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Saturday, June 02, 2012

McTaggart and Borges

If you are a man of a certain age, according to all the wisdom literature I know, and it is a peaceful Saturday morning, and the adventures that have been the wind in your back or the life you have sloughed have come to a standstill, for one moment, then you turn your reflections to time and its possibility, or even its possible non-existence, a non-existence that would annul the fact that you are a man of a certain age, that it is Saturday, that adventure could have ever happened to you, and that you have a moment to reflect.

But reflect on time one must, because we are not watches. Watches toil not, neither do they sow – even though our language has given them hands and a face. Instead, they infinitely visit the same neighborhood of numbers. One can imagine watches different –one can imagine a little computer that you could strap to your wrist and that would just record the seconds, like a timepiece on a bomb, and thus give you a finegrained sense of your slice and dice advance towards death – or why stop there? Buried with such a thing, it could go on slicing and dicing your decay, your dust, your evaporation from this world. But at no point in its slicing and dicing would there be a moment, an aberrant moment, in which it wondered if it was really going anywhere, or measuring anything.

My two favorite essays on time are McTaggart’s The Unreality of Time and Borges’ A new refutatation of Time. Borges, in the introduction to his essay, acknowledges the awkwardness of refuting time one more time again – and concedes that it may be that the evident solecism of the title may represent the hidden solecism that skews every sentence, so drenched is language in time, or at least, so much do our assumptions about time live in our language. It is through Borges I first heard about McTaggart. Borges’ essay is all low violin sounds, all elegy and fugue – McTaggart’s, on the other hand, is that curious thing, English idealism, in which the brisk dispatch of a philosophical problem seems in stylistic contradiction with its import. Indeed, it is a question that is little asked why idealism took so long to take any root in Europe, and why, when it did, it chose the most material of cultures to do so, Britain. One expects the true idealist to be scrawny, nearly naked, and with a beggar’s bowl before him – not peruked, buttoned up, and with snuff and ale within easy reach. But I would guess that the introduction of idealism in Europe through Britain has something to do with the British tradition of the ludicrous. English literature loves the ludicrous – it loves the Liliputians for their own sake. It loves a certain kind of children’s literature, it loves limericks, it loves to add that one extra and unnecessary feature that is not at all the effect of the real, but the effect of the unreal in the real – hence, Dicken’s penchant for describing the tics of his characters. If we think of idealism as the quintessence of the ludicrous, then I think we get close to why idealism first found a place in Britain – and why it is so different there than in, say, the philosophical systems of India, even if there exists some similarity of arguments.

John Ellis McTaggart came, of course, at the end of the great British idealist tradition. And he was overshadowed by Russell and Whitehead. In Arthur Quinn’s The Confidence of British Philosophers, there is a story that I would like to juxtapose to my ludicrous theory. When McTaggart died, he had only one disciple left, it seems: C.D. Broad. Broad edited the second edition fo McTaggart’s The Nature of Existence (1928), which fell still born from the press – and unlike Hume’s Treatise, which had a similar fate, never experienced any resuscitation by the next generation of philosophers. Broad was disgusted by the reception of his master’s masterpiece, and wrote a three volume exposition of the work, which ran to 1200 pages. And in this exhaustive work, according to Quinn, Broad praised McTaggart’s arguments for their clarity, and showed that “McTaggart’s most important proofs were virtually all fallacious...” From the deeper idealistic level, Broad could not have done McTaggart a greater favor. Truth is one of the superstitions one must remove from one’s mind in order to truly de-provincialize it – for after all, holding onto the truth is only a means of separating oneself from God, or Nothingness.

With this caution, I’ll move on to McTaggart’s paper.

McTaggart begins with a premise that subsequently became famous.

"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."

McTaggart calls the series of earlier and later the B series, and the Past Present Future series the A series. In the B series, given an event (for McTaggart, the fundamental elements of the two series), its description, with relation to another event, will always be described as earlier or later. Broad always follows McTaggart, down the library-ridden years to the final conflagration. But in the A series, oddly enough, all three descriptions will apply. Broad planned to write his book, the book, appeared, the book is now history. At one point an event will be present, at another point it will be future, and at one point it will be past.

McTaggart throws in another characteristic of time -- he connects it to change. And it is here that the two series designated under one concept – time – does its work for McTaggart:

It would, I suppose, be universally admitted that time involves change. A particular thing, indeed, may exist unchanged through any amount of time. But when we ask what we mean by saying that there were different moments of time, or a certain duration of time, through which the thing was the same, we find that we mean that it remained the same while other things were changing. A universe in which nothing whatever changed (including the thoughts of the conscious beings in it) would be a timeless universe.
      If, then, a B series without an A series can constitute time, change must be possible without an A series. Let us suppose that the distinction of past, present and future does not apply to reality. Can change apply to reality? What is it that changes?
      Could we say that, in a time which formed a B series but not an A series, the change consisted in the fact that an event ceased to be an event, while another event began to be an event? If this were the case, we should certainly have got a change.
      But this is impossible. An event can never cease to be an event. It can never get out of any time series in which it once is. If N is ever earlier than O and later than M, it will always be, and has always been, earlier than O and later than M, since the relations of earlier and later are permanent. And as, by our present hypothesis, time is constituted by a B series alone, N will always have a position in a time series, and has always had one.{1} That is, it will always be, and has always been, an event, and cannot begin or cease to be an event.”
McTaggart has cleverly entangled time in its own net, here. If series B is all that really changes, and if series A never changes – which is how we know that series B changes –then, fundamentally, there is no change. There is only and always series B, the logic of which refers to series A, which confutes the reality of series B.
McTaggart writes: “But it does not follow that, if we subtract the determinations of the A series from time, we shall have no series left at all. There is a series -- a series of the permanent relations to one another of those realities which in time are events -- and it is the combination of this series with the A determinations which gives time. But this other series -- let us call it the C series -- is not temporal, for it involves no change, but only an order. Events have an order. They are, let us say, in the order M, N, O, P. And they are therefore not in the order M, O, N, P, or O, N, M, P, or in any other possible order. But that they have this order no more implies that there is any change than the order of the letters of the alphabet, or of the Peers on the Parliament Roll, implies any change. And thus those realities which appear to us as events might form such a series without being entitled to the name of events, since that name is only given to realities which are in a time series. It is only when change and time come in that the relations of this C series become relations of earlier and later, and so it becomes a B series.”
It is at this point, as the series under the great daemon Chronos threaten to get out of hand, that we can turn to Borges, who of course adored this idea, as it popped the whole world into a short story that reflects on the order of its own events  - like a watch that stops to ponder whether it will go from one o’clock to one o one, or if, instead, it will go from one clock to the corner liquor store to buy a bottle of cheap Irish whiskey and sit in the shade under a tree near a slow street and ponder its doings.
Borges takes up the refutation of space and matter, which he claims ensue from Berkeley and Hume’s arguments, and asks, reasonably enough, why they retain the idea of continuity in time. And he then – (this then figures in a logical simulacrum of time, a sort of fixed set of relations, like series A) -- writes:
“Once the idealist argument is admitted, I see that it is possible -- perhaps inevitable --
to go further. For Berkeley, time is "the succession of ideas in my mind, which flows uniformly, and is participated by all beings" (Principles of Human Knowledge, 98); for Hume, "a succession of indivisible moments" (Treatise of Human Nature, I, 2, 2). However, once matter
and spirit -- which are continuities -- are negated, once space too is negated, I do not know
with what right we retain that continuity which is time. Outside each perception (real or
conjectural) matter does not exist; outside each mental state spirit does not exist; neither
does time exist outside each present moment. Let us take a moment of maximum simplicity:
for example, that of Chuang Tzu's dream (Herbert Allen Giles: Chuang Tzu, 1889). Chuang
Tzu, some twenty-four centuries ago, dreamt he was a butterfly and did not know, when he
awoke, if he was a man who had dreamt he was a butterfly or a butterfly who now dreamt he
was a man. Let us not consider the awakening; let us consider the moment of the dream
itself, or one of its moments. "I dreamt I was a butterfly flying through the air and knowing
nothing of Chuang Tzu," reads the ancient text. We shall never know if Chuang Tzu saw a
garden over which he seemed to fly or a moving yellow triangle which no doubt was he, but
we do know that the image was subjective, though furnished by his memory. The doctrine
of psycho-physical parallelism would judge that the image must have been accompanied by
some change in the dreamer's nervous system; according to Berkeley, the body of Chuang
Tzu did not exist at that moment, save as a perception in the mind of God. Hume simplifies
even more what happened. According to him, the spirit of Chuang Tzu did not exist at that
moment; only the colors of the dream and the certainty of being a butterfly existed. They
existed as a momentary term in the "bundle or collection of perceptions" which, some four
centuries before Christ, was the mind of Chuang Tzu; they existed as a term n in an infinite
temporal series, between n-1 and n+1. There is no other reality, for idealism, than that of
mental processes; adding an objective butterfly to the butterfly which is perceived seems a
vain duplication; adding a self to these processes seems no less exorbitant. Idealism judges
that there was a dreaming, a perceiving, but not a dreamer or even a dream; it judges that
speaking of objects and subjects is pure mythology. Now if each psychic state is selfsufficient,
if linking it to a circumstance or to a self is an illicit and idle addition, with what
right shall we then ascribe to it a place in time? Chuang Tzu dreamt that he was a butterfly
and during that dream he was not Chuang Tzu, but a butterfly. How, with space and self
abolished, shall we link those moments to his waking moments and to the feudal period of
Chinese history? This does not mean that we shall never know, even in an approximate
fashion, the date of that dream; it means that the chronological fixing of an event, of an
event in the universe, is alien and external to it.”

Borges does not mention McTaggart in his essay – in the end, after going through Berkeley, Hume, and Schopenhauer, he turns to the very root of idealistic thinking, in India. Near the end of the essay, he quotes this very beautiful passage that I am going to end this little essay on, and which it will always end on, having been unfolded in my mind and on this screen, and which it will not ever end on at the same time, having refuted itself in every sentence and thus having no “it” to unfold:

A Buddhist treatise of the fifth
century, the Visuddhimagga (Road to Purity), illustrates the same doctrine… "Strictly speaking, the duration of the life of a living being is exceedingly brief,
lasting only while a thought lasts. Just as a chariot wheel in rolling rolls only at one point of
the tire, and in resting rests only at one point; in exactly the same way the life of a living
being lasts only for the period of one thought"

Take any event -- the death of Queen Anne, for example -- and consider what change can take place in its characteristics. That it is a death, that it is the death of Anne Stuart, that it has such causes, that it has such effects -- every characteristic of this sort never changes. "Before the stars saw one another plain" the event in question was a death of an English Queen. At the last moment of time -- if time has a last moment -- the event in question will still be a death of an English Queen. And in every respect but one it is equally devoid of change. But in one respect it does change. It began by being a future event. It became every moment an event in the nearer future. At last it was present. Then it became past, and will always remain so, though every moment it becomes further and further past. Thus we seen forced to the conclusion that all change is only a change of the characteristics imparted to events by their presence in the A series, whether those characteristics are qualities or relations.

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