Everyone experiences the eerie sense of time passing and wonders where the past has gone. Some brush these speculations aside as mere indulgence amid life’s harsh practicalities. Others dare to press their queries. Does the past exist independently of the present? Or is it just a figment of our collective imagination? Thus they come face to face with one of the great conundrums of philosophy. My book, falling under three heads, Truth, Time, History. argues that the past has indeed no independent existence, and yet that the famous figures and events of history are not fictions: Henry V was the victor of Agincourt, and the Visigoths did sack Rome in 410 AD .
St. Augustine was already puzzling, in the fourth century, over whether the past was real or unreal. As he famously recounts, in his Confessions, no sooner had he reasoned that if the past exists, it must exist somewhere, than another thought stymied the first: “wherever the past is, if it is there as past, then it no longer is”. The most distinguished philosopher of recent times to assert the past’s unreality is Michael Dummett, for whom it is an application of a more general theory according to which truth is not about how the world objectively is, nor therefore transcends our knowledge, but is a function of present evidence, and so changes with changing evidence. To realists, dismissing this as utterly preposterous, he replies: how then can we know anything about the past since we can never go back. His opponents point to the “truth value links” holding between differently tensed statements made at different times. If I am now giving a talk on truth in Oxford, I know now, without awaiting evidence at this later date, that it will be true in a year’s time that I was giving this talk a year ago. Nothing can surely change that! Dummett replies that this is merely to apply a rule for transforming a present tensed statement, made now, into a past tensed one, envisaged as being made in the future. What makes anyone suppose that thereby they have secured ingress into the past? What they are representing as the past isn’t the past at all, just the present – Sophie giving this talk now. We cannot assume that the transformation, sanctioned now by the truth value link, will hold in the future, when we actually reach it, or hence give us now access to a past, such as it will only be revealed then. This debate, I argue however, is finally inconclusive.