New Years Eve 2014 (and the metaphysics and metaphilosophy of the “now”)


With the beginning of a new calendar year often comes the inescapable feeling of the inevitability of passing time, though, perhaps not as arduously so as on one’s birthday. But is this feeling the result of an illusion? Is time “real” in the most profoundly metaphysical sense of the word? Even if there is such a thing as “time”, is it anything like how we experience it?

Metaphilosophical Implications of “Time”

The concept of “time” is one of the most interesting concepts of human experience for the philosopher due to its implications for metaphilosophy: on the one hand, our phenomenal data tells us that nothing is more certain than the passage of time, and on the other, our principles of logic and reason suggest that the existence of time as we know it leads to contradictory antinomies of reason, as Kant argued in The Critique of Pure Reason. Kant argued that the human understanding imposes time and space onto the world of experience (the phenomenal realm) necessarily due to the very structure of rationality, such that time and space do not exist in the world outside of our minds because time and space are concepts made possible by our rationality and thus are only true of our objects of experience, not objects as they really are in the noumenal realm. While I respect Kant for his ingeniousness, and for his intention of creating a rationalistic constructivist epistemological model in order to allow for objective moral truths, I do not think this is the appropriate explanation for the metaphysics of time.

As Kant’s work reveals, the debate over the existence of time serves as another hallowed battleground for empiricism and rationalism. While one might think that we should reject rationalism or empiricism on the basis of what it prescribes of time alone, and then move onto other philosophical projects that are on topics less fundamental to experience this has not been the case. I see the trepidation in doing so; based on our pre-theoretic intuitions, it is difficult to entertain the idea that time could be illusion, and thus we might unwisely conclude that empiricism is correct too quickly. The question remains whether the existence of time even justifies empiricism.

I, for one, am uncertain about the existence of time as we experience it. On the one hand, my “realist” (in the metaphilosophical sense) sympathies point me towards accepting the existence of time as we experience it, while my rationalistic (as opposed to empiricistic) leanings lead me to think that time cannot exist as we experience it. This is another dilemma that makes the concept of time fascinating on a metaphilosophical level; there is not normally a conflict between realism and rationalism, commonly construed.

The Metaphysics of Time and the Existence of the “Now”

The reason I wonder whether time could be as we experience it is due to there seemingly being a “now” or present moment. I doubt that there can be a “now”, as such an entity would lead to contradiction. There are two theories of time, as observed by John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart (yes, he had two “McTaggart”s in his name), the theory that there is a past, a present, and a future (known as the A theory of time), and the theory that there is a before and an after, there is no “now” or present moment, one event can only come before or after another event (known as the B theory of time).

I am partial to the B theory of time for my own reasons, but it is worth noting that many have argued that the B theory is consistent with the theory of special relativity, which proponents argue is a strong reason to accept it. Again, I lean towards the B theory of time for my own reason, that the existence of a “now” is impossible”.

My argument for thinking that the existence of the “now” is impossible is that for the “now” to exist it must be in time, such that the “now” must have temporal length, or duration. I expect that these claims are uncontroversial. Anything that has duration can be cut into segments, and as the “now” has temporal length, it follows that the “now” can be divided into temporal parts. But the “now” cannot be divided into temporal parts! If that were possible then there could be multiple temporal parts of the “now”, which would mean that there could be more than one “now” at one time. That is a contradiction, so it must not be possible for the “now” to be divisible into temporal parts. If that is so, then the “now” cannot have temporal length or duration. And it seems necessary that for something to be an event in time it must have duration, otherwise, the sum of all events across time would not have duration, which is absurd. What this means is that for something to be in time it must have temporal length. I have argued that the “now” cannot have temporal length, such that it follows that the “now” is not “in time”, which is to say, that the “now” is not part of the real existence of time. Thus, the “now” does not exist, and B theory is true.

Concluding Note: Bringing it Back to New Years Eve

If all of this is true, and I think it is, then you will not move through time from the year 2013 to the year 2014. Rather, at a specific event in time tonight, a specific event in time in 2014 will be after it. And at that specific moment in 2014 a specific moment in time in 2013 will have come before it. But there is no “now”, no present moment that moved with you from 2013 to 2014.

