Metaphysics of Agency

Timothy O’Connor (Indiana University)

March 13 – 17, 2017

600 Renwen Building
Renmin University of China
Time: 2-5 p.m.

Handout (PDF)

Lecture 1: The Static Image of Reality (March 13)
Time is possibly the most puzzling aspect of reality. Long discussed by philosophers, the nature of time is now also a topic of scientific theorizing. Yet in some ways scientific theories that have implications for how we think about space and time (or ‘spacetime’) simply deepen the mystery of time. In this lecture, I will introduce an understanding of time on which it is a dimension of reality similar to space. According to this theory, all past, present, and future objects and events are equally real, and our experience of time as ‘flowing’ and belief that the future is ‘open’ to many possibilities are illusions. I will then reply to 2-3 main arguments in favor of this theory (including the claim that our best science supports it). Finally, I will advance considerations against the theory, stemming from the nature of causation and of personhood.

Lecture 2: The Dynamic Image of Reality (March 15)
I will discuss three theories of time, all of which treat time as fundamentally different from space: the three-dimensional eternalist (or ‘moving spotlight’) theory, the ‘growing block’ theory, and the ‘presentist’ theory. On each of these theories, time ‘flows’ toward the future, and the future is ‘open’ to multiple possibilities, rather than having a determinate character in the way the past and present do. I will argue that presentism is the most satisfactory of these theories on philosophical/experiential grounds, and that (contrary to what many believe) it is not inconsistent with relativity theory in physics.

Lecture 3: The Emergence of Persons in a Dynamical Reality (March 17)
I will consider the place of human persons in a dynamic and evolving universe. Persons are materially composed beings that have appeared only very recently in the universe. And yet we seem to have features – intellect, self-awareness, and will – that set us apart from the rest of reality in striking ways. How are we to make sense of the apparent fact that we have emerged from an unthinking, physical world? I will present an abstract model of human beings as ‘ontologically emergent beings’: causally dependent on, but ontologically irreducible to the organized physical structures that are our bodies.

This course is free but we require all participants to register ahead of time. If you would like to register please email the following address:

In your email be sure to include your: (i) full name, (ii) program of study (B.A., M.A., Ph.D.), and (iii) institution.

We have funds to support travel and accommodation fees for select students in China who reside outside of Beijing. Please specify if you would like to be considered for a travel / accommodation grant and include an explanation of how this short-course is related to and will benefit your current research along with your most recent CV.