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Tallis in Wonderland
Call No Event Future Until It Is Past
Raymond Tallis takes the time to explain time.
“Call no man happy until he is dead.”
It is over a century since J.M.E. McTaggart’s The Unreality of Time was published (1908), and its argument still looms large. No-one, it seems, can write about the philosophy of time without engaging with it. And yet its first step incorporates an assumption which, fatally for McTaggart’s position, is mistaken. But since – as is often the case in philosophy – his mistake is illuminating, it is worth teasing out.
McTaggart’s attack on time has two major steps. Tensed, or what McTaggart calls ‘A-series’ time, involves the notion of ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’. His first step is to show that the idea that events begin in the future, become present, and end up in the past, is false because contradictory. His second step is to demonstrate that the apparent reality of tenseless or ‘B-series’ time (‘earlier’ and ‘later’) depends on unreal tensed time. Time itself is therefore unreal.
McTaggart argues that if we believe in the reality of tensed (or A-series) time, we must hold that events that are future are also present and past. But being future and present and past are incompatible states: the same thing cannot be ‘not-yet’, ‘now’ and ‘no-longer’. The obvious response is that this would be a problem only if the event were past, present and future at the same time. While an event cannot be simultaneously future, present and past, it can be future, present and past at different times. An event which occurs on Wednesday can be future on Tuesday and past on Thursday.
Of course, McTaggart has anticipated this counter-argument (he was a Cambridge man, after all), and he thinks he can deal with it. Suppose that event E is present; then it is presently true that E is present, it was true in the past that it was future, and it will be true in the future that it will be past. This opens the way to a more complex argument. The future is extended. So there will be part of the future in which another event E is already past, and part of the future in which it is future. Thus, suppose that E takes place on 11th December and that today is 9th December. Tomorrow, 10th December, event E will be future – it won’t yet have happened. On the day after the 11th, 12th December, it will be in the past. So from the standpoint of 9th December, E is future (on 10th), present (on 11th) and past (on 12th). Yet the 10th, 11th and 12th are all part of the future, so E will be future and present and past in the future. To McTaggart, every attempt to deal with this situation leads back to this same paradox: if we believe in the reality of tensed time, we require events to have incompatible tenses at the same time (in this case, in the future).
‘Events, Dear Boy, Events’
Whether or not this more complex argument against tensed time holds up is irrelevant, because the first step in McTaggart’s argument depends on a simple error that is carried through to the more complex elaboration of his case: a confused idea of ‘an event’ that permits us to assume that that there is a single item, event E, that is first future, then present, and finally past.
Let us look critically at this assumption using a venerable example of event E from Aristotle: ‘tomorrow’s sea battle’. It is natural to think that if the battle occurs on 11th December, the same battle is future on 9th December and past on 12th December. But are we dealing with the same entity in all three cases?
There is one obvious difference between the past and present sea battle – namely that there is nothing ongoing in the past sea battle. Everything about the battle – when it started, how long it lasted, how many ships were involved and their exact trajectories, how much blood was spilt, not to speak of the outcome – is settled. When and only when the battle is over, completed – when it enters the past – is it a definite item: Event E. So long as the battle is present, that is to say ongoing, it is not E: it is the opening part of a sea battle.
This falling short of being E is even more obvious in the case of an event that is still future. We can express this in the traditional way by saying it is indeterminate. This indeterminacy will extend to the very possibility of the battle taking place at all.
We are now in a position to see what is wrong with McTaggart’s starting point. It is a mistake to think of the sea battle E as the same thing passing through three phases – Phase One when it is E (future), Phase Two when it is E (present), and Phase Three when it is E (past). There is no such thing, an identical event E, that has that succession of tensed properties – futurity, presence, and pastness – that are incompatible (as McTaggart argues). E (future) is not the same as E (present), which is not the same as E (past). E (future) is a mere possibility, whose characteristics are yet undetermined (irrespective of whether it subsequently takes place); E (present) is a combination of a portion of the complete event E and its possible continuations or completions; and E (past) is the complete event. There is therefore nothing like a tense tourist E visiting future, present and past in succession – never mind occupying them all at once.
