Time is one of those entities that has always been shrouded in mystery. The world has seen several philosophical debates on time over the ages, and there have also been several attempts to answer the questions put forth, with very rare, if any, convincing answers till date. This Buzzle article attempts to answer some of the deep and interesting philosophical questions about time.
“It’s being here now that’s important. There’s no past and there’s no future. Time is a very misleading thing. All there is ever, is the now. We can gain experience from the past, but we can’t relive it; and we can hope for the future, but we don’t know if there is one.”
― George Harrison
Time is one of the greatest philosophical mysteries ever encountered by mankind. Over the ages, there have been hundreds and thousands of discussions and debates about the dimension that is known to us as “time”. Time virtually governs all our tasks and even the events of the world. We, as mere players on the world’s stage, tend to know and not know time, both at the same time. There is no doubt that we have figured out ways to measure and calculate time, and that time-telling devices occupy an important place in our daily lives. But considering the fact that time is an invisible, intangible entity, the fundamental question still remains―is it possible to measure time?
It seems absurd for the human senses to be able to comprehend an entity that cannot be seen and/or touched; however, it is also true that we tend to divide our lives on the basis of time, into the past, present, and future. In fact, we humans use time as a common parameter to measure numerous different things―while distance between two far-off places can be measured in terms of time, the growth of a human body from an infant to an aged individual can also be calculated in terms of time. Therefore, owing to its unfathomable character that stands right in juxtaposition to its supposedly comprehensible nature, the dimension of time seems to be remote as well as familiar, and this is what makes it all the more curious as a concept―we come to realize that time indeed has much deeper implications than the human mind can possibly comprehend. Philosophers around the world have been trying to understand time since long, and there have arisen several fundamental epistemological questions about this entity. This article will attempt to discuss some of these mind-stirring philosophical questions about time.
Major Philosophical Issues Concerning Time
The human mind is immensely curious, in that, it is ever-questioning and is always in search of answers. Scientific theories do help to a great extent to provide us with some convincing answers, but when it comes to certain very basic questions, such as the nature of knowledge, it needs to be accepted that science has its own limitations―certain things cannot be experimented in laboratories. Not that philosophers and critics of science have been able to provide us with conclusive theories; nevertheless, we do have a lot of theories put forth in attempts to find answers. As mentioned before, the element of mystery that surrounds the dimension of “time” has long been one of the favorite topics of discussion amongst philosophers the world over, and over the ages, several questions have arisen with respect to this entity. Let us discuss some of the interesting ones.
Does time have a definite form (topology)?
The topology of an object refers to the study and analysis of its geometric properties. On the superficial level, time tends to move (if it does at all) in a linear fashion. That is to say that it may seem possible to represent time by a straight line. Time tends to travel from one point to the other―from the past to the present―in a pretty straightforward manner. It, however, needs to be noted that, in principle, time goes on moving (or continues to exist) eternally, and hence, the straight line by which time may be represented will be endless. Some philosophers (especially the supporters of reductionism) have suggested that there cannot be a single line representing time from the beginning to the present day. On the contrary, every single moment of time can stand in complete isolation from each other, such that we have several different streams of time, rather than a single, straight line. Platonists, on the other hand, argue that time stands independently of all the other objects, and hence, it is not possible to assign a particular topology to time, rather, it is not necessary to do so.
In stark contrast to the linear representation of time, is the notion that time is, in fact, a cyclical entity, and that it travels in a full circle. Many ancient civilizations, like Mayan, Inca, etc., and even religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Paganism, etc., have a concept of the “wheel of time”; it is believed that time indeed moves in a circular fashion. However, there are several opponents of the theory of time coming full circle who have argued that if time actually did move in a circular manner and returned to its original position at the end, it would have been possible to revisit the past, and to erase all the bad/tragic happenings as well.
Can we trace the origin of time?
This question is very much related to the way in which we represent time topologically. If we consider that time travels in a circular manner, we may, in a way, say that the point of time’s origin can be traced, because we are going to land up at the same point in the end. However, representing time in a circular fashion has several limitations. One of the most important ones is that the circle itself, as a geometric shape, does not bear a beginning or an end. Therefore, even if we land up on a consensus with regards to the circular movement of time, it is impossible to define the point at which it originated.
On the other hand, if we accept that time travels in a linear fashion, it may lead to two possibilities. For one, you can only move forward, as the line of time goes on extending in that particular direction only, and while it is possible to look back in time cognitively, it is not possible to go back in reality. In such a case, we cannot gauge where the origin of time lies. Furthermore, it is also worth considering the position that Aristotle took on the issue of tracing time’s origin based on its linear motion. He argued that the line of time can never have a fixed point of origin. In order to trace time’s origin, there has to be a defined first moment of time. However, in order to define that first moment, there has to be some period of time before it. In other words, Aristotle argues that time exists even in nothingness, and for us, it is only possible to calculate time, if at all, from the moment the creation process started. This again means that we cannot possibly track down the exact point of origin of time.
