Monday 9 July 2018

Is Time What It Appears to Be?

Posted by Keith Tidman

Picture credit: Shutterstock via

“Time itself flows in constant motion, just like a river; for neither the river nor the swift hour can stop its course; but, as wave is pushed on by wave, and as each wave as it comes is both pressed on and itself presses the wave in front, so time both flees and follows and is ever new.” – Ovid
We understand time both metaphorically and poetically as a flowing river — a sequence of discrete but fleeting moments — coursing linearly from an onrushing future to a tangible present to an accumulating past. Yet, might ‘time’ be different than that?

Our instincts embrace this model of flowing time as reality. The metaphor extends to suppose a unidirectional flow, or an ‘arrow of time’. According to this, a rock flies through a window, shattering the glass; the splinters of glass never reform into a whole window. The model serves as a handy approximation for our everyday experiences. Yet what if the metaphor of time as a flowing river does not reflect reality? What then might be an alternative model of time?

What if, rather than the notion of flow, time actually entails only one now. Here, an important distinction must be made, for clarity. That is, time is not a sequence of ‘nows’, as proposed by some, such as the British author of alternative physics, Julian Barbour. That is, time is not points of time — corresponding to frames in a movie reel — with events and experiences following one another as ephemeral moments that if slowed down can be distinguished from one another. But, rather, time entails just one now. A model of time in which the future is an illusion — it doesn’t exist. The future isn’t a predetermined block of about-to-occur happenings or about-to-exist things. Likewise, the past is an illusion — it doesn’t exist. 

As to the past not existing, let me be specific. The point is that what we label as history, cosmology, anthropology, archaeology, evolution, and the like do not compose a separately distinguishable past. Rather, they are chronicles — memories, knowledge, understanding, awareness, information, insight, evidence — that exist only as seamless components of now. The Battle of Hastings did not add to an accumulating past as such; all that we know and have chronicled about the battle exists only in the now. ‘Now’ is the entirety of what exists — all things and all happenings: absent a future and past, absent a beginning and end. As the 4th-century philosopher St. Augustine of Hippo presciently noted:
‘There are three times: a present time about things past, a present time about things present, a present time about things future. The future exists only as expectations, the past exists only as memory, but expectation and memory exist in the present’.
In this construct, what we experience is not the flow of time — not temporal duration, as we are want to envision — but change. All the diverse things and events that compose reality undergo change. Individual things change, as does the bigger landscape of which they are a part and to which they are bound. Critically, without change, we would not experience the illusion of time. And without things and events, we would not perceive change. Indeed, as Ernst Mach, the Austrian philosopher-physicist, pointed out: ‘... time is an abstraction, at which we arrive by means of the changes of things’.

It is change, therefore, that renders the apparition of ‘time’ visible to us — that is, change tricks the mind, making time seem real rather than the illusion it is. The illusion of time nonetheless remains helpful in our everyday lives — brown leaves drop from trees in autumn, we commute to work sipping our coffee, an apple rots under a tree, the embers of a campfire cool down, the newspaper is daily delivered to our front door, a lion chases down a gazelle, an orchestra performs Chopin to rapt audience members, and so forth. These kinds of experiences provide grounds for the illusion of time to exist rather than not to exist.

As Aristotle succinctly put it: ‘there is no time apart from change’. Yet, that said, change is not time. Change and time are often conflated, where change is commonly used as a measurement of the presumed passage (flow) of time. As such, change is more real to the illusion of time’s passing than is our observing the hands of a clock rotate. The movement of a clock’s hands simply marks off arbitrarily conventional units of something we call time; however, the hands’ rotation doesn’t tell us anything about the fundamental nature of time. Change leads to the orthodox illusion of time: a distinctly separate future, present, and past morphing from one to the other. Aristotle professed regarding this measurement aspect of time’s illusion:
‘Whether if soul [mind] did not exist, time would exist or not, is a question that may be asked; for if there cannot be someone to count, there cannot be anything that can be counted.’
So it is change — or more precisely, the neurophysiological perception of change in human consciousness — that deludes us into believing in time as a flowing river: a discrete future flowing into a discrete present flowing into a discrete past. The one-way arrow of time.

In this way, the expression of dynamic change provides our everyday illusion of time, flowing inexorably and eternally, as if to flow over us. The British idealist philosopher J.M.E. McTaggart wrote in the early years of the twentieth century that ‘in all ages the belief in the unreality of time has proved singularly attractive’. He underscored the point:
‘I believe that nothing that exists can be temporal, and that therefore time is unreal.’
To conclude, then: Although the intuitive illusion of time, passing from the future to the present to the past, serves as a convenient construct in our everyday lives at work, at home, and at play, in reality this model of time and its flow is a fiction. Actual experience exists only as a single, seamless ‘now’; there is no separately discrete future or past. Our sense of time’s allegorical flow — indeed, of time itself — arises from the occurrence of ‘change’ in things and events – and is ultimately an illusion.


mylearningsimonthomas said...

