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Killing Time

Cliff Stagoll on the strange case of John McTaggart, who didn’t believe in time.

Philosophy regularly produces odd claims about, and peculiar visions of, the underlying nature of reality. One of the most curious instances from this century is the assertion by John M.E. McTaggart that “time is unreal.” His claim is so audacious and the supporting arguments so idiosyncratic that, despite the attention of some very fine philosophers (A.J. Ayer, Michael Dummett, W.v.O Quine and Bertrand Russell amongst them), no definitive refutation has been produced. Although the large number of mutually inconsistent counter-arguments has helped speed developments in the philosophy of language and of time, the peculiarity of McTaggart’s position remains a teasing test of one’s philosophical skill and beliefs about what time actually is. This article introduces McTaggart’s argument by spelling out its crucial steps and indicating those points where it seems weakest.

The (Reasonable) Premises

John McTaggart was a Cambridge philosopher much influenced by the work of Hegel. His controversial claim that time is unreal, unveiled in Mind in 1908 and developed further in his 1927 book, The Nature of Existence, is the best known aspect of an impressive and wide-ranging body of work.1 McTaggart was well aware that his contention would seem ridiculous to the lay public, and paradoxical to philosophers. In the later work, he wrote that “such an assertion involves a departure from the natural position of mankind …” since “we have no experience which does not appear to be temporal. Even our judgments that time is unreal appear to be themselves in time.”2

McTaggart was well versed in the philosophy of Kant, who contended that time is a necessary facet of all our experience. So what did McTaggart mean by claiming that time is ‘unreal’? One might suppose that he was suggesting just that time does exist, but in a form different from that in which we experience it. But this would be contrary to McTaggart’s belief that subjective phenomena are of no value to the study of the objective world. He could have meant instead that time is part of a ‘deeper’ concept, or that objects of some kinds are situated in time, but that consciousness is not one of these. In fact, McTaggart made clear that he meant something altogether more radical. He meant that temporality isn’t a feature of the universe at all: no event, nor any relation between events, whether played out over an instant or over centuries, has anything temporal about it. If time is anything at all, it is merely an effect of the mind, a subjective quirk rather than an objective fact.

McTaggart’s argument rests on two premises. The first, and least controversial, is that time necessarily involves change. Change, in McTaggart’s sense, takes place whenever one could make a statement which is true at one instant and false at another about the relationship between any two events or objects. If every object or event is always in precisely the same state with respect to every other one, then time cannot be real (imagine the image often used in movies to depict the stoppage of time, where everything in a room – including the clock on the wall – ‘freezes’).

The second premise is that events in time can be thought of and talked about in either of just two ways. There are facts about temporal relations of precedence, subsequence, and simultaneity on the one hand and, on the other, facts about pastness, presentness, and futurity. In other words, we can conceive of an event either as being earlier than, later than, or simultaneous with some other(s), or else as being past, present or future. Using the familiar tool of a ‘time line’ McTaggart explains that we can either position an event at a particular place upon the line, or else we can think of it as being at a point far in the future, moving closer and closer until the event is present, and then receding into the past. McTaggart calls the former series of positions (arranged from earlier to later) the ‘B series’, and the latter one, arranged from future to present to past, the ‘A series’. Speaking about relations between events in terms of one series is to say nothing about them in terms of the other. However the duration of particular events and the temporal distance between events will equal the same number of units in either series.

McTaggart uses these premises ingeniously. First, he tries to show that the only kind of change possible for events arranged on the B series actually is of the kind described by the A series. Then he argues that the A series necessarily contains a logical contradiction. Assuming that a concept which is logically contradictory cannot be true of reality, McTaggart concludes that time cannot be real. Let us work through these arguments in turn.

The Attack on the B Series

Consider three events situated ‘side-by-side’, as it were, on the B series time line. Events X, Y and Z are independent and successive, arranged in their natural order, such that Y is later than X but earlier than Z. To show that these relations are temporal relations, we must be able to point to some element of change going on between them. Clearly it is not right to argue that event Y ‘ceased to be’ X and then ‘became’ Z. If such a mutation was real, then Y couldn’t properly be called an event at all, but would be just one aspect of some ‘longer’ event. And as soon as we consider the longer event in relation to other events around it, the problem recurs; that is, the longer event cannot properly be an event if it is merely part of some yet longer one. Events are not ‘single points’ (except in the most exceptional theoretical circumstances), but intervals of such instants stretching over a period. A quest to find B series change must account for this.

The other way in which we might think about B series change is to argue that X ceases to be an event just before Y begins being one, and that Y ceases being an event just prior to the commencement of Z. But does this really constitute change at all? McTaggart thinks not. Just because an event has already occurred does not mean that it ceases being an event. For example, Richard Nixon’s election to the Presidency is still an event, even though it is not occurring presently; it did not give up the status of ‘event’ at some later stage, not even when he resigned. In B series terms, the event of Nixon’s election came earlier than the event of his resignation, but this did not mean giving up its status of ‘event-hood’.

