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?