The Anderson Institute Logo 
   Where history is becoming an experimental science      
Innovation and Excellence in Time Technology The Official Site of the World Encyclopedia of Time, the Time Shop, and the Time Research Association.    
  Home  |  About Us  |  Educational Resources  |  Encyclopedia  |  The Time Shop  |  Time Research Association  |  Contact Us

Philosophy and Time

An article by Dr. David Lewis Anderson

Our struggle to understand and express time dates far back into our history. Fifteen millennia before the Greeks Paleolithic man was expressing the passing of time in his cave art. In the eighth century BC, Homer conceptualized time in his great works. Most ancient civilizations believed that time was cyclic, that it had cycles, since everything around them in nature showed a kind of resurrection and repeatability, like the rising and falling of the ocean tides and rivers, the return of the seasons, and the cycles of the heavens. All of these supported this belief. But the greatest efforts to study and understand and define exactly what time is began with the philosophers of ancient Greece.

Some of the most commonly accepted and studied views of time and philosophy were presented by these philosophers. Plate in the fifth century B.C. treated time metaphorically as the moving image of eternity. Later, Aristotle, in the fourth century B.C. described time physically as the number or measure of motion. Plotinus, in the third century treated time metaphysically as the productive life of the soul. And then, St. Augustine, in the fourth century treated time in a very new way, psychologically, as an illusionary product of our mind.

St. Augustine’s view is still a very popular and provocative subject today. Could it be that St. Augustine is correct? We’ve been searching for centuries, or millennia even, but finding a true definition of time continues to escape us even to this day. This leads us to a very important question. Does time really exist?

Does Time Really Exist?

Is there any evidence that it is really there or is it much like the either that was once thought to fill the universe? We certainly feel ourselves being pushed and pulled along by the river of time. Therefore, time must exist, right?
Perhaps, but consider that time is something that we perceive through our senses which are not perfect. Is it possible that how we think about time is related to how our brain processes information?

One can divide any period of time into a past and a future, from millennia to microseconds. The present is nothing more than a fleeting moment through which the future passes to become the past. If this is true we are left with quite a perplexing problem. The past and the future do not exist and the present has no duration. So, how can time be measured?

St. Augustine suggested that maybe time is measured in the mind. It is not an event itself that is measured but instead the impression that it leaves on the mind. The mind expects the future which becomes the present which the mind attends to and then becomes the past which the mind remembers.
The future and past do not exist but in the mind there is an expectation of the future and a remembrance of the past. The present would then have no duration yet still the minds attention is always there. So it is not the future that is long but a long expectation of the future. Likewise it is not the past that was long but a long remembrance of the past.

So is time an illusion of the human mind? If it is then maybe it just might be possible to jump out of the river of time, run up or down along the river’s banks, and then reenter into the past or the future, perhaps just as easy as we move through the three dimensions of space today.

We will see later that this type of time travel may be very difficult but it is certainly possible within the laws of our mathematics and physics. However, many people in this period viewed time as that real ever-flowing river that was constant and unchangeable. This view which we know today is inaccurate was still the key to the birth of the great industrial age of machines all around the world and at the heart of this view was Sir Isaac Newton.

Some Additional Thoughts on the Philosophy of Time

The Vedas, the earliest texts on Indian philosophy and Hindu philosophy dating back to the late 2nd millennium BC, describe ancient Hindu cosmology, in which the universe goes through repeated cycles of creation, destruction and rebirth, with each cycle lasting 4,320,000 years. Ancient Greek philosophers, including Parmenides and Heraclitus, wrote essays on the nature of time.

In Book 11 of St. Augustine's Confessions, he ruminates on the nature of time, asking, "What then is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not." He settles on time being defined more by what it is not than what it is, an approach similar to that taken in other negative definitions.

In contrast to ancient Greek philosophers who believed that the universe had an infinite past with no beginning, medieval philosophers and theologians developed the concept of the universe having a finite past with a beginning. This view is not shared by Abrahamic faiths as they believe time started by creation, therefore the only thing being infinite is God and everything else, including time, is finite.

Newton's belief in absolute space, and a precursor to Kantian time, Leibniz believed that time and space are relational. The differences between Leibniz's and Newton's interpretations came to a head in the famous Leibniz-Clarke Correspondence.

Immanuel Kant, in the Critique of Pure Reason, described time as an a priori intuition that allows us (together with the other a priori intuition, space) to comprehend sense experience. With Kant, neither space nor time are conceived as substances, but rather both are elements of a systematic mental framework that necessarily structures the experiences of any rational agent, or observing subject. Kant thought of time as a fundamental part of an abstract conceptual framework, together with space and number, within which we sequence events, quantify their duration, and compare the motions of objects. In this view, time does not refer to any kind of entity that "flows," that objects "move through," or that is a "container" for events. Spatial measurements are used to quantify the extent of and distances between objects, and temporal measurements are used to quantify the durations of and between events.

Henri Bergson believed that time was neither a real homogeneous medium nor a mental construct, but possesses what he referred to as Duration. Duration, in Bergson's view, was creativity and memory as an essential component of reality.

Time as "unreal"

In 5th century BC Greece, Antiphon the Sophist, in a fragment preserved from his chief work On Truth held that: "Time is not a reality (hypostasis), but a concept (noêma) or a measure (metron)." Parmenides went further, maintaining that time, motion, and change were illusions, leading to the paradoxes of his follower Zeno. Time as illusion is also a common theme in Buddhist thought, and some modern philosophers have carried on with this theme. J. M. E. McTaggart's 1908 The Unreality of Time, for example, argues that time is unreal.

However, these arguments often center around what it means for something to be "real". Modern physicists generally consider time to be as "real" as space, though others such as Julian Barbour in his The End of Time argue that quantum equations of the universe take their true form when expressed in the timeless configuration space realm containing every possible "Now" or momentary configuration of the universe, which he terms 'platonia'.