Does time pass?


Many people conceptualize time as something that moves. Hence we employ expressions like “time passes slowly” or “time flies” to designate various experiences of “the flow of time,” or we invoke clichés like “time is a river.” “Scientifically-minded” persons would be liable to point out that these are designations of subjective time and that real time passes at its given rate irrespective of our experience of it.

First, there is nothing in principle other than its status as a tenet in the scientific method that dictates that time outside of experience is more real than time within it. Hence, to find the scientific objection compelling would entail affirming the very issue that is at stake in the argument. Moreover, the standard model of contemporary physics does not conceptualize time as something that flows at all. Instead, it is seen not as a thing or a force but as a secondary phenomenon that emerges from the underlying geometry of space-time in respect to massive bodies and their comparative acceleration.

But more fundamentally, both the experiential and the naïve scientific view of time view “passing” as something time does. “Motion and change happens in time,” it might be said. But I think this is a view of things that stands them on their head. Time does not pass; time is the passage. Things do not move in time; time is the motion they undertake and the change that they undergo. The subject-predicate conception of time leads our imaginations astray. Just as water may flow but a river is a flow, so passing is not something time does but something it is.

Perhaps this identify is easier to grasp in respect to space: we might say “space extends to everywhere,” but this would be a figure of speech. Space is extension per se. In other words, extension is what we mean by “space”; it is something that space is and not something it does. The attempt to quantify space and time creates a model that shapes our perception to ignore our immediate experience of these things. Again, it might be objected that quantification provides for greater knowledge of space and time but this is not self-evident. Accuracy is not always interchangeable with precision and, moreover, whether quantitative modelling provides for greater knowledge of things is just the question that is at stake. Reiteration is generally not a convincing argument for the truth of something.

A brief consideration of the heliocentric-geocentric controversy that was brought to a pitch in the late Renaissance may prove illuminating. ⁠People often say “heliocentrism was discovered when the superstition of astrologers was abandoned for the empirical rigour of astronomy and observation immediately refuted geocentrism.” But that is obviously wrong and presents a spurious account of the historical facts. In truth, almost a century elapsed before the Copernican theory was empirically adequate to challenge the reigning Ptolemaic model. In other words, the geocentric model offered better predictions and descriptions of observable astronomical facts for almost a hundred years after Copernicus proposed the heliocentric one. It was only with Kepler’s modification of the planetary trajectories from circular to elliptical orbits that the heliocentric model became viable. In either case, however, the heliocentric vision is not one that a person can have except in his scientific imagination. 

That something is a thought-experiment and not an experience does not entail that it is wrong or useless unless someone forgets what he is doing and begins to correct people who refer colloquially to “the sunrise.” In this case, he is arguing on the basis of imagination against something that is an elementary object of everyone’s experience, including his own. By the same token, however, that a given model presents a feasible thought-experiment also does not entail that it is right according to any standard other than the internal coherence of the speculative model that is being entertained. The same reason that would put the sun at the center would also put it at the periphery in respect to other massive reference points like the barycenter of the galaxy, for instance. As usual, the perspective of the scientist himself is ignored, and hence arguably the most important variable of the question is left out of consideration. I said “as usual” because the elimination of subjectivity is a methodological postulate of science so it is not surprising to see many people taking this approach. At the same time, it is crucial to keep in mind that the elimination of subjectivity is not, nor could it ever be, an object of scientific fact or empirical discovery. In principle, that it is an axiom of method precludes that same method from having anything to say about the subject.  

Thus, heliocentrism is far from “settled science,” and anyone who dismisses objection on this basis thereby only demonstrates that he does not understand what science is. The physical sun as a point of inertial reference can never be an object of human experience except in imagination. In the same way, Einstein’s theories of relativity depend on ascribing primary reality to conditions that can never be an object of experience while discounting the ones that can. In brief, General Relativity proposes that time passes more slowly with increasing speed or in increasing proximity to a massive body. But it can be objected that time does not pass differently for me if I am travelling very fast or near a massive body because: “differently in respect to what?”

​⁠Certainly not to me because I am the one doing the moving or the occupying. ”Another inertial reference frame,” someone might say.

⁠But of course, that inertial reference frame is defined by being other than my own, and were I to enter it, it would cease to be “another frame.”

⁠”Yes but if your twin went on a voyage around the solar system at 9/10ths the speed of light, he would come back having only aged a small amount in comparison to you.”

⁠1. I don’t have a twin.

⁠2. This is sci-fi so it might be coherent as a thought experiment but obviously it has not been demonstrated in real life.

Photo by Rakicevic Nenad on

One Comment Add yours

  1. hellomcgrory says:

    Wow, amazing to see someone challenging (in an articulate and nuanced manner) the beliefs that are held dear to mainstream thinking in our times. Did you have st.michael with you as you wrote this by any chance 😀

    Liked by 2 people

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