Is Time an Illusion? How Logic Challenges Our Understanding of Reality

Physics Time Travel Experiment Art Concept

Time may not be what it seems, with theories from Einstein and philosophical inquiries by McTaggart challenging its very existence. Their work highlights ongoing debates in physics and philosophy about whether time is a flowing sequence or a static illusion.

Time’s reality is questioned by both Einstein’s relativity and McTaggart’s logical arguments, which present different but inconclusive methods to understand time.

Modern physics suggests time may be an illusion. Einstein’s theory of relativity, for example, suggests the universe is a static, four-dimensional block that contains all of space and time simultaneously – with no special “now.”

What’s the future to one observer, is the past to another. That means time doesn’t flow from past to future, as we experience it.

Challenging Time Through Logic

This clashes with how time is conceptualized in other areas of physics, such as quantum mechanics, however. So is time an illusion or not? One approach to find out would be to try to prove that time is unreal using logic alone.

In 1908, J.M.E. McTaggart, an English philosopher, published a paper arguing that we might be able to work out the unreality of time just by using logical thinking alone.

Time Cards: A Thought Experiment

Imagine that someone has given you a box of cards, each one representing an event. One card describes the year 2024, another one the death of Queen Victoria, and another the solar eclipse in 2026. The cards have been mixed up. You have been told to arrange these cards in a way that represents time. How would you go about doing it?

The first way is to use what McTaggart calls the “B-series.” You pick one card and place it on the floor. Then you take another one from the box and compare it with the one already on the floor. If it’s earlier, you put it to the left of it. If later, you put it to the right.

For example, the death of Queen Victoria goes to the left of the 2026 solar eclipse. The year 2024 goes to the left of the 2026 solar eclipse, but to the right of the death of Queen Victoria. You keep repeating this until you end up with a line of cards, any two of which are related using the earlier-later relation.

The Static Nature of the B-Series

As you sit and look at the finished arrangement, you realize that something is missing. The line of cards is static. Once the cards have been put in place, nothing about their order changes. But, as McTaggart insists, you cannot have time without change.

Time is ultimately a measure of change, even according to physics. It is often identified as a rise in disorder – entropy – of a closed system. Take a cup of hot coffee. As it cools down, entropy rises. And you can tell roughly how long a cup of coffee has been standing there by its temperature. Any device that measures time, such as a clock, relies on change (ticks).

Remember, your original job was to arrange the cards in a way that represents time. But you ended up with something that doesn’t change. It would be odd to say that time does not change. So the B-series cannot capture time.

The A-Series: A Dynamic Approach to Time

There is, however, another option. You can start again and try to arrange the cards using what McTaggart calls the “A-series.” You create three neat piles – on the left go all the cards describing events that happened in the past, like the death of Queen Victoria. In the middle go those happening in the present, like the year 2024. And on the right, those that will happen in the future, like the 2026 solar eclipse.

Unlike the B-series, this arrangement is not static. As time goes on, you have to move the cards from the right (future) pile into the middle (present) pile, and the ones from the (present) middle pile into the left (past) pile, where they stay forever. So there is clearly change happening here. Does that mean that the A-series describes time?

The Logical Dilemma of the A-Series

According to McTaggart, the A-series is circular. Your hand moving the cards from the left-hand pile into the middle one and then into the right-hand pile is a process that already happens in time.

You need to be in time to be able to perform this arrangement. But time is exactly what you are trying to capture. In other words, you already need to have time in order to describe time. This is circular, and circularity violates logic.

Past Present Future

Time isn’t as simple as left, center , and right…

Let’s sum up. The B-series arrangement cannot describe time, because nothing changes about it. And change is required for time. So the B-series doesn’t work. The A-series does change, but unfortunately, it is circular. So it doesn’t work either. Since neither of these works, McTaggart concludes that time cannot be real.

The Philosophical Debate Continues: A Century Later

Over a hundred years later, philosophers are still searching for a solution. Some, called “A-theorists” try to define the A-series in a way that’s not circular.

