Probably one of the most counter-intuitive notions has been raised within the title of this article; why time may not be real. Yet, in 1908, the British idealist philosopher J.M.E. McTaggart (1866-1925) wrote a paper entitled ‘The Unreality of Time’ which intended to disprove the existence of time. McTaggart himself recognised that it is “doubtless paradoxical to believe that Time is unreal” but he also noticed that this belief “has proved singularly attractive.” Bearing these details in mind, we can begin to summarise his argument and see whether it has stood the test of time (hehe).
The first part of McTaggart’s paper is to demonstrate that there are two ways of viewing time, his distinctions are between what he called the ‘A series’ and the ‘B series’. The ‘A series’ essentially states that there are three different characteristics of time, which flow into each other; past, present and future. The ‘B series’ states that positions of time are always earlier than or later than another time position. It is of paramount importance to believe that change exists, since as he states, “a universe without change would be a universe without time.” McTaggart then performs some metaphysical gymnastics and suggests the following:
“No event can cease to be, or begin to be, itself, since it never ceases to have a place as itself in the B series. One event cannot change into another.” – J.M.E. McTaggart.
Change now seems possible without the A series, but the B series by itself does not distinguish between past, present and future, so it is insufficient by itself. With the A series we are forced to the conclusion that all change is but a change of characteristics, i.e: an event was in the future, then it was present and then it became past. McTaggart has shown that without an A series, there could be no change, but such a notion is so counter-intuitive to our perceptions of time. McTaggart now seems reasonably comfortable in suggesting that the A series is pretty essential to time.
But McTaggart is not finished yet. In the second part of his paper, he pokes the reader with the next logical step in his argument to show that “If the distinctions of time are never true in reality, there is no reality in time.” McTaggart’s aim is to somehow disprove the A series. He starts by suggesting it is contradictory for any event to simultaneously possess pastness, presentness and futurity. Seems pretty reasonable. Interestingly enough, these three characteristics are mutually incompatible and yet true of every event. Our language with its tenses seems to explain away this difficulty, since we say of an event that “it is present, will be past and has been future.” But that doesn’t seem right, we are presupposing the very thing whose nature we are disputing; we are using ‘time’ to talk about time. Stick with me. Getting back to McTaggart’s argument, we are really saying that an event is presently in the future (‘present-futurity’), then it will be in the past (‘future-pastness’) and this event used to be in the future (‘past-futurity’). However, an event cannot have all of these characteristics at the same time. These characteristics are also incompatible, since ‘future-pastness’ suggests an event is in the future and ‘past-futurity’ suggests that this event is not in the future. This is a vicious circle, and in this way McTaggart has shown that the A series is quite contradictory, and since the notion of time relies on the A series, we must reject the A series and subsequently reject time.
McTaggart’s paper was a landmark in the fascinating and understudied philosophy of time. To this day his paper contains a robust and relatively reasonable argument. What seemed at first to be highly paradoxical – on McTaggart’s own admission – is now fairly intuitive. John McTaggart was a peculiar philosopher in his own right, known to “walk with a curious shuffle, back-against-the-wall, as if expecting a kick from behind.” Up to now, no such “kick” has been delivered, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that he is right. McTaggart himself claimed that: “Time must be rejected, not because it cannot be explained, but because the contradiction cannot be removed.” In any case, if you are feeling quite nauseous, or have a throbbing headache as I did after I read his paper, bear in mind the following quote from our old friend, Aristotle:
“It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it.” – Aristotle.
- (1908) “The Unreality of Time” by John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart.
- Geach, Peter, 1979. Truth, Love and Immortality: an Introduction to McTaggart’s Philosophy, Berkeley: University of California Press.
- “The Persistence of Memory” by Salvador Dali.