What are the best resources/explanations of why "Time is an Illusion"?
January 12, 2013 6:49 AM   Subscribe

I'm interested in doing some research about the idea that "time is an illusion" - i.e. there is no past, present or future and everything is happening in one, gigantic Now. Definitely looking for scientific resources as well as spiritual/religious/etc.
posted by Lipstick Thespian to Religion & Philosophy (16 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
From Eternity to Here is a recent popular science book that should cover most timely time topics.
posted by sammyo at 7:04 AM on January 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't know if this is helpful, but check out Siddartha, by Herman Hesse. There's a passage, or maybe it was just a sentence, about time being a river, which is everywhere at once, yet still flowing. One of the only things about the book I remember. It moved me when I read it.
posted by Buffaload at 7:10 AM on January 12, 2013

Best answer: Try Joseph Chilton's "The Crack in the Cosmic Egg". We are sort of like the data recorded on a cosmic template. The illusion of time and space is us, moving through existence. We can be read in either direction, but our consciousness works only in the forward mode--because the illusion of time gives us the temporary illusion of consciousness (and so on and so on).
posted by mule98J at 7:19 AM on January 12, 2013

Re: scientific perspective-- are you looking for the neuroscience of how/why our brains perceive time, or more the theoretical physics behind what exactly time is? Can't help with the latter, but for the former, you should probably focus on popular science books focused on consciousness. (Ramachandran is my favorite pop sci neuroscience writer.)

Either way, this is going to be more on the fringes of "real" scientific research, so focus on pop sci, but if you want a legitimate scientific perspective, try to make sure the authors actually do real research (i.e. hold faculty appointments at good schools) too.
posted by supercres at 7:22 AM on January 12, 2013

Response by poster: Supercres - more about time as it relates to our perspective of it passing as seen from a scientific standpoint as opposed to say, a spiritual one.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 7:34 AM on January 12, 2013

You should be aware of McDermott's argument, which I don't find very convincing, but it's famous.
posted by thelonius at 7:38 AM on January 12, 2013

Yes, that's what I meant. Focus on the study of consciousness from a cognitive/neurocognitive perspective, but be prepared for a more reductionist view than you may have in mind. The reductionism is what is actually supported by any kind of scientific evidence; spiritual and philosophical treatises don't have that same burden.
posted by supercres at 7:48 AM on January 12, 2013

Best answer:
For what is time? Who can easily and briefly explain it? Who even in thought can comprehend it, even to the pronouncing of a word concerning it? But what in speaking do we refer to more familiarly and knowingly than time? And certainly we understand when we speak of it; we understand also when we hear it spoken of by another. What, then, is time? If no one ask of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not. Yet I say with confidence, that I know that if nothing passed away, there would not be past time; and if nothing were coming, there would not be future time; and if nothing were, there would not be present time. Those two times, therefore, past and future, how are they, when even the past now is not; and the future is not as yet? But should the present be always present, and should it not pass into time past, time truly it could not be, but eternity. If, then, time present — if it be time — only comes into existence because it passes into time past, how do we say that even this is, whose cause of being is that it shall not be — namely, so that we cannot truly say that time is, unless because it tends not to be?
–Augustine of Hippo, Confessiones lib xi, cap xiv, sec 17 (ca. 400 CE)
posted by empath at 7:54 AM on January 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I highly recommend Ted Sider's Four Dimensionalism. Or try the chapter on time in his co-authored Riddles of Existence for something more introductory.
posted by kestrel251 at 8:28 AM on January 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

A classic on this topic in 20th century philosophy is J.M.E. McTaggart, The Unreality of Time. Here's the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on it.
posted by Beardman at 9:37 AM on January 12, 2013

Here is a very long and historically-situated article from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Kant's views on space/time. He didn't exactly consider it an illusion, but time is not something that objectively exists in his metaphysics. Probably the closest thing to "science" that you'll get too, since the hard sciences don't concern themselves with things that can't be empirically verified very often.
posted by zinful at 9:57 AM on January 12, 2013

A new refutation of time
posted by yoyo_nyc at 10:44 AM on January 12, 2013

What do you mean by time? What do you mean by illusion?

Quoting Mike Alder:
In order to derive logical consequences that could be tested, it was necessary to frame his statements with a very high degree of clarity, preferably in algebra, and failing that Latin. Nowadays we drop the Latin option. ...truth about how the universe works cannot generally be arrived at by pure reason ... If you want to know if an approach to the question "is time just an illusion" is scientific, then it must include an answer to What measurements or observations would, in your view, settle the matter?

Einstein's theories of relativity (special and general) have pretty much nailed the fact that time does not exist independently of space but rather as part of a four-dimensional construct we call spacetime. Furthermore, we find that, just like someone in in Canada (well above the equator) and in Australia (well below) will not agree on a definition of "upwards" and "horizontal" when it comes to labelling an event, the way an event is split into a time-component and a space-component is very much observer dependent. So, shouldn't your question also include "is space an illusion?"

People that voice opinion about "time" without making reference to this, are debating about words, not reality.

