Time Might Not Exist, According to Physicists

Quantum Time Flow Concept

Does time exist? The answer to this question may seem obvious: of course it does! Just look at a calendar or a clock.

But developments in physics suggest the non-existence of time is an open possibility, and one that we should take seriously.

How can that be, and what would it mean? It’ll take a little while to explain, but don’t worry: even if time doesn’t exist, our lives will go on as usual.

A crisis in physics

Physics is in crisis. For the past century or so, we have explained the universe with two wildly successful physical theories: general relativity and quantum mechanics.

Quantum mechanics describes how things work in the incredibly tiny world of particles and particle interactions. General relativity describes the big picture of gravity and how objects move.

Both theories work extremely well in their own right, but the two are thought to conflict with one another. Though the exact nature of the conflict is controversial, scientists generally agree both theories need to be replaced with a new, more general theory.

Physicists want to produce a theory of “quantum gravity” that replaces general relativity and quantum mechanics, while capturing the extraordinary success of both. Such a theory would explain how gravity’s big picture works at the miniature scale of particles.

Time in quantum gravity

It turns out that producing a theory of quantum gravity is extraordinarily difficult.

One attempt to overcome the conflict between the two theories is string theory. String theory replaces particles with strings vibrating in as many as 11 dimensions.

However, string theory faces a further difficulty. String theories provide a range of models that describe a universe broadly like our own, and they don’t really make any clear predictions that can be tested by experiments to figure out which model is the right one.

In the 1980s and 1990s, many physicists became dissatisfied with string theory and came up with a range of new mathematical approaches to quantum gravity.

One of the most prominent of these is loop quantum gravity, which proposes that the fabric of space and time is made of a network of extremely small discrete chunks, or “loops.”

One of the remarkable aspects of loop quantum gravity is that it appears to eliminate time entirely.

Loop quantum gravity is not alone in abolishing time: a number of other approaches also seem to remove time as a fundamental aspect of reality.

Emergent time

So we know we need a new physical theory to explain the universe, and that this theory might not feature time.

Suppose such a theory turns out to be correct. Would it follow that time does not exist?

It’s complicated, and it depends what we mean by exist.

Theories of physics don’t include any tables, chairs, or people, and yet we still accept that tables, chairs, and people exist.

Time Quantum Physics Concept Art

If time isn’t a fundamental property of the universe, it may still ‘emerge’ from something more basic.

Why? Because we assume that such things exist at a higher level than the level described by physics.

We say that tables, for example, “emerge” from an underlying physics of particles whizzing around the universe.

But while we have a pretty good sense of how a table might be made out of fundamental particles, we have no idea how time might be “made out of” something more fundamental.

So unless we can come up with a good account of how time emerges, it is not clear we can simply assume time exists.

Time might not exist at any level.

Time and agency

Saying that time does not exist at any level is like saying that there are no tables at all.

Trying to get by in a world without tables might be tough, but managing in a world without time seems positively disastrous.

Our entire lives are built around time. We plan for the future, in light of what we know about the past. We hold people morally accountable for their past actions, with an eye to reprimanding them later on.

We believe ourselves to be agents (entities that can do things) in part because we can plan to act in a way that will bring about changes in the future.

But what’s the point of acting to bring about a change in the future when, in a very real sense, there is no future to act for?

What’s the point of punishing someone for a past action, when there is no past and so, apparently, no such action?

The discovery that time does not exist would seem to bring the entire world to a grinding halt. We would have no reason to get out of bed.

Business as usual

There is a way out of the mess.

While physics might eliminate time, it seems to leave causation intact: the sense in which one thing can bring about another.

Perhaps what physics is telling us, then, is that causation and not time is the basic feature of our universe.

If that’s right, then agency can still survive. For it is possible to reconstruct a sense of agency entirely in causal terms.

At least, that’s what Kristie Miller, Jonathan Tallant and I argue in our new book.

We suggest the discovery that time does not exist may have no direct impact on our lives, even while it propels physics into a new era.

Written by Sam Baron, Associate professor, Australian Catholic University.

This article was first published in The Conversation.The Conversation

42 Comments on "Time Might Not Exist, According to Physicists"

  1. I think physics and some people can already dream of a universe without time, based on causality. I am not knowledgeable in physics and complications of no-time versions within theoretical explanation, but I am nonetheless intrigued by the need of emergence of quantum gravity theory. Loved the post!

  2. Before the “big-bang” time did not exist, but after the “big-bang” time ruled the universe and evolution.
    Everything that exists in the physical world exists as a result of time.
    In the quantum world time does not appear to exist as we know it because it is possible for particles to be in different places at the same time.
    Great theory, it makes you start to think more about what happens in a black hole or whether time stops when you reach absolute zero??? Is there a maximum temperature when everything vanishes??

  3. Merely some illusions to your imaginations. Time is that melting clock in 1931. Go back to math class, lots, T, with powers, works, distances, speeds, accelerations, final velocities, original velocities, electrical energy. What is mass, changes in temp., and specific heat? Gained or lost with what?