Are the concepts of past, present, future real?
We always tend to determine and divide time into the past, present, and future. This kind of division makes it easier to look at the universe’s (and our life’s) processes and happenings in a more systematic manner. As time passes, the present becomes the past, and a part of the future becomes the present. Therefore, at any one particular moment in time, we tend to encounter only the present and not the past and the future. Philosophers have very unique viewpoints with respect to these three divisions of time. By far, one of the most popular and the most accepted view is that of the presentists, which holds that only the present is real, owing to a simple fact that we “are living” those moments. The moment those “moments” pass, they no longer remain true as they become the past. Similarly, the future is something that we cannot live in the present, and hence, is also dismissed by the presentists as false.
As opposed to that, is the view held by the eternalists. They hold that everything in the past, present, and future is as true as the three divisions of time themselves. They state that even if the past has gone by and the future is yet to come, the events that have occurred or are about to occur are absolutely real, and that they continue to exist irrespective of whether they took place in the past or will happen in the future. The eternalist viewpoint, however, has two basic limitations. Firstly, if the events of the past continue to exist forever (in the human cognition), it means nothing in this world gets over or comes to an end. Moreover, if the future occurrences are taken to be true in the present, it means that the future is predetermined and predestined, as is held by the so-called Fatalists.
Does time flow?
One of the very basic questions with respect to the philosophy of time is whether or not it actually passes. This, in a way, is related to the movement of time which, in turn, determines its topology. The most commonly accepted view is that time does indeed pass day by day, week by week, month by month, and year after year. We humans have numerous ways to calculate this passage of time―clocks, the rising and setting of the sun, high and low tides, and so on. But the question again is whether by using all these techniques, we are actually measuring the pace at which time is passing, or are we using these as mere parameters to keep a track of things happening around us?
Epistemologically, passage/flow of time is a very ambiguous and subjective concept. There are many schools of thought stating that time itself is immovable; it is constant and stays where it is. What move/flow/pass, on the contrary, are the various things that we see, do, or that tend to occur in time. That is to say if you are continuously reading a book for some time, say two hours at a stretch, after which you get up to do something else, it is not the two hours that have passed in actuality, but it is you who has moved on from one task to the other. Therefore, the flow of time may actually be determined, not by the mobility of time itself, but by the actions that you carry out in time.
Is time finite or infinite?
Considering that, over the ages, many philosophers and thinkers have been regarding time as an entity with neither a beginning nor an end, it is pretty clear that they regarded time as an infinite dimension. This view was very prominently held, especially by the ancient Greek philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, etc. Their main argument was that although the dimensions of time and space exist in apposition to one another, the latter is finite as there is only vacuum beyond the outermost sphere of heaven; however, the former is definitely infinite as it has always been there, even when there was void all around.
This view, however, changed from the medieval period, when Jewish, Christian, and Islamic philosophers and compilers of religious doctrines (in keeping with the notion of the eternal in the Abrahamic creation myth) deemed it necessary to define a specific point at which time may have originated and/or a point at which it may end. Several arguments were put forth about temporal finitism, one of the major ones being that it is impossible for infinity itself to exist. In the later period, the famous German philosopher, Immanuel Kant built up on this argument and stated, “If we assume that the world has no beginning in time, then up to every given moment an eternity has elapsed, and there has passed away in that world an infinite series of successive states of things. Now the infinity of a series consists in the fact that it can never be completed through successive synthesis. It thus follows that, it is impossible for an infinite world-series to have passed away, and that a beginning of the world is therefore a necessary condition of the world’s existence.”
Is time qualitative or quantitative?
This is yet another, albeit unanswered, question about time that relates to its actual nature. When we come to think of it on face value, most of us will agree that time is a quantitative variable, for a simple reason that it can be measured in numerical terms. But at the same time, it is also essential to emphasize the fact that it is we humans, who have worked out ways in which time can be measured. However, in epistemological terms, whether it is really possible to measure it or not hasn’t been answered as yet. Therefore, it needs to be understood that regarding time as a quantitative variable does not necessarily make it that. In fact, this inference is solely based on our knowledge and understanding of time.
As opposed to the earthly time, which we have been measuring in numbers and/or in chronological terms, is the concept of Divine Time. Essentially metaphysical in nature, it refers to the right moment for something to happen, or the right opportunity to do something. Such “right” moments have been stated as “divine” because it is believed that each and every task executed during these moments reaps the desired fruit. Divine Time, obviously, cannot be measured; however, it does possess a quality of making things work in a favored manner. Therefore, in this sense, time can be perceived as a qualitative variable. The ancient Greek mythology has two different primordial deities representing both, quantitative and qualitative time. Chronos stands for earthly time (quantitative), whereas Kairos symbolizes the Divine Time (qualitative).
