Tag Archives: temporal passage

A Quick Thought about What Some People might mean by ‘The Passage of Time’

[This is only a very small note; it is probably obvious. It is just an observation I want to mark in passing].

I’ve just read an article about Linklater’s ‘Boyhood‘ and then listened to a Radio 4 review of it. I look forward to seeing it. It is a film which took twelve years to make, and is a fiction in which the lead character is a boy growing from 6 to 18, played by the same actor of the same ages.

One of the Radio 4 reviewers made the comment that, throughout the film, there was no need to put dates when they went from one year to another. The passage of time was visible simply by the change in look, hair, etc.

I’ve come across a similar comment in other places: that you can observe the passage of time in, e.g., in a town undergoing dramatic change (like Cork City a couple years ago, which I keep moving back to — and just have again). Or seeing it on the face of someone you’ve not met in almost a decade (which is happening a lot at the moment).

In contrast,  there is also the idea of time stopping in certain places: it is always the same in some remote village, or in your family’s neighbour’s house. I go back to my home town — where I am right now — and I look at the tree in the corner of the garden. It’s like time has stopped there; that tree has always been there. But the sense of time stopping isn’t very strong: it is MUCH stronger when I walk up into the forested hills near here and find the same rocks and mossy trees as I did as a kid.

But when I think about people saying things like this about the passage of time and time stopping, I often get puzzled.

I think: but every change — a door banging shut, clicking fingers, a branch moving in a wind — these are all examples of time passing (if it passes). We see it all the time (no pun intended). So what are they talking about being aware of time passing in the examples above — as if these slow changes are evidence of time whereas the perceived changes are not?

I think: but time doesn’t stop in these cases: the mere constant persistence of an unchanging thing is evidence of time passing: that which persists unchanged does so because there is one moment (where it is one way) and then another moment (where it is exactly the same way). If time itself stopped, there would be no such sequence of moments. There would be a last moment, then no more moments — because there would be no time.

It struck me that perhaps I’ve got my thinking about this all wrong. I think ‘time’s passage’ for most people refers to something else other than simply any kind of change: and ‘time stopping’  refers frequently to something else other than time itself.

I think that, in this thinking, time’s passage is this: it is the set of changes which take so long that we can’t experience them directly. We can’t, for example, see these changes or hear them. As such, they are not like waving branches or bits of music which we can experience.

As such, I think the change in time’s passage is metaphysical in the sense that it is not empirical (we don’t observe it). It happens out of view, the signs of it its only evidence.

Oh, and also: when I sit in the grass and look up at a cloud, one example of such passage is in how the cloud seems to change without my noticing it.


1. I can imagine some might provide counter-examples to the idea that we can’t observe such change. One might point out that I even gave examples of observing it: coming back to a home town after years away. In response, I would argue that this is not observing the passage or the change; it’s observing the result. I see the new mobile phone shop where the cafe used be. I see the worn rope-swing in my folks’ garden. I don’t see the shop being replaced or the rope wearing away.

2. Another point is that, except for the amount of time, there is nothing obviously different between such slow changes and the changes we perceive. Less energy would be needed to make the slow changes but they could otherwise be identical, e.g., I might play a phrase of music by hitting each note correctly in sequence, just doing it once a day for each note. It’s the same phrase as one I can hear — such as the opening notes in ‘Swimming’ by Loudon Wainwright — just slower.

3. For my interests, there is another interesting consequence. Philosophers like me hold that the change we perceptually experience is present but not for any special reason. It is present just because presentness refers to what we perceptually experience. If something seems to be directly experienced, it seems to be present. Further, any other use of ‘presentness’ is something derivative — defined in time as ‘here’ or ‘there’ are defined in space. A present event in this sense is either like an event ‘here’ or, in particular relation to experience, is a perceptually experienced event.

If this is right, then the passage of time occurs beyond the present. It is those changes which we cannot wholly experience, and so which cannot be wholly present. It can partly occur within the present, of course, e.g., whatever stage is experienced.

4. So, lastly, if by ‘time’ people often mean ‘the passage of time’, I guess that’s why when they talk about experiencing time, or exploring time — or that time is flexible, they mean something about these unobserved changes. If, say, a film wanted to explore time and the experience of it, it may try to create a sense of such slow changes actually being perceived. For example, you might played recorded film at a high speed. Or you might isolate events in a normally-paced film in such a way that the only change is the kind which goes beyond perceptual experience. As one looks at a cloud change, so there seems to be no change — until, suddenly, you realise: yes, there has been change.