There is no such thing as the “now”, so what will you live for in 2014?

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  1. #1 by drewdarko23 on January 1, 2014 - 6:26 pm

    Einstein himself was actually very worried that our conscious experience is one in which time passes (an A-theory picture), and yet this seems incompatible with our picture of Minkowski spacetime.

    This is where the debate over time becomes interesting; it’s not straightforward that A-theory is incompatible with relativity, although traditional presentism (like the view put forth by Pryor) pretty clearly is. However, accepting what physics tells us doesn’t rule out that time passes. Maudlin argues that time must pass at a rate of 1 second per second because it must have a direction, and so in a sense we still have the passage of time. This is supported by various laws of science, I’ll point to the second law of thermodynamics. (Even if you deny Maudlin’s premise that time has a rate, his argument that it must have a direction is very good).

    Your conclusion that “now” is a flawed concept is valid, but very characteristic of Smart’s argument for hyper-time. Smart proves that time cannot pass at a rate, which is proving that there is no objective “now” that is moving into the future. Smart’s argument is fine at showing a flaw in presentism, but it doesn’t do any real work to support B-theory (hence, he supports B-theory with relativity in the following part of his paper). While presentism is successfully defeated, there is still plenty of room for A-theory variations to show that time must have a direction; that it does pass.

    What we see is that things are located at certain points in space-time relative to other frames of reference. We always need a frame of reference that our position is relative to, but given that frame of reference as something static, your space-time location has still changed from being inside the chunk labeled “2013” to the one labeled “2014.” Denying an objective “now” is just the step that takes the debate about time over into the theory of relativity and how to describe the nature of time given what is shown to us by physics.

    • #2 by ausomeawestin on January 1, 2014 - 7:45 pm

      Excellent points, thanks for sharing your knowledge on this topic! I must admit that I’m not as knowledgeable about physics as I should be, so I appreciate your comments.
      Thanks for expanding on my noting that B theory’s consistency with relativity is a strong reason to accept it; I was perhaps being a tad evasive in not admitting outright that A theory isn’t necessarily incompatible with relativity — I don’t always give views the benefit of the principle of charity.
      I am interested in the claim of your last sentence. I certainly agree with the other sentences of the last paragraph, these propositions are seen to be true by B-theory and relativity. But is the intent of your last sentence to claim that the only purpose denying the “now” serves is vindicating physics and confirming its methodology?

      • #3 by drewdarko23 on January 1, 2014 - 8:22 pm

        I don’t know that I would call the last sentence a claim at all. I’m definitely not making the claim that validating physics in the debate over time is the only purpose for denying “now.” On its own, denying an objective now is a convincing argument against presentism. I would lean towards pointing to this as the purpose of the argument.

        That last sentence is just my view that the debate over time should stem from physics. It’s not meant to discredit or belittle the argument that there is no “now,” The claims in the rest of the comment are the interesting ones, the last sentence is admittedly just an oddly worded expression of my deep interest in physics.

  2. #4 by bloggingisaresponsibility on January 2, 2014 - 8:29 am

    Great post. I like to think of time as simply an abstraction, a convenient way for talking about “units of change”, and therefore the human perception of time is tied to this perception of change.

    “Now” may best defined in more perceptual/physical terms, in that a situation is “now” if one has an intensity of experience that exceeds those of the imagination, and can act physically to change that experience. As such, I don’t see it having any kind of value in any more “objective” or “ontological” sense.

    • #5 by ausomeawestin on January 2, 2014 - 6:58 pm

      Thank you!

      I think you make some great points, and I agree for the most part. I doubt that there can even be the phenomenologically experienced “now” — the “now” is an illusionary concept that can be eliminated without denying our actual basic phenomenological data.

  3. #6 by Marvin Edwards on January 3, 2014 - 7:03 pm

    The idea of “now” is as long as it needs to be to accomplish it’s purpose, which is to establish a shared relative time reference. One could say “prohibition outlawed the production of alcoholic beverages, but now that the amendment has been rescinded, it is legally available”. The “now” in that sentence covers a long period of time, from then to the current moment.

    The idea of “now” may refer to a more immediate duration, as in, “I am now writing a comment on this blog”.

