Time Fallacies

Examples include:


The Permanent Present

The fallacy which gives undue emphasis to the present when considering an option with long-term consequences. Examples include arguments that our present ability to import food justifies permanent burial of agricultural land under new housing; that joining the Eurozone is justified by today’s low interest rates there; that the state of the jobs market at the moment calls for migrant labour; that the current price of oil opens the way to a long-term expansion of air travel. This presumption of a constant present is a leading symptom of the dementia that afflicts the judgment of governments—dementia absens: the patient is so elevated, so far removed from ordinary life, so taken up with a global vision, so protected by experts, so busy, so short of sleep, and so absent, that he or she has no sense of time or place (Abstraction, Presence).

And there is a risk that the values of the present may crowd out all other values. The question, “What is right?”, short-circuits to the answer, “Whatever is now.”T14


The Irrelevant Past

An argument that affirms that now is a special case, in that the present has achieved standards of reason and ethics which have not been available before. The fallacy typically cites the fact that this is the twenty-first century as proof that the argument is correct:

By the end of the 20th century, the independent sector had emerged pre-eminent in the British education system, but the only vision the independent sector has today remains entrenched in the 20th century. . . . We need new vision for the independent sector in the 21st century. . . . It is no longer tenable in 2008 to retain 20th century apartheid thinking.T15

The Irrelevant Past argument begs the question: if the proposal would change things around from how they were in the past, it is self-evidently a good thing.

Here is the scientist-philosopher Mary Warnock being sympathetic with the unfortunates who are so stuck in the past that they are opposed to genetically modified crops:

[For] many confused and vaguely frightened people, the new biotechnology seems to have opened up possibilities of changing the genes of plants and animals in a way which nature, or God as the Creator, never intended. . . . [And now] the argument has moved on [to] the myth of an unnatural creature being formed in the laboratory whose growth and behaviour could not be controlled. It was upon such fears that Mary Shelley played, as long ago as 1818, in her story of Frankenstein.T16

Oh dear. Perhaps we should learn from the future?



It’s tough to get right.

“The harder I work, the luckier I get.” It was Thomas Jefferson who started the stream of variations on that theme. He should have added, “The harder I work on one thing, the unluckier I get on all the other commitments I haven’t had time for.”T17


Related entries:

Unknowable Future Fallacy, Tradition, Systems Thinking > Feedback > Time.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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