Can We Refer to Things that Are Not Present?

Good morning Dr. Craig!

I am a Chi Alpha campus missionary intern at Aubrun University and your work has been intrumental in thinking about my faith and the relationship God has to every part of my life and worldview. Right now I'm working through my own understanding of time and God's relationship to it. I have been doing some reading in the Standford Philosophical Encyclopedia about time and I came across an article written by Ned Markosian and he presented some problems for the a-theorist, particularly the presentist which I know you are and have repeatedly affirmed in your work and I would greatly appreciate your thoughts on this issue.

This is my Issue: Presentism means that only the present now exists, but then there is a problem with trying to meaningfully talk about non-present objects. For-example, Jesus of Nazereth is a non-present object, and there are facts about what he did and spoke in his ministry, but how can we meaningfully say Jesus really did exist, this is what he really said and really did. If presentism is true and only the present now exists how can we meaningfully speak of what once existed and speak about the particlar way in which it existed. I feel that what I am speaking is quite nebulous, but as a philopsher of time I'm sure you can empathize with the difficulty of expressing these ideas clearly. I did my underquradute work in histroy at Longwood University so historical thinking and philosphy of time have an interesting relationship!

A growing-universe theorist might offer a solution to this in that Jesus of Nazareth did exist and there was a certain way in which his ministry happended and it exists in the past, but the problem on this view as you have expressed in the Defenders podcast, this entails that Jesus still hangs on the cross and the past sins are still there and not done away with. So how does a presentist handle the issue of non-present objects that once existed?

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this and offer your thoughts!


United States

Will, I can’t believe you asked this question! It never ceases to amaze me how folks ask the most profound philosophical questions, perhaps not even realizing what they’ve stumbled into! In fact, your question intersects my current work (which is why I chose it!) and is discussed in my chapter on neo-Meinongianism which I wrote this summer.

So here’s the deal: presentists think that the only time that exists is the present time. (Note: you shouldn’t say, as you do, “exists now” because everybody agrees that only the present exists now, that is, at present.) Non-presentists think that times which are earlier or later than the present also exist; the present is not more real than the past or future. (As you note, a few non-presentists do say that the future is unreal, whereas the past and present are equally real.)

So the objection to presentism is that since things which are past or future do not exist, we cannot refer to them or even say that there were such things or will be such things. It follows that there are, therefore, no past-tense truths and no future-tense truths. But that is obviously wrong. So presentism must be rejected; everything in time is equally real, and temporal becoming is an illusion of human consciousness.

Now Markosian is himself a presentist, so he just bites the bullet and agrees that, strictly speaking, all (contingent) past- and future-tense statements are false.1 Now I find Markosian’s position to be utterly implausible. Ulrich Meyer is right: “Caesar did cross the Rubicon; that’s what started the civil war. Any philosophical view that forces us to deny claims like [that] is for that reason unacceptable.”2 As a student of history you are quite right to be sceptical of philosophical claims that your discipline is a tissue of falsehoods!

But does presentism carry such an implausible implication? Only if you adopt a view of reference and quantification that is eminently challengeable and at odds with ordinary language.

You see, both Markosian and the non-presentist are tacitly assuming that you can successfully refer to something or say that there was (or will be) something only if that thing exists. This assumption is the real nerve of the argument, not one’s theory of time.

By contrast, Neo-Meinongians like Richard Routley reject what he calls the Ontological Assumption, namely,

OA. No genuine statement about what does not exist is true.

Interestingly, one of the most powerful pieces of evidence Routley gives against (OA) is precisely the truth of certain tensed statements about no longer existent or not yet existent individuals. For example, it seems indisputably true that “There have been 44 U.S. presidents.” The non-existence of most of them is no impediment to our quantifying over past U.S. presidents. To infer from the truth of such statements that time is, in fact, tenseless and that past and future individuals are on an ontological par with present individuals would be to draw a breathtaking metaphysical inference on the basis of the slim reed of the theories of reference and quantification underlying (OA).

