The Unreality of Time
McTaggart (J. McT. E.)
Source: Mind, Vol 17, No. 68, Oct. 1908, pp. 457-474
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Author’s Introduction

  1. It doubtless seems highly paradoxical to assert that Time is unreal, and that all statements which involve its reality are erroneous. Such an assertion involves a far greater departure from the natural position of mankind than is involved in the assertion of the unreality of Space or of the unreality of Matter. So decisive a breach with that natural position is not to be lightly accepted. And yet in all ages the belief in the unreality of time has proved singularly attractive. In the philosophy and religion of the East we find that this doctrine is of cardinal importance. And in the West, where philosophy and religion are less closely connected, we find that the same doctrine continually recurs, both among philosophers and among theologians. Theology never holds itself apart from mysticism for any long period, and almost all mysticism denies the reality of time. In philosophy, again, time is treated as unreal by Spinoza, by Kant, by Hegel, and by Schopenhauer. In the philosophy of the present day the two most important movements (excluding those which are as yet merely critical) are those which look to Hegel and to Mr. Bradley. And both of these schools deny the reality of time. Such a concurrence of opinion cannot be denied to be highly significant — and is not the less significant because the doctrine takes such different forms, and is supported by such different arguments.
  2. I believe that time is unreal. But I do so for reasons which are not, I think, employed by any of the philosophers whom I have mentioned, and I propose to explain my reasons in this paper.
  3. Positions in time, as time appears to us prima facie, are distinguished in two ways. Each position is Earlier than some, and Later than some, of the other positions. And each position is either Past, Present, or Future. The distinctions of the former class are permanent, while those of the latter are not. If M is ever earlier than N, it is always earlier. But an event, which is now present, was future and will be past.
  4. Since distinctions of the first class are permanent, they might be held to be more objective, and to be more essential to the nature of time. I believe, however, that this would be a mistake, and that the distinction of past, present and future is as essential to time as the distinction of earlier and later, while in a certain sense, as we shall see, it may be regarded as more fundamental than the distinction of earlier and later. And it is because the distinctions of past, present and future seem to me to be essential for time, that I regard time as unreal.
  5. For the sake of brevity I shall speak of the series of positions running from the far past through the near past to the present, and then from the present to the near future and the far future, as the A series. The series of positions which runs from earlier to later I shall call the B series. The contents of a position in time are called events. The contents of a single position are admitted to be properly called a plurality of events. (I believe, however, that they can as truly, though not more truly, be called a single event. This view is not universally accepted, and it is not necessary for my argument.) A position in time is called a moment.
  6. The first question which we must consider is whether it is essential to the reality of time that its events should form an A series as well as a B series. And it is clear, to begin with, that we never observe time except as forming both these series. We perceive events in time as being present, and those are the only events which we perceive directly. And all other events in time which, by memory or inference, we believe to be real, are regarded as past or future — those earlier than the present being past, and those later than the present being future. Thus the events of time, as observed by us, form an A series as well as a B series.


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