My aim in this article is to evaluate McTaggart’s argument for the unreality of time. McTaggart’s argument was first published in the paper Time in 1908. There are two parts to McTaggart’s argument; the first part addresses the three time series he defines in order to describe time, and the second analyses one of the series as a contradiction.
Aristotle stated; “Change is distinct from time because change occurs at different rates, whereas time does not’’- this is because time is countable but change is not – which means change can’t exist without time and time can’t exist without change. This notion is accepted by McTaggart, although he states his reasoning for disregarding time as a real concept is not similar to any other Philosophers who proposed their own thesis. McTaggart begins his argument for the unreality of time by inquiring into the language used to explain positions in time. He establishes two distinctions of temporal expressions as the A Series and B Series. The A Series includes our uses of the tenses, such as “today”, “tomorrow”, “in the past”, “in the future” and so on. The B Series includes phrases such as “earlier than”, “later than” and “simultaneously”. The positions of the B Series are permanent unlike the A Series. Using three events I will help explain both series:
Over the course of the article we will call this the Socrates timeline –
The three events are: Socrates’ birth, Socrates’ trial and Socrates’ death.
Socrates’ birth is earlier than Socrates’ trial and even earlier than Socrates’ death.
Socrates’ trial is earlier than Socrates’ death but later than Socrates’ birth.
Another aspect of the B Series is what McTaggart calls absolute – which means it doesn’t matter from what time we look at these events it will remain absolutely the same. In example: Socrates’ death took place after Socrates’ trial – we understand this in the distant future, it isn’t just considered to be a past event like we would refer to if we only used A Series properties.
To use the A Series in this example – placing ourselves in the moment of Socrates’ trial, we can state Socrates’ birth was in the past – Socrates’ trial is in the present and an inferred result of the trial means Socrates’ death is in the near future.
By simply anticipating the future and recalling the past I have used both A and B Series expressions hence McTaggart believes this shows their relevance. Although we utilise both of these temporal expressions McTaggart thought that the B Series is inadequate as a measure of time. He sees its properties as static. For McTaggart time involves change, in comparison to A Series’ which exemplifies the temporal characteristics of pastness, presentness and futurity the B Series does not exemplify change but describes a sudden movement. For this reason he states the A Series is essential to time and the B Series without influence of the A Series doesn’t involve genuine change. McTaggart questions if there can be any other way to order events without utilising the A Series or the B Series. Here he introduces a rather unpopular notion called the C Series. The C Series maintains order of events but has no direction. Using the Socrates timeline again, the C Series could place his death before his birth and his birth after his trial – McTaggart dismisses the possibility of this series stating the A Series and B Series are sufficient. The C Series also evidently isn’t factual.
McTaggart then advances to tackle his main point, the point that time is unreal. His argument is better summarised in a syllogism, which I touched upon in my earlier posts – in this case a type of modus tollens:
- Time essentially involves change
- Change can only be explained in terms of A-Series expressions
- A Series expressions involve contradictions hence they cannot describe reality
- Therefore, Time is unreal
Despite his earlier assertion of the necessity of the A Series, McTaggart states there are contradictions within its properties which lead to his thoughts of time being an unreal concept. Simply put he deems it to be contradictory that an event experiences each of the properties. If an event is a past event, it can’t be considered to have been a present or a future event. If an event is a future event, it can’t be a present or a past one – the same applies with present. Using the Socrates timeline again; say today we are trying to make someone understand the difference between his birth and death only using the properties of the A Series:
Socrates death is in the future in comparison to Socrates birth.
Although this makes sense to us, McTaggart would argue pointing out it is contradictory to describe an event which was future, was present, now is past as future in comparison to a more past event. It is contradictory as we are attributing properties to it when it does not apply anymore.
The obvious objection to this point of contradiction is that an event does not experience pastness, presentness and futurity at once – it only has to be successively future, present and then past unlike what McTaggart is suggesting. In rejection of the contradiction claim it’s also said an event must be future at one time, present at a later time and past at a more distant later time. If you consider the properties of the A and B Series you’ll realise that when positioned in this way properties are somewhat being borrowed from each other. McTaggart’s reply points out this fact properties from the B Series were used to defend the A Series, which was besides his point. It’s similar to what McTaggart pointed out previously in his argument – how in order for the B Series to be essential to time it must be used in relation to the A Series properties where we distinguish past, present or future – hence he describes it to be inadequate. For McTaggart, in order to clear the contradiction we must define the event using A Series terms and not others. At this point we are left with some sort of infinite regress. In order to overcome the contradiction without the use of B Series the language used will be something like this:
“An event which is future at the present moment of time is present at a future moment of time and past at a still more distantly future moment of time.”
The temporal expressions presented this way is unnecessarily perplexing. McTaggart stands by his claim that this is contradictory. However this is only one way of perceiving it, A Series theorists refuse the contradiction and propose terminology which is intelligible. This new set of properties for the A Series is described as secondary:
Pastly Present, Presently Past, Futurly Present, Presently Future, Futurly Past, Pastly Future
As you can see McTaggart’s claim that the A Series is contradictory in a sense it cannot use its own properties to show the transition between future, present and past is challenged when new properties are created.
Socrates’ death was pastly future until after Socrates’ trial. It’s now presently past.
McTaggart believes this objection by using the properties of the A Series to define each other does not solve the contradiction, it rather stalls it.
In conclusion believing he has successfully refuted any questions raised based on the contradictions, McTaggart states that due to the contradictions in the A Series and because the B Series relies on the A Series’ properties – that time is unreal. He claims it possible that the realities we perceive as events maybe non temporal, like the C Series as we have no other explanation for the concept of time.