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Time Lord No. 1: John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart

Written by Jeff Drake
5 · 02 · 21
As I stated in the introduction to my series about time, I am going to introduce you to a number of philosophers – and their theories – who are important to the field of study known as the “philosophy of time.” They will not necessarily be in any specific order and I will certainly not come anywhere close to covering all the various personalities who have pursued the subject, “What is time?” After all, this is a topic that has been undergoing discussion since the ancient Greeks. Still, certain people, some of whom are gone, others still with us, are worth noting for their ideas which have had – and continue to have – an important impact on this field of study. For this reason, I am going to anoint each of them with the title of, “Time Lord” (with a nod and a wink towards Doctor Who).

My Time Lords will not all be philosophers, as some will be physicists and others may be psychologists and/or cognitive scientists. Why? For the simple reason that the study of time, like my other love, the study of consciousness, requires different points of view and finding solutions to the problems they uncover requires a multi-disciplinary effort.

Note that I am not putting a stake in the ground on any of the theories I will recount during my Time Lord series. If I ever get something figured out enough in my own head about time such that I can write about it, I will. Till then, I am simply exposing you to some of the key thinking going on with the subject of time. Welcome to my world!

 

So, raise a glass and say hello to my First Time Lord: John McTaggart Ellis Mctaggart. No, that’s not a typo, that’s actually his name. For brevity’s sake I will simply refer to him henceforth by the same name his peers at Cambridge University did – “McT.”

McT was an idealist. An idealist is someone who believes that reality, all the stuff that exists around us, is somehow constructed from our perceptions and experiences, our ideas. This theory began with the first idealist, a Greek you may have heard of – Plato. Centuries later, this is still a belief that remains popular in some circles.

McT was also a metaphysician. A metaphysician is someone who studies metaphysics, a branch of philosophy focused on examining the fundamental nature of reality. This includes the study of the relationship between mind and matter, between what is a substance and what is an attribute, and between what is actual and what is potential. Lofty stuff, for sure. I’d be willing to bet he smoked a pipe!

Get used to this word, metaphysics, as it will be impossible for me to write about time and Time Lords and not use the term occasionally. (If there were two posters that could be made that exemplify the field of metaphysics, one would state “consciousness,” the other “time”.)

Metaphysics and idealism are both words with deep Greek roots. In fact, it is believed the word, metaphysics, was probably coined by a first century CE[i] editor of sorts who was tasked with taking various selections of works written by another Greek you’ve no doubt heard of before, Aristotle, and assembling them into a larger treatise called, Metaphysics. This term makes sense when you learn that meta is a Greek word that means something that is behind, after, or beyond something else. In this case, Aristotle’s first treatise was called Physics, which makes the subsequent treatise, meta-physics, or after-Physics.

While the fact that McT was an idealist metaphysician is interesting, it is his theories regarding time that make him a Time Lord in my book. He is gone, but his time theories live on and are still hotly debated today! I will attempt to explain some of his theories below. They can be confusing, so be warned. I’ll do what I can to talk about them in a way that is easy to understand. At least, that’s my hope.

McT was born on September 3, 1866 in London and died there on January 18, 1925 at the age of 59. I chose McT as my first Time Lord, but I could just have well have begun with several other philosophers. It’s not so much that he was the first to probe the topic of time, but his theories of time have long outlived him and are still taught, discussed, and argued about all over the world. In this sense, McT is one of the most famous philosophers of time ever, so he’s going to take the stage first.

After I started reading about McT I was a bit surprised to see his photo (above). He looks so normal. LOL! His contemporaries painted him with a slightly less-flattering picture.

By all accounts, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, McT was an oddball. His head was reportedly rather large and his walk resembled that of a crab. Poor guy. LOL! A philosopher named Peter Geach (1971) reported: “To the end of his days he walked down corridors with a curious shuffle, back to the wall, as if expecting a sudden kick from behind.”

This description reminded me of old-wives’ tales I had heard while working on a project for the National Security Agency (NSA). One such tale says that when you reach the most secure interior of the NSA, you are warned that you should not talk to or interrupt in any way, the various individuals you will see walking along the walls (referred to as “wall-walkers”). These are people who wander down the hall with their head tipping to the side, rubbing the wall as they walk. These folks are supposedly savants possessing extremely high intelligence in specialized fields, usually mathematics or puzzle-solving. Geniuses to the extreme in their fields, they are also socially detached or at best, awkward to the extreme. They live inside their heads. I suspect most would say they are extremely autistic. You never know what they are working on, so no one wants to disrupt their train of thought. I’m still not sure this is an old wives’ tale. It seems believable. LOL!

McT took being an weird to heart it seems, as he also had the curious habit of saluting any cat that happened to cross his path. LOL! And when he wasn’t “walking the walls” of Cambridge University or saluting cats, he could be seen riding around the campus on his…tricycle, an image that completes his picture as an oddball in my book.

The sight of McT on his trike caused the Cambridge paper to print a poem about him:

“Philosopher, your head is all askew; your gait is not majestic in the least; you ride three wheels, where other men ride two; Philosopher, you are a funny beast.”

McT was supposedly delighted with this poem, which makes me want to like him. So, he may have been a walking (or riding) caricature of a philosophy professor, but at least he had a sense of humor!

While his peers and students enjoyed a good laugh at McT’s expense, there was no one laughing at his intellect. He is in fact, considered one of the most important metaphysicians of the 20th century. The majority of his written work and the primary focus of his studies was not time per se, but the work of another philosopher – Hegel. You’ll be thankful that I am not going to dive into Hegel here (or anywhere else). Hegel’s work is fascinating, but also some of the most obtuse reading I’ve ever experienced. McT was certainly fascinated with his work as he wrote at least 10 books on Hegel’s philosophy. Somehow, given his obsession with Hegel, he still found time to think and write about time. Perhaps the fact that Hegel was also fascinated with the concept of time is the impetus that spurred McT to dip his toe into these philosophical waters? Some wonder whether his other fascination – with mysticism, was the origin of his interest in time.

McT published an article about time in the 1908 journal MIND, titled, “The Unreality of Time.”[ii] You can immediately see from this title the crux of his position on what time is – it’s not real. That’s a bold claim for most.

This paper, later included in a posthumously published book, “The Nature of Existence”, is still referred to and argued about today. The article raised a lot of eyebrows then and even now, for in it, McT argues his position that time – the ubiquitous time that we all experience in every moment of our lives – is not real. McT was a very religious man, so it is no big surprise that in this book, McT concludes that the only things in life that are “real” are immortal souls and their relationships of love between them, which made some wonder if McT wasn’t actually the first hippie? LOL! Hmm. I wonder what he smoked in his pipe?

McT didn’t think too much of the generally accepted concept of time and in fact, he thought that it didn’t make any sense at all. Note that there wasn’t a unique theory of time at play when McT was alive, for it is still the same theory alive and well today: Time is real. The past, present and future are real. Time flows like a river and events that happen move from future to present to past. Even today, if many were pressed to define time they might well say something close to this.

So why did McT think this theory was wrong? Why did it not make sense to him?

Because, according to McT, when you look at the common beliefs about time, they can be broken down into two specific theories of time and they can’t both be right. McT, of course, goes further and says they are both wrong! He does admit, however, that these two theories, and most theories of time, all agree on at least one thing – that time involves a kind of order or sequence of events. What they tend to disagree about is what that order is. No wonder then that McT states that the two commonly held theories of time are essentially two ways of ordering events in time i.e., temporally. McT goes on to label these two theories the A and B theories of time.

But there’s more to this story.

McT first makes the effort to put into words what these two theories are. Like a good philosopher, he puts the common notion of time in language that he can then use to argue against. ?