    • Thoth Sartre | April 22, 2022 at 6:37 pm | Reply

      All is gained and lost with relative, cyclic, apparent motion. This is directly observable, down to cesium atoms vibrating, but time is yet another human belief system.

    • Sihel Gebreyohanes | April 27, 2022 at 7:53 am | Reply

      Alpha and Omega existence itself is time =Speed of Light × Mass = Energy

      • Land of Lost | May 1, 2022 at 2:56 am | Reply

        C=299 792 458 m / s C=300,000 km/s
        C=671 million mi./hr.
        C=186,000 miles/s
        4,000 yrs. for light to escape the Sun, then travels 1 A.U. = 499.0 seconds = ~ 8 min. to reach the Earth.
        E = mc^2 in vacuum
        May be slower in other materials besides empty space (vacuum).
        What is faster than the C = Speed of Light? Does the ‘Tachyon’ travel in parallel to go faster, if it is ever known to exist and tested out of theory?

  4. The ‘force’ is not with who?

  5. WILLIAM Feathergail Wilson | April 20, 2022 at 5:59 am | Reply

    Many geological records of time exist on Earth and its neighbbors. How does one deny time except in their own mind?

    • “records of time” are simply catalogues or notations of change. They do not prove anything other than changes of state. Is time simply that…changes of state?

  6. If time does not exist, nor does the “Big Bang”. The universe is just changing shape/topology and there never was a was when the universe wasn’t…………….

  7. Carlos Acosta Rozo | April 20, 2022 at 7:41 am | Reply

    La ciencia ha querido negar todo para seguir hablando de lo mismo. Es como afirmar que el “mañana” no existe porque cuando llega nuevamente es “hoy”.

    • Reality is a concept based on a very limited range of our sensorial receptors. All theories have strong limitations bcz they are based on human fallacious perceptions and relative experiences

  8. The table analogy was awful. You can’t remove before and after from causation and you can’t remove time from before and after.

    • Is there some rule in nature that says we’re not allowed to imagine or pretend that time exists? Not sure why this notion would constitute a crisis. We are discovering the possibility that much of our world is imagined.

  9. Not a very good article. Especially the conjecture about “no reason to get out of bed”. Speculative bs.

  10. Basically an ad for a book. No info of use here.

    • Aaron R Kulkis | April 21, 2022 at 3:23 pm | Reply

      Most everything published as “news” these days is little more than press releases from some organization or another sent to “news outlets”

      And it’s nothing new. Take, for example, Modern Photography and Popular Photography. The articles and stories in both magazines were, in truth, little more than puff pieces for new products being sold by the same companies buying the advertising space. Which means, that in truth, they consisted of pages of overt advertising, separated by various pieces of advertising written by the staff and guest writers.

      And it’s the same for nearly all other publications.

      • The Amazing Randi | April 22, 2022 at 11:46 am | Reply

        You wanna see what the quality of critical thinking is in the scientific community? Look at how many people in the comments sections smugly “proved” that time existed but had no idea they were reading promotional copy.
        Everyone knows everything but nobody reads ANYthing

  11. Time is the measurement of motion..why is that so complicated ?

    Wikipedia say: ” Time is the continued sequence of existence and events that occurs in an apparently irreversible succession from the past, through the present, into the future “

  12. A frictionless puck can be used to mark equal intervals of space and time, oscillations of a constant-weight pendulum, trivial ways to derive time.

    World’s stupidest most obvious military secret coverup means you are reminded about time dilation and wormhole nonsense from Hollywood and British media practically every Sunday. More specifically General Relativity mistakenly looks at light oscillation rates instead of at photon rates, however good frequency sources are poor timing sources (Heisenberg). Time dilation with photon rates has never been observed and never will be observed, except dishonestly.

  13. rotorhead1871 | April 20, 2022 at 8:17 pm | Reply

    we invented the measuring system that is called time…in reality, only the instant of “NOW” is reality….the past does not exist nor does the future…..but we can apply our time measuring system and relate it to the NOW….

  14. Richard Price | April 21, 2022 at 2:44 am | Reply

    I am reminded of Herman Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game”
    The game is essentially an abstract synthesis of all arts and sciences. It proceeds by players making deep connections between seemingly unrelated topics.
    The rules of the game are only alluded to—they are so sophisticated that they are not easy to imagine. Playing the game well requires years of hard study of music, mathematics, and cultural history.
    Such is physics and consciousness.

  15. Isn’t this just changing a name from one to another? If we change a name from 2 to 1 doesn’t change existence of these numbers.

    • I enjoyed the thought exercise!

      I don’t think it’s controversial at all to model time as a chain of causation. Time “ticking” is really just us comparing one chain of events with one that occurs rhythmically, like a pulse from a quartz crystal or a revolution around the sun. That’s emergent time right there — we abstract away “quartz pulses” into seconds and minutes, and revolutions around the sun into years.

      Happy to let physics do its thing if a model without time can advance humanity.

    • Our universe has been here as long as it will be here. Humans have no ability, or right, to decide when the universe was “created”. Just because the galaxies are expanding to acceleration with no explanation doesn’t mean science gets to reverse the expansion to nothing and, consequently, no time.

