It’s been said that Time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening all at once. The Future hasn’t happened yet. The Past is already gone. It seems that the only thing that is real is the Present. Because of the illusion of time, our present is greatly affected both by our past experience and our hopes and plans for the future. We’re able to put off doing things into the future because we believe it will be there for us. We make decisions based on our faded memories of the past. We live our lives as if we have the time for it all to unfold as we’ve planned. We often sacrifice our present by doing what we believe is necessary to achieve what we’ve planned for the future. This may mean using our precious present to gain the knowledge, experience and capital we need for the future we imagine.
In essence, time is nothing other than a mental construct created by the ego-mind to separate out perceptions and events into an order, so that the sensations arising from them can be assimilated and made sense of.
Julian Barbour is a British physicist, author, and major proponent of the idea of timeless physics. The solution to the problem of time in physics and cosmology is as simply stated as it is radical: there is no such thing as time.
“If you try to get your hands on time, it’s always slipping through your fingers,” says Barbour. “People are sure time is there, but they can’t get hold of it. My feeling is that they can’t get hold of it because it isn’t there at all.” Barbour speaks with a disarming English charm that belies an iron resolve and confidence in his science. His extreme perspective comes from years of looking into the heart of both classical and quantum physics. Isaac Newton thought of time as a river flowing at the same rate everywhere. Einstein changed this picture by unifying space and time into a single 4-D entity. But even Einstein failed to challenge the concept of time as a measure of change. In Barbour’s view, the question must be turned on its head. It is change that provides the illusion of time. Channeling the ghost of Parmenides, Barbour sees each individual moment as a whole, complete and existing in its own right. He calls these moments “Nows.”
“As we live, we seem to move through a succession of Nows,” says Barbour, “and the question is, what are they?” For Barbour each Now is an arrangement of everything in the universe. “We have the strong impression that things have definite positions relative to each other. I aim to abstract away everything we cannot see (directly or indirectly) and simply keep this idea of many different things coexisting at once. There are simply the Nows, nothing more, nothing less.”
Barbour’s Nows can be imagined as pages of a novel ripped from the book’s spine and tossed randomly onto the floor. Each page is a separate entity existing without time, existing outside of time. Arranging the pages in some special order and moving through them in a step-by-step fashion makes a story unfold. Still, no matter how we arrange the sheets, each page is complete and independent. As Barbour says, “The cat that jumps is not the same cat that lands.” The physics of reality for Barbour is the physics of these Nows taken together as a whole. There is no past moment that flows into a future moment. Instead all the different possible configurations of the universe, every possible location of every atom throughout all of creation, exist simultaneously. Barbour’s Nows all exist at once in a vast Platonic realm that stands completely and absolutely without time.
One way researchers have tried to measure the subjective flow of time is by asking people of different ages to estimate when a certain amount of time has gone by. People in their early twenties tend to be quite accurate in judging when three minutes had elapsed, typically being off by no more than three seconds. Those in their sixties, by contrast, overshot the mark by forty seconds; in other words, what was actually three minutes and forty seconds seemed like only three minutes to them. Seniors are internally slow tickers, so for them actual clocks seem to tick too fast. This can have its advantages: at a John Cage concert, it is the old people who are relieved that the composition 4’33” is over so soon.
The river of time may have its rapids and its calmer stretches, but one thing would seem to be certain: it carries all of us, willy-nilly, in its flow. Irresistibly, irreversibly, we are being borne toward our deaths at the stark rate of one second per second. As the past slips out of existence behind us, the future, once unknown and mysterious, assumes its banal reality before us as it yields to the ever-hurrying “now.”
Einstein, through his theory of relativity, furnished a scientific justification for a philosophical view of time that goes back to Spinoza, to St. Augustine, even to Parmenides—one that has been dubbed “eternalism.” Time, according to this view, belongs to the realm of appearance, not reality. The only objective way to see the universe is as God sees it: sub specie aeternitatis. We should all be like William Blake and say, “I see the past, present, and future, existing all at once/Before me.”
Eckhart Tolle claims that Time is not experienced, only the Now is experienced. He describes how the unconscious mind is always unhappy in the present moment because it is always looking to the future for something better. Tolle explains how the mind creates a “story of me” to build up a false sense of self, the ego. The ego always hopes to find what seems to be missing in the present moment by looking towards the next moment – which never arrives except as the Now.
This unconscious state of being relies on our thinking mind, on our understanding of past and future as important, crucial elements to our existence. Eckhart describes past and future as only “thought-forms”, concepts created by the mind which are used to understand change.
The mind-made sense of ‘self’, or ego, is always searching for meaning. At the most basic level, the creation of a ‘self’ implies that there must also be the ‘other’. Eckhart explains that the more one identifies with thinking, the more the ego is in control. Thus, it becomes more difficult to sense your own aliveness, the shared consciousness of all life.
Eckhart describes how the ego struggles to create meaning in an unconscious world by seeking it out through interactions and behaviors that provoke responses. For example, he notes that conflict can be one way for people to feel alive, if only on a negative level. Pain, suffering, and human drama can create a secondary sense of aliveness, which he explains is a substitution for the real sense of aliveness – that which comes from simply feeling the timeless consciousness that you are, which resides beneath all forms, including thought.
Quotations often tackle dense topics with the goal of brief summarization. Here are a few about time.
There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now.
EUGENE O’NEILL, A Moon for the Misbegotten
To realize the unimportance of time is the gate to wisdom.
BERTRAND RUSSELL, Mysticism and Logic
Time is of your own making;
Its clock ticks in your head.
The moment you stop thought
Time too stops dead.
ANGELUS SILESIUS, Messenger of the Heart
Time has no divisions to mark its passage, there is never a thunderstorm or blare of trumpets to announce the beginning of a new month or year. Even when a new century begins it is only we mortals who ring bells and fire off pistols.
THOMAS MANN, The Magic Mountain
Time is a kind of river, an irresistible flood sweeping up men and events and carrying them headlong, one after the other, to the great sea of being.
MARCUS AURELIUS, Meditations
Killing time is not an easy job.
HARUKI MURAKAMI, Dance, Dance, Dance
The first thing necessary for a constructive dealing with time is to learn to live in the reality of the present moment. For psychologically speaking, this present moment is all we have.
ROLLO MAY, Man’s Search for Himself