Metaphysics of Time

Previous post: Introduction.

Roughly, one might say that the metaphysics of time concerns whether or not various attributes or features that define time, and so time itself, are possible and/or actual. This breaks down into (i) what is fundamental to time and (ii) whatever this is, whether or not it is possible or actual. The debates about these subjects have led to philosophers developing and/or taking on various metaphysical positions on time. The most notable are A-theory, B-theory, presentism and eternalism. For reasons I hope to make clear as we go along, there are others as well which are less relevant to my project here: the growing block theory, substantivalism vs. relationalism, continuity vs. discrete time, and the debates about temporary intrinsics, composition over time and persistence.

Temporal Passage

Some philosophers (A-theorists) argue that what is variously called temporal passage, the passage of time, the flow of time (or what I sometimes call A-change, e.g., Power 2009) is necessary for time. If you deny the reality of such passage, as some philosophers (B-theorists) do, then, claims the A-theorist, you deny the reality of time. Or, at least, you deny the dynamic aspect of time, of which passage is at least a necessary condition.

The point here is not that you oughtn’t deny the reality of this passage. It is just that doing so denies the reality of time. Our concept of what it is for there to be time, or for time to be real, is that there is this passage. A-theorist argue for this, but also that time is not unreal (and thus there is temporal passage). B-theorists disagree; they deny temporal passage, but not time.

Unreal Time

However, quite eminent philosophers insisted this passage is necessary for time, but deny that it and time are real.

  • One is the formulator of this terminology, John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart. Childhood atheist, Hegelian idealist, believer that ‘man is immortal’, eater of liver for breakfast — in the early 20th Century, McTaggart wrote a(n in)famous paper called ‘the Unreality of Time’. Unsurprisingly given its title, this paper presents an argument that time is unreal (McTaggart 1908).
  • Another is Kurt Godel. He thought the consequences of relativistic physics lead to the the past, present and future being, in reality, indistinguishable (Yourgrau 2005).
  •  There is also some cause to think that Einstein and Minkowski thought something similar: in debate with Bergson, Einstein states that Bergson’s concerns mean that relativity denies the time of the philosophers (meaning, so far as I can tell, the absolute distinction between past, present and future) (see the appendix of Bergson 1999). And Minkowski states that time and space are destined to be mere shadows of their former selves, reducing only to aspects of a four-dimensional manifold, spacetime.

Still, others are not so casual about denying the reality of time, and there has been some debate about what it is for time to be real. These, then, are very brief statements of the main metaphysical positions.

1. Reality in time: Presentism and Eternalism

The debate between presentists and eternalists concerns the reality of things — events, particulars, states, etc. — in any time other than a present time.

  • Presentism holds that only the present exists or is real. The past and future do not exist or are not real.

This means that anything in particular, cats, dogs, a sandwich, the big bang, feelings of irritation, my pot-belly or that great haircut I had in the late nineties: if these are only past or future (e.g., my haircut, the big bang), then they are not real; if these are present (e.g., sigh….my pot-belly, that cat staring at me, half of this sandwich by my laptop), then they are real.

  • Eternalism holds that, whatever time we call past, present or future, anything at any time exists or is real.

This means that anything in particular, cats, dogs, a sandwich, the big bang, feelings of irritation, my pot-belly or that great haircut I had in the late nineties.

Even if these are only past or future (or however else we might want to put it, see below), it is still the case that they are real. Of course, if these are present (e.g., sigh….my pot-belly, that cat staring at me, half of this sandwich by my laptop), then they are real, too.

2. Reality of temporal properties, relations and passage: A-theory and B-theory

One distinction used in the metaphysics of time is between two ways that we think of events as being ordered in time. The two ways events are ordered are described by McTaggart as two series in which think of events in time: the A-series and the B-series.

  • The A-series is the series of events running from the far past, through the recent past, through the present, through the near future, to the far future. According to different moments in time, events have different positions in the A-series. Positions in this series are sometimes also called tenses or A-properties.
  • The B-series is the series of events ordered by B-relations: precedence, simultaneity, ‘earlier than’, ‘later than’, ‘at the same time as’. No matter the moment in time, events stand in the same B-relations to each other, and thus in the same position in the B-series.
  • A-theory is the theory that there is a fundamental difference between the past, present and future.

There are two claims made by the A-theorist.