Hereclitus' famous quote " One can never step into the same river twice" seems to support your argument. Time like everything is constantly in flux, ad everything else it. If you look at it from a historic perspective though, one cannot say that the past is an illusion, since historical record reflect real-time events and that cannot be an illusion. Time I believe is a "created" thing like everything else is, it had a beginning and will some day have an end. Whether it was created by the evolutionary process or by a divine designer, is up for grabs. that it is an illusion would depend on the position you take. The linear view of time would seem to indicate that events can be pinpointed to historical events so I would hesitate to agree with your final conclusion.

Keith said...

I greatly appreciate, Simon, the perspectives that you aptly present in your comment immediately above. I take your point about Hereclitus’s river. However, the challenge I have is that Hereclitus’s metaphor remains hooked to the notions of river and flow — something I tried in my essay to discount in reconceptualizing time. That said, there’s a lot that can be interestingly unspooled from what else you say. If I may, let me address just one of your core points, which you sum up thus: “[O]ne cannot say that the past is an illusion, since historical records reflect real-time events and that cannot be an illusion.” I suggest that the everyday notion that events, happening in the ‘now’, then pass along to some historical storage bin we call ‘the past’ or ‘history’, is not the proper model of what actually occurs. Those events, like the Peloponnesian War, which you refer to as ‘real-time events’, happen only in the ‘now’. (Indeed, I’d take my argument one step farther: that what you refer to as ‘real-time events’ can only, by definition, be represented or signified by the ‘now’.) To my larger point, such events in the ‘now’ do not subsequently slide along some temporal chute into a separate, discrete past, building an ever-bulging body of so-called history. Rather, it is the events’ chronicles — the accounts, experience, information, memories, evidence — retained and existing in the now that give the events any meaning of which they may boast. Our being able to recall the details of those chronicles, which can happen only in the ‘now’, is all that exists — is all that’s real. Again, Simon, thank you for having continued the discussion.

mylearningsimonthomas said...

Thank you for your response, yes I can see how the past can be seen as an illusion. people very often state things truly as they perceive them and while they may not necessarily be statements of truth. I understand very much that all we have is the "now' the present moment. From a historical, point of view yes, I get that too, history is often written by the victors so there would be some bias. I do not know if you have ever come across the presentation by Professor David Block, where he says that
Time itself is a created being and human beings live inside that time-space continuum" His point being that time did not exist until the universe came into being. This discussion on time has opened a whole new vista for me which I will investigate. thanks

docmartincohen said...

For me, Simon and keith, the 'illusory' aspect comes in examples like that of a supernova a thousand lightyears away that exploded 100 years ago. For those living on a planet say, 50 light years away from the supernova, the explosion happened 50 years ago. But for us, it has yet to happen - it will happen 900 years into the future.

This, in a way, I admit, is only a mundane truth about the speed of lightwaves. People on some planets are only now getting our early 1930s radio broadcasts! But Einstein gives another plausible exmpmles of time paradoxes. It does seem to be time is inseperable from who is doing the observing.

Keith said...

Entropy, in an isolated system like the universe, poses another curious case for this discussion. The universe undergoing entropic processes toward (net) disorder fits neatly into the proposition that so-called ‘time’ is actually ‘change’. Again, here, what matters is not some thingamajig we might misconstrue as temporal duration (or ‘time’), but ‘change’ — the reality of change (experienced ‘now’) creating the illusion of time. The contrivance of time merely serves as a convenient way to measure our myriad experiences of change. The common question whether entropy causes time or time causes entropy — there's that pesky, implied metaphorical ‘arrow’ showing up again — is really the wrong question to ask. The reason being that the answer to the question is, ‘neither’. Rather, 'change' is what leads to how one misperceives the notion of time. Even the change associated with entropy happens — is real — only in that singular ‘now’.

docmartincohen said...

If we imagined two universes each made up only of something like an ice cube in a glass of water, Keith, and one universe is at one degree celsius, and the other at 30 degrees, then does time flow at a different rate in the two universes?

Keith said...

Let’s assume, Martin, as a basis, that the laws of physics in both of your hypothetical universes are the same as each other — and by extension, both are the same as in ours. (Given that your query doesn’t say otherwise.) Then the ‘time’ you refer to remains an illusion in each set of conditions, so there’s nothing to ‘flow’. ‘Time’ and ‘flow’ are, again, convenient (yet cognitively deceptive) everyday metaphors for what’s really happening, which is ‘change’. That reality of change is germane, we can assume, to all three universes: the two hypothetical universes, and ours. In the scenario you describe, ‘change’ is the melting of the two ice cubes — importantly, not time-dependent ‘flow’, but rather solely in the ‘now’. The amount of melting ‘now’ is all that exists as to the ‘change’ happening to the two ice cubes in their hypothetical universes. The result of the ice cubes being exposed to different temperatures — as they likely would in our universe, too, given identical laws of physics — is immaterial to the fundamental nature of the primacy (and sole reality) of ‘change’ in the ‘now’.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Yes, I think this post puts it well. What are the consequences of seeing time this way? Would it be different if we did not?

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