Saturday, November 16, 2013

Saturday night philosophy: time and time again

We all have a basic understanding of the the concept of time, at least with regard to how it impacts our personal lives. Seconds, minutes, hours, days, these are periods of what we call time, how we perceive our existence. There are a number of theories about the nature of time--which we will explore presently--but first it's important to note something that most philosophers of time fail to note, almost as as a matter of course: time--to you, me, and everyone else (and to animals, as well)--is inexorably wound up in the concept of memory. Think about it. You're reading this sentence. You just read the previous one. You know these things because you remember doing them. It is through our short-term memory that we understand and experience the passage of time. But we'll return to this in a bit...

Back near the beginning of the Twentieth Century (1908), the philosopher J. M. E. McTaggart published a paper entitled "The Unreality of Time," and in so doing set the stage for an ongoing debate between philosophers with regard to the nature of time, whether or not it actually exists, and--assuming it does exist as a real concept--how exactly it should be understood.

McTaggart argued that the general idea most had of time, wherein the constant changing nature of reality we experience happens from moment to moment, is flawed, that careful analysis demonstrates such views to be self-contradictory and therefore unsustainable. In this regard, McTaggart posited that there were two ways in which time could be generally understood: the A-series view and the B-series view. Each view now serves as a basis for the competitive philosophies of time that have developed since McTaggart published his paper. Philosophers of time tend to be "A-theory" proponents or "B-theory" proponents.

The A-series sets all moments, all points in time, as relative to the present. Events occurred, occur, or will occur at moments so defined. Thus, every event has a definable time/moment associated with it. The "times" in this series are described in this way: two days ago, an hour ago, now, in another week, next year. Time is truly ordered on a line in the A-series. And it is the A-series that serves as a basis for how we generally measure time and record events. It is what allows the creation of calendars and the numbering of years. If I say "on the morning of December 7th, 1941, the naval base in Pearl Harbor was attacked," that is very much based on the A-Series. For it fixes the moment of the event at a specific point relative to the present. As the present "moves" forward in time, the past moment retains its description/dating and simply becomes more distant. But it is always the same moment in the past, always measurable in time with regard to the present. It is through this view that change can occur or at least be perceived.

McTaggart argues that--according to this view--every moment of time has to be simultaneously past, present, and future. For depending where one is on the time line, the attack on Pearl Harbor--on the morning of December 7th, 1941--could be a past event (and past time), a current event (happening now), or a future event (and future time). And he claims that this is what makes the A-series contradictory: a given time cannot be past, present, and future, it cannot possess all three properties, for they are incompatible with each other, by definition. The date itself is functionally useless; all that matters is the relation of the moment to the changing present.

The B-series described by McTaggart does not (seemingly) suffer from this problem. McTaggart describes this means of ordering time as that wherein all times. all events, occur relative to each other, as opposed to occurring at moments relative to a "present." Thus, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the date of December 7, 1941, can be understand only as being after the days and events that preceded it and before the days and events that follow.

Here's another way to look at the two series (along with McTaggart's C-series) that may prove helpful:
Consider a simple ordered list of events, if the list were read from the bottom upwards the items would occur in a different progression in time from reading them from top to bottom. McTaggart called this list the "C Series". This list of events, the "C" Series, has no definite ordering in time. As an alternative there could be a convention that the list is always read from the bottom upwards (B Series), the list itself represents events arranged from earlier to later but has within it no change, it is fixed forever. Lastly a cursor could be placed against the items as the list is read and the items below the cursor called "past" and those ahead of the cursor called "future" with the cursor being in the present (A Series). The last way of ordering events is closest to the way that we think of the passing of time.
Though McTaggarts's paper was groundbreaking, insofar as it set the stage for more serious explorations of time, his proposed solution to the problem, the C-series, was no great shakes. For we can immediately note that the C-series is predicated on the assumption that reality is fixed, that what we call the future is absolutely certain. If one is okay with such a fatalistic view, good enough. But it kind of takes all the fun out of life, destroys all incentives to do, well, pretty much anything.

As to the B-series, while it seems to be clear of the contradictions of the A-series, McTaggart notes that this is an illusion. For the B-series allows no means of accounting for change. There is simply the list of moments in a specific order (with accompanying events). But because we cannot account for a present, there is no change, no locus of reality from which to define our present. The only way to resolve this problem is to introduce a "present" into the B-series, which makes it nothing more than the A-series.

The overall problem McTaggart correctly perceived was the need to establish a direction for time; in order to have a present, time needed to flow in a specific way, relative to events that had occurred. Logically--if we remove the human experience from the universe--there is no need for time to absolutely require a direction at all (which of course is how he arrived at his C-series). The birth of a star could just as easily be viewed from the opposite direction, as the death of a star. Really, time has no meaning for it needs none if events are not being perceived. Simplistically, this is another version of the tree falling in the forest question: if there is no one there to perceive change, does it actually occur?

But we are here, we do perceive things, both in close proximity (in space and time) and in distant proximity. And as I noted at the beginning of this piece, this is because of memory. For it is memory that allows us to function. Without it, we would have no perceptions, no means of making decisions, we would--for all intents and purposes--do nothing. Absolutely nothing.

