Arrows, Flows, Passage, Paradoxes, Events, and Unreality, A History Boy, 19/09/2013

McTaggart apparently added the middle
McTaggart to his name as part of a
convoluted set of conditions required to
claim an inheritance. Money makes us do
strange things.
One of the most interesting arguments I’ve come across since I started studying the philosophy of time in 2010 was that time didn’t actually exist. The exquisitely and ridiculously named John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart first argued in 1908 that the conception of time as passing from past to present to future was incompatible with the practice of putting specific dates to events. An event is fixed in all its properties, yet with the passing of time, the properties of an event changes. Take the death of King George VI of England: In the 1800s, this event was in the future, it was a present event as he died, and now it’s a past event. The event didn’t change, but its properties did as it passed through time, so the event must have changed. The passage of time renders the nature of events themselves paradoxical, therefore the passage of time is unreal.

“Whoa,” said Keanu.

Most arguments in the philosophy of time push the boundaries of language to make sense of the world, as McTaggart’s did. Here’s one of the oldest. Actor and internationally-competitive archer Geena Davis fires an arrow at a target. Before the arrow reaches the target, it must traverse halfway there. Before reaching halfway, it must traverse one-quarter of the way. Before reaching the one-quarter mark, it must traverse one-eighth the distance to the target, and so on. The arrow has an infinite number of divisions to reach the target. Therefore, it never arrives. 

“Never arrives my ass,” said Ms Davis.

Since 2011, I’ve been a fan of Henri Bergson’s philosophy. Despite having many issues with the truth of his ideas, I always find them remarkably fecund and inspiring to my own thought. Bergson’s profound philosophy of time was first developed in opposition to the arguments of Zeno, one of which offended my fictional Geena Davis. He argued that Zeno’s paradoxes were fundamentally mistaken because they ignored the flow of time, believing that because you could describe time mathematically, as a space-like set of coordinates, that time came in discrete chunks or quanta. For Bergson, our intuition that time flows smoothly just as the movements it ostensibly measures is fundamentally correct. Intuition in experience, he said, reveals truths of the world which are inaccessible to mathematical science and physics.

“J’espère que je découvre la vérité,” said Henri.

Bergson was a contemporary of McTaggart, though they never had any meaningful interaction. Bergson reached the height of his fame at the same time as McTaggart, and the Frenchman’s fame was much higher. When Bergson delivered a lecture in New York City, the public was so anxious to see him that they drove downtown in such numbers as literally to jam the streets. The public was so engaged with Bergson’s work that he caused the first ever traffic jam. But his disdain for mathematized conceptions of time was his undoing. 

In April 1922, Bergson had a public conversation with Albert Einstein where they utterly spoke past each other. Bergson tried to explain his conception of the flow of time as a continuous present movement, duration in his technical language. Einstein tried to explain how the mathematics of special relativity imply that, contra Bergson’s first arguments against Zeno which he carried forward through all his subsequent work, all events exist without becoming in a literal sense, and our sensory presents passes through these events. Bergson came off as an arrogant philosopher who was unable to understand contemporary physics, yet who still thought he could tell Einstein what was right and wrong. His public career was ruined, and despite continuing to publish essays and books, they fell dead from the press. Bergson died in 1941 after catching a flu standing in the rain at a Nazi-administered breadline for Jews in Occupied Paris.

I tell these stories because I’m a philosopher who is currently researching various conceptions of time for a very complex project. Taking my entire research into account, my work intersects with the principles and concerns of ecology, biology, chaos theory, and now a little bit of fundamental physics. One of the pressures philosophers have faced in a general sense since Bergson, but in an acute sense since Alan Sokal accused all non-scientist intellectuals of being ignorant morons babbling bullshit,* is that we do not have the right to think about scientific issues or use them in our work.

* A slight exaggeration, but only slight.

This isn’t how the whole field of philosophy stands, of course. Steve Fuller and other colleagues I’ve met through the Social Epistemology review collective have all engaged productively with scientific history and ideas. Philosophy of science is still carried out, and consists of a variety of competing schools and strategies. I have always loved and have been an advocate of scientific techniques and knowledge. I find the worlds science describe far more fascinating than those described by religious or mystical traditions. But I chose to enter philosophy instead, simply because I had a talent for it that I seemed not to have in the practice of science. Perhaps if I had better teachers in science and mathematics than in humanities, I’d be a very different person today. Nonetheless, I’m here, and I hope that my contributions will be as valuable to the sciences I study as the ideas and concepts of those sciences have been valuable to me.

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