C. D. Broad, Examination of McTaggart's Philosophy, 1938



    I have already remarked that McTaggart is almost unique among Western thinkers in respect of the special form of the doctrine of immortality which he holds. We have now to notice two other peculiarities in his attitude towards those problems which are on the borderline of philosophy and theology.

    (i) He combines belief in human immortality with disbelief in the existence of God. Most Europeans who have believed in immortality have been theists, and most European atheists have disbelieved in immortality. There is nothing in the least illogical in McTaggart's combination of views, nor is it particularly uncommon when we take a wider survey. Buddhists, e.g., are atheistic believers in human immortality; and I suppose that the early Israelites combined a strong belief in God with a disbelief in human immortality.

(Added by ed.)TheistsAtheists
  wistful agnosticsindignant atheistsother
believe in human immortality  
do not believe in human immortality  

    (ii) Most of McTaggart's English contemporaries who rejected theism fall into one or other of two classes. They tended to be either wistful agnostics or indignant atheists. The wistful agnostics made up for their rejection of the metaphysical and historical dogmas of Christianity by expressing a rather hysterical admiration for its ethical doctrines and for the character of its founder, considered as a human being. The indignant atheists, many of whom had suffered in youth from tiresomely religious parents or guardians, celebrated their emancipation by exciting themselves over the deplorable effects of religious intolerance and repression throughout the ages.

    McTaggart falls into neither of these classes. There was nothing "wistful" about his atheism. He claimed to prove, without assuming the existence of God, conclusions about our nature and destiny which are at least as cheerful as those which theists derive from that premise. No one will remain inconsolable over the loss of his cow if he thinks that there is a well-appointed dairy next door to his house. To those who held up the moral teachings of primitive Christianity as a model for us to follow here and now McTaggart was wont to retort that "happily Christianity has been much improved since the time of Christ and the apostles". Of Christ himself McTaggart characteristically remarked: "I don't much like him, though I admire the pluck that he displayed on the cross." Again, a sense of humour and the study of Hegel preserved him from the absurdities of indignant atheism. No one who enjoys these two blessings is likely to make himself ridiculous by adopting towards an immensely complex psychological and social phenomenon, such as Christianity, the tone of an angry governess who suspects Christ or one of the apostles of having stolen her umbrella.

    McTaggart treats of theism both in Some Dogmas of Religion and in The Nature of Existence In the former work he is concerned with the traditional arguments for the existence of God. This is a hackneyed subject; and, if there be anything new and true to be added to Kant's and Hume's discussion, McTaggart has not supplied it. I shall therefore confine myself to what he says in The Nature of Existence where he considers the existence of God in the light of the principles of his own philosophical system.

    In § 488 of The Nature of Existence McTaggart defines a "god" as a particular which has the following three properties: It is a self; it is supreme, in the sense that it is much more powerful than any other self, and is powerful enough to exercise a profound influence by its volition on all that exists; and it is good, in the sense of being at least more good than bad. No doubt most theists would in fact hold that God is omnipotent that he is the creator of all other existent and that he is morally perfect. But they would hardly make these extreme characteristics part of the definition of "deity". It may be remarked that the second property in McTaggart's definition entails that there cannot be more than one god. There could not be several selves each of which is much more powerful than any other self. On the other hand, there might be several selves each of which is powerful enough to exercise a profound influence on all that exists. I should have thought that it would be advantageous to drop the first clause in the description of the second property and to keep the second clause in it. In this way we should avoid ruling out polytheism by definition.

    A much more serious criticism on the definition is that, if it is taken strictly, we shall have to say that all Christians are atheists. For the God of Christianity is most certainly not a self. The Christian God is the Trinity. This may be called "personal", in the sense that it is a society of three intimately related persons. But it is not personal, in the sense of being a self. The only sense in which it can be called "personal" is that it has a set of parts each of which is a "person". But it is very doubtful whether, in calling each of the members of the Trinity a "person", theologians mean to assert that each of them is a self. I suppose that the Son is held to be a self, in a quite literal sense. I suspect that the Father would be described analogically as a "self", just as a sphere might be described analogically by a two-dimensional being as a "circle". But I should very much doubt whether the Holy Ghost would be described either literally or analogically as a self.

    We could go some way towards meeting this objection if we modified McTaggart's definition as follows. We might say that a god is a particular which either

  1. has the three properties mentioned by McTaggart, or
  2. has a set of very intimately interconnected parts each of which has these three properties.
For the reasons stated above, it is rather doubtful whether the Christian Trinity would count as a god even on this extended definition. It is quite certain that it would not do so on McTaggart's own narrower definition.