We can argue about time, about whether past events really are no longer real, about whether future events are only potentials or are certainties, but can only do this via our ability to process what we perceive, what occurs from moment to moment. And we can only do this by organizing the information we acquire. Necessarily, such information is acquired at different points of our perceived existence and thus is organized--first and foremost--according to the "when" of the acquisition (remember, I'm speaking here of immediate or short-term memory, only). We cannot remember what we have not yet experienced or done. This is not just a logical impossibility, it is a physiological impossibility, as well (with all due respect to fortune-tellers and mystical prognosticators).

McTaggart can perhaps be forgiven for not understanding the last. We know far more about the brain and how it functions now than we did at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. But what about the current crop of time philosophers, the ones doing battle with their own A and B theories of time? Don't get me wrong, their arguments make me think, are awash with logical problems and clever solutions to the same. But at the end of the day? What actual problem is there to solve? Without a basic understanding of time that underpins our memory, there can be no arguments. Ever. And that basic understanding is based on the A-series of time, the one McTaggart believed was so wrong, could not stand up to logical scrutiny.

To be fair to many B-theorists out there, they would allow that much of what I have said is true, that we do perceive reality in a way that gives the appearance of passing time, but they would argue that this is just appearance, that in reality there is no passage of time, that all events are merely ordered in relation to one another. But McTaggart's point remains. Try as they might, no B theorists can absolutely account for a direction to these events; they are left--always--with a fatalistic version of reality, wherein there is no change to speak of.

I studied the philosophy of time in graduate school many years ago. Being a graduate student, I was afflicted with the disease that afflicts most graduate students in the humanities: critical cynicism. Thus, I made it my business to find flaws in every theory or argument I encountered that I did not absolutely agree with at first blush. The many theories of time then in play succumbed to my attacks (at least in my mind). Looking back now, I know there was much value in the ideas I sought to destroy, but I still think most of what I encountered in this field represented a waste of energy. For "answers" to questions that require us to ignore our own existence and fundamental natures are largely a waste of time and should always be treated with much skepticism.

All that said, there is an aspect of how we process events that is very much a B-series thing. For while our short term memory needs the present to understand existence, our long term memory is a different sort of animal. The larger events in our life--even the mundane ones--occur in a B-series, even when we remember specific dates. For instance, consider birthdays. We have ritualized the moment of our births by recognizing the yearly anniversary of that moment. But in truth, we see these anniversaries (and all other anniversaries) in relation to the others. Each new one is the next one, each is preceded by the last one, the previous one.

Similarly, our more general perceptions with regard to our lives have similar B-series tabulations.
We watch television shows and many movies through this rubric of understanding. We talk of the last season for a show and anticipate the next season. We don't remember these things in terms of the moments, the dates of occurrence, but rather in terms of the content of the shows themselves, which involve their own temporal reality and exist in our minds as a list of episodes, with each having a specific and unchanging place in that list. So to for serial-type movies, like Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings. Their order is fixed because of their relationship to each other, not because of past, present, and future.

So there is most definitely a place for the B-series, just as there is one for the A-series, when it comes to understanding time. Neither "side" has it all right, just as neither has it all wrong. Perhaps that's a lesson we might apply to other things, as well...

Cheers, all.


  1. You note that we all have the same basic concept of time, but I wonder if that is really true. I think that we all have the same basic concept of space and then we project points of space into points of time, moments as you say, but then time becomes very space-like. But that confuses the concept of time.

    Type A or B time really is type A or B space, and then time naturally follows from a definition of space. People think they know time because of their presumed knowledge of space. But time is a primal axiom and therefore a little tricky to define.

    You try to define time by what time is like, which is a natural approach. But what if time is not like anything else? That is, time could be a primal axiom and therefore only explicable in terms of other primal axioms.

    Time is a part memory just as the hands of clock are the memory of the passage of time. However, without the tick of a clock, the position of the hands would have no meaning. Likewise, memory, without the action of consciousness, has no meaning as time either. Time is only explicable in terms of both of the other primal axioms, matter and action.

    The universe is changing and evolving and that change and evolution show the direction of time. Although time is infinitely divisible, matter and action are not and they limit time as matter and action, memory and consciousness, and space and motion.

    1. hey nice post mehn. I love your style of blogging here. The way you writes reminds me of an equally interesting post that I read some time ago on Daniel Uyi's blog: What To Expect From Dating A Rich Girl vs Dating A Poor Girl .
      keep up the good work.


    2. Thanks for the post, Steve. Very interesting.

      But I don't think I agree with the notion of "primal axioms." That said, what you say about time and memory is really not that different from what I am saying.

      As tom time being infinitely divisible, action--or change--is as well, regardless of how time is iteself understood, regardless of whether or not we a defined direction for the passage of time, ala McTaggart's C-series. Change cannot show the direction of time unless you assume that direction as a given, based on perception, so we seem to be in fundamental agreement here, as well. :)

      The fun is really in finding a hardcore B-theorist and seeing just how far moved from reality one can get.


  2. I think this sums up the whole time philosophy question nicely.

    ""answers" to questions that require us to ignore our own existence and fundamental natures are largely a waste of time and should always be treated with much skepticism."

    Given that, I want my 5 minutes back. :D

    1. Hey, it's the journey, man. It's the journey, even if there are no answers to be had. :P