The Apparition of Time
McTaggart and the Unreality of Time
The philosophy of time is an extraordinarily complex, confusing, yet fascinating topic. One of the most significant authors on the subject is John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart (yes, his name has “McTaggart” in there twice). In perhaps his most famous work, the paper “The Unreality of Time,” McTaggart argues that time, as we know it, cannot possibly exist. In his paper, McTaggart defends a number of premises to prove his conclusion. This week’s post will focus on one of those premises: that the past, present, and future cannot exist.
We have two main ways of thinking about events in time. First, we can think of them as being in the past, present, or future, and McTaggart calls this the “A series.” As I am typing this, I am aware that this piece will be published in the future. In a few days, it will be getting published in the present. In a few weeks, it will have been published in the past. The other way to think about events is in terms of how they relate to each other. For instance, I was born before Barack Obama was elected president. This statement is as true today as it was a week ago, a year ago, or even a century ago. It will be true tomorrow, the day after, and in the year 10,000 as well. No matter what, the relationship between my birth and Obama’s election simply will not change. McTaggart calls this the “B series.” As you may have noticed, events in the A series change (from future to present to past), but events in the B series do not change at all (they simply are either earlier or later than each other, no matter what).
McTaggart argues that time cannot exist in terms of the A series. In other words, there is no such thing as the past, present, or future. We may naturally think and experience the world that way, but that does not mean that’s how nature really is. That just means our brains alter how we perceive the world in order to make it more easily understandable. If you don’t think our brains would really do that to us, just go and search for “the cutaneous rabbit,” or “Orwellian and Stalinesque revision.” Our brain literally alters how we perceive events in time in order to make things easier to understand – the notion of the past, present, and future may be just another one of those alterations.
To prove there is no A series, we must first agree that no single event can simultaneously possess the qualities of being in the past, present, and the future. Every event, when analyzed from a specific moment, is (relative to that moment) in the past, the present, or the future. If this weren’t the case, then there wouldn’t be any meaningful way to distinguish between the words “past”, “present”, and “future” – they’d all mean the same thing. So, in order for the A series to exist, events must be in the past, the present, or the future, but never more than one.
The problem, now, is determining whether an event is in the past, the present, or the future. How do you determine which label to apply? Every event, depending on when you look at it, is in the past, present, and future. As I write this now, Obama was elected in the past. But why should I prefer this moment in time as my way of deciding what label to apply to Obama’s election? Why not look at it from the year 2000 and say Obama’s election is in the future? After all, according to the A theory, the past is just as real as the present. Why would we arbitrarily give preference to the present moment when deciding if an event is in the past or future? Even if you do want to defend that arbitrary choice, the same problem still arises. Let’s say you do believe that we should use the present to determine whether an event is past, present, or future. Re-read that last sentence. We have to use the present in order to determine an event’s relationship to the present? To do that, we again have to assume the existence of the past, present, and future. Now we’re in a circle. We need to assume the existence of a present moment in order to determine if an event is past, present, or future. But why make that assumption? Because it just feels like there’s a present moment? That’s not good enough – recall the cutaneous rabbit and Orwellian/Stalinesque revisions. We cannot blindly assume that our experience of a present moment is objective and true. Every moment feels like the present moment. Our brain regularly lies to us about temporal matters, and that feeling of a “now” may just be another one of those lies.
Think of your life like a timeline. If McTaggart is correct, then our life isn’t actually a steady point (the present) going from start to finish on that line. Rather, it’s the whole line. The whole thing is “real” in some strange, timeless way. Your childhood is just as real as what you consider the present moment, which is just as real as your life 10 years down the line. This would have pretty serious implications for how we decide to spend our time. If you’re working a job you hate, but only putting up with it because it’s “just for now,” then McTaggart has some bad news for you. Your suffering isn’t just for now: it’s for all eternity. All the advice you’ve gotten about planning for your future and making sacrifices in the present is, in fact, terrible advice. Although I don’t think any advocates of this argument would recommend blowing all your savings for a good time now, they probably would say that you shouldn’t put up with a miserable existence now for some potential benefits in the future.