    McTaggart remarks in § 489 that the word "God" has been used by certain philosophers, such as Spinoza and Hegel, in a much wider sense than that in which it is used by popular religion or theology. It has been used by these philosophers as a name for the universe, taken as a collective whole, on the assumption that it is not a mere aggregate or a mere chaos. He rightly rejects this usage as inconvenient and misleading. We have the name "Universe" or "Absolute" for this, and we want a name for the other conception which interests religion and theology. The name "God" should therefore be reserved for the latter. The question of fact that then remains is this: "Has the Universe, or the Absolute, such properties that it is God in the strict sense? Or, again does it contain a part which has such properties?"

    If there were a particular answering to the definition of a god, it would stand in one or other of the following three relations to the universe.

  1. It might be identical with the universe; i.e., the universe might have the properties stated in the definition of "god".
  2. It might be part of the universe, and it might stand to all the rest of the universe in the relation of creator to created thing.
  3. It might be part of the universe, and it might guide and control the rest of the universe without having created it.
We must now consider each of these alternatives in turn in the light of McTaggart's general principles.

    (i) If the universe were a god, on McTaggart's definition, it would be a self. But it certainly contains selves. So this would entail that one self contains other selves as parts. This, according to McTaggart, is impossible. Therefore the universe cannot be a god; or, what is equivalent, God could not be identical with the universe.

    There are two remarks to be made about this.

    (a) I have pointed out in this chapter that McTaggart's definition of "deity" is too narrow, and I have suggested how it might be widened. If we take the wider definition, the mere fact that the universe contains selves does not suffice to prove that it is not a god. If McTaggart's philosophy is sound, the universe does have a set of very intimately inter-connected parts each of which is a self. If each of these selves were more good than bad and were so powerful as to affect appreciably by its volition all the rest of the universe, the universe would be a god on that extended definition which is needed if the Christian Trinity is to count as a god. Now I think that there is no doubt that McTaggart would hold that all selves are probably more good than bad. But, although selves must be very different in many respects from what they now appear to themselves and to others to be, there is no reason to think that they all have enormously greater power and influence than they now seem to have. Therefore there is no reason to believe that all selves are gods, in McTaggart's sense of the word. It follows that there is no reason to believe that the universe is a god, in the extended sense of the word.

    (b) In clause vi of Sub-section 2.1 of Chap. xxx p. 153 of the present volume I discussed the question whether one self could be part of another self. I tried to show that it is not inconceivable that all selves should be parts of a single self of higher order, as a number of great circles are all parts of the surface of a single sphere, where a sphere is the three-dimensional figure which is analogous to a circle in two dimensions. Therefore it is not obvious to me that the universe might not be a super-self, in spite of its having a set of parts each of which is a self So it is not obvious that the universe might not be a god even in McTaggart's narrow sense of that term.

    (ii) The second question divides into three.

  1. Could there be a particular, answering to McTaggart's definition of a god, which stands to the rest of the universe in the creative relation?
  2. If not, could there be one whose relation to the rest of the universe resembles the creative relation so nearly that we might, without serious error, call it the creator of the rest of the universe?
  3. Failing this, could there be one which would, sub specie temporis, present the delusive appearance of standing to the rest of the universe in the creative relation or something closely analogous thereto?
We will take these three questions in turn.

    (a) McTaggart answers the first question in the negative on three grounds.

    (a) Every self is a primary part of the universe, and every primary part of the universe is a self. This makes all of them absolutely and equally fundamental and ultimate elements. If there were one self which stood to all the rest in the creative relation, the rest would not be fundamental, but would derive their nature and their existence from this creative self. Therefore no self can stand in this unique position.

    (b) The notion of creation involves that of time. For, even if it be held that the creator and his creative act are non-temporal, it is part of the notion of creation that the created thing began to exist at a certain moment and continued to exist for a period starting from that date. But temporal characteristics are chimerical; and so creation, which involves such characteristics, must also be chimerical.

    (g) The creative relation is a specific form of the causal relation. Also it is essentially asymmetrical; if A creates B, it is impossible that B should also create A. Now McTaggart claims to have shown that asymmetry is introduced into the notion of causation only by reference to earlier and later. Apart from this, we can say only that A and B stand to each other in the causal relation. When we distinguish A as cause and B as effect of it we are simply adding to the statement that A and B are inter-related by the causal relation the further information that A is earlier than B. If A and B be simultaneous or timeless, no such distinction can be drawn. (See Vol. I, pp. 218 to 221, of the present work.) So, for this reason too, the notion of creation involves that of time, and must be rejected with the latter as delusive.

    In the footnote on p. 179 of Vol. II of The Nature of Existence McTaggart rejects, without much discussion, the Cosmological Argument. He says that there is no objection either to a retrospectively unterminated causal series or to a causal series with an uncaused first term.

