In the history of thought, the conception of time has always been a contentious issue. It is often taken for granted, as the previous sentence demonstrates, that time is real and inherently natural. Time has been viewed as something that is categorically absolute, as with Newtonian interpretations, as well as a dimension relative to motion in Einsteinian spacetime. While these notions are not wrong, they nonetheless regard and further establish time as an actuality that is quantifiable. However, it has been argued by Parmenides and probably most notably by Immanuel Kant that time is an artificial construction imposed on reality by the human mind. While this mental imposition is certainly beneficial in that the architecture of time allows humans to measure and thus understand reality, it does not in fact mean that time in itself is a fact of reality. In this sense, time like language, is at best a reifying mechanism that has taken a representation of reality and made the representation real and natural in itself. For Parmenides, Kant, and two 20th century thinkers which are the focus of this essay, John Ellis McTaggart and Donald Cary Williams, time is not an axiomatic truth of reality but rather a symptomatic construct that represents the limitations of human thinking.
In the early 20th century, J. Ellis McTaggart published a paper titled, “The Unreality of Time” in which, like the title suggests, he argued against the reality of time. McTaggart begins by establishing that there are positions in the appearance of time that are manifested in two ways. First, positions can be distinguished as “earlier than” or “later than” and McTaggart refers to this as the “B series.” Second, positions can be distinguished as past, present, or future and he refers to these classifications as the “A series.” In the B series, events in time are permanent. This is to say, for example, if M came earlier than N, then it will always be earlier than N. Or, if a sunrise happened earlier than a sunset, then that sunrise will always and permanently be earlier than that sunset. In the A series, events in time change and are not permanent. To explicate this, McTaggart uses the death of Queen Anne as it appears in the A series. Queen Anne’s death began by being an event in the distant future. It then became an event in the immediate future. Then, the monarch’s death happened in the present. After which, her death became an event in the past, and as time appears to change, Queen Anne’s death becomes more of a distant event that happened in the past.
McTaggart points out that humans perceive time in both the manners described by the A and B series. However, the A series displays change while the B series is permanent and does not display change. Since time as it appears to humans displays change, then, as McTaggart asserts, the A series is necessary and foundational to the concept of time while the B series is not necessary. Additionally, the B series cannot exist on its own because its features of “earlier than” and “later than” are temporal in nature and thus require the element of change which only the A series can provide. In this sense, the B series needs the A series in order to function properly.
McTaggart claims that there is another series in the concept of time, and labels it as the “C series.” The C series provides order for time but does not involve change. With the order of the C series and the change of the A series, the B series comes into existence. This dynamic functions by change proceeding in a certain direction. The C series, to use McTaggart’s example, provides an order like M, N, O, P or P, O, N, M. In conjunction with the A series, the C series provides an order to time so that time can proceed to change from earlier to later as in, M, N, O, P, or also as, P, O, N, M. It is also important to note that the C series order can only proceed in two ways, so in using the same alphabetical example, the order can only be the two mentioned above and not something else like, O, N, M, P. In this way, the A and C series are necessary to time, and the B series arises from the order provided by the C series and the change provided by the A series.
In proving the unreality of time, McTaggart’s ultimate objective is to point out that the A series is contradictory. This is established by McTaggart claiming that events are either, past, present, or future. Yet, events in time always possess the property of a past, present, and future. Herein lies the contradiction, as 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” (McTaggart, 468). Additionally, a “vicious circle” (ibid) emerges in this reasoning because for events to possess a past, present, and future, there has to be time. So, the past, present, and future of the A series is dependent on the existence of time, yet, as McTaggart has shown, time requires the necessary foundation of the A series to exist. Thus, time cannot be real.
In the mid 20th century, Donald C. Williams published a paper titled, “The Myth of Passage” in which he argued against the feeling of time passing. Williams believes that time exists in an Einsteinian, four dimensional spacetime fashion that he called “the manifold”, but rejects the notion that time is something that can flow or pass. Williams maintains that space cannot move within space, and similarly, time cannot move within time. This is to say that time interpreted as a thing that is quantifiable or measurable is a superfluous and purposeless metaphor. Time cannot be measured as something that flows because it simply exists as part of the manifold, and there is nothing relative to measure it against. Time cannot exist as something outside of itself in order to measure the passing of time. Williams construes time as an “ordered extension” (Williams, 463) that contains “parts of our being” (ibid), yet the feeling of aging through time is an illusion. In this way, the present or “absolute becoming” (ibid) is no more a real passage in time than is a point on a contiguous line. The only motion a human experiences is within the manifold and comprises of an individual existing at different places and times. Explaining this concept further, Williams states, “Time ‘flows’ only in the sense in which a line flows or a landscape ‘recedes into the west’... and each of us proceeds through time only as a fence proceeds across a farm” (ibid). He goes on to point out that the perceived becoming or passage of time is merely an unneeded mental construct that has perhaps developed from a unique human anxiety concerning the trajectory of aging, but ultimately this perception is not an inherent function of the spacetime manifold. Overall, these concepts of time that Williams has postulated can be related to McTaggart’s outright denial that time exists.
To begin, McTaggart believes that time is unreal due to the contradiction of the A series, while Williams believes that time is real but denies that it is something that measurably passes. However, Williams does incorporate some of McTaggart’s concepts into his own argument. Williams adopts the B series into his conception of the spacetime manifold and relegates the A series to a misunderstanding of the functionality of time. Williams asserts, “McTaggart was driven to deny the reality of time because he believed that while time must combine the dimensional spread with the fact of passage, the B series with the A series, every attempt to reconcile the two ended in absurdity” (Williams, 462). Essentially, Williams is claiming that the B series is correct because it represents time as an all encompassing dimension. This equates to Williams’ example of the sprawling fence on a farm. The “earlier than” or “later than” aspects of the B series can be located at different positions on the fence, which represents the manifold. Yet, the A series, for Williams, negatively contributes to the conception of time as something that flows. Thinking of time as a thing that has a past, present, and future, is wrong and only contributes to the myth of passage or the present as something that becomes. Williams writes, “It is the mainspring of McTaggart’s ‘A series’ which puts movement in time” (Williams, 461). This, of course, contrasts with Williams’ notion that time cannot move, as well as the perception that time has the ability to measure itself that results in a past, present, or future. Hence, for McTaggart, the A series is fundamental to the concept of time but in turn contradicts itself, thereby undermining the B series and the entire feasibility of time. For Williams, the A series is a useless construct that complicates time as conceived by the spacetime manifold, or B series. In both of these perspectives time is revealed to be a component of human thought and not a fact that is indicative of reality.