    But philosophers tend to make things more complicated than necessary, such as introducing the “infinite division of the whole” paradox. Some guy said that it was impossible to go out of the room, because first you’d have to go half the distance, but you couldn’t do that without first going half of that half distance, and so on, until you had an infinite number of points to traverse. The solution I came up with was that every time you cut the distance in half, you effectively doubled the relative speed, until you were going infinitely fast, and easily walked through the door.

    I suspect that most paradoxes arise from the misuse of sematic content.

    There are a whole lot of things which we describe in a conceptual short hand, to avoid describing extensive details. These usually work just fine for communication and dealing effectively with reality. One of these is time. The concept of time is meaningful because we observe in the empirical world that things occur relative to other events, that things change with age, etc. Thus the idea of time is rooted in reality even though it does not exist as an object itself, but rather as a means of communicating useful information about duration, scheduling, etc.

    • #7 by ausomeawestin on January 3, 2014 - 8:53 pm

      Very interesting comments, thanks for stopping by! While you are right that we use “now” in the sense you first mentioned, this conversation has been about the “now” that refers to the idea of “the present moment”, so for now (har har) let’s put the first meaning you mentioned aside.

      I imagine you bring up the infinite distance paradox because of its resemblance to the argument I made against the “now”. It’s similar, but different, in a way that is not metaphysically superfluous, but in the end consistent with the theory of special relativity (do you think physicists make things more complicated than is necessary?) The infinite distance paradox takes as a premise the idea that a selected space is infinitely divisible, and my point is that the “now” is not divisible at all, which I think is actually phenomenologically proven; our sense data tells us that the “now”, the moment of present experience is fleeting. So the infinite distance paradox draws an absurd conclusion by assuming a strange premise (that space is infinitely divisible), whereas I draw an absurd conclusion from an obvious premise. It’s an antinomy, and antinomies are valid arguments that lead to absurd conclusions, such that a premise must be rejected; the correct premise to reject is that there is a “now” at all.

      I’m also not very convinced by your solution the the “infinite distance” paradox. While it is logically conceivable that something could be an infinite distance away, it doesn’t seem conceivable that speed can be infinite. “Infinitely fast” sounds like a meaningless phrase to me. Maybe it’s because I’m more accustomed to hearing that “space is infinite” (though modern physics tells us that it is not “infinite” per se — a truth more mind boggling than the idea that space IS infinite), but my understanding of the concept of space allows me to entertain the idea that it could be infinite, whereas the concept of have of speed is not of the sort that can have the quality of infiniteness.

      As for your last paragraph: sure. I never denied that time exists, just that a constantly changing moving forward in time present moment exists. All of the things you mentioned are still possible if we deny the existence of the “now”.

      • #8 by Marvin Edwards on January 3, 2014 - 10:22 pm

        But I cannot “deny the existence of the now” since I’m right now writing another comment. So I have to conclude, by empirical observation, that any argument that “now” is meaningless is itself absurd. 🙂

        There also has to be something wrong with the idea that a “valid argument” could prove an “absurd conclusion”. A paradox, which would be an example I think, is usually due to an erroneous assumption in the supposedly “valid” argument.

        For example, if the guy getting up from his chair and going out the door had to consciously think about each division of the distance, he probably would be incapable of getting to the door. But that’s not what happens. He simply gets up and goes out. (My solution was a humorous acceptance of the absurd condition with a mental summer-sault to escape the obsession).

      • #9 by ausomeawestin on January 4, 2014 - 11:39 am

        There is a difference between a valid argument and a sound argument, such that it is possible that an argument that leads to absurd conclusions can be valid, without being sound. A valid argument is one where IF all the premises were true then the truth of the conclusion would logically follow from the premises. A sound argument is one where all of the premises are true, so the conclusion is true. An antinomy is a valid argument in the sense that if the premises are true then the conclusion is true. But the point of an antinomy is to use uncontroversial premises to show that everyday assumptions lead to contradiction, so that one of the premises/mundane assumptions is erroneous and must be rejected. This whole project has been taking on an antinomy that forces us to reject the premise that the “now” exists, such that that idea must be rejected.

