PHIL2109 Contemporary Metaphysics
Week 9: Events


  1. We naturally assume that there are such things as events.
  2. And we naturally think:
  3. But much of this can be (and has been) called into question.

Are there such things as events?

  1. We naturally assume that there are such things as events. But are there?
  2. Note that the claim that there are such things as events might be subtley different from the claim that events exist. It does seem odd to say that events exist. Perhaps this is because we reserve the word 'exist' only for certain kinds of thing, like tables and chairs, and do not use it for things like events. Because of this, we should stick to the question of whether or not there are such things as events, rather than the question of whether or not events exist.

    Compare: Is there such a thing as the number 2? Does the number 2 exist?

  3. Here is an argument that there are such things as events:
    1. The Sydney Olympics was an event.
    2. Therefore, there are such things as events.
  4. Is this a valid argument? Perhaps not. Consider the following argument:
    1. The average Australian family has 2.2 children.
    2. Therefore, there are things that have 2.2 children.

    This is arguably not a valid argument: It is possible for the the premise to be true and the conclusion false. In fact, the premise is true and the conclusion is false. If this argument is not valid, then perhaps the first one is not valid either.

  5. Even setting aside this concern, here are two concerns about the premise:
  6. Here is another argument that there are such things as events.

    First note that among the claims below, (1) entails but is not entailed by (2), (3) and (4); and (2) and (3) entail but are not entailed by (4):

    1. Jones drank a martini at a bar.
    2. Jones drank a martini.
    3. Jones drank at a bar.
    4. Jones drank.

    Then the argument goes like this:

    1. We cannot explain this entailment data without appealing to events.
    2. Therefore, there are such things as events.
  7. Why should we believe the premise of this argument? Think about what kinds of claim we are making in (1)-(4).
  8. Here is another argument. Suppose that John saw Mary cry. What kind of thing did John see? It was more than just Mary. It need not have been a fact. The only option is: an event.
  9. Of course it might be asked: Do we really need to argue that there are such things as events? Surely the burden of proof belongs to those who think that there aren't?

The identity of events

  1. It is commonly claimed that we don't really grasp the nature of things of a given kind until we grasp the identity conditions of things of that kind, or have a criterion of identity for them. A criterion of identity for things of kind k has the following form:
  2. Here is a commonly championed criterion of identity for sets:

    If this is to help us understand what it is for two sets to be identical, then it should not assume a prior understanding of what it is for two sets to be indentical (i.e. it should not be circular). This does seem to be the case: even if, when comparing the members of two sets, some of those members are themselves sets, we can just apply the criterion again, with no fear of an infinite regress.

  3. Here is a proposal for a criterion of identity for events:

    Lowe offers a counterexample: Three opposing armies are fighting pair-wise with each other in the same location at the same time. So three distinct battles (and thus events) are occurring in the same location at the saand me time.

    And another one: Three point particles collide, so there are three distinct collisions (and thus events) occurring at the same location and at the same time.

  4. Here is another proposal:

    But if the causes and effects of an event are themselves events then this proposal seems to be circular: checking whether the causes (or effects) of one event are identical to the causes (effects) of another event assumes an understanding of what it is for two events to be identical (perhaps even the original two events themselves), and appealing to the criterion again will start us on an infinite regress. Is this right?

    And we might also have trouble with the following world: there are just five events; e1 causes e3 and e4, e2 causes e4 and e5. The concern is that this only distinguishes event e4; it does not distinguish e1 from e2, and it does not distinguish e3 from e5.

  5. Should we be interested in criteria of identity at all? Perhaps these are round-about ways of saying what events are:

The nature of events

  1. So what kind of thing is an event?
  2. Here is a proposal:

    (Note that this gives us a criterion of identity:

  3. A concern: some properties might involve events in a way that makes the analysis circular. E.g. The property of being born?
  4. Another concern: some events involve no object at all. E.g. a flash of light in early universe. It might be ad hoc to reply that that does involve an object, the Universe.
  5. Here is another proposal (Lowe likes this one):
  6. A concern: isn't a change an event, making the analysis circular?
  7. Lowe says: a change occurs at a time t just in case something begins to be the case at t which was not the case prior to t. Does this help with the concern?

  8. Note that the analysis remains quiet about the kind of change involved. It does not say, for example, whether or not Cambridge changes count as events. Here is an example of a Cambridge change: Xanthippe's becoming a widow when her husband Socrates dies. Here is another: Mary's becoming shorter than Tom when Tom grows. These are not intrinsic changes in Xanthippe and Mary, but involve intrinsic changes in something to which they are related.
  9. Lowe claims that lightning flashes are not a problem for this analysis, nor a flash early in the Universe.
  10. The analysis can be understood either as reductive or as eliminative. Understood reductively, it does not deny that there are such things as events - it just gives an account of what they are: they are nothing over and above changes in the properties of or relations between objects. Understood eliminatively, it denies that there are such things as events, and suggests a new way of talking.
  11. An alternative approach would be to try reducing objects to events, or eliminating objects in favour of events.
  12. Or we could be non-reductive pluralists about objects and events. Lowe takes this to be a last resort.