An Investigation into the Passage of Time
A philosophical inquiry on phenomenology, ontology, and epistemology; 1st Prize in University of Sheffield Philosophy Essay Prize 2018
A philosophical inquiry on phenomenology, ontology and epistemology
Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.
- Burnt Norton, Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot, published in 1909–1935
I wrote this essay when I was 18. I was lucky enough to have won the 1st Prize in University of Sheffield Philosophy Essay Prize 2018 (a national competition in the UK) as I was an autodidact: I had never studied philosophy formally (until at Oxford).
As with other things in my life (see: my work), I wanted to beat others at their own games. So I taught myself 1) formal philosophy, 2) philosophical landscape of metaphysics, and 3) philosophy of time
I shall caveat that:
- this essay is most updated til 2018
- the scope of the essay was limited to 1500 words; hence,
- the essay was exploratory and secondary, rather than ground-breaking
In line with academic essay formatting, the reference list is at the end.
There are predominantly two major views on the ontology of time, as phrased by McTaggart (1908) as ‘A-series’ of time and ‘B-series’ of time, although I prefer the more direct and precise way of identifying the two theories—the dynamic theory and the static theory. The general camp of dynamic theory includes Growing-Block Theory (GBT), Moving-Spotlight Theory(MST), and presentism. What is common among those views is the fundamental belief that time passes and that time has a dynamic nature. On the other hand, static theorists, who mostly endorse the Block-Universe Theory (BUT), deny the existence of any apparent dynamic quality of change nor any special nature of the present. Hence, the passage of time is thought to be illusionary to their beliefs.
It is essential to divide the question of the passage of time into the question of subjective passage and objective passage. The following two questions arise when we attempt to distinguish between subjective passage, as experienced phenomenologically, and objective passage, which concerns the fundamental ontology of time itself:
- The phenomenological question: Why does time seem to us as if it passes?
- The ontological question: Is the nature of time dynamic?
The Phenomenological Question
The concept of ‘specious present' is crucial to our understanding of how we experience the passage of time. Our indirect experience of time is primarily through two mediums: experience of change and experience of ‘specious present'. The first is trivial and it is the second that deserves an explanation. ‘Specious present' refers to the fact that the content of experience encompasses an extended period of time e.g. we experience the second hand of a clock moving because we see different images in different instants. Our perception thus gathers all sense-data collected throughout a period of time, let’s say, 1 second, and turns that sense-data into an experience.
Much of the answer to the question of ‘how does time seem to us as if it passes’ is intuitive and, rather, uncontroversial. What remains mysterious is the question of ‘why’. Prosser (2011) came up with a hypothesis that objects are represented as enduring because the nature of the human visual system is computationally economical. Considering the well-known beta phenomenon: beta motion is the illusion of apparent motion familiar from film and television: a series of still images at different spatial positions; experienced as a single continuously moving object.
First, watch the sequence of images slow enough that they are experienced as a series of distinct objects appearing and disappearing one after the other in positions apart from each other. Now watch the sequence at a much faster speed such that it seems that a single object is moving.
Prosser concluded that endurance, rather than perdurance, is more economical to represent an identity—perduring identity consists of a series of independent and broken representations of an object. He reaffirmed the essence of the phenomenological experience of temporal passage as endurance as he wrote ‘The practical necessity of this computational economy would help explain the apparent impossibility of experience without the experience of passage’.
But does this phenomenological account of the passage of time give us any ontological knowledge about time? Does it have anything to do with the passage of time itself? Skow’s (2011a) discussion of phenomenological character and his use of examples that involve color and temporal difference have prompted the following points that I thought he might have overlooked: our perception of time is actually analogous with our perception of color in two ways—an epistemic knowledge gap between our sense-data and reality and the lack of representational content as a property in an object, in our phenomenological character. The former refers to the challenges of an external reality skepticism might raise with regards to our perception of color.
Similarly, the mere subjective perception of the temporal passage does not guarantee that the temporal passage is real. It might be that as Prosser suggested above, it is due to our evolutionary response that we choose to perceive some properties of time as dynamic. The latter points to the fact that we never directly experience the passage of time in itself. In fact, Prosser argues, as I will discuss below in the second section, that our experience of the temporal passage does not have any intentional character. Whereas it is arguable whether or not the perception of color is intentional, it is certainly true that the perception of color is the perception of a subjective property, rather than the perception of an inherent property of an object (e.g. as opposed to the spatial occupation of an object which is an intrinsic property and also intentional).
The ontological question
In this section, I attempt to lay out very briefly three relevant views that philosophers have expressed with regards to the passage of time. It should be noted that even subtle differences between two philosophers who claim to be ‘presentists’ or advocates of Block-Universe Theory (BUT) may lead to significant divisions on issues such as temporal passage. Tallant, for example, is an unusual presentist who denies temporal passage while Skow, as a supporter of BUT, thinks that temporal passage is compatible with BUT.
