J.M.E McTaggart’s Argument That Nothing is in Time

by Max Andrews

J.M.E. McTaggart provides an objection to the A series of time but suggesting that it may be true that past, present, and future are mere illusions of the mind.[1]  McTaggart dismisses the argument’s subjectivity of time by simply defining it out of existence.

McTaggart’s Argument:

  1. Anything existent can either possess the characteristic of being in time or the characteristic of not being in time.
  2. Anything existent does not possess the characteristic of being in time [due to subjective references, a lack of indexing events from moment to moment or changing, etc.]
  3. Therefore, anything existent does not possess the characteristic of being in time (time is illusory).

The objection to the A series by the subjectivity of the individual mind is not so easy to dismiss as McTaggart seems to do.  With advances in relativity theory this objection may have phenomenological credibility.  Though McTaggart’s rejection of the argument is correct, there are better reasons for opposing the argument of the mind’s subjective relationship to time.[2]

The special theory of relativity (STR) states that clocks in motion slow down.  This time dilation occurs with respects to the observer.  In the early 1900’s, Albert Einstein’s STR changed how physicists and philosophers viewed the previous Newtonian paradigm of absolute simultaneity.  If STR is correct, then an observer in motion will experience time at a slower rate than an observer at rest.  Perhaps, given STR, the A series of time is really illusory since the experience of time is relative to the subject (the object being the spacetime fabric).

STR may still permit an A series of time where the subject’s experience of objective becoming is supported by the object’s relation to the subject.  There are two concurrent ways this may be done:  Lorentzian simultaneity (from the physical approach) and God as the prime reality (from the metaphysical approach).  Hendrick Lorentz proposed the idea that time and length are absolute but there are no way these measurements could be made since the measuring devices are in motion.

Lorentz’s equations for local time and transformation may aid the A theorist in the subject to object relationship with the observer being the subject and spacetime being the object; however, if the object is changed to God then perhaps the observers experience of becoming is objective [or perhaps a metaphysical time].  Propositions that appear in the past tense are true if and only if that proposition was true and that moment it describes.  The proposition, “It rained yesterday on March 12” is true if and only if today is March 13 [or any later day] and it rained the day before March 13.  If the observer experienced an earlier-than, later-than sense of becoming respective to March 12 and March 13 what criteria would warrant a rejection of that sense of becoming?  If on March 12 the observer objectively experiences rain and then affirms the truth of the proposition “It rained yesterday on March 12” the next day it seems that the proposition is objectively true as it stands in relation to the event and the observer.  If the event experienced (absolute becoming) is objective and the proposition “It rained yesterday on March 12” is true on March 13 then perhaps the referent for temporal becoming is not mere spacetime but rather God.

Admittedly this makes pantheism and panentheism to be sufficient explanatory hypotheses but these are not the only hypotheses that may work.  If all reality is found in God, according to an Anselmian God, then conceivably the phenomenological experience of the observer objectively experiencing a temporal becoming is due to a noumenal projection or referent providing that objectivity.  This would be analogous to Kant’s phenomenal-noumenal split with regards to the categorical imperative.  Just as Kant antecedently accepts the categorical imperative as objective he consequently postulates God as the objective source.  The analogy fits in the same phenomenological/experiential sense as well as the antecedent-consequent relationship and postulation (as well as implying the reality of events and experiences having temporal characteristics).

The question of how God relates to the world will inevitably be raised in light of this hypothesis.  Explaining how God relates to the world, whether it is pantheistic, panentheistic, or God’s temporal relationship is a Lorentzian time, is not necessary to make the postulation as long as God is the Anselmian understanding of God (that God is the prime reality).  This explanation comes to the same conclusion that McTaggart came to except more credence is given to the subject’s relationship to the object (whatever the object may be).  If the object is spacetime then it certainly may be the case that temporal becoming is an illusion given STR.

            [1] J.M.E. McTaggart, “Time:  An Excerpt From The Nature of Existence” in Metaphysics eds. Peter van Inwagen, Dean W. Zimmerman (Oxford:  Blackwell, 2008), 118.

            [2] When is use past tensed verbs such as “experienced” or “rained” I am using them in a series-independent sense.  The English tenses may assume an objective difference in time but I am not giving credence to my argument by appealing or assuming verb tenses as being true merely because of linguistic limitation.


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