Tuesday 15 November 2022

Temporal Asymmetries in Philosophy and Psychology

This post is by Alison Fernandes (University of Dublin). Alison works in the metaphysics and philosophy of science, with a focus on temporal asymmetries, foundations of physics and agency. Today Alison presents the edited volume Temporal Asymmetries in Philosophy and Psychology (OUP 2022).

Alison Fernandes

We have very different attitudes towards past and future events. Events looming in our futures are those we might worry about, plan for, or look forward to. Events that are already in our pasts, on the other hand, are those we might regret, contemplate, or remember fondly—but not plan for in the same way. Why is this?


There are, in fact, many temporal asymmetries in how we engage with the world. Most people prefer bad events to be in the past and good events to be in the future, all else being equal (Lee et al 2020). Strikingly, people assign work more compensation when it is described as taking pace in the future, compared to the past (Caruso et al 2008). There are also asymmetries in how extensively we simulate events, how strongly we feel about them (van Boven and Ashworth 2007), and how close we judge them to be (Caruso et al 2013).


While philosophers have long been interested in these asymmetries, traditional work in this area was interested in using these asymmetries to support a particular ‘metaphysical’ view of time—one in which the past and future were radically different, independently of our relationship to them. While psychologists were interested in giving detailed accounts of how we relate to events in time—particularly contrasting events that are close and distant—asymmetries took a back seat. Indeed, some of these asymmetries appear so fundamental that’s it’s difficult to see an empirical project of explaining them. Isn’t it obvious that future events, not having happened, are those we should care about more?


Christoph Hoerl, Teresa McCormack and I, working under an AHRC grant (see interview about the project with Hoerl), hosted a workshop with philosophers and psychologists with the aims of exploring psychological asymmetries—leading us to co-edit the first interdisciplinary volume on these issues, Temporal Asymmetries in Philosophy and Psychology. One of our key aims was to relate the more speculative big-picture thinking in philosophy to detailed empirical work from psychology.


One set of topics concerns how different asymmetries arise developmentally (explored by Lee and McCormack in their chapter), evolutionarily (Campbell) as well as how they relate to each other and to psychological mechanisms more broadly (Ramos et al, De Brigard, Greene et al, Fernandes, Hoerl and Rinaldi):
  • Are some asymmetries more basic than others? 
  • Do we already conceive of the past and future differently before we value past and future events differently? 
  • Or is our thinking about the past and future shaped by the kinds of attitudes we develop?

A second set of topics concerns the rationality of these asymmetries, explored in chapters by O’Brien, Callender, Sullivan and Hoerl. It might seem reasonable to care about future events more. But is it reasonable to assign more compensation to future wrongs versus past wrongs? Finally, there’s a set of questions about what picture of time we are left with—explored particularly by Deng but relevant throughout the volume:
  • Do we have a stable intuitive conception of time? 
  • Or are our attitudes too complex to support a single view?

By framing these questions and showcasing of up-to-date work in this area, the volume aims to provide a strong foundation for future research on psychological temporal asymmetries.

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