Is there a defensible argument for the non-existence of time?

By Will Crouch

"I understand that you feel there is a defensible argument for the non-existence of time?" I said, with a wry smile.

"Yes," replied George, utterly serious, "you know I do."

"And this would be McTaggart's famous argument, as advanced in his article 'The Unreality of Time' and later restated in 'The Nature of Existence' (1993: 23-34)? Firstly, before we get into the details of the argument, how can you possibly subscribe to an argument with such an absurd conclusion as this? Does not the absurdity of the conclusion cast some doubt on either the truth of the premises or the validity of the inference?"

"I agree with you that the conclusion may seem to us to be absurd, but you should know that that is no reason to reject an argument: need I remind you of the fallacy of appeal to consequences? Indeed, there are claims made by science which seem even more ridiculous: quantum theory, for example, allows a particle to exist in two places at the one time, yet that is rarely held as a reason for rejecting the theory. A philosopher should be even more dispassionate with regard to the conclusions of his arguments, if the arguments are sound."

"Very well. Nonetheless, I would argue that McTaggart's argument is not sound: firstly, I feel that, even if the A-series did generate a contradiction, he would only be able to prove that time does not flow, not that time does not exist. However, I do not wish to dwell too much on that criticism as it is, to some extent, irrelevant to this discussion given my much stronger criticism, which is that the A-series does not generate a contradiction at all. It is this criticism which I would like to discuss in most detail with you. But firstly, so that we are both clear as to the subject we are discussing, would you be so good as to outline McTaggart's argument as it appears to you?"

"Of course. McTaggart begins by describing the now-familiar terms 'A-series' and 'B-series.' These are the two possible ways of ordering temporal events, and result in two ways of specifying the time at which an event occurs. We can either use tensed phrases such as 'now,' 'in a month's time,' 'in the past,' and so on, or we can use tenseless phrases such as 'earlier than,' 'later than,' 'three days after,' and so on: the former belong to the A-series, the latter to the B-series. As part of the A-series, events are either past, present or future, and then can be ordered in terms of how past or future they are. As the present is constantly 'moving' events constantly change their location on the A-series: my birth is constantly receding further into the past, whilst my death is constantly approaching the present.

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