Mctaggart’s Philosophy of Time

In this post we are going to talk about the philosophy of time. What is it and how does it work?

Let’s start with John Mctaggart who published an article called The Unreality of Time in 1908.

In this article he introduces two different perceptions we have of time, and uses this to argue that time must be unreal. That it does not really exist in a sense. Now, today a lot of philosophers don’t think that his theory leads us to conclude that time must be unreal. You can make up your own mind about this in the end. But McTaggart’s theories on time have become very famous and influential in the philosophy of time. So, we are going to discuss that right now. 

He separates time into two distinct modes, called the A series and B series of time. The A series is for example when you utter the sentence, “I am eating a banana.” This type of sentence has a tense, so you can change around the verb depending on the time. The next day you could say “I ate a banana”, instead of “I am eating it.” If you plan on doing it in the future you can say “I will eat a banana.” So any event is ordered in time depending on the perspective of some person, and the events change around all the time. First they are part of the future, you want to do something. Then it actually happens, and then it becomes part of your past, and keeps going further in the past. This is the A series. 

In contrast to this, you have the B series. This treats events as tenseless, because it does not depend on an observer whether or not something is true. For example, the sentence: “On December 10th 2019 John Cornwood ate a banana”, this is a statement that will be true no matter who says it. But with the sentence I am eating a banana it does matter who says it, do you see? This is the main difference between the A series and B series of time. 

So, furthermore, if we have on December 10th John ate a banana, and on December 11th John ate an apple, and December 12th John at a coconut, then these events will always be fixed in time in this way and never change their relationship to one another. John eating that banana will always be earlier than John eating that apple. However, If John says I will eat a banana, then that event is in the future. At some point it will be present, and finally it will become the past. So it changes around, you see. 

So now you might be thinking, okay Nico we have this A series and B series of time, but what is the point of it? Well, it was McTaggart’s point that time doesn’t exist because both of these modes are inadequate to express our experience of time. Even though this point is widely disputed by philosophers, an interesting consequence of this theory is that it shapes our perception of the universe. 

Consequences for our Philosophical Perspectives on Time

Let us start with the B series. If I say, it rains in Rotterdam on December 10th, 2019. And let us suppose this is true. Well, then this is true no matter who says it at what time right? So in a sense, this event is REAL. It is already fixed and real even before it has happened. The same goes for any other event you wish to describe. If you say in 1863 slavery was abolished in the US, this is true no matter what. Of course it is more difficult to predict events in the future, so you are going to be wrong a lot of the time. But that doesn’t matter. The statements that are true are true no matter what. Not depending on the time or person who said it.  

This gives rise to the philosophical perspective known as eternalism. Eternalism states that all events are just as real, as the events happening in the present. So, if you are eating a banana right now, that is a real event right now, but this event is just as real if it is in the present or in the future. Every event is fixed in time and just as real as everything else. In that sense, time is a lot like space itself. Everything that exists in space is just as real as anything else. This perspective is also referred to as the block universe. It sees the universe, all space and time, as just one giant fixed block. It doesn’t really have to be block shaped, it can be any shape you like, the point is just everything is already fixed in space and in time.

Then we have presentism which corresponds with the A series of time, and says that the future and present are not real. They don’t exist. The only thing that is real is the present. So, when you say the sentence I am eating a banana, this is only true if you are doing it right now. If you say, I was eating a banana, then yeah okay, you can say that, but that event doesn’t exist anymore. It has already passed on. You can regard the universe as a thin slice of spacetime, and this is all there is. And somehow the passage of time affects this slice of space, and makes it change continuously.  

And finally, there is a third perspective which is called growing block universe and also corresponds with the A series of time. This one states that the past and present exist, whilst the future does not. We again have this thin slice of space which is the present, but it is moving and bringing the past into being. Thus, the block universe grows.  

These are the three perspectives we have of the universe, depending on how you see time. If you see time as something wholly different than space, just moving along and making things real as it passes along, then you have an A series understanding of time and you either believe in presentism or the growing block universe. If you see time as similar to space, and all events fixed in time just as they are in space, then you believe in the B series of time and in eternalism, also known as the block universe. 

Please let us know which perspective you think is right and why



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