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A Book on the Philosophy of Time I

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Last summer, Valdi Ingthorsson, of Lund University in Sweden, released a book on the philosophy of time, with the title McTaggart's Paradox. 

I will provide some background material on the subject he is discussing, in Part I of this two-part discussion. In the second,which I hope to have ready by this coming Thursday, I'll speak to what Ingthorsson brings to this table.

But let's start, as Ingthorsson does, with John M. E. McTaggart, a philosopher who flourished a century ago and who in 1908 published a landmark essay on the subject of time.

"McTaggart's paradox" is a key argument of his for the unreality of time.  If I understand it the gist is this: in order for time to be real, the past and future have to exist in parity with each other (and with the present). Yet that can only be the case if time is not real, that is, if events of the past, of the present, and of the future, stand in timeless relations to one another. The postulation of the reality of time, then, undermines itself, leading to the necessity of timelessness. That's my characterization of his argument -- I bear sole responsibility for it. If it is cock-eyed, both McTaggart and Ingthorsson are blameless.

Another point: McTaggart saw this argument not as a stand-alone conjuring of a startling inference, but as part of his broader idealistic philosophy.  He was a Hegelian, though one of a unique sort. He thought many of the specifics in Hegel's work (and in the work of other revisionists in that tradition for that matter) were badly flawed, but he thought the dialectical method of reasoning was a sound one, and could lead us to an understanding of ultimate reality. When he applied that method himself, Ultimate Reality turned out to be: a lot of distinct and mutually interdependent minds, among themselves imagining a world into existence.

Many people find it an oddity that McTaggart was both an atheist and a believer in human immortality. He thus severed two beliefs that, in western circles at any rate, are generally accepted or rejected as a package. From his point of view, of course, there is no oddity -- this network of interdependent immortal minds of which you and I are each a part is Absolute enough: we need postulate nothing higher!

I won't attempt to discuss Hegelianism here, its British 19th century variant, or McTaggart's early 20th century variant of that. I bring it all up here only to say that McTaggart himself didn't think his critique of the idea of time was a stand-alone matter. It was part of his Big Picture. Still, as it has echoed down through history it has become: a stand-alone matter.

That's enough for now. Within days (assuming time is real), I'll write something about what Ingthorsson has to say about (a) McTaggart, and (b) the philosophy of time.


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