Philosophy Phriday: Ants in Time

The Daily Ant hosts a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which real philosophers share their thoughts at the intersection of ants and philosophy. This is the thirty-seventh contribution in the series, submitted by Dr. Ross Cameron.


Ants in Time

The A-Theory (short for ‘Ant Theory’) says that there is a special moment in time: NOW. Harry the ant has just found a delicious crumb of bread. According to the A-Theory, there is something special about present events (like Harry’s finding the crumb), as opposed to past ones (like the crumb’s having been dropped by the race of clumsy giants), or future ones (like the congratulations Harry will receive from the colony). The dropping of the crumb has been and gone, and the congratulations of the colony are as yet simply something to look forward to: what is now is merely the finding of the crumb. Ants believe in the specialness of the now: there is some sense in which the present happenings are more real than past ones which merely happened, and future ones which merely will happen.

black_ants_square_wall_clock-r285182b3a3c64c46861157cd077fc583_fup1y_8byvr_324An ant in time saves nine.

The A-Theory stands in contrast to the Bee Theory (‘B-Theory’ for short). This is the view commonly held by Harry’s (and his family’s) flying cousins and fellow Hymenopterans, the bees. Bees think that there is no real distinction between the past, present and future. Past events, and future ones, are just as real as present ones.

Perhaps this difference in philosophical position is due to their different perspectives. Bees fly above the world’s problems, looking down and surveying a tapestry of events: some pollen being collected here, some birds to avoid there, etc. Nobody would be tempted to think that some events are more real than others because of where they are happening. It is easy to imagine someone looking down on time much as the bees look down on space, seeing a tapestry of events laid out in time: the Queen giving birth then, the workers heading out some time later, etc. Why privilege the goings on at some time, when we don’t privilege the goings on at some place? Thus the Bee Theory: time and space are alike – just as there’s no special point in space, so there is no special moment in time.

The ants remain unconvinced. After all, thinks Harry, if future events are just as real as present ones, then the future is already settled. There would be only one way things could turn out, the way that the future already is! But surely that’s false, thinks Harry: while he hopes that he will get this crumb back to the colony, the world is a dangerous one full of giants, who might tread on you and thereby prevent that future! There has to be something special about now, thinks Harry, to divide the things that will happen post-now, which have yet to be settled, from the settled things that have happened anty-now. (‘Anty’ is a fancy Latin term: it means ‘before’.)

A-Theorists have another choice to make, between Presantism and Anternalism. Presantism is the view that the present ants (‘presants’ for short) are the only ants there are. Anternalism (short for ‘Ant Eternalism’) is the view that past and future ants also exist. But A-Theorist Anternalists say that there is nonetheless something special about the present ones: the ants that exist now.

240698-artwork-M._C._Escher-insect-ants-grid-3D-white_background-Mobius_strip.jpgAnternalism as art. Also known as M.C. Escher’s Möbius Strip II.

Most A-Theorists are Presantists. They think the present is special because it is all that there is, in which case the ants that have been and gone simply do not exist any more, and the ants that are still to come do not exist yet. But Harry is unconvinced. Harry expects to live a long and fulfilling life of a few weeks; but the Queen . . . she could live for 30 years! Think of all the worker ants the Queen will see born, live, and die throughout her life. She can think back and remember ants that have once lived but who are around no longer. Suppose the Queen is thinking back on her dearly-departed loyal worker, Frank. According to Presantism, Frank (having been and gone) does not exist. But the Queen can think about Frank. She can entertain thoughts that are about Frank. How could this be if Frank does not exist? Then there would be nothing for the Queen’s thoughts to be about. Wouldn’t Presantism mean that the Queen is thinking about nothing? (Harry shudders to contemplate such blasphemy, and shoulders his crumb with renewed determination!)

No, Harry believes Anternalism: all the ants that make up the colony – whether they have been and gone or are yet to be born – exist. But, as an A-Theorist, he thinks that the ones that exist now are special. In what way are the presants special, if past and future ants nevertheless exist?

Harry believes in the Moving Spotlight. For a long time, this view was simply dismissed by the other ants as absurd, but ants are starting to take it seriously. According to the Moving Spotlight view, it is as if a light shines on some of the ants – the presants – that marks them out as special. But this light moves: while it shines on Harry just now, it used to shine on Frank and the past ants, and it will some day cease to shine on Harry and instead shine on the ants who are yet to be born. (Some of Harry’s friends, on hearing this theory, became very worried that the light might burn them, especially if the giants recklessly go peering at them through magnifying glasses, but Harry assures them that the light is just a metaphor.)

But the Moving Spotlight view raises some puzzles. If some but not all ants are special, how can Harry know that he is special? If the light really is just a metaphor, then don’t things look just the same to Harry as they do to poor Frank, who exists merely in the past? Maybe Harry is stuck in the past, then! Maybe Harry is a poor past-ant – maybe this crumb was found long ago! Harry thinks he is present – he thinks he is carrying this crumb now. But won’t Frank also think that he is present? How, then, can Harry know that he is right, and Frank is wrong? That’s a rather ant-agonistic thought.

WasmanniaTwo ants enjoying a shortbread cookie crumb. Photo: Alex Wild

Another puzzle – much pressed by the bees – is how the A-Theory can be reconciled with modern science, such as the theory of relativity. Consider two events: Brenda the bee’s taking the pollen from the flower, and Harry’s finding the crumb. The theory of relativity says that whether these two events happen at the same time depends on the point of view of the observer. An ant standing still on the ground might see them happening at the same time, but a bee flying fast above the ground might see one happen after the other. The theory of relativity says that neither account is right: or rather, they are both right, from the different points of view of the ant and the bee. But how can we say that there is something special about what’s happening now, if there isn’t even a fact of the matter as to whether two things happen at the same moment? And so the bees accuse A-Theorists of being anty-science.

When these puzzles get too much, Harry consoles himself by reflecting that the nature of time has confounded even the best of philosophers. The great philosopher Immanuel K. Ant thought both that the world had a beginning in time, and that the world had no beginning. This was his first Ant-inomy.


picDr. Ross Cameron is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Virginia. He received his PhD from St Andrews in 2006, and worked at the University of Leeds until 2014, before moving to Virginia. He works mostly in metaphysics, and has written on the nature of time, possibility, persistence, objects, properties, vagueness, artworks, etc. You should buy his recent book on the metaphysics of time: The Moving Spotlight (OUP 2015). He likes to go hiking with his dog, play video games, and read science-fiction and fantasy. He actually has been long fond of ants, and believes contrary to all evidence that he would have been a great nature photographer.

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