The pervasive paradox of tense

Grazer Philosophische Studien 62 (1):103-124 (2001)
Abstract
The debate about the reality of tense descends from an argument of McTaggart's,whichwas designed to prove the unreality of time.The argument has two constituent theses: firstly that time is intrinsically tensed, and secondly, that the notion of tense is inherently self-contradictory. If both of these theses are true, it follows that time does not exist. The debate that has emerged from this argument centres around the truth or falsity of each of these theses. A-theorists accept the first and reject the second thesis, drawing the conclusion that, since there is no contradiction in the notion of tense, time exists and is intrinsically tensed. B-theorists accept the second and reject the first thesis, concluding that the notion of tense is inherently self-contradictory, but since time is not intrinsically tensed, time exists and is tenseless. I think the argument against tense is sound, but time is not intrinsically tensed, so time exists and is tenseless. However, this argument, which has come to be known as McTaggart's paradox, is obscure, which has tended to blunt its force. In this paper I recast McTaggart's paradox in my own terms. The notion of tense has two components: an observer-independent distinction between past, present and future, and a flow of time. Totake tense seriously is to suppose that these two features of tense are also features of time. I argue that they are inherently incompatible with each other, generating a contradiction at the heart of the notion of tense, thus proving that tense is unreal. The contradiction arises no matter how one construes the notion of tense, and I illustrate this by revealing essentially the same contradiction in a number of different accounts of tensed time.
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