The first approach, the A-theory, is also sometimes called the “tensed”[iii] theory of time, but don’t get your shorts in a bunch over this. This theory of time basically says that events in time are ordered in terms of past, present, and future. Sound familiar? Hey, I do that myself! Don’t you? Don’t we all? To A-theorists, it is an objective fact of the world that future events have not happened yet, but they certainly will eventually happen. Other events are in the present, and are happening in what is sometimes called the objective “Now”. While still other events were in the present, but have since happened and are hence events in the past. Let’s face it. If you’re an A-theorist, you’re not lonely.

The A-theorist believes that the distinction between past, present and future is not relative,[iv] nor is it a matter of perspective. Rather, they believe that it is an objective fact about our universe that certain events are in our past, while other events are in our future. The bottom line for the A-theory is that the division of events into past, present future is the order that they believe time consists in.

The A-theory is always described as past, present, future, although I think it should be explained instead as future-present-past, since this is actually the way we experience events in the A series i.e., a future event becomes a present event and then becomes a past event, not the other way around. If you had to draw an arrow showing how events happen, it would start in the future and end in the past. Just sayin’.

So far, so good, I hope? Are you an A-theorist?

The other commonly held theory of time McT talks about is the B-series. This is the “de-tensed” theory of time. Don’t let that statement make these philosophical waters any more murky than they are. The B-theory, like the A-theory, is rather simple.

With the B-theory, throw out notions of past, present, future! According to adherents of the B-theory of time, events are ordered such that some events are earlier than others, some events are later than others, and still other events are simultaneous with others. And that’s all she wrote, folks! That’s what time is. The future hasn’t happened yet, so it isn’t real. The past has already happened and is gone, so the past isn’t real either. We only know the present. A B-theorist will admit that some events are past, relative to other events, and other events are future, relative to still other events, but they don’t believe there is objective past or an objective future. B-theorists tend to look at time as a static imaginary line with all events equally laid out along this line extending from future to past and us stuck in the middle, or present, if you will.

Wait, what? Aren’t these two theories just playing games with words and aren’t they actually just saying the same thing?

Well, you could say that, but then… you’d be wrong.

You see, the reason the A-series and the B-series are not the same thing is because the A-theory allows for something we all see happening around us every day – change, while the B-theory does not.

Think about it. Can you see why this is the case? Perhaps an example will help:

Consider an event like Mother’s Day 2021. Let’s look at it from both the perspectives of the A and B theories of time.

A-SERIES: Given today’s date of May 2, 2021, Mother’s Day 2021 is in the future right now. In one week it will be in the present; and 24 hours later, it will be in the past. You see, within the A-series, an event’s position in time is simply its status of being a past, present, or future event. Thus, an event like Mother’s Day 2021 seemingly moves through time, from future, to present, to past. And of course, this is true for every event that happens. If you think about it, this is very much how we all experience or “feel” time, right? This is why A-theorists can be found discussing the ‘flow” of time, or time “passing” (more on the flow of time later in this series).

Now let’s look at Mother’s Day 2021 from the B-series point of view and see whether Mother’s Day changes its position in time.

B-SERIES: Remember that within the B-series an event’s position in time is nothing more than its being earlier or later than other events. So, for Mother’s Day 2021, its position in the B-Series of time is this:

 

 

 

Looking at the graphic to the left (Note that Mom’s Day 2021 happens to coincide with a waning crescent moon), what is Mom’s Day 2021’s position in this B-series?. It is simply this: Mom’s Day 2021 is later than Mom’s Day 2020 and earlier than Mom’s Day 2022. It is also simultaneous with the waning crescent moon. And here’s the point – this will always be the case for Mom’s Day 2021, no matter how you look at it, nor how much time passes! This will never ever change. It will always be before 2022, simultaneous with the waning crescent moon, and after 2020. Essentially, Mom’s Day 2021 is locked into its place on the timeline. Of course, there’s nothing special about Mom’s Day 2021 (other than mom), so this will be true for all events on the timeline. No single event ever changes its position on the timeline relative to other events!

Thus, the B-series is really a static collection of events laid out in a certain order and that order never changes. There is no flow, no movement along the timeline.

And now you know why the A-series is very different from the B-series!

