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McTaggart's proof of the unreality of time


To: Pearl K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: McTaggart's proof of the unreality of time
Date: 1st May 2008 08:59

Dear Sachiko,

Thank you for your email of 30 April with your University of London Metaphysics essay in response to the question, 'Does McTaggart have a convincing argument for the unreality of time?'

I was quite impressed with the way you were able to assimilate some of the main arguments over McTaggart's notorious proof, including D.H. Mellor's 'defence' of the reality of time in his book 'Real Time'.

Given the constraints of an hour timed essay, if you could succeed in demonstrating your knowledge as shown here (even though most or all if it is derived from text books rather than reading the original books/ papers) you would get a decent mark. You seem to understand what the arguments are about (no mean feat!) and that's the important thing.

However, with my examiner's hat on, I would be wondering whether or to what extent you have really grappled with this problem yourself, rather than just reading and comparing texts. I'm saying this because the reality of time was one of the first problems that gripped me when I was first contemplating taking a degree in philosophy (many, many years ago).

As it happens, I have made my own contribution to the debate (although 'not a lot of people know this'). That's OK, because my solution is purchased at a price which many philosophers would find too dear -- accepting the reality of a 'metaphysical contradiction'. See the relevant chapter of Naive Metaphysics.

Mellor puts his finger on the essential paradox about time, in the very course of seeming to dispense with the main defence of the A-theorists: that human action is essentially temporal and would be unthinkable in a universe constituted wholly of a before-and-after series of events.

In doing so, he is effectively arguing (as I would say) for the unreality of time, not its reality. Without the A-series you don't have time. The very notion of defining the meaning of statements referring to time or times by means of statable truth conditions already does away with what is essential to time.

Let me put this another way. How do you define 'now'? Is it the time that GK is typing the words, 'How do you define 'now'?' in a Word document? Yes. It is also the time of a million other events all over the world (including your preparing for your exams at this very moment, I imagine). However, what I have just written is false. In the time it took to write another couple of sentences, now is no longer the time that GK was writing the words referred to above. It is 'then'. This is just another, simpler, version of McTaggart's more elaborate 'vicious regress' argument.

It is impossible to define to real times. Words slip off. All you can do is name events and compare their position in the B-series with other events. Our own view of ourselves as agents as actively involved in the world may be 'true', but it is a truth that cannot be stated or described as it is, but only indicted in general terms (as I have just done).

McTaggart believed that the ultimate nature of reality is not the A-series or the B-series but something he called the C-series. Not a lot of philosophers discuss this today. That is because most assume (as I have done) that if you are a B-theorist who thinks that the A-series is dispensable or definable in terms of the B-series then, in effect, you accept McTaggart's argument (or the main force of his argument) for the unreality of time.

Michael Dummett has an interesting take on the reality/ unreality of time which is relevant to understanding McTaggart. In his paper, 'The Reality of the Past', Dummett attacks the idea that knowledge of meaning is knowledge of truth conditions, advocating in its place a Wittgensteinian-style theory which puts the emphasis on how speakers are actually trained to use temporal vocabulary (sometimes referred to as 'verification conditions'). A realist view of the past, according to which propositions about the past have truth conditions which can be satisfied independently of whether we are capable of coming to know that they have been satisfied, is equivalent to belief in the unreality of time, that is to say, in Dummett's view, a failure to grasp the reality of the present moment and the flow of time.

All the best,