One serious attempt I have seen to address the question "is time an illusion", from someone that understand modern physics, is by
Julian Barbour who wrote a book about it. However, since the ideas expressed in the book do not seem to have any predictive power and, thus, can not be considered to be a scientific theory.
posted by aroberge at 10:56 AM on January 12, 2013

I came in to recommend 'The End of Time' by Julian Barbour too. I read it some years ago now and I don't know whether the theory has progressed but the basic idea is that existence consists of disconnected differences in physical states that consciousness strings together into sequences which we perceive as time. However, as aroberge says, it's not really something that can be tested but it's a fascinating argument.
posted by freya_lamb at 11:40 AM on January 12, 2013

I'm interested in doing some research about the idea that "time is an illusion" - i.e. there is no past, present or future and everything is happening in one, gigantic Now

If Special Relativity is right, the idea that any two given events can be unambiguously defined as simultaneous is wrong, and simultaneity becomes a property of the relationships between events and their observers.

In other words: if you and I are moving relative to each other, then given two events A and B that both of us can identify, we will in general disagree about whether A and B are or were or will be simultaneous. The disagreement remains very small unless our relative speed is a substantial fraction of that of light, but it's usually there.

Relativity provides formulae for reconciling our measurements about these things - given knowledge of our relative speed and each of our spatial relationships with two events A and B that you will perceive as simultaneous, I can correctly predict how much time will elapse between those events from my point of view.

If the "one, gigantic Now" that you propose contains the set of events simultaneous with your own present, it follows that your Now does not necessarily contain the same events as my Now even if we can agree on the identity of all the events involved; some of the events in your present were in my past or will be in my future, and vice versa.

However, if we expand the idea of the one, gigantic Now to encompass all events regardless of whether they appear to be in the past, present or future, Relativity does provide us with the formulae we need to reconcile our measurements of any given set of events. The fact that we disagree about what's happening Right Now doesn't mean we need to disagree about what's actually happening (or has happened or will happen) whatsoever - we can still agree on what events constitute our shared reality and, if there are enough of us and we're good enough at measuring things, we can identify the features of that shared reality well enough to make it worth treating as objective.

A number of interesting consequences follow from this.

First is that certain events in my future might well be in your present or past. This implies that my future is no less real than my present or past, which breaks the idea that the future is composed of possibilities rather than actual events. Only what will happen will happen, and only what did happen was ever actually possible.

Possibility and its quantitative cousin probability, then, are about what we know about what can happen, rather than about what will happen per se.

The totality of all the things that are and were and will be is called the block universe. Wikipedia, as ever, has more.

The best reason I can think of for taking the block universe concept seriously is that Relativity works. However, the idea of my own awareness as a thing of some kind in free flight through a four dimensional block universe still breaks my brain.

The neatest definition of Time that I have ever heard is that it's just nature's way of stopping everything all happening at once. This is so obviously a kindergarten-grade Just So story that it comes as a bit of a shock to find that every philosophy of time is basically just a Jenga tower built on top of it (sometimes, it must be said, to a quite impressive height).

Something else we all learned in kindergarten is that the answer to some Why? questions is Just Because, That's Why, and having wondered about time for many decades I am beginning to suspect that I probably should have stopped there and got on with something else.
posted by flabdablet at 1:25 AM on January 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: There are a few debates in philosophy that you might be interested in.

One concerns three-dimensionalism vs. four-dimensionalism, or presentism vs. eternalism. Above, kestrel451 suggests Ted Sider's Four-Dimensionalism, and that is a good book to look at, though it is possibly more technical than you will require. Sider's paper in this collection is an easy read, if you can get your hands on it. Four-dimensionalists think of time as akin to another spatial dimension, and the term 'now' is an indexical that picks out the time the speaker is at (within a reference frame), just like the word 'here' picks out the place that the speaker is at. So, four-dimensionalism is sometimes understood as claiming that the universe is one big static 4-dimensional block, filled with spacetime points. In a sense, it is as you say: time is one gigantic Now. Making a place for the passage of time in such a picture is challenging. Some four-dimensionalists have claimed that the passage of time is something like a cognitive illusion: you can say that two spacetime points are temporally separated, but there is nothing more to say about the passage of time. Three-dimensionalists, on the other hand, claim that there are facts about change and the passage of time that four-dimensionalism cannot explain. I think it's fair to say that most physicists are four-dimensionalists, but three-dimensionalists have tricks to avoid contradicting anything Einstein discovered about simultaneity.

A distinct debate that grows out of this one concerns whether time has a privileged direction. The equations of fundamental physics are time-reversible. You can write your laws so that they will tell you what will come to be from a given state, or you can retranslate those laws so that they will tell you what came before. We have a universe with a high entropy state at side A and a low entropy state at side B, and we can write our laws to tell us either how to go from A to B or how to go from B to A. This has led some authors to claim that there really isn't much of a privileged direction between the past and the future at all. We've chosen to affix the word 'past' to the low entropy state and the word 'future' to the high entropy state, but this is arbitrary: the idea that time flows from past to future is illusory. This is what Julian Barbour is on about. On the other hand, others claim that we need to acknowledge that time passes --- we wake up and find ourselves experiencing it. The only way to explain that experience is to take the direction of time as fundamental by writing little "arrows of temporal flow" into our physical equations. Doing so lets you be a scientifically-respectable four-dimensionalist who accepts the reality of an objective past and an objective flow of time.

If you're interested in this latter debate, I highly recommend Ted Chiang's Story of Your Life, which is a triumph of philosophical science fiction.
posted by painquale at 9:48 PM on January 13, 2013

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