1. The Logical Case
Tallant (2016) summarizes the argument of Olson’s (Sheffield.ac.uk, 2008)—The No Alternative Possibilities Argument (NAP)—on the rate of time’s passage in the following sketch:
A Semi-formal sketch of the NAP from Tallant (2016)
P1: If x passes, then the rate at which x passes could be different
P2: Time cannot pass at a rate other than 1s/s,
C: Time does not pass
In fact, Tallant (2016) felt that the NAP is so powerful that he argues against the dynamic nature of time and overall temporal passage even as a presentist. I think the major problem with the NAP lies with P1— we treat time as if any other ordinary object in our spatial dimension. The fact that we can move up and down, forward and backward, in our 3-D spatial dimensions but we cannot move forward and backward, metaphorically speaking, i.e. go to the future nor the past suggests that we should grant time as a privileged ontological position. Furthermore, the step from P2 to C is ambiguous: how exactly does the failure to express the rate of passage of time lead to the conclusion that time does not pass?
2. The Scientific Justification
The Second Law of Thermodynamics which governs the direction of entropy is correlated with the direction of time. In fact, as Maudlin (2006) suggested that a time-reverse universe, a ‘Doppelganger’, simply cannot exist. What static-theorists and Block-universe theorists fail to take into account is the constant flux around us. If time is directional as they concede, it is sufficient that time passes since it is simply impossible to imagine a four-dimensional universe in which objects perdure through ‘slices’ of the block-universe but without a temporal passage.
3. The Epistemic Argument
Prosser (2011) turned the nature of the phenomenological character as discussed in the previous section against temporal passage. He claimed that experience, contrary to ‘specious present’, is always discrete at different time instants. In essence, Prosser argued that at any particular time instant, our experience of time does not fulfill the uniqueness constraint of intentionality. Thus, we never experience the ‘passage of time’ as a phenomenological character. However, the absence of intentionality only points to the structural limitations of the argument itself—that phenomenological accounts are reliable accounts of temporal passage. Perhaps we are unable to have ‘content' about the temporal passage, but does it necessitate the falsehood of the content itself?
Gołosz (2015) proposed the novel idea of ‘dynamic existence’—objects persist over time and keep their strict identity, being wholly present and endure, and directed towards the future. The present, as what dynamically exists, continually changes.
The ‘dynamic existence’ of events consists of acquiring, losing, or changing properties by enduring things, come to pass so to speak; ‘Dynamic existence’ of things do not cease to be but persist by being wholly present at each time at which they exist. The flow of time in Golosz’s account, then, is an effect of the dynamic existence of all objects which our world consists of, and the present as constituted by dynamically existing objects.
As fascinating as Golosz’s argument might sound, it seems to me that it does not offer us much insight into the nature of time as the notion of ‘dynamic existence’ presupposes metaphysically temporal passage already.
Nonetheless, I believe that it is a unique proposal like Golosz’s that should be encouraged in the field of philosophy of time. Due to length constraints, I cannot introduce other promising theories which combine A-series properties with B-series temporal structure, such as Growing-Block Theory and Moving-Spotlight Theory. It is from our experience, and at least from your present experience of reading this essay, that we are certain of temporal passage. Yet, advances in relativistic physics completely radicalize our understanding of time—most physicist-philosophers are firm believers of B-series nowadays. As an emerging field of study, perhaps a potential guiding question in the philosophy of time is how to reconcile the relativistic notion of space-time with our empirical understanding of time—to reason a model of the reality that matches with our experience—Is this not philosophers have, ever since, been trying to do?
Bardon, A. (2013). Brief history of the philosophy of time. Oxford University Press.
Gołosz, J. (2015). How to Avoid the Problem of the Question of the Rate of Time’s Passage. Revista Portuguesa de Filosofia, 71(4), pp.807-820.
Maudlin, T. (2006). [online] Philocosmology.rutgers.edu. Available at: https://philocosmology.rutgers.edu/images/uploads/TimDavidClass/05-maudlin-chap04.pdf [Accessed 30 Mar. 2018].
MCTAGGART, J. (1908). I.—THE UNREALITY OF TIME. Mind, XVII(4), pp.457-474.
PROSSER, S. (2011). Why Does Time Seem to Pass?. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 85(1), pp.92-116.
Sheffield.ac.uk. (2008). The rate of time's passage. [online] Available at: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/polopoly_fs/1.459038!/file/passage.pdf [Accessed 30 Mar. 2018].
Skow, B. (2011). EXPERIENCE AND THE PASSAGE OF TIME. Philosophical Perspectives, 25(1), pp.359-387.
Skow, B. (2011). Why Does Time Pass?. Noûs, 46(2), pp.223-242.
Skow, B. (2017). Some thoughts on Experiencing Time. Inquiry, 61(3), pp.302-314.
Tallant, J. (2016). Temporal Passage and the 'no alternate possibilities' argument. Manuscrito, 39(4), pp.35-47.