Others, called “B-theorists,” accept that the B-series describes reality and say that McTaggart was wrong to require the series to change. Maybe all there is to time is just a line of events.

There are also “C-theorists” who go further and say that the line of cards does not even have a direction from earlier to later.

The year 2024 goes between the death of Queen Victoria and the 2026 solar eclipse. But the fact that we’re used to thinking of the death of Queen Victoria coming before the 2026 solar eclipse, rather than the other way around, is perhaps just a matter of habit. It’s like numbering planks on a fence: you can start from whatever end you want. The fence itself has no direction.

I’m not yet convinced that any of them are right, perhaps there are different ways of thinking about time altogether. Ultimately, time will tell.

And regardless of who’s right, what is remarkable is that McTaggart was able to get the argument going without any findings from science, but purely by thinking logically about the problem.

Written by Matyáš Moravec, Gifford Postdoctoral Fellow in Philosophy, University of St Andrews.

Adapted from an article originally published in The Conversation.The Conversation

7 Comments on "Is Time an Illusion? How Logic Challenges Our Understanding of Reality"

  1. Sf. R. Careaga, creator of EPEMC | July 5, 2024 at 8:29 pm | Reply

    ### Educating on EPEMC and the Nature of Time

    #### EPEMC Overview
    The Extended Plasma-Electromagnetic Cosmology (EPEMC) framework emphasizes electromagnetic dynamics as the primary force governing the universe. This approach integrates multiple disciplines to offer a holistic understanding of cosmic phenomena.

    #### EPEMC’s View on Time
    In EPEMC, time is fundamentally understood as a measure of change, driven by electromagnetic interactions:

    1. **Electromagnetic Dynamics**:
    – Time is measured through changes in electromagnetic conditions and plasma states, contrasting with the gravity-centric view of General Relativity.

    2. **Fractal and Non-Linear Nature**:
    – Time is seen as fractal and non-linear, characterized by repeating patterns and cycles in plasma behavior and electromagnetic interactions.

    3. **Unified Aether Field (UAF)**:
    – UAF integrates the sea of charge (aether) with electromagnetic forces. Time is viewed as the movement and interaction of charges within this field.

    4. **Dual Direction Entropy (DDE)**:
    – DDE suggests entropy can flow in two directions, indicating a cyclical nature of time and energy dynamics.

    #### Philosophical and Logical Perspectives on Time
    The article “Is Time an Illusion? How Logic Challenges Our Understanding of Reality” by Matyáš Moravec supports the EPEMC view of time as a measure of change:

    1. **Einstein’s Relativity**:
    – Suggests the universe is a static, four-dimensional block where all events exist simultaneously, implying time is a dimension similar to space.

    2. **McTaggart’s Logical Argument**:
    – Proposed two series to describe time:
    – **A-Series**: Arranges events into past, present, and future, but is circular because it presupposes time to describe time.
    – **B-Series**: Arranges events based on earlier-later relationships, creating a static order of events, but lacks change.

    3. **Time as a Measure of Change**:
    – Time is linked to change. Physics measures time by changes in physical systems, reinforcing the view that time is not an independent entity but a metric for quantifying change.

    4. **Ongoing Debates**:
    – Philosophical debates continue about the nature of time. Some view time as dynamic, others as static, and some question its directional nature, suggesting it might be a matter of perspective.

    #### Conclusion
    EPEMC views time as a measure of change driven by electromagnetic forces, aligning with logical and philosophical arguments that challenge traditional notions of time as a separate, flowing entity. This provides a comprehensive framework for exploring temporal phenomena in the universe.
    -GPT-4o

    • Bao-hua ZHANG | July 6, 2024 at 12:35 am | Reply

      Very good.
      The physical phenomena you know are indeed quite rich.
      However, science requires induction and summarization, and requires looking at the essence of nature via phenomena.
      I hope you haven’t been fooled by some pseudo scientific theories.
      If you are really interested in science and physics, you can browse https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/701032654.