You may be wondering right now, what about McTaggart’s conclusion that time is unreal? How did he come to this conclusion? Good question! Let’s take a look.

McT says that the A-series is a contradiction and therefore can’t be correct. The contradiction is this –

  1. In the A-series, every event must be past, present or future, but no event can be more than one. If I say an event is past, this implies that it is neither present nor future. And so on for any other event.
  2. Yet, every event in the A-series has them all! For example, in the A-series, if event X is past, then it has been future and present. If it is future, then it will be present and past. If it is present, then it has been future and will be past. Thus, all three characteristics of being past, present and future, belong to every event.

The problem, according to McT, is that 1 and 2 above are inconsistent and downright contradictory. If any event in the A-series is past, present or future, then both 1 and 2 above must be true. But 1 and 2 contradict each other! Since the A-series involves a contradiction, it can’t be right!

With regard to the B-series, McT says this can’t be right either, because it doesn’t allow for change to happen and this is just too mind-blowing to accept.

Thus, given that the A-theory is contradictory and the B-theory doesn’t allow for change, he concludes that both are wrong and therefore time itself, is not real.

Is he right? Is he wrong? My head is still spinning, so I can’t say.

Over time philosophers have morphed McT’s  A-theory of time into two varieties: presentism[v] and the growing block universe[vi] theories. Presentism assumes only objects in the present exist. The growing block universe theory assumes that present and past objects exist, but not future objects.

McT’s B-theory of time has also morphed into two other varieties called eternalism[vii] and fourdimensionalism[viii].

I will be touching on these theories as I continue reading and writing on the subject.

 

[i] BCE/CE are now being used in place of BC or AD when referring to periods of time. BCE/CE refer to a period of time called, the “Common Era” and are the same as the more familiar BC/AD. BCE means “before the Common Era”, or what we used to call “AD”; and CE refers to the “Common Era,” or what we used to call “AD.” Some try to interpret it as “Christian Era,” but this is not correct. In fact, the terms are being changed across the globe to move away from any specific Christian reference to these time periods. This is due to the fact that although Christians are a large chunk of the world’s population, they are nowhere near the majority. Thus, replacing BC/AD with Before Common Era (BCE)/Common Era (CE), reinforces the notion of a global, common era starting at the height of the Roman Empire. (based on Wiki).

[ii] MIND: A Quarterly Review of Psychology and Philosophy Vol. XVII 1908, pg. 457.

[iii] Tense: “tense (noun): a verb-based method used to indicate the time… The concept of tense in English is a method that we use to refer to time – past, present and future.” (Wiki)

[iv] “Considered in relation or in proportion to something else.” Wiki.

[v] Presentism is the view that neither the future nor the past exists. In some versions of presentism, the view is extended to timeless objects or ideas (such as numbers). According to presentism, events and entities that are wholly past or wholly future do not exist at all. Presentism contrasts with eternalism and the growing block theory of time, which hold that past events, like the Battle of Manzikert, and past entities, like Alexander the Great’s warhorse Bucephalus, really exist although not in the present. Eternalism extends to future events as well. (Wiki)

[vi] According to the growing block universe theory of time (or the growing block view), the past and present exist while the future does not. The present is an objective property, to be compared with a moving spotlight. By the passage of time more of the world comes into being; therefore, the block universe is said to be growing. The growth of the block is supposed to happen in the present, a very thin slice of spacetime, where more of spacetime is continually coming into being. Growing block theory should not be confused with block universe theory, also known as eternalism.

[vii] Eternalism is a philosophical approach which takes the view that all existence in time is equally real, as opposed to presentism or the growing block universe theory of time, in which at least the future is not the same as any other time. Some forms of eternalism give time a similar ontology to that of space, as a dimension, with different times being as real as different places, and future events are “already there” in the same sense other places are already there, and that there is no objective flow of time. It is sometimes referred to as the “block time” or “block universe” theory due to its description of space-time as an unchanging four-dimensional “block”, as opposed to the view of the world as a three-dimensional space modulated by the passage of time.