1. Tenses/A-properties/positions in the A-series/positions in the past, present and/or future are real: Things that are past are really and irreducibly past; things that are future are really and irreducibly future; things that are present are really and irreducibly present. The present and the past and future (including degrees of the latter two, e.g., ‘two days past’ or ‘three years in the future’) are sometimes called tenses. They are also sometimes referred to as A-properties or positions in the A-seriesthe name McTaggart gives to the series of events that is through the future, present and past. This position is sometimes also called the tense theory.

2. A-theorists/Tense theorists also typically advocate the idea that time needs change in events from one of these tenses to another, i.e., temporal passage (what I call ‘A-change’ above). And, also, being A-theorists, and not McTaggart, they argue that such change is real — and thus time is real.

  • B-theorists do not think that such temporal passage or A-change is real; nor do they think it is necessary for time. Only temporal relations are needed for time.

For a B-theorist, there can be real time without there being real tenses, tensed facts, change in tenses, temporal passage etc, or all the other structure endorsed by A-theorists. Instead, all that are needed and all that there is are temporal relations of precedence, simultaneity and succession: ‘before/after’, ‘at the same time’, and so on. These temporal relations are not tensed relations, and sometimes B-theorists are called detensers or tenseless theorists. Again, one is such a theorist because one holds the relevant temporal structure to be real. But it’s not as clear that B-theorists think that such a structure is necessary for time. It is more that B-theorists think it is sufficient for time and that the A-theorist’s structure — passage, fundamental tense — is not necessary for time.

The presentism and eternalist debate is often identified closely with a debate about the whether or not the A-series or the B-series is more fundamental to one’s concept of time. But there are subtle differences: in the debate about temporal properties and relations, the reality of events at other times might be held by both sides. What is at issue is whether or not the difference between the past, present and future is a real distinction, and also whether or not it is fundamental to our concept of time. The issue not whether or not the past and future are unreal. However, the latter is a question which depends somewhat on an answer to the former. For if there is no real distinction between the past, present and future (as implied by the standard interpretation of relativistic physics), it is hard to see how one can say only what is present is real.

A brief statement on the relevance of these distinctions to the project

A central point of this project is that, in shifting between A- and B- theory (or what we might also call tense and tenseless theory) as well as shifting between presentism and eternalism, one shifts between different views of what is real or exists. In doing this, one shifts between different views of what is illusory. The metaphysical condition is satisfied in different ways, leading to different discrepancies with the same phenomenological condition, i.e., the same appearance. This is what leads to different cases of illusion.

A much-discussed example in the metaphysics of time is that of temporal passage, which is supposed to be a problem for tenseless theory. But as will be seen as these posts progress, this is not the only discrepancy. There are other conflicts between concepts of time and phenomenology. This project makes what I consider to be two important claims:

(a) Not all discrepancies are due to the claimed ‘counter-intutive’ conceptions of time; the intuitive conceptions have the own particular discrepancies.

(b) Such discrepancies do not all concern what we might understand as the appearance or phenomenology of time. Because of the role time plays in the structure and occurrence of other entities, particularly concrete particulars, ones concept of time changes what it is that one can claim to perceive, to be conscious of, or even the structure of experience itself. In making the case for any illusion,  one ought to consider how one’s thinking about time plays a role.

My position in this debate

I have sympathy with B-theory over A-theory, and eternalism over presentism. But I am motivated to my views on time by relativity which means that I am not sure that I am entirely sympathetic with B-theory.

For example, simultaneity between spatially separated things is relative given modern physics and I wonder if we should strictly speaking talk about this simultaneity as a temporal relation. In relativity, simultaneity is like spatial co-location along one dimension but not along others. If I hold my hand up in front of the moon, and ignore the depth distance between them but only consider the width and height, I might say that both my hand and moon are in the same place, are co-located. But is this co-location a real spatial relation, be it relative or otherwise, between my hand and the moon? If it isn’t, then, similarly, I think simultaneity (again, specifically) between spatially separated things is not a real temporal relation.

Also, less relevant to relativity, I think that, actually, in practice, we move between different conceptions of time in our thinking, without necessarily noticing that we do, and this can lead to confusion about time.

I think this is the source of our thinking of one view advocating a ‘static’ view of time. I do not think B-theorists should think, as some B-theorists seem to think, that time is a static block. Whatever we are talking about in talking about temporal relations such as ‘simultaneity’ and ‘succession’, they cannot be said to either persist or desist, or remain fixed or changing, or anything else with temporality built into their expression. (Recently, from a conference in Durham, I’ve become aware that Oaklander is expressing similar thoughts, and I will probably post on that in future).

Other metaphysical issues regarding time: