Posted by: Johan Normark | March 29, 2009

Time and archaeology 2: McTaggart’s unreality of time

Archaeologists usually discuss the past. However, the most problematic mode of time is the present which also is the only mode that we experience. It is either seen as an absolute existence, a mental illusion, an unfolding moment of various duration or coexistent with other temporal modes. Since there are so many varieties of describing the present, does time as such exist?

In order to understand the logic behind the last question, we need to understand the conclusions of the British idealist philosopher John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart (1866-1925). He argues that time has no existence. According to him there are two ways of distinguishing events in time. We order events in terms of being future, present, and past (the A-series), and in terms of being earlier than and later than (the B-series).

A- and B-Series

A- and B-Series

The A-series is also known as tensed or dynamic time. In time, all events, like the construction of a building, moves between these temporal modes. During the Stone Age, the Bronze Age was in the future, then the Bronze Age became present and during the Iron Age the Bronze Age receded into the past. The A-series fits our own experiences as we live in a present which is something we cannot attach to the B-series, where the present only is a subjective illusion. In the A-view, the world appears to have duration and to be tensed. Events begin and end and this gives us the idea that events will continue to occur.

The B-series is also known as tenseless or static time. In B-time, all events equally exist since there is no past or future, only before or after. This is the time of the chronological table where time periods precedes or proceeds each other in a predefined cinematographic manner.  Events do not change their B-series position, while they do change their A-series positions. This means that, in the B-series, events do not move from future to present, or from present to past.  They are lined up in an unchanging sequence. Time does not flow, or, in other words, it is tenseless. The Bronze Age is therefore always before the Iron Age and after the Stone Age.

The main controversy among time-philosophers is McTaggart’s conclusion. According to him, time needs change. If something is perceived not to have changed, it is just in relation to something else that has changed. Change is only a change of the characteristics given to events in the A-series. We need the A-series to explain change since the B-series cannot account for that. Then we could assume that the A-series is the “real” time. The main objection to the A-series is that an event cannot have the properties of being past, present, and future at the same time, but can only have them in succession. According to McTaggart, if something that consists of many parts is to be real, all of its parts must coexist and this is not the case for the past, present and future. This leads McTaggart to the conclusion that time is unreal.

Since the A-series is inconsistent and the B-series relies on the A-series to explain change, it may be possible that events exist as a non-temporal series. The relation that forms the A-series must therefore be a relation to something not in the time-series. Time has to be presupposed for the A-series to exist and vice versa. This indicates that McTaggart relies on Kant’s claim that we all have the same kind of “faculty of representation”, that is, a capacity to order atemporal and non-spatial stimuli from the external world and create an experience that is temporal and spatial. McTaggart’s solution is the C-series where reality is not temporal or material but spiritual and timeless. The C-series consists of permanent relations of events that together with the A-series give time. Since it is not temporal, it involves no change, only an order. When change enters the series, it transforms into a B-series. The C-series does form the order of a series but it does not determine the direction of it. For that it needs the A-series.

McTaggart’s conclusion that time is unreal is based on the assumption that past, present and future cannot coexist unless there is temporal parity. This stems from the idea that the temporal modes are discontinuous instantaneous moments or series succeeding each other in a linear fashion. This view also sees societies following each other in succession as they tend to do in chronological tables.

I myself follow the trend among philosophers, such as Nietzsche, Bergson and Deleuze, that sees the past as a past that has never been present. This implies a continuity of time since past and present coexist rather than succeed each others. This also means that social assemblages run parallel, coexist and nest with each other rather than succeeds each other. Crucial here is how we treat the “length” of time. A discontinuous and instantaneous view of time would give us little help in distinguishing mixed and coexisting social assemblages. Unnecessary problems of “cultural breaks” appear. If time is continuous and at the same time differentiating then social assemblages also become continuous and differentiating, not static like in traditional archaeological culture concepts.

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