Does Time Exist or Is It an Illusion in Our Minds?
If time does exist, when did it begin? Theorists propose all sorts of conclusions, such as:
- Time is infinite, which means it never began and will never end.
- Time is cyclic, which avoids the notion of a beginning and end.
- Time is a concept we invented, which helps us get through life on a schedule.
- Time is an illusion caused by our observation of events passing through space.
I propose the idea that time doesn’t exist. It never has. Once that is accepted, the question of when time began, or how it evolves, is irrelevant.
The theoretical physicist, Carlo Rovelli, says that time is an illusion. He explains that our perception of time doesn’t correspond with physical reality.
He makes that clear by explaining that our reality is a sequence of events (past, present, and future), and we assign the concept of time to that sequence.1
What Is the Meaning of the Concept of Time?
Time is not a material thing. You can’t handle it and move it around as you can with any object at your disposal. You can’t hold on to it. If you try, it will just slip away.
You might say that time is slippery, but it’s a non-physical entity that can’t be held or manipulated.
We are all familiar that Einstein proved time is relative. It’s just a concept that we use for measurement of a sequence of events and their duration that we imagine based on our observation.
That concept of time is a figment of our imagination. It’s an illusion. We made it so real in our minds that we try to measure it. We even try to envision a beginning and end to time.
Neil Turok, a physicist at the University of Cambridge, said, "There doesn't have to be a beginning of time. According to our theory, the universe may be infinitely old and infinitely large." 2
If we can accept that time doesn’t exist, then Professor Turok's statement is even more plausible. We don’t have to try to pinpoint a beginning or an end. Remember, it’s merely a concept that we imagine.
Why Did We Create the Concept of Time?
We humans, living in a civilized society, need to provide a measurement of a plausible explanation between happenings. We need it to assign a schedule for our daily lives.
I would think that animals never consider time. They function instinctively based on their circadian rhythm, which is quite reliable.
Our minds evolved with the need to measure anything we deal with, especially with describing when events in our lives would occur or have occurred. I would say we created the concept of time for the sake of our sanity.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics requires that time is a real property of the universe. Physicists rely on it for analyzing physical processes. But does that mean it’s real? It still is only a concept—a dependable concept that we base on mathematical formulas so that we can measure and analyze our physical world in four dimensions.
Even though we can define time mathematically, our concept of time is faulty and unreliable.
How Do You Accurately Measure Time?
Even though we imagine the concept of time, we do use it for a purpose, and we need to measure it accurately.
Einstein explained how the passage of time fluctuates for an observer based on mass and motion.3
That fluctuation is known as time dilation. It causes misconceptions when conducting scientific measurements that require accuracy.
We need to keep a precise view of time. For this reason, Atomic clocks use the cesium atom to attain a more accurate measurement of time as far as we are concerned.
We have always based our concept of time on the rotation of the Earth. These measurements need to be corrected continuously due to fluctuations in the Earth’s rotation. It’s so unreliable that we need to adjust for changes.
We have two scientific measurements of time.4
- UT1 – A time scale measured by the rotation of the Earth.
- UTC - A uniform time scale measured by the difference between the Earth and a specific astronomical point in space.
Since we base our measurement of time on the Earth's rotation, we continuously need to make adjustments. Due to the slowing of its rotation, we need to add a day every four years (leap year), except every hundred years. And that’s still not precise.5
We also need to add seconds every so often (leap seconds). The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) schedules this as an extra second added at the stroke of midnight on the last day of June or December.6
The Endless Passage of Time
Even if time is an imagined concept, we get involved with defining its pattern nevertheless. That leaves us with two theories that I listed at the beginning of this article. Time is either of two things: Infinite or cyclic.
- If time is infinite, then it goes on forever—possibly evolving with endless possibilities.
- If time is cyclic, then it repeats itself—either with the same pattern or in an infinite number of ways.
If time is indeed infinite, then we can assume that everything will eventually occur in some way in some place at some time.
If time is cyclic, then all physical phenomena will repeat forever and ever. Moreover, if events do have minor differences in each repetition, then even cyclic time offers the opportunity for every possible occurrence imaginable to happen eventually.
Everything in the space-time continuum will repeat itself forever with endlessly varying possibilities. Each repetition would be a different existence, and there would be an infinite number of realities.
Either way, infinite or cyclic, there would never be an end to this. Time would never cease to exist.
The Big Bang Is a Paradox
If time doesn't have a beginning or an end, can anything have existed before the Big Bang?
The latest scientific findings support the theory of the Big Bang, based on the present knowledge of physics. That implies there was a beginning. That, in turn, means that there must be an end. One might say that everything that starts at some point will eventually end.
We run into trouble when we try to impose a finite measure on the timeline of the universe to a future that eventually ends. It brings up questions of what exists beyond the end, which is a paradox because it implies the existence of the universe goes on into infinity.
It's easier for the human mind to comprehend time with a starting point and an ending point. Infinity is somewhat incomprehensible. However, if we want to consider that there is a beginning and ending to time, then we have to be able to describe it in some way.
Here's where we run into trouble.
- If we insist on having a beginning, then what came before that?
- If we insist on having an end, then the question is: "What comes next?"
Our thinking makes the concept of time a paradox.
Is Time a Paradox?
If the end is final, then is there nothing left? The universe must be void of all matter. If what comes after the end is void of all matter, then how long does that lack of all existence last?
That very question implies that "time" still exists!
If time still exists, then we certainly haven't reached the end yet. Therefore we might say that matter still exists in the universe.
If matter becomes non-existent due to being sucked into a black hole, for example, then time also ceases to exist. There is nothing left to measure it.
Just think for a moment: If time continues to tick away after all matter is sucked into a black hole, then the universe has a chance to recycle—to start over. That defies the idea of an absolute end, hence, the paradox.
Our comprehension of endless space and time is limited due to our inability to imagine a universe without time.
Even if time does exist, the evolution of change will eventually lead to equilibrium, and time will be meaningless.
Evolution Until Total Equilibrium Occurs
Change keeps occurring, possibly until everything is equal. Then time can no longer progress, and time stops. When time stops, space becomes meaningless, for space can only exist throughout the passage of time—the space-time continuum.
I’d rather imagine that the end of the evolving universe would be total equilibrium. It all becomes balanced, and there's nothing left to evolve.
Equilibrium makes sense. Once that balance occurs, nothing remains that would continue to change. Therefore space and time become insignificant, possibly as it has always been, except in our minds.
- Andrew Jaffe. (April 16, 2018). “The Illusion of Time.” Nature.com
- James Randerson. (May 5, 2006). “One Big Bang, or were there many?” The Guardian
- “Time Dilation” - Wikipedia
- “What is Earth Orientation?” - U.S. Naval Observatory, Earth Orientation Department
- “The Algorithmic-Rule for Leap Years and Leap Seconds” - Owlcation.com
- “Leap second and UT1-UTC information” - NIST.gov
Questions & Answers
© 2019 Glenn Stok