    I propose to comment only on the third of these arguments. Creation may be a specific form of causation in some sense of the latter term, but it most certainly is not a specific form of causation in the sense defined by McTaggart in Chap. xxv of The Nature of Existence. According to this definition the causal relation relates facts of a certain kind, and it does so in respect of the predicate of one fact conveying that of another. (See Vol. I, p. 214 of the present work.) Now I cannot profess to have any clear positive notion of creation. But this at least is certain. We should say that A creates B only if we believed that A and B were both continuants. And we should say it only if we believed that A had brought B into existence en bloc and completely de novo, and not by re-arranging preexisting continuants so as to construct a new complex substance. Therefore there is no reason to suppose that any general principles which McTaggart has enunciated about causation. in his sense, will apply to creation. This consideration wrecks McTaggart's third argument, quoted above.

    McTaggart always thinks of causation in terms of laws of necessary connexion between the manifestation of one characteristic and that of another at contiguous times and places in the history of the universe. In this sense of "causation" there is no objection either to a retrospectively unterminated causal series or to a causal series with an uncaused first term. But it is surely quite clear that this was not the sense of "causation" in which persons who accepted the Cosmological Argument used that term. They were thinking, not of general laws, but about the generation of one particular by another. It may be that causation, in their sense of the word, is a radically incoherent notion which cannot be satisfactorily formulated. But, in any ease, a criticism of the Cosmological Argument which is based on an entirely different notion of causation from that which is used in the argument must be irrelevant.

    (b) A relation of one-sided dependence of created things on their creator is of the very essence of the notion of creation. Now the fact that all selves are primary parts of the universe makes it impossible that there should be any such relation of one-sided dependence between some selves and others. Therefore no self can stand to the rest of the universe in any relation which is at all closely analogous to that of creation.

    (c) Suppose that there were one self which appeared sub specie temporis to exist before all other selves began to exist. And suppose that its existence was really related causally to their existence. Then, on McTaggart's view of causation, this self could be called the cause of these other selves with as much truth as anything can be said to be the cause of anything else. Is it not, then, possible that there should be a particular, answering to McTaggart's definition of a god, which would appear sub specie temporis as the creator of the rest of the universe, although in fact it is not so?

    McTaggart's answer in § 494 is that the supposition could not possibly be fulfilled, because sub specie temporis every self appears to begin at the same moment.

    In criticism of this answer I would ask the reader to refer to Sub-section 5.1 p. 370 of Chap. XXXIX and to Chap. LIII, p. 684 of the present volume. In the former passage I tried to show that McTaggart merely assumed, and never proved, that every pair of inclusion-series must consist of terms which are correlated in pairs which would appear to be simultaneous. In the latter passage I argued that, if all C-series have minimal end-terms, each self will appear to come into existence at some finite interval after the beginning of possible time, though all will appear to come into existence together at the beginning of actual time. I pointed out that this apparent interval would be of different lengths for different selves unless a certain special condition were fulfilled. I said that McTaggart evidently assumed that this condition is fulfilled, but that there is, so far as one can see, no reason why it must be so.

    In the light of these remarks we can make the following criticism. McTaggart has given no conclusive reason why the following conditions should not be capable of fulfilment.

    The consequence of the first two conditions would be that all selves but one would appear to spring into existence at the same finite interval after the beginning of possible time. The consequence of the third condition would be that one outstanding self would appear either to have existed throughout all possible past time or to have sprung into existence at a finite interval after the beginning of possible time, and at a finite interval before the date at which all the rest of the selves began to exist.

    I doubt, however, whether this outstanding self would appear as a creative god. If the C-series which corresponds to it has a minimal end-term, this self will appear to have sprung into existence in the course of possible time; and this is, to say the least, very unusual behaviour on the part of a creator of the universe. If, on the other hand, the C-series which corresponds to it has no minimal end-term, this self will appear retrospectively to approach the limit of zero content as it approaches the earlier limit of possible time. At the earlier stages of its existence, then, it can hardly have been a sufficiently developed self to be an actual god. At most we could say that it was always potentially divine. These are, however, merely questions about how certain words should be used under circumstances which were not contemplated by the persons who habitually use them. The possibilities which are left open by McTaggart's principles are as I have stated them; the names to be applied to them are a matter of convenience and verbal consistency.

    (iii) This question, like the second, divides into three.

  1. Could there be a particular, answering to McTaggart's definition of a god, which controls and governs the rest of the universe, though he does not create it?
  2. If not, could there be one whose relation to the rest of the universe resembles governance and control so nearly that we might, without serious error, call it the governor and controller of the rest of the universe?
  3. Failing this, could there be one which would appear, sub specie temporis, to stand in some such relation to the rest of the universe? We will take these questions in turn.

    (a) and (b) McTaggart answers the first two questions in the negative on the following grounds. Control and governance of the rest of the world by God would involve an asymmetrieal causal relation between him and it. But, according to McTaggart's doctrine of causation, it is only by reference to temporal relations that two causally connected terms can be distinguished into one which is a cause and not an effect of the other and one which is an effect and not a cause of the other. Since there are no temporal relations, it follows that no self can stand to the rest of the universe either in the relation of governance and control or in any relation sufficiently like this to be called by that name without serious risk of misunderstanding.