Given the failure of these two explanations, McTaggart entreats us to accept what appears obvious in familiar examples. “Change,” he writes, “cannot arise from an event ceasing to be an event, nor from one event changing into another.”3 If an event was ever earlier than or later than any other event by a certain margin, then this will always be so. My 33rd birthday is necessarily 15 years later than my 18th and 17 earlier than my 50th, and that relationship is constant. There is no B series change between events, and so the series cannot be a temporal arrangement.

In the course of studying the B series, McTaggart hits upon another interesting fact. To say “event X is earlier than event Y” (that is, to use B series terms to describe the relationship between X and Y) is to mean either “X is past and Y is present or future,” or “X is present and Y is future.” In other words, the B series expression can be reduced to A series terms, and a similar exercise can be repeated for any B series statement about the respective position of events. McTaggart takes this to be evidence that notions of earlier and later actually involve hidden distinctions between past, present and future, so that the A series is somehow more fundamental than the B series. He considers this to be further grounds for rejecting any claim of B series temporality: not only does it not involve any change between events, but it actually reduces to A series terms. Therefore if time is to be found anywhere, it must be in the A series.

Although McTaggart’s argument to this point is based upon simple premises and clear reasoning, there is something rather odd about it. In order to make assuredly true claims about the absence of change from the whole range of events constituting reality, McTaggart has adopted a ‘God’s eye view’ of history. It is not enough for him to wait for events to actually occur before assigning them a position on the B series time line. Instead he describes all events in precisely the same way, regardless of whether they have already happened or are yet to come; as though every event can be assigned a specific place in advance of its occurrence. McTaggart’s extensive and unusual use of the time line model to explain the lack of B series change draws attention to this oddity, and critics have taken him to task for it.

The (Bizarre) Attack on the A Series

Having killed off the B series, McTaggart turns his attention to the A series. Every event, regardless of its position relative to others, can be conceived as moving along a time line from the remote future and through the present before receding into the past. Surely, given the apparent dynamism of the A series and the impossibility of reducing it to B series terms, this must constitute temporal reality! Surely we can use A series terms in describing the change over a lifetime of one’s capacity for hearing, the erosion of a rock formation over millennia, or the physical changes undergone by a detonated explosive! McTaggart’s argument that there is no change in the A series is probably his most controversial. He begins by pointing out that there is a logical incompatibility between the attributes ‘past’, ‘present’, and ‘future’. He means that every event must be one or other of these, but no event can be more than one of them. Furthermore, this incompatibility is essential to A series change. The transition of an event from the future to the present, or from the distant future to the slightly nearer future, for example, signifies precisely the change that we mean to refer to when describing events in A series terms. Thus, when I was 18, the thought of my being 33 was very far in the future indeed, but now it has become present, and this seems to me to be a fundamentally temporal change.

Nonetheless, McTaggart goes on to argue that every event has the attributes of being past, present and future.4 He means that, because A series attributes are changing properties, an event that is past has been present and future; if it is future, it will be present and past, and so on. “Thus,” McTaggart claims, “all the three characteristics belong to each event.”5 Every event is (and this is a very controversial ‘is’) past, present and future and, given a continuous coincidence of pastness, presentness and futurity, there is no change in the event and therefore no A series time.

At first it seems that McTaggart’s argument is sadly and obviously mistaken. Clearly it is not true, we might reply, that an event has the three attributes concurrently. No event has more than one of the A series attributes at any one instant, but rather has them successively, and there is nothing logically incompatible about an event having a succession of different characteristics. In other words, as McTaggart puts it,

“it is never true, the answer will run, that [event] M is present, past, and future. It is present, will be past, and has been future. Or it is past, and has been future-and present, or again is future and will be present and past. The characteristics are only incompatible when they are simultaneous, and there is no contradiction to this in the fact that each term has all of them successively.”6

Not surprisingly, McTaggart considers this challenge to fail. He proposes two answers to it, although most commentators have failed to distinguish carefully between them. He begins by asking his reader to consider carefully what is meant by the terms ‘has been’, ‘is’ and ‘will be’ as they are used in the rebuttal outlined above. The reader must find, McTaggart insists, that “when we say that X has been Y, we are asserting X to be Y at a moment of past time. When we say that X will be Y, we are asserting X to be Y at a moment of future time. When we say that X is Y (in the temporal sense of ‘is’), we are asserting X to be Y at a moment of present time.”7

Reading them as McTaggart does, there are two problems with the terms of the rebuttal. The first (proffered in the Mind article) is that the expressions actually refer to moments of time and therefore, given that the B series is non-temporal and that the reader intends the terms to help prove the existence of A series temporality, their use ‘begs the question’. That is, they presuppose as a part of the proof precisely what is yet to be proven, a logical sin.

