Does Time Exist or Is It an Illusion in Our Minds?

Updated on October 8, 2019
Glenn Stok profile image

Glenn Stok has a Master of Science degree and has an interest in studying laws of physics—especially with horology, the science of time.

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If time does exist, when did it begin? Theorists propose all sorts of conclusions, such as:

  1. Time is infinite, which means it never began and will never end.
  2. Time is cyclic, which avoids the notion of a beginning and end.
  3. Time is a concept we invented, which helps us get through life on a schedule.
  4. 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

  1. UT1 – A time scale measured by the rotation of the Earth.
  2. 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

Source

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.

  1. If time is infinite, then it goes on forever—possibly evolving with endless possibilities.
  2. 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.

  1. If we insist on having a beginning, then what came before that?
  2. 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.

References

  1. Andrew Jaffe. (April 16, 2018). The Illusion of Time.” Nature.com
  2. James Randerson. (May 5, 2006). One Big Bang, or were there many? The Guardian
  3. Time Dilation” - Wikipedia
  4. “What is Earth Orientation?” - U.S. Naval Observatory, Earth Orientation Department
  5. “The Algorithmic-Rule for Leap Years and Leap Seconds” - Owlcation.com
  6. Leap second and UT1-UTC information” - NIST.gov

© 2019 Glenn Stok

Comments

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    • Glenn Stok profile imageAUTHOR

      Glenn Stok 

      27 hours ago from Long Island, NY

      ramiyoakum - You brought up a critical point to consider about separating our consciousness from our physical body. That would indeed let our “conscious being” continue without time constraints.

      I address that concept in another article that you might find intriguing: https://owlcation.com/humanities/where-is-our-cons...

    • profile image

      ramiyoakum 

      28 hours ago

      The issue with time is not simply our consciousness (which may or may not be infinite). Time is clearly a physical thing. Our bodies progress through time and it's unavoidable: We're born, we age, and at some point our body dies. Thus, time is indeed a physically real and necessary construct. If we can ever separate our soul or consciousness or whatever it is from our physical body, then perhaps time will become meaningless or infinite (but I doubt it). Until then time is hauntingly real and it is indeed ticking by, bringing my body closer to the end. My days are indeed numbered.

    • Glenn Stok profile imageAUTHOR

      Glenn Stok 

      6 days ago from Long Island, NY

      Venkatachari - Thanks for your clear interpretation of why we possibly created the concept of time for our benefit.

    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 

      6 days ago from Hyderabad, India

      Very interesting and intelligent discussion. It's true that time is a creation of man for his own advantage. With the help of time, he can study past history or geographical and astronomical events. He can plan and manage the time available with him for reaching out to his ultimate goals.

      Thanks for sharing your knowledge of it all.

    • Glenn Stok profile imageAUTHOR

      Glenn Stok 

      6 days ago from Long Island, NY

      Heidi Thorne - I saw that same documentary. In addition, there are local regions, even in the United States, where they choose not to switch from Daylight Time to Standard Time. That's another issue for travelers.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 

      6 days ago from Chicago Area

      We all think we know what time is. But the more you get into theoretical physics, the more you realize we can't be so sure!

      One of the most interesting things I saw on a documentary was how the railroads really helped create the time zones we're so familiar with. Every region had their own time system. Good God, I can't imagine what a nightmare that was before time zones were set. And I think it really points out how we use time to synchronize and organize our lives and relationships.

      Great discussion, as usual!

    • Glenn Stok profile imageAUTHOR

      Glenn Stok 

      7 days ago from Long Island, NY

      Pamela - It is indeed difficult to consider our lives and the world without time. That might explain why we need to imagine it. Thanks for your thoughts on this topic.

    • Glenn Stok profile imageAUTHOR

      Glenn Stok 

      7 days ago from Long Island, NY

      Vladimir - That’s an interesting analysis you described. Causation between events is a topic I have also researched.

      I also find your interpretation of universal consciousness intriguing, leading to only an illusion. Our experience of reality indeed may be virtual.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      7 days ago from Sunny Florida

      It is a difficult to think of our lives and our world with the absence of time. We plan our days and special occasions based on dates and time, yet it makes perfect sense that time is an illusion. This well-written article definitely makes you think.

    • ValKaras profile image

      Vladimir Karas 

      7 days ago from Canada

      Glenn-- In one of my articles (won't advertise) I used a metaphor with oxygen and hydrogen -- two gases -- as they become water, in order to hint at different laws within the quantum and material realities.

      Applied to the question of time, my metaphor would hint at time only making sense within material aspect of reality, whereas in quantum field it doesn't, simply because there is no causality present there.

      For an illustration, our organs communicate via nervous system, but also through the system of chakras, i.e.energetic centers where everything happens simultaneously, not requiring the time for signals to travel via cellular synapses.

      And two electrons in some way related -- if separated by cosmic distances, will simultaneously be activated into the same pattern of behavior.

      However, once that they are a part of a material structure, they behave within the laws of material world. Like oxygen and hydrogen POTENTIALLY being water, behave as gases, but put together into a molecular configuration, they behave as a liquid.

      So, both is true -- time IS real, and it is NOT, depending on the aspect of reality we are talking about. By the Newtonian laws governing over material world, which are real, as long as matter is "real", time is surely involved to make sense of causation between two events.

      But then, of course, now we could start questioning if matter is real, or everything is merely a universal playground of consciousness in one colossal virtual reality.

      In that case, we, the personalized extensions of the universal consciousness just keep collapsing some quantum waves into an illusion of the material world -- and doing a lousy job, if we are to judge it by the general condition of life on this virtual planet of ours. LOL.

    • tony55 profile image

      femi 

      7 days ago from Nigeria

      Time is not cyclic or a paradox although not tangable and the measure used in the measurement of time debatable. However first hand knowledge of measurement based on our perseption of time makes the idea of time real. infinite time is another debate

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