  2. Bao-hua ZHANG | July 5, 2024 at 8:50 pm | Reply

    Is Time an Illusion?
    How Logic Challenges Our Understanding of Reality.

    Space has zero viscosity and absolutely incompressible physical properties. Zero viscosity and absolute incompressibility are physical characteristics of ideal fluids. Therefore, it is not difficult to understand how space forms vortices via topological phase transitions. After the formation of topological vortices, each topological vortex is an accurate quantum clock. The absoluteness of time lies in the fact that each topological vortex has its own spin period, while the relativity of time lies in the fact that different topological vortices may have different spin periods.
    In summary, time and space is both absolute and relative.
    If readers are interested, you can browse https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/695926158.

  3. Ralph Johnson | July 6, 2024 at 5:16 am | Reply

    Time is just a word we use in most cases as a marker, to think time is ticking clock is an illusion, I try to stay with a theory of imagination of a movement that has a fluid like connection with no real beginning and no end, I was going to use the rotation of a wheel with out geared teeth but that has a beginning and end also was thinking of an electron that orbits a nucleolus in its travel to create the cocoon of the Atom but that doesn’t work either because at some point the electron will follow a previous path because of it being a sphere, even then if the same path is follow the configuration of future paths would be the closest to times movement and that could be so far off that insignificance would dominate the out come.

  4. Charles G. Shaver | July 6, 2024 at 9:24 am | Reply

    Based upon my personal lay finding that gravity is a pulsing attractive force induced in all matter by some as yet unidentified higher force (e.g., reverberations of the big bang?), time is an arbitrary label used with other arbitrary labels (e.g., seconds, minutes, hours, years, etc.) to describe, identify and measure a continuum of incredibly brief ‘now’ moments interspaced with incredibly brief ‘intervals;’ irreversible change.

  5. There’s an excellent article with the title, “Time-varying media, relativity, and the arrow of time”; if one were to closely read the presented equations and accompanying text, shortly after the beginning of section three, it becomes painfully obvious that in the case of the undefinable singularity at the center of a black hole, is in fact, negative time. So, just as there’s a relationship between energy and mass, there’s a relationship between energy and time, and; why wouldn’t there be, when energy itself is defined in terms of time?

  6. Think of the function of living systems as tools for extracting knowledge as an output fueled by energy dissipation (entropic expansion). Any indexible locus in spacetime is equated to the state of the knowledge processing (i.e. living system and/or its surrogates). Living systems “die” as their self-processing increases internal entropy to the point of incoherence/loss of function (disintegration). These living systems are subsets of larger systems which continue to bud new living subsystems, which continue the ongoing conversion process. Consciousness of space and time location is a self readout of the state of the particular subsystem of interest and its communicating neighbors. We see the “world” from the position in space time of which we are a component. Moving “in time” merely means describing the configuration consistent with a spacetime location and its content of which we are a part. The fact that we “remember” previous time is a part of the construct of the entitity associated with a specific spacetieme coordinate we call the present. Our inability to travel in time is a misnomer because the entitity is an aspect of the spacetime and vice versa. As we process energy into knowledge with the expulsion of entropy, we see an apparent spacetime contiuum transition. But the only transition is the comparison of the point in the process from which we are viewing reality with other spacetime/entity component configuratons integral to each locus that comprise part of what we are from this point of view. To travel extemporaneously into the future actually means being the future entity with its associated spacetime; similarly “traveling into the past” yields a similar tautology. We (the entity) are not separate from our embedded spacetime. The future entity with its associated space time has the accumulated information acquired between its spacetime location and our own, what we call the present and which we are an integral component of. Similarly, travel into the past is a fiction, since the entity (our so-called past self) associated with that space time location exists as part of that locus! Our memory of experience leading up to the so-called present represents the accumulations and transitions across spacetime location sequences that constitute components of the “current” locus.

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