Is Time Real?

Jeff Carreira Philosophical Inquiry 4 Comments

Timeless1The 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. (Check out this fun and full article on Einstein from the blog at Beardoholic.>)

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 HarvardUniversity 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.


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Kurt Roeloffs
Kurt Roeloffs
7 years ago

Jeff, I am afraid Sir Alfred North Whitehead didn’t really understand what Quantum Theory was telling us about the nature of time. The theory and experimental evidence convincingly demonstrate that all sub-atomic processes can and do run in backwards (reverse time) and forward (natural time). In fact, the physicists cannot tell from the physical evidence of a quantum interaction which direction is natural, forward time. Only at a macro scale (organic scales like that of a human) does time seem to have a definite direction. The best physical demonstration of this is the Second Law of Thermodynamics which states that… Read more »

7 years ago

Thank you for this post, it is really clear and helped me to understand the fundamental difference between the notion of us moving through a fixed universe of natural laws, thus experiencing time vs that the universe, everything that exists, itself is in a process of time. A solely human version/ experience of time vs a universal one. I once had a very strange experience in which I ‘saw’ that all of time was all at once, vertical in a sense. Now thinking about this blog and thinking about that experience, I am wondering if time itself could have an… Read more »

Frank Luke
7 years ago

I’m quite relieved to know about others who consider time not an illusion but a reality. I’ve wrestled with this and haven’t really formed a definitive stand but to know there’s support for the concept of time being real gives my mind more leeway to cogitate.

7 years ago

Despite in my common sense thinking I believe that time is not an illusion, the philosophical part of (not only) my thinking holds that by means of both notions one immediately gets trapped. It is not sensical to put our speaking about time into a substantive (or the respective verb), as Wittgenstein put it. Time is nothing of what we could say that it does exist. The question about the reality of time is ungrammatical, it is like playing Halma on a chess board, or chess on a soccer field. See for instance … In order to play the… Read more »