[viii] In philosophy, four-dimensionalism (also known as the doctrine of temporal parts) is the position that an object’s persistence through time is like its extension through space. Thus, an object that exists in time has temporal parts in the various subregions of the total region of time it occupies, just like an object that exists in a region of space has at least one part in every subregion of that space. Four-dimensionalists typically argue for treating time as analogous to space, usually leading them to endorse the doctrine of eternalism. This is a philosophical approach to the ontological nature of time, according to which all points in time are equally “real”, as opposed to the presentist idea that only the present is real. As some eternalists argue by analogy, just as all spatially distant objects and events are equally as real as those close to us, temporally distant objects and events are as real as those currently present to us.

Let us know what you think…

Comments

4 Comments

  1. Don Head

    Jeff, I am enjoying your series on time immensely. I agree with McTaggart’s conclusion that time is unreal (an illusion) but not with his reasoning. Time can not be understood without a proper understanding of consciousness–the inventor of time. The first and foremost purpose of consciousness is to render an accurate full-color hologram of the universe with the host at the center, complete with stereophonic sound, taste, touch, and aroma recognition. Language and intuition are the framework or scaffolding for consciousness. As consciousness and language slowly evolved over millennia it was not immediately apparent to the sensory system that it was not the sun, moon, stars, and other heavenly bodies which were in motion but the Earth itself. Our sensory system detects acceleration, deceleration, and change in direction. We are not equipped to detect smooth, uniform motion. Consciousness invented time to account for this discrepancy just as it invented Camelot. It is the work of human imagination and intuition.

    There is no such place or time as ‘the past’. Every plant, fish, bird, and creature which ever existed on Earth is still here NOW and always will be, albeit, in a different form. The same thing is true for ‘the future.’ Every plant, fish, bird, and creature which will ever exist on Earth is here NOW and always will be, albeit, in a different form. There is only one stage and time for evolution to do its work and that is the present or NOW.

    There are countless examples of illusions that have baffled the human mind during its long evolution. Some illusions or hallucinations are due to drugs (natural or man-made), some due to injury, some due to disease, some due to mutations. Time falls into the category of illusions such as horizons which are the result of a misunderstanding by the conscious mind during its development.

    I wonder what my theory will be called? Any ideas?

    Reply
    • jeffdrake-wp-admin

      I’m glad you are enjoying the series, Don.

      You are far more certain of things like consciousness and time than I am, which is what keeps me reading and writing.

      Jeff

      Reply
      • Don Head

        Matches. It’s hard to imagine life without matches, but before the convenient thin sticks we know today, making fire on demand was a time-consuming process. The first matches were invented by a British chemist named John Walker in 1826, who discovered (by happy accident) that a stick coated in chemicals and scraped across his hearth burst into flame. Walker sold his “Friction Lights” from his pharmacy in Stockton on Tees, but he didn’t patent them. This was a missed opportunity, to put it mildly. Samuel Jones from London copied Walker’s exact idea and sold his matches as “Lucifers,” in a nod to the devil’s sulfurous reputation.

        Source: BBC | Date Updated: March 4, 2021

        Just for context, The human species made a huge leap forward 200 years ago with the invention of matches and probably saved the whales from extinction. Fifty years later Dr. Einstein had his ‘happy epiphany’ and the ‘Big Bang Went Boom’. Sometime later I also had a ‘happy epiphany’, and the little bells of truth went off in my consciousness. It’s hard to be a ‘wall-walker’ after having an epiphany.

        Reply
  2. Don Head

    Hi, again Jeff. I have taken the liberty of inviting a guest to our conversation. Please welcome; Christine Breese is the founder of the University of Metaphysical Sciences, Gaia Sagrada Retreat Center, and Free Retreats 4 All. She is an author, teacher, speaker and healer facilitating spiritual journeys in person, meditation online, through her books and articles, and also through her Christine Breese Youtube Videos. She invites every person to discover the genius-master within themselves!

    Reply

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Author

Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.