This is pretty obvious. So why do many intelligent people (including McTaggart) imagine that believing in tensed time requires you to believe in the same item, event E, visiting the three tenses in turn, as a result of which it runs the risk of having to inhabit more than one tense at once (as McTaggart pointed out)? It is partly because we use the same kind of expression when we refer to an event in the future, in the present, and in the past: we refer to ‘tomorrow’s sea battle’ that does take place just as we refer to ‘tomorrow’s battle-averting treaty-signing’ that, as it turns out, does not take place. This similarity of referring expression in the two cases conceals the profound difference between them – between a mere possibility, whose content is entirely dependent on how it is entertained, imagined, or anticipated, and is only an ‘honorary event’, and an actuality, whose content is in the real world, determinate in every detail – including those millions of details no-one has imagined or anticipated.
Thus there are future possibilities, but no future events. So in philosophy we should restrict the term ‘event’ to something that has come to pass – to something that is completed and is no longer ongoing, and in fact has become past. On 12th December we can see, in hindsight, that there was a sea battle that took place on 11th December: it had not yet happened on 10th December but was going to happen the following day. We should not translate this into implying that there is a full-blown event on the 11th December already somehow in place on 10th December, which is heading towards the present, and will pass through the present to end up in the ever-more-distant past. It is only when an event is complete that we can say what it was that, before it happened, had ‘not yet’ taken place. Events are in the future only when they have taken place: that is, when they are seen retrospectively to have been in the future of some specified prior time.
Forking Chains of Possibilities
Seeing this also enables us to deal with what has come to be called ‘logical fatalism’ regarding ‘future contingents’. Aristotle famously argued as follows. At any given time there is a set of propositions some of which are true and some of which are false. Let’s suppose on 10th December, somebody says that there will be a sea battle on 11th December (call this proposition ‘p’) and somebody else says that there will not be a sea battle on 11th December (proposition ‘not-p’). As there is a sea battle on 11th December, p is true and not-p false. If p is true, it has been true all along. It was true on December 10th and, indeed, before then: it has always been true. In which case, the battle always had to happen. It was fated to happen.
We can now see what is wrong with this argument. The referent of the prediction made on 10th December is not a particular battle: it is not a definite event. An indefinite number of events could meet the specification ‘sea battle on 11th December’. Being neither a particular battle, nor a specific event, that which is predicted is neither a battle nor an event. To qualify as an event, it has to have taken place. Then, and only then, can it be deemed to have existed in the future when it was anticipated on 10th December. The idea that worried Aristotle, that the assertion of ‘p’ on 10th December not only predicts ‘p’ but actually obliges it to happen, is due to the reduction of real events to generally-specified forks in forking chains of possibilities, such as ‘sea battle on 11th December’ versus ‘no sea battle on 11th December’. This becomes clear when we recall that possibilities, which are necessarily general, do not reach down to the specificity which characterises actual events. Possibilities are vague classes of events that may or may be instantiated in determinate happenings.
This mustn’t be taken to imply that the future is unreal; only that is not populated by events. At the very least, the future contains a set of possibilities that are constrained by probabilities. The closer the future in question, the more those probabilities approach to certainties. Probabilities are different from items such as objects that populate the present. Certainly as I look at the objects that surround me in my room now, I can feel very confident that I am looking at the furniture of the immediate future (say, a second from now), but less confident that I am looking at the furniture of ten years hence, and confident that I am not looking at the furniture of a million years hence. However, my confidence regarding future events will not not map on to this scale of declining probabilities. Although I have a general sense of the probability of what will happen in the immediate future – I hear you walking up the stairs and anticipate that you will enter the room – my sense of what will happen will still not reach down to a particular event. Your entry into the room will have all sorts of 'as yet undetermined characteristics – the fall of light on your face, what you are saying as you enter, the position you assume. So while we accept the reality of the future, we must not think of it as being inhabited by a population of events analogous to the material objects surrounding us in the present whose stability projects them unchanged into the near or even into the middle future.
To stop McTaggart’s argument from getting off the ground, it is sufficient to recall that for something to qualify as having been a future event rather than a future possibility, it will have to have occurred. Thus, we can call an event as (once having been) future only when it has to come to pass. Tensed time can therefore be protected against McTaggart’s accusation that it is paradoxical if we realise that we cannot call any event future until it is past.
© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2011
Raymond Tallis is a physician, philosopher, poet and novelist. His latest book Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity is out now.