Across the history of philosophy, there has been a continuing practice of philosophers to argue over the nature of time. There have been many who have rejected the reality of time or who have reduced time to something other than what our common everyday experience tells us. For example, there's the famous ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides who has been said to have rejected time on the basis of there being no motion-change. There's the more obscure Shang Dynasty Buddhist teacher Dogen who has been said, according to Dirck Vorenkamp, to have rejected the reality of time on the basis that all things are time. However, there has not been a more interesting account of time found in the history of philosophy before the writing of John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart (1866–1925), henceforth referred to solely as 'McTaggart', who was a 20th Century Cambridge philosopher prominently noted for his extensive and scandalous examination of the nature of time having famously rejected the reality of time on the grounds that time was contradictory!
The initial appearance of McTaggart’s argument for the unreality of time occurred in 1908, in the form of a journal article, titled, "The Unreality of Time" published in the Oxford Journal ‘Mind’. Afterward, shy of 20 years later, the article reappeared as a more mature work published posthumously in the second volume of his magnus opus, titled, "The Nature of Existence" as Ch. 33, titled ‘Time’.
Let's gradually proceed to introduce the topic as a whole to better understand how McTaggart shall approach this issue. However, if the details come off as scattered, as I presume they will, then just head over to the bottom section to read the argument formulated.
The Tensed and Tenseless Theories of Time
Throughout the history of philosophy, there has persisted a division amongst thinkers concerning the correct conception of time, namely between:
- The Tensed, or Dynamic, or 'A-Theory' of Time
- The Tenseless, or Static, or 'B-Theory' of Time
In short, the tensed theory, or what McTaggart later coined as the 'A-Theory', of time maintains that time ought to be characterized by tense determinations such as pastness, presentness, and futurity and, furthermore, that the distinction between past, present, and future is an objective one. On the contrary, the tenseless theory, or what McTaggart later coined as the 'B-Theory', of time maintains that time ought to characterized by tenseless determinations such as earlier than, simultaneous, and later than and, furthermore, that the distinction between past, present, and future is a subjective one.
William Lane Craig in his book, titled, "The Tensed Theory of Time" states:
[Ever] since J. M. E. McTaggart first distinguished clearly between these two kinds of time, labeling them the A- and B-series respectively, philosophers of time have found it useful to adopt McTaggart's nomenclature, referring to theories of tensed time as A-Theories and theories of tenseless time as B-Theories
To simplify these two conceptions, let's borrow the words from Time Crane in his article, titled, "Time" from the book by A.C. Grayling, titled, "Philosophy 1: A Guide through the Subject":
We think about time in two very different ways. One way is in terms of the ideas of past, present, and future. My birth is in the past, my writing this is in the present, and my death is in the future. It is natural to think of the apparent 'motion' of time in these terms: events 'move' or 'pass' from the past, through the present, and into the future. Or to put it another way, events that were once future become present, and then retreat into the past: the First World War, for example, was once in the future, became present, and is now past. The other way in which we think about time is in terms of the ideas of earlier, later, and simultaneous. My birth was earlier than my writing this, but later than the First World War; my writing this is later than my birth, but earlier than my death; my birth was also simultaneous (roughly) with the beginning of the Second Vatican Council. On this way of thinking about time, things and events in time may be ordered by their dates - their places in the sequence of events making up the history of the world
Refer to the bottom references, particularly [ 2 ], for short yet more thorough expositions of these two conceptions of time.
The Structure of the Argument for the Unreality of Time
For the sake of precision and clarity, McTaggart's argument can be partitioned into several distinct sections, as Rögnvaldur D. Ingthorsson has done in his book, titled, "McTaggart’s Paradox", to better perceive the trajectory of the argument. The sections can be named as follows:
- The Preamble
- The Appearance of Time
- The Ontological Status of Series and Positions
- The Essentiality of the A-series
- The Contradictory Nature of the A-series
These sections alone are not sufficient for an entire grasp of the argument and nor are their contents exhaustive, but the discussion will, hopefully, nonetheless, provide a concise introduction to the ideas at hand to properly acquaint oneself with the argument. And the '**' means 'not important'.
To skip over the details of the argument head over to section 6.
1. The Preamble **
Here, in the opening remarks, McTaggart commences by informing the reader that his conclusion that time is unreal most certainly "involves a departure from the natural position of mankind". However, he notes that this rejection of time is not an idea peculiar to himself but is instead one which has shared similar recognition from thinkers both East and West. Despite this, though, his reasons for the rejection of time are altogether distinctive from his preceding companions. McTaggart states the following:
It will be convenient to begin our enquiry by asking whether anything existent can possess the characteristic of being in time. I shall endeavour to prove that it cannot. It seems highly paradoxical to assert that time is unreal, and that all statements which involve its reality are erroneous. Such an assertion involves a departure from the natural position of mankind which is far greater than that involved in the assertion of the unreality of space or the unreality of matter. For in each man’s experience there is a part—his own states as known to him by introspection—which does not even appear to be spatial or material. But we have no experience which does not appear to be temporal.
2. The Appearance of Time **
To explain this I will opt to share a short excerpt from Rögnvaldur D. Ingthorsson's book, titled, "McTaggart's Paradox". [The items of concern required to grasp this part of the argument extends further from the matter at hand]:
In McTaggart’s elucidation of the appearance of time, there simply is no trace of an analysis of linguistic expressions or their meanings, but instead a focus on experience, for instance, in the following passage:
"It is clear, to begin with, that, in present experience, we never observe events in time except as forming both series. We perceive events in time as being present, and those are the only events which we actually perceive. And all other events which, by memory, or by inference, we believe to be real, we regard as present, past, or future. Thus the events of time as observed by us form an A series."