The second of McTaggart’s replies (in The Nature of Existence) is very similar to the first, but a little more intricate. According to it, our rebuttal only makes sense if we assume a second A series underlying the first. When we say that X “has been future,” for example – meaning, as McTaggart insists, that “X is future at a past moment” – then we have effectively situated one moment (the ‘future’ one) upon an A series containing the second one (the ‘past’ one to which it refers). The only difference between the two A series is that events fall upon the first, whereas moments of time fall upon the second. But of course this just reintroduces the initial problem because McTaggart can say of the second series precisely what he said about the first: that every moment of it is past, present, and future, and that this logical contradiction undermines the possibility of its being a real temporal series. And if we were to reply that moments of the second series have these attributes successively rather than simultaneously, McTaggart can reproduce his counterargument, thus necessitating yet another underlying A series.

In this way, the contradiction intensifies each time we try to specify what it means for a moment to have the characteristics past, present, and future successively. We are led into an infinite regress, with each turn of the argument undercutting the previous one. The explanation of moments on the A series could continue ad infinitum, whilst always leaving the initial A series logically flawed.

McTaggart considers his capacity to reintroduce the underlying logical contradiction at any point in the regress to be a reliable indication of the unreality of the A series. His confidence might be misplaced, however. We might wish to argue the toss with McTaggart about who ‘wins’ the regression. Is it McTaggart (because each resolution creates a new contradiction) or his opponent (who always has another resolution at hand)? Several commentators have pointed out that we only get contradictions half of the time, and it is not clear why these must be regarded as the correct point at which to stop the debate. Why should we not claim the win for ourselves given that, for each of McTaggart’s objections, there is a solution possible?

We might also wonder whether McTaggart’s account of the meaning of the terms ‘has been’, ‘is’ and ‘will be’ is strictly correct. Why must these indexicals (terms which rely for their precise meaning on the geographical or temporal location of their use) necessarily be given a definition in A series terms? Perhaps it is possible instead to take a ‘God’s-eye’ view of the A series in the same way that McTaggart did for the B series, and to conceive of each event moving along the A series over this universal time. Whether or not this approach would reintroduce the problem is open to argument.

Is That Really (the) Time?

If we concede McTaggart’s assumptions and arguments, then we are led inexorably to his conclusion that “nothing is really present, past, or future. Nothing is really earlier or later than anything else or temporally simultaneous with it. Nothing really changes. And nothing is really in time.”8 We shall not delve deeper here into McTaggart’s argument in an attempt to undo him. The number of mutually incompatible responses provided by eminent philosophers suggests that either there is no easy solution, or else time is ‘unreal’ in McTaggart’s sense.

But the latter possibility seems unlikely in the light of our experience of time and some very powerful and sophisticated philosophies. In that case, it might be that the argument is flawed at such a deep level that it requires a good account of what time is if we are to show up the mistake. Perhaps we might consider McTaggart’s rejection of the subjective experience of time to be a little hasty, for example. We might side instead with someone like Henri Bergson, a French philosopher studying time in the same decades as McTaggart. He argued that time properly so-called is not a set of moments arranged on a fictional time line (or arranged on a clock dial), but the experienced flow of states of consciousness. For Bergson, the dynamic interpenetration of conscious states constitutes a kind of time purely internal to one’s self, “a succession of qualitative changes, which melt into and permeate one another, without precise outlines, without any tendency to externalize themselves in relation to one another, without any affiliation with number …”9 Under this view, to try and model time as a set of abstract points is a crass abstraction.

Nonetheless, McTaggart’s ‘proof’ of the unreality of time challenged philosophy to defend the status of one of its central concepts, and led to revelations about the workings of indexical terms and classes of language. To even take up the challenge of his argument is to ask oneself what one considers time to be and how else it might be thought. Perhaps it is this overall challenge rather than the intricate twists and turns of McTaggart’s argument that makes it so interesting and important.

© Cliff Stagoll 1998

Cliff Stagoll is a Commonwealth Scholar at the University of Warwick, where he is completing a PhD on the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze.

1. John M.E. McTaggart, ‘The Unreality of Time’, Mind XVII (1908), pp.457-474, reprinted in McTaggart’s Philosophical Studies (London, 1934), pp110-131. The version in The Nature of Existence (London, 1927), Vol 2, p.9ff. contains some important additions, attempts to counter objections raised by Russell and C.D. Broad against the 1908 paper.
2. McTaggart, Nature of Existence, Vol. 2, p.9.
3. Ibid., p.13.
4. Ibid., p.20.
5. Ibid., p.20.
6. Ibid., p.21.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid., p.22.
9. Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will, trans. F.L. Pogson (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1959), p.104.

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