McTaggart Personal Identity

Time Isn't Real, But I Am

1:50:00 PMJosh Merlo


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This little critter looks cute. To be more philosophical in our language, it “appears” cute. This is actually a juvenile gulo gulo, better known as a wolverine. Wolverines are nastily-disposed weasels that can bite through steel and have been known to fight off entire packs of wolves to earn possession of a carcass. In a word, wolverines are not “cute”. Was it wrong to say that the juvenile wolf-fighter appeared cute, however? No: appearances, as a well known phrase goes, can be deceiving. This does not mean that an appearence is false; rather, it merely indicates that the appearance produced by the combination of object and mind (as appearances are neither purely mental or purely object-based) does not always accurately reflect what is so. The young wolverine will be taken as an example of this peculiar phenomenon: what is is not always what seems to be. So it is with man, time, and the enduring “I”.

At first glance, the above statement is rather bemusing. Which of the three items will be termed an appearance? What is the relation of the items? To explain, then; time is to be taken as the appearance, with man’s relation to time’s being an appearance clarifying what is meant by an enduring “I”. With this framework established, the question of the enduring “I” will be addressed.

Within debates on personal identity, the question of whether the self endures over time often rises. The question is again and again posed: how can the self remain the same over time when it changes as time advances? How can the “I” person A posits fifty years after his birth be the same “I” he will say of himself one hundred years after birth, and how can either of those “I’s” be the same as the “I” of the twenty-year-old, the “I” of the newly-self aware person? With all the changes that occur as person A ages and matures and learns and forgets and feels and doubts and perceives (and performs all other sorts of mental actions), how can the identity of A’s self remain constant? This is a reasonable - and indeed challenging - question that requires answering. Fortunately, it does not have to be answered directly.

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Earlier, the wolverine was exemplified as an instance of appearance representing what is other than how it is. It was said that such a representation should not be properly termed “false”, as there is some basis for the appearance itself (the before-mentioned interplay of mental concepts like “cute” and the way the object is presented to the senses). Time can be argued to be a similar concept. J.M.E. McTaggart, a British idealist, did exactly so: as he argues in his famous essay “The Unreality of Time”, “And whenever we we perceive anything as existing in time - which is the only way in which we ever do perceive things - we are perceiving it more or less as it really is not.”(1) As for why McTaggart argues this, only an inadequate presentation of his overall thesis could be given here. However, this will be said: McTaggart believes that the concepts of past, present, and future are both fundamental to time and fundamentally incompatible. However, as he continues, “ … every event has them all. If M is past, it has been present and future. If it is future, it will be present and past. If it is present, it has been future and will be past. Thus, all the three incompatible terms are predicable of each event, which is obviously inconsistent with their being incompatible …” (2) McTaggart provides further arguments and distinctions to well-found his overall position, and the reading of his entire essay is encouraged to make sense of the remainder of this piece.

What is the purpose of the asserting that time is unreal in regards to the enduring “I”? Quite simply, if time is unreal, the problem of the self enduring over time also vanishes. If there is no time, there is no change. If there is no change, the self is always the same self. If the self is always the same self, its identity cannot be called into question on the grounds of its not being the same. This being said, is establishing the self “lasting-ness” worth discarding time? After all, time, and man’s awareness of it, are both very prevalent perceptions. There is always a sense of not being the same as one was, and not yet being what one will be. To disregard time is to disregard common experience. Remember the wolverine: the experience of it did not coincide with what it really was. To provide an example more readily referenced in discussions of appearance, consider this: on a winter’s day, when one walks into a house from the frigid outdoors, the air of the house seems warm. However, if one walks from a sauna into the same house, the air of the house seems cool. Is the air of the house hot or cold? Neither - it merely appears as both, and, as it only appears as both, there is no error in asserting both of the air. So, to say time is unreal is not to deny experience; it is merely to say that experience does not represent reality as it is in itself, which is a very unremarkable claim.

To say time is unreal is to deny change. To deny change is to protect the identity of the self from challenges of not enduring. Answering this often-cited difficulty would be a major advance in the work of understanding and promoting the concept of a “person”, a concept that goes beyond flesh and sinew, bone and muscle. The question, then, that must be asked is this: should such a ready defense of the enduring “I” be disregarded merely because it calls into question the reality of a certain experience? Is man merely a mind that cannot break free of its impressions and ideas, as Hume might say? Or, is man willing to move beyond certain impressions - and the ideas that follow from them - because of strong reasons and stronger motivations? Do we truly value the reality of the person enough to let go of what merely appears to us as real?
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  1. J.M.E. McTaggart, “The Unreality of Time”, appearing in Philosophical Studies, 126.
  2. McTaggart, Ibid., 124.
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