On the Existence of Time

John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart put forth a seemingly convincing argument proposing the non-existence of time. McTaggart purports that for time to exist, it must have contradictory properties. McTaggart makes improper interpretations, and his defence does not answer the challenges put forth by others. Thus McTaggart's unsound argument does not stand up to internal inspection nor extrnal challenges.

The subject of the existence and properties of time has been a problem for many philosophers. John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart argued that anything existent cannot possess the characteristic of being in time. McTaggart's rationale is that "nothing that exists can be temporal, and that therefore time is unreal."[1] McTaggart begins by defining two ways of representing time, and then showing how these models are not appropriate. He holds that change is essential to time, and looks for this change in the events which he proposes make up time, not in the objects present in time. McTaggart looks for change in the wrong place, and attempts to prove that time cannot exist by showing how inappropriate models of time cannot be properly explained.

McTaggart's argument begins by misrepresenting Kant. He states that "In philosophy, time is treated as unreal ... by Kant ..."[2] Continuing, he contends that there are no things to which either of two sets of temporal relations apply. The first set, the "A-series" of time uses relations such as past, present, and future; the "B- series" relates events in time as "earlier than" or "later than". McTaggart asserts that these are the only two ways to order events in time. He terms all the "simultaneous contents of a single position [on the time line]" a group, and this group he considers to be a compound substance. This compound substance which consists of individual events may also be considered an event itself. McTaggart continues to argue that the B-series alone is inadequate to describe time. The A-series must be essential to time, McTaggart states, because the only events we perceive are those which are in the present, an A-series attribute. McTaggart's argument begins: The B-series alone cannot account for change, because events which are earlier (or later) than other events will always be thus. McTaggart states, "The B-series depends on permanent relations, no moment could ever cease to be, nor could it become another moment."[3] The death of Queen Anne, McTaggart purports, is static in that every characteristic of it never changes. The only characteristics relating to such an event which may change are whether it is in the future or the past (or in the present for a brief moment). Thus, change can only be found in the A-series.

McTaggart presents an argument put forth by Russell. Russell suggests that McTaggart is looking in the wrong place for change; change is in the objects, not the events. The example of a poker which is hot at one time and not hot at another if presented. Russell purports that the change is in the quality of the poker between the two times, while both events (ie. the poker being hot or not hot) are static. McTaggart agrees that Russell's example does show change, but disqualifies it because it presupposes the existence of time. Russell's tenseless view of time does not allow for an A-series, but McTaggart believes that the A-series is essential to time. Thus, the poker cannot be hot at one time and not hot at another, because there is no time. An alternative example proposes that the poker is hot on Monday, and not hot at any other time. McTaggart insists in this example that no change occurs in the poker itself, because it is always a quality of the poker that it is hot on that particular Monday and at no other time. To further prove his point, McTaggart introduces the Greenwich meridian analogy: "we can find two points in this series [on the meridian], S and S`, such that the proposition 'at S the meridian of Greenwich is within the United Kingdom' is true, while the proposition 'at S` the meridian of Greenwich is within the United Kingdom' is false. But no one would say that this gave us change."[4] The essence of McTaggart's A-series argument is summarized in the statement, "...no fact about anything can change, unless it is a fact about its place in the A series. Whatever other qualities it has, it has always. But that which is future will not always be future, and that which was past was not always past."[5]

Returning to the B-series, McTaggart describes events as being earlier than an utterance, later than that utterance, or simultaneous with that utterance. He insists that such statements are always true or always false, and therefore no facts change. Thus, the B-series cannot allow for change. Since the B-series cannot allow for change, the A-series is essential to change, and therefore to time as well. To show that the A-series is contradictory, McTaggart states "Past, present and future are incompatible determinations. Every event must be one or the other, but no event can be more than one."[6] If a given event is past, it must have been present and future. If one attempts to escape this contradiction by considering the past, present and future views of the same event as being distinct, then still each of these views of the event has pastness, presentness and futureness. The contradiction has not been escaped. Thus, the B-series does not allow for change and the A-series, which is essential to time, is contradictory. Because the A-series is the only way to account for change, by rejecting the A-series, change must be rejected as well. Rejecting change means rejecting time, which depends upon change, and the B-series, which requires on time.