        It seems to me that the “now” in “I’m right now writing this comment” doesn’t refer to the present moment, but the sense of the “now” that you noted before, that is, a length of time that is an event, in this case the act of writing a comment. The “now” refers to the event of writing a comment, because that is all you experience. That is the only “now” we experience, an event in time, but we mistakenly think that there is an minuscule and passing present moment. It is this entity that does not exist, and which we have tried but never been able to point to, and this because it does not exist.

      • #10 by Marvin Edwards on January 4, 2014 - 12:06 pm

        Words are only useful if they communicate something meaningful. Therefore, using “now” in a sense in which it is “proved” not to exist would be an unsound argument. If one of the premises includes a definition of “now” which does not exist, then the “valid” argument is a useless tautology.

        Philosophy means to love wisdom. It is different from sophistry, which loves disputes.

      • #11 by ausomeawestin on January 4, 2014 - 4:48 pm

        But the point of an antinomy is that neither the premises nor the conclusion are proven! An antinomy takes uncontroversial premises and leads to an absurd conclusion. That is the extent of the argument. The conclusion is not that one of the premises is false, that is done on reflecting on the argument as a whole; the conclusion is just the absurd conclusion, so you are wrong when you say that the argument is unsound (I assume you mean invalid due to being contradictory, because obviously an antinomy is unsound, that is the whole point) because it denies a premise that it needs to be affirmed for the argument to go through. Again, the antinomy does not negate any of the premises, that is what we do after being confronted with an antinomy, and we offer arguments then for why one premise in particular must be rejected.

        Also, you obviously do not know what a tautology is, because what you have laid out is a contradiction, not a tautology. A tautology is a statement that cannot be false, so it is always true (A or not A, is always true). You have suggested (incorrectly) that the argument needs to affirm and deny that the “now” exists at the same time. Rather than always being true, that is an instance of a statement that is always false, such that it is a contradiction. Your idea put into formal logical is (A and not A). It is impossible for that to be true, so it is a contradiction not a tautology. Again, you are wrong to think that the argument harbors that contradiction.

        Thanks for telling me etymological meaning of “philosophy”.

      • #12 by Marvin Edwards on January 4, 2014 - 9:36 pm

        Nope. I did not know the definition of “tautology” in formal logic. I only had the sense that it meant “a redundant statement of the obvious” which apparently was the original meaning to the Greeks.

        The problem I was trying to point out was this: if you begin with an unconventional definition of “now” which could not exist, then the supposedly “valid” argument would also conclude that “now” could not exist. And that’s the old meaning of “tautology”, a restatement of the obvious.

        If you start with the premises: “now is a unicorn” and “unicorns do not exist” then it would be valid to conclude that “now does not exist”. But it would be unsound to fail to question the premises before being sucked into a falsehood.

        I observe “now” (which includes the current context of my surroundings and activities) in the real world, and therefore conclude it does exist. To say that “now” does not actually exist implies the loss of this concept from the language. Since the idea is useful in communicating with others, I suggest we keep it.

        To say that there is a “more real now” than the “now” we’re used to, and that IT does not exist, should be harmless, but would also be meaningless and irrelevant.

        Resolving the A and B theories of time: Using a telescope is not helpful to understanding cells. Using a microscope is not helpful to understanding planets and stars. We use different logical models to deal with different problems. We cannot insist on choosing between two useful tools. We can only hope to use each tool appropriately.

        About Kant, from your description it sounds like he is posing the question, “what if everything is just a dream I’m having and the world is just an illusion?” This question is also irrelevant. All your alternatives are exactly as they would be in a real world. It would only be helpful if you could somehow step out of the dream and make adjustments from time to time. So you may as well “live the dream” (unless, of course, you’re mentally ill and are actually experiencing illusions).

  4. #13 by oliviamariecasey on January 12, 2014 - 6:26 pm

    Really interesting article! I want to write articles on theories of time….I find is massively interesting.
    Thank you for sharing this.

    • #14 by ausomeawestin on January 12, 2014 - 7:44 pm

      My pleasure, thanks for stopping by, I’ll keep an eye out for your writings on theories of time.

      • #15 by Olivia Casey on January 13, 2014 - 7:59 pm

        Thank you, I appreciate it. 🙂

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