are selected, but all the same some selections are classified as sure things, possible, yet others as impossible. It is ridden with failure, unnoticed, unknown or mistaken circumstances, and therefore confers a false precision (feeding the craving for repeatability). Moreover, such picked events are always singular, at most a type, determinism as such a mere fantastic generalization. Had Bouton chosen Hartmann – with whose work he shows some affinity – instead of, or in addition to Sartre or Levinas, his bearings might have attained close tolerance to the pivotal problem.

The presumed natural advantage of predictability, thanks to causation, paling to poverty regarding human actions, speaks for some indeterminacy, leaking into freedom. Yet, one wonders whether or not predictability can carry that much weight. It is true that I cannot, logically cannot, predict my decisions, nor for that matter all the possibilities I may create. For could I predict my future decision, that would mean that I already have made my decision, and to tell my decision is not to predict it. Yet, that does not entail my decision is unpredictable or make prediction impossible – some people’s decisions are firmly predicted by others or in other ways. Some might claim that a potentially indeterminate domain calls for intuitionistic logic, not classical or formal. Would that release, exhibit and sustain the unfettered power of the will to decide?

Another issue some might argue, and perhaps a more disturbing one, is that time and freedom have no interconnection. Once causation is out of the picture, out from “under the figure of the present”, to where it belongs in explanatory spheres, (where besides possibilities reside concerning explanations of human action rather than worldly phenomena), time becomes the next or another thing provoked by the dozen aporiae. When all these attempts fail, first it may signal that interpretation of those oeuvres along such lines, time and freedom, is misguided, and second, one is apt to consider whether time and freedom have anything to do with each other – the conjunct ‘and’ harboring a mistaken categorial entanglement (short of Penrose). This may be masked by Bouton’s vacillation between time conditioned by freedom (cf. ref. to 13 above, et passim) and freedom conditioned by time (e.g. 137, 247, et passim). Then what do we make of either one being “the condition of the possibility of” the other? (252). Is that condition possible? Are there conditions of the possibility of the conditions of possibilities? Is that mere avoidance? Or another term for probability? Or is it mere surrogate for insufficient condition? And, then, can an insufficient condition be considered a condition at all? All these “created” possibilities most likely are subject to the vicissitudes of thought experiments, such as e.g. whether conceivability implies possibility and vice versa, suppressed counterfactual suppositions, etc.

The fact that we say that time goes, flows, passes, however, does not entail an ‘it’ that goes, flows, or passes, nor is ‘it’ there just because humans make decisions now and then. While one can say there is time for this and that action, one cannot say there is time for freedom. How much time is needed, indeed proper for freedom. It is odd to say that speaking about a time is to speak about an event; an action is an event, but besides that event there is not another event, time, taking place (in world or consciousness). One can find oneself in an impossible situation, but one cannot be in an impossible time. One can be in a situation with many possibilities, yet it is nonsensical to say one is in a situation with many times, many futures. As if time was an “it”, an operator clamping down on you. One may think that freedom, that is, acting freely, takes some time. On the other hand, deciding freely takes no time, one either has not yet or has already decided. Then you may quarrel over whether deciding is an action. It sounds very odd to say that thinking, deciding, is something that happens to you. Then so it does to say that time is something that happens to you. How remarkable that the same time happens to everyone, everywhere (though it has been claimed that in the Amazon there is no time, alongside a host of denials of coevalness).[ii] Perhaps the ‘we’ excludes the “outcasts” Blixen talked about. We don’t have several times, but (allegedly) several freedoms. So which of them, if any, mate seemlessly with the former in a union blessed by conceptual cogency? Time has deadlines, freedom only lines of coercion. The kind of alignment Bouton’s ‘and’ strives after, supposedly erecting a plumb level, unbreakable, incorrigible union, like a reinforced pillar that the good dogma pronounces lasts until death do us in, finds no peace until time and freedom is dissolved completely into each other. Immediately some will labour just as hard to distil, separate each in purity again. There is a tension in this pairing I can’t pinpoint yet. Perhaps a possibility I haven’t invented, hence nor decided for yet.

By the end of Bouton’s book, the reader may be seduced to consider past, present, and future as dimensions of time (one more ping-pong: the venerable opposition linear vs. multi-dimensional). What is obvious, however, aside from the trinity and an enticing symmetry with space, is how disparate they are. Conventionally things are three-dimensional, yet they also have weight, bulk, density, temperature, charge, half-life, valence, viscosity, etc. at the end of which enumeration dimension seem dissipated into just about anything that can be said about them – and leave you sitting back with a vague concept of property.

As a conclusion, these notes illustrate how Bouton’s book, the materials he covers and his spadework sends one to thinking. Time and Freedom remains a good book for students exemplifying exegesis, comprehensive and with considerable refinement; those searching for advance grasp of either the concept of freedom or of time may find fewer nuggets to take-away.

[i] Bouton raises the question “does time arise from nature or from consciousness?”, (10) looks much like a strawman – he already earlier concluded “the emergence of time … might be situated … beyond the limit of human knowledge”, (KronoScope 2013, 109).

[ii] “It is the first time we have been able to prove time is not a deeply entrenched universal human concept, as previously thought”, one party of Chris Sinha et al said about their result, cf. Language and Cognition, 2011.

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