    What are we to say about this argument? In the first place, it is not open to the criticism which I made on the similar argument about creation. Governance and control are instances of causation in the sense which McTaggart had in mind in his discussion in Chap. XXV of The Nature of Existence. Nevertheless, I think that the argument is quite inconclusive, even if we accept McTaggart's analysis of causal propositions. According to this, the causal relation involves a relation of conveyance between certain characteristics. Now it is quite true that instances can be produced in which the relation of conveyance between two characteristics is reciprocal. E.g., being an equilateral triangle conveys and is conveyed by being an equiangular triangle. But it is also easy to produce instances in which the relation is not reciprocal. E.g., to take an example of McTaggart's, being now drunk conveys having drunk alcohol, but having drunk alcohol does not convey being now drunk. Or, to take a nontemporal example, being coloured conveys being spatial, but being spatial does not convey being coloured. Therefore there is no impossibility in there being a non-reciprocal relation of conveyance between certain timeless states of a certain self and certain other timeless states of all the rest of the selves in the universe.

    (c) However this may be, McTaggart answers the third question in the affirmative. He sees no impossibility in there being a self which appears sub specie temporis to control and govern the universe by its volitions, as Napoleon, e.g., appeared sub specie temporis to influence profoundly the history of Europe.

    The question that remains is this. Granted that there might be a self of whom it was as true to gay that he exercises a profound influence over all the rest of the universe as it would be to say that Hitler exercises a profound influence over the rest of Germany, is there any positive reason to believe that there is such a self? This brings us to treatment of the Argument from Design.

    We are not concerned here with any general criticisms of the argument from design. These, and the attempted answers to them, may be taken as read. We are concerned only with the bearing on this argument of the special principles of McTaggart's philosophy. His discussion will be found in §§ 498 to 500, inclusive, of The Nature of Existence.

    According to McTaggart, the argument has two stages.

  1. It contends that the universe is probably controlled by a self of some kind because it "might have been a chaos, and that it should have been some sort of chaos is antecedently more probable than that there should have been order and system without a person".
  2. It further contends that the controlling self must be good, on the ground that "the order and system of the universe form appropriate means to a good end".

    To the first contention McTaggart answers as follows. It is not intuitively a priori that the universe could not have been a chaos, as it is that 2 + 2 is not equal to 5. But it is demonstrably a priori, like the proposition that the square root of 2 is not a rational number. It follows from certain premises which are intuitively a priori that every particular is connected by general laws with certain other particulars. (See Vol. I, Chap. XXII, of the present work.) We do not need a controlling person to guarantee what is intrinsically necessary.

    Again, as we shall see in Book X, McTaggart claims to prove from self-evident premises that the universe must be more good than bad, and that sub specie temporis it must inevitably, though not uniformly or continuously, improve as time goes on. We do not need a good controlling person to guarantee goods which will inevitably be realised whether he exists or not.

    The only comment which it seems necessary to make is the following. The argument from design does not, I think, postulate a controlling person in order to account for the fact that there are general laws in the universe. It assumes that there are such laws; and, indeed, it is very difficult to see what control or governance could mean except on the assumption that the controller is faced with persons and things which have fairly definite properties of their own. The argument bases itself on certain very special empirical features in the universe; e.g., the existence and development of life and mind. It argues that these features would follow only from the combination of the actual laws and properties with very special collocations of particulars. What it holds to be antecedently improbable in the absence of a controlling self is these very special collocations of particulars In so far as it concerns itself with general laws and properties at all, the question that interests it is, not that there are laws and properties of some kind or other, but that they are of certain very peculiar kinds.

    I am not, of course, defending the argument from design. This is not the place to do so, even if I wished to. But I do contend that McTaggart's attempt to show that, on his own principles, the argument errs by postulating a contingent cause for intrinsically necessary features in the universe, is simply an ignoratio elenchi.

    We may now sum up the discussion. Although we have seen that there are certain loopholes in McTaggart's system into which a very insistent theist might insert a very tenuous God, we must admit that atheism is the natural and proper outcome of his philosophy. Since ordinary everyday selves, like you and me and the salt in our salt-cellars and the bacilli in our blood, are primary parts of the universe, they are too much like gods to leave much room for any unique self which might be called God. On the other hand, they are too little like gods to make it reasonable to call the universe as a whole God merely on the ground that it is a complex composed of such selves intimately inter-related. And, if there is little room for a god, there is, as we shall see in the next Book, very little need for one. Most theists want a god in order to conserve and increase the amount of positive value in the universe. If McTaggart is right, this desirable consummation is guaranteed automatically without our needing to take out a theistic insurance-policy.