While McTaggart's argument may seem to support the contention that time cannot exist, this illusion quickly falls away under investigation. Neither his B-series nor A-series arguments support his conclusions. McTaggart's initial statement that the A-series and B-series are the only way to represent time is definitely a debatable topic, but for the purposes of brevity and to add strength to my retort, I shall assume that they A-series and B- series are the only models. By grouping all the simultaneous events at a given moment together, and considering them as a compound substance, McTaggart changes the notion of time from a logical entity to a physical entity. This would mean that an infinite amount of time would have an infinite amount of matter, thus every piece of matter in the universe would have to be part of the compound substance of time. An interesting proposition, and a wise choice for McTaggart not to pursue it, as it is based upon a nothing but his own definition. If the compound substance representing all the individual events is an event itself, is the action of summing all the component events into a sum of events an event in itself? Then is the action of making this event also part of a larger summation of events? This implication would lead to an infinity of events which would spawn from the simple summation of even two events into one combined event. Once again, this is a risky argument, and while McTaggart introduced the possibility of it, he did not argue it.

Although it is not possible to properly describe Kant's views of time in this paper, I will attempt to explain why McTaggart was wrong in believing that Kant felt that time was unreal. Kant's general opinion of how we see the world is that we don't actually experience the objects we perceive. Just like we wouldn't consider a photograph of a chair to be an actual chair, we should not consider the interpretations from our eyes, hands, etc. of a chair to adequately represent the chair. In truth, all we experience is a representation of the chair. In his transcendental aesthetic, Kant attempts to reveal what is actually real through a two step process, "First isolate sensibility, by taking away from it everything which the understanding thinks through its concepts, so that nothing may be left save empirical intuition. Secondly, we shall also separate off from it everything which belongs to sensation, so that nothing may remain save pure intuition and the mere form of appearances, which is all that sensibility can supply a priori."[7] By filtering out anything that is not empirically evident (like dragons and unicorns) and then filtering out anything that we can sense (like tables and chairs) all that is left is that which is common to everything we experience, but not as a result of that experience. The only remaining things after this filtering are time and space. Everything we experience has space and time. Kant continues to describe time and space as "pure" intuitions, but that is beyond the scope of this argument.

McTaggart claims that the B-series does not allow for the "present", and therefore we experience time in an A-series sort of way, via the present. If we define the present as a time which is neither earlier than or later than the utterance of a given phrase, we can represent the present in a B-series system. Furthermore, the B-series can allow for change. McTaggart tries to refute this possibility by presenting a poker which transcends time. He states that a poker which is hot on Monday and not hot at any other time (this presupposes time as much as Russell's argument did) has the quality of being hot at no other time than that Monday, and that is the quality of the poker. Returning to McTaggart's previous claim - that we experience time in the present, and the present alone - how can the poker have qualities that extend over several days, past our perception? Even if the poker did have qualities past our perception, we would have no way to verify those qualities. Thus, for a poker to be hot on a particular Monday and not hot at any other time, change must be involved. McTaggart's example of the Greenwich meridian further demonstrates his misconception. Assuming that time is one dimensional, imagine the Greenwich meridian being a time line. Call point S, within the United Kingdom, "Monday". Point S`, not in the United Kingdom, shall be called "not Monday". If time is one dimensional, and we exist at a single point in time, then we can imagine ourselves as observers standing either at S (Monday) or S` (not Monday) or somewhere else, but never in more than one place on the Greenwich meridian. If we stand at Monday and look around, we see the United Kingdom. Travelling to Tuesday, we see something which is not the United Kingdom. When asked if there was a change, we must say "Yes, there was a change." Now imagine that we have broken free of our one-dimensional time line and we are now orbiting above the earth looking at the Greenwich meridian. We see a line drawn on the surface of the earth. Is there any change? Of course not, we are looking at a line that always spans the globe. The point of this exercise is to demonstrate that as long as we consider ourselves the be "within" time, and only able to experience the present, then we will see change as we move along a time line. If we are looking down upon time from a different dimension, we are able to see more than one point of time at once and will not recognize change. McTaggart clearly states that we only experience the present, but violates this statement with his example. Russell correctly stated that McTaggart was looking for change in the wrong place, and McTaggart's retort only strengthened this contention.