Is it possible to travel in time?
Time travel has, by far, been one of the favorite subjects of sci-fi writers and filmmakers from across the globe―enter a time machine, press a button, and travel back and forth in time, according to your will. For years together, there have been plenty of scientific researches on whether or not traveling through time is possible, and if yes, how? Several schools of philosophy have their own views on the issue. For instance, the presentist view holds that time travel is impossible, because they completely deny the existence of the past and the future. And so, how can one possibly travel to a “time period” that does not exist at all. Another major argument is with respect to traveling backwards in time. It states that owing to the fact that retrocausality  is a definite impossibility, backwards time travel is also impossible.
While most philosophers, theologians, and even scientists agree that it is not possible to travel to the past, many of them also opine that traveling to the future may be possible. In September 2013, the Huffington Post published an article based on the research of English particle physicist Brian Cox. The research was primarily based on Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and stated that, it may be indeed possible to travel hundreds or even thousands of years into the future, if the speed of the time traveler was incredibly fast, nearly as much as the speed of light. It is needless the say that the advocates of futurism  also hold a similar view.
So, does time exist after all?
After all the above discussion, we eventually come to the most fundamental of all questions about time―whether any such dimension exists at all, or is it merely the creation of humans, in order to help them with keeping track of their lives. Philosophers, throughout the ages, have argued from both sides. Those who advocate the existence of time, primarily state that it wouldn’t have been possible for the universe and its processes to exist without the presence of time. It is like that all-seeing, all-pervasive, omnipresent reality. It has always been there, and will continue to be there till so-called eternity. This view is rooted in the concept of cosmogony, wherein the existence of time plays a dominant role.
We also have several arguments against the existence of time. The first ever reference to such an argument comes from 5th century BCE Greece, wherein the orator named Antiphon the Sophist stated that time was merely a concept and not a reality, as its existence cannot be physically proved. A similar view was also held by some of the early Buddhist and Hindu religious texts, in which time has been described as nothing more than an illusion. Some schools of thought also hold the view that even if time does exist, its presence is impossible to prove, and so, in the absence of enough proof, time cannot be considered to be real.
Owing to the omnipresent and eternal characteristics of time, it has often been equated with God. This is because time continues to remain there, no matter what. In the Hindu religious text, the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Kṛiṣhṇa says, “Amongst all the entities, I am Time.” This simply shows the power that the entity holds in the processes of creation and destruction; they possibly cannot happen without time. Epistemological studies tell us that it is perhaps impossible for us to completely understand or comprehend the dimension of time (if ever it exists). Our knowledge of time is, therefore, extremely limited. Apart from the ones mentioned above, there are several other philosophical questions that have been asked about time, and attempts have been made to answer them. However, the truth is that the scope of human cognition is very limited, and we will probably never be able to provide solid answers to these questions. Well, certain things are better left unanswered!
1. Reductionism is a philosophical school of thought that holds that each and every complex object/system is a sum total of independent and/or interdependent components. Owing to this, it is possible to break down or reduce each and every substance to its individual constituents.
2. Platonism is a philosophical system based on the teachings of Plato, the 5th century BCE Greek philosopher. Platonists believe that the universe contains numerous abstract, formless objects that exist independently of time and space.
3. Presentists are supporters of the philosophical doctrine called Presentism. They postulate the view that only the present is real, and the past and future do not exist.
4. Eternalism is another philosophical doctrine that states that time, in all its forms and divisions, is real, and that irrespective of their occurrence on the time scale, the events of the past, present, and future never cease to exist.
5. Fatalists are the propounders of the doctrine of Fatalism, according to which, each and every action of the living beings is governed by fate, and we have no power whatsoever, to do things apart from what our fates make us do.
6. Temporal finitism is a philosophical view, which states that time is finite. It was held by most philosophers and theologians in the pre-modern era.
7. Retrocausality or backward causation is a term that related to processes (like backward time travel) that may reverse causality. In other words, retrocausality refers to a phenomenon wherein the effect comes before the cause. For instance, imagine that you travel backward in time and kill your father, who is still a kid. If you consider this to be possible, it is also essential, at the same time, to remember that you are completely negating the possibility of your own existence in the future. This is what retrocausality attempts to explain; the effect has to follow the cause, and this rule of nature cannot be broken.
8. Futurism is a philosophical doctrine which states that future is as true as the present, and that the former never ceases to exist. It completely denies the existence of the past.
9. Cosmogony is an important theoretical concept in epistemology that deals with the origin and creation of the cosmos and of the universe..