Time is an illusion

Time is something that, at first glance, seems innocuous, useful and true in our practical lives. It is used to identify, quantify and describe. People have come up with ways to properly measure the practical concept of time for convenience. They have a
personal concept of time in their own age, for example. Age is ever changing and variable to practical social constructs of time.

Though practical uses for such constructions may be easily agreed upon, the different perceptions and definitions of time are still heavily debated. This is due, in part, to the philosophical renderings of these perceptions.

Time is not directly observable — only the effects of time can be seen. Consequently, science lends only partial answers to many of the bigger questions about time.

Theodor Ippolitovich Stcherbatsky, a Russian Buddhist scholar, wrote, “Everything past is unreal, everything future is unreal, everything imagined, absent, mental … is unreal … Ultimately real is only the present moment of physical efficiency.”

Perhaps most interesting is the power of our minds to recollect events in time. Observations at any time may only be remembered as events that are in the past relative to the instantaneous present. No event in the future that is relative to the instantaneous present can be remembered.

The disparity of memory in past versus future events gives support to Isaac Newton’s “arrow of time” philosophy. Newton described time as an arrow that, once fired, never deviated. The arrow of time illustrates an obvious direction time is tending toward. This is asymmetrical in nature, given the assumption that there was a beginning of time.

Many theologians assert that God exists outside of time. Furthermore, physicists who support the big bang and superstring theories say the physical laws governing these — including time — are unverifiable and unidentifiable before and during the big bang from our temporal focal point.

Philosopher J.M.E. McTaggart argued that time is just an illusion in The Unreality of Time. In this work, he separates interpretations into two arrangements. One interpretation is that which is described non-relationally: something is the past, something is present and something is future. People use these descriptions because there is an ever-changing idea of the distant past and near past to the present and into the near future and distant future. Events start in the future, arrive at the present and end in the past — though no event can ever belong to more than one tense at once.  

McTaggart points out that most accounts of time are contradictory in nature. The properties of time are simply not congruent. Time cannot be both past and present. However, in order to describe time coherently, one must accept these definitions as truth.

McTaggart asserts that the inherent contradiction gives incontrovertible proof of the “unreality of time.”

Physics experiments have shown that time cannot be treated as a substance. Many scientists and metaphysicians hold the view that time must be seen only as a relationship between different realms of being.

According to Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, an object traveling fast enough through space can alter its passage through time. For example, if an object is traveling at 99 percent the speed of light, time for it “slows down” by a factor of about seven. If a person were traveling at this rate, he or she would experience one year to every seven of a person on Earth.

Einstein said “People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

The adoption of a particular philosophy of time may dramatically alter an individual’s other views. A belief in a timeless, boundless, infinite universe typically rules out a beginning of nature. No creation is possible in this scenario — and therefore, no creator. It is not possible to create something if it has always existed.

Unfortunately, not much thought is put into time, but these grand, metaphysically altering concepts must be given consideration. For the sake of thought experimentation, it is sometimes best to ignore the absurdity of questioning what may seem unquestionable.

Daniel Dunn is a junior majoring in philosophy.