December 23

Is Time Real?

The experience of the passage of time is one of the most foundational experiences of being human. We remember the past, we experience the immediacy of the present, and we imagine the possibilities of the future. I remember brewing coffee a few minutes ago, I taste the coffee right now, and I anticipate how it will wake me up later.

The experience of the passage of time is fundamental to the experience of being human and yet to many philosophical and spiritual traditions time was and is considered an illusion.

Plato, perhaps the most foundational figure in Western philosophy, is one of the primary sources of the idea that time is an illusion. Plato, along with other classical Greek thinkers, held that reality is ultimately timeless, changeless, and immutable. The laws of mathematics were their model of reality.

Two plus two always equals four. It equaled four when Plato did mathematics and it equals four today thousands of years later. Everything else has changed. Human civilizations have risen, ruled large sweeps of the Earth for hundreds of years and vanished, and still two plus two equals four. Human beings have walked on the surface of the moon, and two plus two equals four. Someday human beings may populate other worlds, or explore time travel, and two plus two will still equal four.

To the Greeks, the consistency of mathematics, the relentless unchanging nature of numerical relationships, was a refection of reality itself. All of the change and decay of the world that we see in time is a pale reflection of realities true and immutable face.

In the Middle Ages Christian thinkers discovered the ideas of the Greeks, mainly through the works of Aristotle. The Christian conception of heaven as a place beyond time took on more prominence, and the idea of God as the ‘uncaused caused’ was adopted as the definition of God by the faithful. God and Heaven were more real than Earth because they were absolute – timeless, changeless and immutable.

In these conceptions the passage of time which is only experienced as the process of change, is an illusion. Ultimate reality is unchanging, time is the experience of change, and therefore time is ultimately unreal. If time is unreal that means that although we experience past, present and future as, the time behind us, the time before us and the time we are experiencing in the moment, in reality, past, present and future already exist fully formed right now. All of time ‘already is’ and the experience of the passage of time is only a manifestation of our human senses.

The notion of reality being beyond time has been challenged by different thinkers in different ages and one such challenge, and arguably the most significant yet, came in the twentieth century. At the start of the twentieth century Einstein’s theory of relativity, along with the Quantum Theory originated by Max Plank, challenged the Newtonian physics that had prevailed as the unchanging laws of the universe through the course of the European Enlightenment.

Philosophers began to see the implications of the new physics for all of our conceptions about reality. One such philosopher was Alfred North Whitehead who developed what is known as Process Philosophy. Whitehead was an English academic who spent the last ten years of his career as the chair of the philosophy department at Harvard University in Massachusetts. It was during that last decade, inspired by and building on the ideas of the American Pragmatists, that Whitehead developed process philosophy.

One central element to his philosophy was the reality of time. Whitehead saw time not as an illusion, but as part of the make up of reality. The passage of time was a real phenomenon, not an illusory one. We live in a ‘timed’ universe. We are not beings living in a static universe that we travel through in such a way that we experience time. We are part of a universe that is moving from the past, to the present and on into the future. The universe is in process, it is creating and being created. It is not all, already there. The future does not exist yet. The future isn’t ‘out there’ waiting for us to inhabit it. It must be created.

Whitehead’s philosophy has deep and profound implications for such important ideas as freewill, creativity, novelty and what is the nature of an entity in the universe. These implications will have to wait for future posts. For now I am contemplating the notion that ‘time is real’ as I go for a second cup of coffee.