I, and many other philosophers who are not neo-Meinongians, think that an ontologically neutral theory of quantification is not only eminently plausible but also in accord with ordinary language. Consider Thomas Hofweber’s list of some of the things we ordinarily say there are:

• something that we have in common
• infinitely many primes
• something that we both believe
• the common illusion that one is smarter than one’s average colleague
• a way you smile
• a lack of compassion in the world
• the way the world is
• a faster way to get to Berkeley from Stanford than going through San Jose.3

Why think that “there is” (not to mention “there was” or “there will be”!) is ontologically committing? W. V. O. Quine, the fount of the criterion of ontological commitment behind (OA), recognized that the application of such a criterion to ordinary language would bring with it all sorts of fantastic and unwanted ontological commitments, and so he limited its legitimate application only to an artificial, canonical language. The problem with this restriction is that we have no clue as to how to construct such an artificial language successfully.4 Given the bankruptcy of the Quinean project, his criterion of ontological commitment becomes a wildly unreliable guide.

The same goes for reference. Far too many philosophers, I think, are still in the thrall of a sort of picture theory of language according to which successfully referring terms must have corresponding objects in the world. With respect to ordinary language, at least, such a view seems patently false. Consider the following examples:

• The weather in Atlanta will be hot today.
• Sherrie’s disappointment with her husband was deep and unassuageable.
• The price of the tickets is ten dollars.
• Wednesday falls between Tuesday and Thursday.
• His sincerity was touching.
• James couldn’t pay his mortgage.
• The view of the Jezreel Valley from the top of Mt. Carmel was breath-taking.
• Your constant complaining is futile.
• Spassky’s forfeiture ended the match.
• He did it for my sake and the children’s.

It would be fantastic to think that all of the singular terms featured in these plausibly true sentences have objects in the world corresponding to them. Examples like these are legion. In fact, I have come to suspect that singular terms which refer to real world objects may actually be the exception rather than the rule. Consider the following paragraph quoted by Michael Dummett from a London daily:

Margaret Thatcher yesterday gave her starkest warning yet about the dangers of global warming caused by air pollution. But she did not announce any new policy to combat climate change and sea level rises, apart from a qualified commitment that Britain would stabilize its emissions of carbon dioxide—the most important ‘greenhouse’ gas altering the climate—by the year 2005. Britain would only fulfill that commitment if other, unspecified nations promised similar restraint.

Nothing unusual about such discourse—but, as Dummett observes, “Save for ‘Margaret Thatcher,’ ‘air’ and ‘sea,’ there is not a noun or noun phrase in this paragraph incontrovertibly standing for or applying to a concrete object. . . .”5 A lightweight platonist, Dummett is unfazed about postulating objects as referents for such terms, but those who have a more robust sense of reality may be excused for being hesitant about augmenting the world’s population so profligately.

It is noteworthy that in debates over presentism tenseless time theorists tend simply to presuppose Quine’s criterion of ontological commitment, and so our ability to speak of past/future individuals in true sentences is taken to commit us to their existence. It never seems to occur to tenseless time theorists that our ability to speak of purely past/future individuals in true sentences might be a good reason to reject the criterion of ontological commitment which they unquestioningly presuppose.


1 Ned Markosian, “A Defense of Presentism,” Oxford Studies in Metaphysics 1 (2004): 47–82.

2 Ulrich Meyer, “The Presentist’s Dilemma,” Philosophical Studies 122 (2005): 223.

3 Thomas Hofweber, “Ontology and Objectivity” (Ph.D. dissertation, Stanford University, 1999), pp. 1-2. For a nice statement of this point along with a persuasive critique of what he calls the “quantification argument,” see Gerald Vision, “Reference and the Ghost of Parmenides,” in Non-Existence and Predication, ed. Rudolf Haller, Grazer Philosophische Studien 25-26 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1986), pp. 297-36. We say there are, e.g., shades of grey, differences in height, angles from which something can be seen, principles, hostilities, prospects for success, primes between 2 and 12, hours before dawn, dangerous excesses, drawbacks to the plan, etc.

4 As Chihara points out, Quine gives not even a hint as to how we are to put the sentences of ordinary language into canonical form nor any argument at all that so doing will rid them of all unwanted commitments of ordinary language nor any guarantee that our best scientific theories can be successfully put into first-order logical notation (Charles S. Chihara, Ontology and the Vicious Circle Principle [Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1973], chap. 3; idem, Constructibility and Mathematical Existence [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990], chap. 2).

5 Michael Dummett, Frege: Philosophy of Mathematics (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991), p. 231.