There is a focus on observing events in time rather than speaking about them in some particular way, and observing clearly includes both what we actually perceive and what we believe to be real on the basis of memory and inference. In other words, we do not perceive a time series, but still observe both series in a way that somehow has to do with what we believe on the basis of memory and/or inference.
Time appears to us, in what he calls Present Experience, in the form of events holding temporal positions, or, in other words, in the form of events forming what he calls a series of positions. Indeed, each event appears to have two different kinds of positions, much like the same group of people can simultaneously be ordered in terms of size and age ( if we are lucky with the sample), and so the same set of constituents form a ‘size series’ and an ‘age series’. Size and age are not necessarily correlated, which is why we can get a size series which is not an age series, and vice versa . The question is whether the two temporal determinations that McTaggart identifies, in virtue of which events in time appear to constitute two kinds of series—arbitrarily labelled the A and the B series—are related in such a way that, if the components form one series, they must also form the other. On the one hand, McTaggart notes, each event in time appears to have a position which is earlier than the positions of some events and later than the rest. In this way, time appears as a series of positions ranging from earlier to later, or vice versa: the B series. McTaggart is careful to point out that the position of each event, in terms of being earlier than some events and later than the rest, is permanent, or unchanging. It simply does not happen that an event is at one time earlier than some other event but at a different time it is later than that same event, or vice versa . For the B series to contain change, McTaggart claims, it must come from some other source than the relation in which the entities in the series stand to each other
In short, McTaggart argues the we represent events on a time-series and proceeds to give an account as to how. What is important is that he establishes that we represent time on a one dimensional matrix.
3. The Ontological Status of Series and Positions
According to McTaggart, an 'A-Theory' of Time is to be conceived as that which posits time as a one-dimensional matrix compiled of what are called 'A-determinations' i.e determinations of events like 'being past', 'being present', and 'being future', which consequently compose an A-series. The 'B-Theory' of Time is to be conceived as that which posits time as a one-dimensional matrix compiled of 'B-determinations' i.e determinations of events like being 'earlier than', 'simultaneous with', and 'later than', which consequently compose a B-Series.
Check this out:
The terms "Presentist View" refers to the tensed theory or 'A-Theory' of time and "Block Universe" refers to the tenseless theory or the 'B-Theory' of time.
4. The Essentiality of the A-series
Now, according to McTaggart, the 'A-Theory' of time is essential for there being time since the A-Theory consists of an A-Series [which is, as we should recall, a time series represented as a one-dimensional matrix composed of events under A-determinations i.e 'being past' and 'being present'] which implies change. He states the following:
I believe . . . . that the distinction of past, present, and future is as essential to time as the distinction of ‘earlier’ and ‘later’, while in a certain sense it may be regarded as more fundamental than the distinction of earlier and later.
5. The Contradictory Nature of the A-series
From 'Real Tenses' by Milos Arsenijevic published in the book, titled, "Time, Tense, and Reference" by Aleksander Jovik and Quentin Smith
"McTaggart's analysis tacitly assumes that reality should be considered timeless if it tenseless, and at the same time, the world history can be represented by simply placing particular events onto the one-dimensional time axis. The explicit assumption is that being past, being present, and being future are mutually incompatible properties.
Let us consider a segment of what McTaggart calls the B-Series, where four events: e^1, e^2, e^3, e^4, occur successively at some given place and are brought into one-to-one correspondence with four abutting time intervals on the one dimensional time axis: t^1, t^2, t^3, t^4, respectively . Then, if the four events are future events that should once become present and then past—and that is what situates them in what McTaggart calls the A-series—each of them must in turn possess mutually incompatible properties of being future, being present, and being past with no change in their fixed positions on the one-dimensional time axis, which is absurd.
6. The Formulation of the Argument
There is a multiplicity of introductions to McTaggart's argument but hardly any straightforward formulations. However, fortunately for us, there is E.J Lowe's formulation that shall suffice to effectively communicate the essence of McTaggart's argument:
Premise 1: Time implies change and vice versa.
Premise 2: The B-series determinations of ‘earlier than’, ‘later than’, etc. are unchanging and so do not imply the reality of time or change.
Premise 3: The A-series determinations pf ‘past’, ‘present’, ‘future’, etc. do involve change and therefore imply the reality of time.
Premise 4: All time determinations are either B-series determinations or A-series determinations.
Premise 5: Hence, only by admitting A-series determinations can time be regarded as real.
Premise 6: However, A-series determinations are contradictory and so cannot characterize reality.
Conclusion: Hence, time and change are unreal.
There is much more to be said but hopefully this somewhat informs you of one theory of time which maintains that time is illusory. For more information, check out the recommended resources below and check out my blog, The Guarded Acumen Archives where I have posted more excerpts regarding philosophy of time.
- An Excerpt from “The Nature of Existence” by J. M. E. McTaggart:
- An Excerpt from “Time: A Philosophical Analysis” by T. Chapman:
- An Excerpt from “Change, Cause, and Contradiction” by Robin Le Poidevin
- A Short Bibliography on Philosophy of Time