Mad Men, Philosophers, and the Unreality of Time

By | December 12, 2013

Juan Bernal

The Philosophical Pilgrim’s Education :

Early stage: A philosopher said it.  It cannot be nonsense.

Later stage:  A philosopher said it.  It might be sophistry and nonsense.


Wittgenstein in his early interaction with philosophy and philosophers (Russell, Moore, Frege) probably thought that they had important truths to teach.  Later, in his second phase, Wittgenstein recognized that much of traditional philosophy was an exercise in nonsense.


Just when you thought it might be safe to come into the water, our common sense of reality is threatened again.  Now some philosophical colleagues have again brought up the old philosophical declaration that time is not real, but only an illusion of our experience of things.   Just when I was starting to think that my friends in the field of philosophy were reasonable in their declarations on reality and knowledge, they dust off this old bit of philosophical sophistry and nonsense!

“Time is unreal,” they declare.   “Really?” I respond. ” Do we have time to deal with that proposition?  No, not if the proposition is true.”

But maybe I cannot get off this easily.

“Time is unreal.”  Wouldn’t this be the ravings of mad man, similar to his screaming that everyone around him is an alien from outer space?

Maybe so,  but consider the philosophical record (as a prosecutor might say).


Some of this ‘timelessness’ stuff comes from the ancient Greeks, starting with such ancients as Parmenides and Zeno, who held that the appearance of temporal change was an illusion.  According to Parmenides, the One (primary reality) neither was in time nor will be, but is now all at once a single whole.  In other words, absolute reality is a timeless realm in which there is no such thing as temporal succession.  Later Plato follows with his philosophy of the forms (his version of primary reality), according to which the realm of the forms is a timeless realm.  In the Christian era,  theologians, such as Augustine, pick up on this Platonic notion: Augustine wrote of God’s ever-present eternity and wrote that “for God all years stand at once.  Later the Christian philosopher, Boethius, adopted this idea of timelessness.

He states the elements of this philosophy in more detail:

Eternity is the complete possession of eternal life all at once – a notion that becomes clearer from comparison with things temporal. For whatever lives in time moves as something from the past to the future, and there is nothing placed in time that can embrace the whole extent of its life at once. It does not yet grasp tomorrow, and it has already lost yesterday. And even in the life of today you do not live longer than in the transitory moment. That then which is subject to the condition of time, even if .. it has no beginning or end and its life extends through endless time, is still not such as may be right judged eternal. For though its life be endless, it does not grasps and embrace the extent of it all at once but has some parts still to come. . . And so if, following Plato, we wish to give things their right names, let us say that God is eternal, but the world everlasting.*

(from Boethius,  De Consolatione Philosophiae)

* Notice the distinction between everlastingness (sempiternal) and eternal (outside of time, or timeless). For God, time is not real, hence, primary reality is timeless.

Other statements on this notion of eternity:  W.L. Reese says in his Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion  under the topic time,  ”For Spinoza eternity was more basic than time. The latter is an inadequate perception of a limited reality. Reality seen, or conceived, fully, is eternal. Thus, the temporal dimension is in some sense illusory, or partially so.”

Reese also points out that a surprising number of philosophers have argued for the unreality of time. He lists Parmenides and Zeno, as well as F. H. Bradley and  J. E. McTaggart.


According to this philosophy (the unreality of time), it follows that the temporally conditioned world — in which events can be seen as in the past, or currently happening, or might happen in the future —  is supposedly not reality (not absolute reality, as a colleague has told me).   With this summary dismissal of temporal succession as mere illusion, we would have to say also that natural processes in a dynamic world, evolution of life and the histories of cultures and societies are also not real.

Who can accept such nonsense?   Is it even coherent?


The facts of natural processes in a dynamic world, the evolution of life on earth, and the facts of history

…. all speak against such philosophical nonsense, as do the facts of

  • Biology, chemistry, paleo-archaeology, anthropology
  • Common-sense realism, psychology, linguistics,
  • History, including religious history and history of thought
  • The very possibility of linear thought, language, social interaction
  • The sciences of quantum mechanics, probability, chance, chaos.

Surely these are not mere phenomena or illusion, but would be meaningless outside the passage of time.

In his book, A Brief History of Time,  Stephen Hawking, states a few things  about time which imply rejection of the idea that cosmic time is unreal.  In chapter nine, “The Arrow of Time,” he states:

“…the laws of science do not distinguish between the forward and backward direction of time. However, there are at least three arrows of time that do distinguish the past from the future. They are the thermodynamic arrow, the direction of time in which disorder increases; the psychological arrow, the direction of time in which we remember the past and not the future; and the cosmological arrow of time, the direction of time in which the universe expands rather than contrasts. . . “

So, even a great representative of cosmological science states explicitly that time is real: that past really differs from present, which in turn really differs from the future.


Moreover, the notion of a timeless realm (eternity) may not even be a coherent notion.

RG Swinburne, in the Oxford Guide to Philosophy(2005), says the following:

“Most Christian thinkers since the fourth century .. held that God exists outside of time, but in his timeless realm simultaneously acts at and knows about every moment of time. It is .. doubtful that this is a coherent claim.  If God sees some event in 500 BC as it happens and sees some other event in 2000 AD, and all divine seeings are simultaneous with each other, then 500 BC must the same year as 2000 AD, which is absurd.”

The same absurdity can be stated without reference to any divine knowing.  On the view that real reality is timeless, historical events become incoherent. For example, in baseball history, Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in 1927.  Ruth’s record was broken in 1961 when Roger Maris hit 61 home runs, which was itself broken by Mark McGuire’s 62nd home run in 1998.   The latter claims that Ruth’s previous record was broken by Maris, then by McGuire are incoherent if according to our perspective of the eternal present, McGuire’s feat is identical with Maris’s feat which is identical to Ruth’s feat.

Or more simply: You cannot even say coherently that the smaller child cried because a older child took his toy away.  The two acts  — older child taking the toy and smaller child crying — are simultaneous, thus, identical.  So the explanation as to why the small child cried makes no sense at all!


Of course, the proposition that time is unreal can be understood as just part of another mental exercise, often found in philosophy.  It surely cannot be considered a serious attempt to describe reality.   But don’t underestimate the tendency of some philosopher to promote one or another form of nonsense, among them, the unreality of time.


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