Could it be possible that our understanding of time is only an illusion? According to physicists, it is not only possible that time is an illusion, it could actually be a scientific fact.
While time may appear to have order, direction, duration, and feels completely physical, it may actually just be a construct of our human mentality. Huw Price, a professor of philosophy at Cambridge University states that the three basic aspects of time are not of the physical world, but are instead concepts from our mental state.
“What physics gives us,” Price said, “is the so-called ‘block universe,’ where time is just part of a four-dimensional space-time … and space-time itself is not fundamental but emerges out of some deeper structure.”
We sense an “arrow” or direction of time, and even of causation, he said, because our minds add a “subjective ingredient” to reality, “so that we are projecting onto the world the temporal perspective that we have as agents [in this environment].”
If you look back at Einstein’s theory of relativity and think of the “block universe”, you will see a four-dimensional space-time structure in which time is similar to space. Every event would then have its own coordinates, or location, in space-time. If time is senseless, then every aspect of time would be real. Due to that, the future and the past would be no less real than the present.
Going by Einstein’s theory, while you can mark your present or now within the block universe with a bookmark, there is actually nothing that separates that place from any other part of time, other than the fact that you are presently there. The past and the future are scientifically the same as the present.
According to Julian Barbour, a British physicist, the solution to this problem would be as simple as time not existing at all. Barbour states that “If you try to get your hands on time, it’s always slipping through your fingers,” says Barbour. “People are sure time is there, but they can’t get hold of it. My feeling is that they can’t get hold of it because it isn’t there at all.”
“As we live, we seem to move through a succession of Nows,” says Barbour, “and the question is, what are they?” For Barbour, each Now is an arrangement of everything in the universe. “We have the strong impression that things have definite positions relative to each other. I aim to abstract away everything we cannot see (directly or indirectly) and simply keep this idea of many different things coexisting at once. There are simply the Nows, nothing more, nothing less.”
However, not all physicists agree that time is completely an illusion. John Polkinghorne, a quantum physicist, and Anglican priest, believes that the flow and direction of time are in fact real. To assert that time is an illusion would be a “mistaken argument,” according to him, “because no observer has knowledge of a distant event, or the simultaneity of different events until they are unambiguously in that observer’s past. And, therefore, that argument focuses on the way observers organize their description of the past and cannot establish the reality of the awaiting future.”
Furthermore, Polkinghorne states that the idea of a block universe is also incorrect. “We live in a world of unfolding and becoming,” he stated.
For now, it seems that physicists and philosophers alike are unable to decide whether time is real or not. However, many can agree that rather than time being fundamental it is instead something that is unique in and of itself. On the other hand, it could be that our present moment is just as illusory as the next moment and that the nature of our reality is merely relative. What do you believe?
Image via Bryan Brandenberg