      13.8 billion years ago, our universe turned itself into a gargantuan particle collider. The particle colliders create quark plasma shrapnel on Earth and our universe created quark plasma shrapnel in space in the form of galaxies. It is so incredibly simple.

      Time doesn’t exist.

  16. Joseph Caiazzo | April 21, 2022 at 9:00 am | Reply

    It seems all you have really said is that time itself does not exist, but the psychological arrow of time exists. The latter being necessary for “living things” to interact with their surroundings in order to pursue their needs and pleasures in an efficient manner.

  17. Anthony Medeiros | April 21, 2022 at 11:35 am | Reply

    Can you explain time dilation in relativity with no time?

  18. EDWARD BECKA,,, AUSTIN TEXAS | April 21, 2022 at 1:51 pm | Reply

    if time does not exist in advanced physics calculations….. so what!. WE WILL GO ON WITH OUR REAL LIVES GIVING THE SAME NUMBERS TO INTERVALS BETWEEN PHYSICAL EVENTS. NO PROBLEM

  19. Aaron R Kulkis | April 21, 2022 at 3:34 pm | Reply

    This is utter garbage.

    There is hardly a single equation in physics which doesn’t include time as a component. Even the lever equation (F1 * L1 = F2 * L2) requires time (because F = m * l / t^2).

  20. “Time is an Illusion” – Albert Einstein.
    He was only quoting what yogis knew for thousands of years.
    Time is an effect of physical existence + gravity, which one cannot exist without the other. Existence + gravity = time.

  21. Don Stephani | April 22, 2022 at 7:01 am | Reply

    Time, as most of us understand it is a local conscript where we have invented a measurement for how long it takes our earth to rotate once on its axis (and we use the current rate of rotation without factoring in whether or not that rotation was different in the distant past). But, picture this: at the moment of “Big Bang” some of the material that Big Bang created was ejected on a rather straight line away from the bang and is still on that rather straight path. So, by our definition of time that matter is still on day one. Does time exist on the universal level? Yes, but not as we define it locally. Time is forward, only forward. We count time since Big Bang (as that is when it was first possible to measure time due to the beginning of a physical universe.) However, time did exist before Big Bang – only it is not possible to measure it as it only involved energy. As matter is derived from energy, energy had to exist before any matter was created. So the question, “What is true time?” has yet to be resolved.

  22. leon stavros | April 22, 2022 at 8:59 am | Reply

    Time is real, try to ignore time differences with GPS, it will not work.

  23. Memory creates time. Without memory, our sense of time would be completely different.

    • Correct answer. Time is a construct of DNA to give an advantage. Without memory there is no time. You can catch a ball only because you remember where it’s been.

  24. Robert J Seeber | April 23, 2022 at 6:51 pm | Reply

    WOW!!! So much unnecessarily tortuous logic. Teleological reasoning: People sometimes have conclusions or premises that (for one reason or another) they are very attached to, and then will go far out of their way to make arguments that protect those positions. NEWSFLASH: TIME IS JUST A WAY OF MEASURING CHANGE! There is just NOW, and it is always changing. The “past” is the way things were before they changed and the “future” well, you figure it out. KISS! (Keep It Simple, Stupid!)

  25. I think quantum of relativity describes it best 😌, time should the distance we pass through in a dimension. Like an old cassette when we record, even if we stand still there is a movement of so called “time”, I think physicians should define “time” in a different terminology than our usual “time” term, sice they might confuse regular”time” word we use and “existing” time they are describing

  26. Time can only be measured by some oscillating mechanism such as an atomic clock. The accuracy of the atomic clock varies based on the physical forces that affect nature such as gravitation, electromagnetic radiation etc. and therefore it is impossible to establish a constant rate that measures time. In other words all parameters in the universe are subject to infinite variations and as far as we are concerned time or variation exists but we can not establish a synchronous change.

  27. As for the right way to unite QM & Relativity, consider an analogy such as how air molecules act according to QM at micro-scale but create a classical fluid at macro (weather) scale!
    & by the way, it is already known that spacetime of GR is fully compatible as expressed as a (super)fluid! From Wikipedia:
    “In general relativity, a fluid solution is an exact solution of the Einstein field equation in which the gravitational field is produced entirely by the mass, momentum, and stress density of a fluid.”
    As for what maybe creating the spacetime superfluid, how about virtual particles of quantum vacuum?

  28. Joseph Barry Garner | May 8, 2022 at 10:00 pm | Reply

    As said earlier, memories show that time has past. Without time, we have no memories. Old photos
    etc, etc show that we physically change from birth to death. Without time this does not happen.
    Please attempt to be realistic.

  29. Time does not exist. The universe is a finite playground for matter. Like a complex Rubik’s cube where even the smallest particles are accounted for, and every combination of particles is accounted for. Like a colorful sand sculpture in an unbreakable glass bottle.
    The possibilities may seem limitless. Great apes exists, Extraterrestrials exist, and the illusion of time exists. The illusion of infinite randomness that is controlled from outside the glass.

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