In order to express the notion of change, it is not essential to literally state that change has taken place. If we state that a balloon is inflated at one instance and not inflated at another (earlier or later) instance, then change has occurred, without the requirement of A-series predicates. Thus the B-series can represent the present and does allow for change.

McTaggart's claim that all events must be have past, present, and future determinations is simple to understand from a macroscopic level, but his explanation for why these qualities are incompatible is quite convoluted. It is quite obvious that from a single viewpoint, a given event cannot have more than one of these qualities, but nobody ever asserted this. Each event is past, present and future in relation to no less than three distinct events, and assuming an infinite time series, a given event is past or future to an infinite number of other events. An easy solution to any concerns over the multiplicity of infinities spawned is to imply that the past and the future don't physically exist, they are merely representations. Thus, just like there are an infinite amount of numbers between 0 and 1, there are an infinite number of events both prior to and subsequent to the completion of this sentence. Prior to the completion of the former sentence, it was just a probability, and subsequent to its completion, it shall be known as a logical truth (this sentence is complete) but not anything physical. The confusion arises from confusing the sentence itself with it's own completion. The same analogy can be extended to events in time. Events do not exist, it is their results that exist. The death of Queen Anne is represented by Queen Anne being dead just after being alive, but the event does not exist, we simply mark the time of the first moment of her being dead as the event of her death for indexical purposes.

McTaggart's claim of the future and past and their events as actually existing is nothing more than assuming that things which are defined exists. One could just as easily argue that dragons are large, green and scaled beasts which breath fire and fight knights. Just because dragons are defined does not mean that they exist.


To defend his argument against Russell's claim that he was looking for change in the wrong place, McTaggart misinterpreted Russell's complaints and demonstrated how Russell's arguments were incompatible with his own criteria for change. Thus I reassert that McTaggart was looking in the wrong place for change, and short of resolving McTaggart's self contradiction, there is no defence. I have also shown where McTaggart went wrong by showing how his own Greenwich meridian argument contradicts his earlier statements. McTaggart does not explain why it is inappropriate for events to be related to an infinite number of other events via pastness and futureness. Indeed, he does not discuss whether or not there can be an infinite number of events at all. If one were to claim that an infinite number of events cannot exist, I have established that events do not actually exist, only their representations exists. Furthermore, I purport that an infinite number of events must exist. Much as there are an infinite number of numbers between 0 and 1 and an infinite number of points between two distinct points on a line there are an infinite number of events between any two distinct events. Time shares qualities with numbers and Euclidian geometry in that it is not a physical entity. McTaggart's models of time as being part of a "block" universe, or frames on a reel of film obviously disagree with my arguments, but I have demonstrated how in order for time to be real, these models are inappropriate.

  1. McTaggart, J.M.E., Time p.87 in Gale, R. "The Philsophy of Time" MacMillan, 1968.
  2. McTaggart, J.M.E., Time p.86 in Gale, R. "The Philsophy of Time" MacMillan, 1968.
  3. McTaggart, J.M.E., Time p.90 in Gale, R. "The Philsophy of Time" MacMillan, 1968.
  4. McTaggart, J.M.E., Time p.93 in Gale, R. "The Philsophy of Time" MacMillan, 1968.
  5. McTaggart, J.M.E., Time p.93 in Gale, R. "The Philsophy of Time" MacMillan, 1968.
  6. McTaggart, J.M.E., Time p.94 in Gale, R. "The Philsophy of Time" MacMillan, 1968.
  7. Kemp, N. translation Critique of Pure Reason (Transcendental Aesthetic).

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