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Temporal becoming and the B-series view of time


To: Zumar A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Temporal becoming and the B-series view of time
Date: 22nd August 2011 14:07

Dear Zumar,

Thank you for your email of 13 August, with your essay for the University of London BA Metaphysics module, in response to the question, ''Time should be understood as a series of events ordered by notions such as BEFORE and AFTER, we do not need tense-invoking concepts like PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE.' Discuss.'

This is not a bad essay. In terms of length, if you managed this within anything like exam conditions (one hour) then you did very well indeed.

Your criticism of the A-series view of time follows closely McTaggart's original argument. However, I don't think that McTaggart necessarily gives the most illuminating critique. He relies heavily on the claim about 'contradictions', there's a lot of dialectical hocus pocus, but at the end I don't really feel that I understand *why* the A-series view is incorrect.

It's also important to note that McTaggart did not regard the B-series view as correct. (You allude to this point.) His argument is a step along the way to establishing his own theory of time, the C-series. Expositions of McTaggart often omit this. It's fair to say that the C-series view does not get much coverage these days.

What is the problem with the A-series? Here is a much simpler way to see the problem. I am now writing the second sentence of the sixth paragraph of my first email to Zumar. That is a fact. Except that, it isn't a fact, because I am no longer writing that sentence. While I was writing the sentence, the statement, 'I am now writing the second sentence...' was true. But it is no longer true. It is false.

OK, where's the problem? Following Mellor's analysis, the statement, 'I am now writing the second sentence...' was made at the same time as I wrote the second sentence. The statement I have just made is timelessly true. The problem is, that's not what I meant. I didn't mean merely to state a tautology. I meant to state a metaphysical fact, the fact that I was NOW writing it. The 'nowness of now' appears to us to be a act, yet there are no words capable of expressing that fact. Every time is a 'now'.

This is a problem which you do acknowledge, in the most interesting part of your essay where you distinguish between the 'metaphysical' question and the 'epistemological' question. A theory needs to 'save the phenomena'. It is not sufficient to offer a theory which contradicts what we seem to see with our senses, if you are unable to offer an explanation of why that 'seeming' is an illusion. Mellor's theory of time as the B-series contradicts the naive, intuitive belief that there is a unique and special fact about 'now', it's metaphysical 'nowness'. Mellor's response is, basically, to throw the onus back onto the A-theorist and challenge them to come up with the words necessary to account for this fact: something which of course they are unable to do.

Thus, 'I am relieved it is all over,' said after visiting the dentist, has truth conditions which account for the time difference between walking into the dentist's surgery and leaving the surgery. These correspond, as you point out, to the truth conditions for indexical statements. But that doesn't make the problem, or the illusion, go away. I just *know* that there is something special about NOW. But this is not epistemology. I don't exactly know what to call it. It's an intuition, it's what we are naively 'tempted to say'. Mellor rests content with stating the truth conditions, but fails to grapple with the temptation. He would say, that he just doesn't feel it. But I wonder about this.

It is an issue which I have also grappled with (in my book 'Naive Metaphysics: a theory of subjective and objective worlds' downloadable from the Pathways site). Contrary to what most A-theorists would say, I do accept that 'now' and 'here' pose similar problems. It is no less problematic that there seems to be a place, HERE, which is special (because I occupy it) although there are no words capable of expressing that 'fact' non-tautologically.

All the best,