Summary of McTaggart’s Paradox

Released July-August 2016

41oxmkit9ll-_sx331_bo1204203200_McTaggart’s Paradox offers a comprehensive and critical overview of the last century of debate about McTaggart’s argument for the unreality of time. Its conclusion is that both defenders and critics have been wrong about the argument. It is not a self-contained argument that does not rely on any contentious ontological principles, but relies on the ontological principles of McTaggart’s a priori metaphysics. The author supports his reading of the argument by a point-to-point analysis of McTaggart’s argument—as it appears in Chapter 33 ‘Time’, in The Nature of Existence—and of its proper place in McTaggart’s overall philosophical system. The second part of the book draws out the consequences of this reading for the contemporary debate between the A and B views of time, as well as for various A-B hybrids; e.g. whether the B view really is compatible with enduring particulars, and hence with change, and whether the Growing Block View, Moving Spotlight Theory, and various versions of Presentism, have any reason to worry about McTaggart’s Paradox.

It may come as some surprise to the reader that McTaggart’s Paradox, contrary to popular belief, was never meant to be a self-contained argument that doesn’t rely on any contentious metaphysical principles. In The Nature of Existence, where McTaggart presents the mature version of the argument, he explicitly claims it to be dependent on the ontological principles that form the basis of his a priori metaphysics. Indeed, the two volumes of The Nature of Existence constitute two separate steps in McTaggart’s systematic inquiry into the constitution of reality: first establish, solely by a priori arguments, the perfectly general characteristic of existent reality, and only then inquire whether some of the features that we are acquainted with through experience could really belong to an existent reality of that kind. That is, he is asking whether an existent reality that conforms to his a priori principles, can also be temporal (and/or material). McTaggart answers that it cannot. The author traces the origins of the myth that the argument is self-contained to C. D. Broad, who forcefully claims that it is the only part of the 2nd volume of The Nature of Existence that is independent of the results of the 1st volume, but he does not argue for this point.

The most important result of the a priori part of McTaggart’s inquiry is the conclusion that existence and reality coincide and have no degrees, and that existent reality is constituted by substances that have determinate properties, and which stand in determinate relations to other existent substances. From this conclusion it follows that the future and past, if real, must exist in parity with the present. This tenet—now known as the principle of temporal parity—is the central tenet of the B view but is arguably a negation of the A view (although it is accepted by A-B hybrids). In extreme paraphrase, McTaggart really argues that reality cannot be tensed, given that all times exist in parity; which is arguably to argue that reality cannot be tensed, given that it is tenseless. The fact that the argument depends on the principle of temporal parity explains why proponents of the A view fail to see it as a valid proof of any contradiction inherent in the A view (or in the appearance of time itself), because they could never bring themselves to believe that an argument of that kind would rely on a principle that flatly contradicted their view. It also explains why proponents of the B view tend to sympathise with the argument, because they already accept the principle of temporal parity. Indeed, the fact that commentators have not realised that this principle is at work, explains why the debate between them has been characterised by such incommensurability of views. They have not only disagreed, but have been unable to specify why exactly they disagree. I argue that their disagreement revolves around the acceptance or rejection of the principle of temporal parity.

The book also contains discussions of the implications of this novel reading for the contemporary debate about the A and B views of time, including various A-B hybrids such as the Growing Block View, the Two-dimensional view, and Moving Spotlight Theory, as well as Presentism, which arguably deviates from other A views in its denial of the reality of the future and past. Some of the main results of the author’s discussion may strike the reader as either as novel or as controversial. First, that it is viciously circular to use McTaggart’s argument to justify one’s choice of the B view. If the argument depends on temporal parity to generate a contradiction, then a contradiction only follows if one has already accepted the basic tenet of the B view, that all times exist in parity. Second, that—despite recent attempts to formulate a theory neutral account of endurance—the B view is incompatible with the endurance view of persistence, and consequently that it is incompatible with the standard view of change. Third, so-called A-B hybrids (Growing Block View, the Two-dimensional view, and Moving Spotlight Theory) arguably still have to worry about McTaggart’s Paradox, in so far as they accept the principle of temporal parity. It is pointed out that in this respect, the view Ross Cameron defends under the name Moving Spotlight Theory, does not unambiguously accept temporal parity, which sets it decidedly apart from other versions of the theory. One can wonder if it really is a Moving Spotlight Theory. Furthermore, in so far as the A-B hybrids accept temporal parity, even if only for the present and past, then they are arguably open to all the same objections as the B view. Notably that they cannot accommodate for enduring particulars that change in the standard way. They either entail that nothing comes into being or goes out of being, nor loses and acquires properties, but only changes position in time (Two-dimensional and Moving Spotlight views), or they entail that everything comes into being out of nothing (Growing Block View). Fifth, it is argued that Kit Fine’s ‘fragmentalism’, as he anticipates himself, is an incoherent position. Finally, it is argued that the problems associated with presentism, in particular those related to cross-time relations, are also due to the widespread acceptance of the principle of temporal parity. Change, persistence, and causality have only recently come to be characterised as nothing more than different types of cross-time relations between existent items; really, only since philosophers started to view the world as a mosaic of equally existent and real entities distributed through space and time. The author elucidates other characterisations available for the presentist.

It should be noted that this summary of the contents of the book is deliberately written in a polemical and provocative tone, to stir up interest, and that the actual content is more nuanced. Anyway, the book should be of interest to students and scholars with an interest in the philosophy of time, but also to those with a general interest in metaphysics. It is non-technical and thus accessible to a general audience.