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The Mystery of Time

Keith Seddon reviews The Philosophy of Time, edited by Robin Le Poidevin and Murray MacBeath.

This welcome addition to the Oxford Readings in Philosophy series is a competently compiled selection of essays which will give the reader a solid introduction to the major questions grouped under the heading ‘philosophy of time’. It contains two original essays (by Forbes and MacBeath) especially prepared for this volume, and one essay especially revised (by Mellor). The Introduction skillfully takes the reader through all the main issues. The Annotated Bibliography points the enthusiast to a wealth of contemporary work, emphasising work published since 1980.

McTaggart with a chapter from his 1927 book The Nature of Existence, called ‘The Unreality of Time’, starts the whole thing off, coining the phrases ‘A series’ and ‘B series’. One way of interpreting our experience of the ‘flow of time’ and changing phenomena is to say that events yet to happen are future, events happening now are present, and events that have happened are past. This is the A series. If it correctly pictures reality, then events must change with regard to being future, present and past. All events at different times must possess each of these mutually incompatible properties – shedding futurity for presentness for pastness. The fact that event e is future, say, is called a tensed fact. McTaggart denies that there really is an A series requiring tensed facts, and hence asserts that time is ‘unreal’. The B series lays out events in terms of which ones come before, and which after, other ones. In this series, events are temporally ordered (by being earlier than or later than other events) but none is past, present or future. The task for philosophers is to make an account of our experience of the ‘flow of time’ and to decide whether there really are tensed facts. Prior’s paper argues that there are tensed facts; Mellor’s argues that there are not. Adherents of the tenseless view of time argue that tensed facts are logically inconsistent. If time is tenseless, supporters of the tenseless view need to account for our use of ‘tensed expressions’ (e.g. “e is past”, “the bus will come in ten minutes”) and how they can have truth conditions which are not tensed. The editors remark in their Introduction that they cannot include more on tensed belief because this series of anthologies already contains the title Demonstratives (ed. Yourgrau).

Two papers by Shoemaker and Forbes explain the relationship between time and change. Dummett’s paper ‘Bringing About the Past’ looks at the asymmetries between past and future, and asks whether we could act now so as to cause something to happen in the past. David Lewis argues that time travel is possible (in a logical, not a technological, sense). All science-fiction timetravel writers should read this paper, and should make themselves especially competent with what it means to change a past event.

The remainder of the book deals with the topology of time: is time bounded by a beginning and an end? is time continuous or discontinuous? is time linear or cyclical? is time linear or branched?

Some readers, I am sure, will find much of this book abstract and demanding. Many would probably succeed better by reading the papers out of sequence – starting first with the trailblazing seminal papers of McTaggart, Dummett, Lewis, and Quinton, then perhaps working carefully through the Introduction before tackling Mellor, Prior, Newton-Smith and the others.

The philosophy of time is something of a philosophical backwater, but this anthology should help make it a bit more navigable, and may attract a group of readers who would otherwise have passed it by.

© Dr. Keith Seddon 1994

The Philosophy of Time, edited by Robin Le Poidevin and Murray MacBeath, is published by Oxford University Press and costs £8.25 for the paperback.

Keith Seddon is the author of Time: A Philosophical Treatment (Croom Helm)

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