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Jim Butler
December 2016.
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Does time really exist?
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That’s the big question. This is what physicists are arguing about. Some physicists, like Einstein actually, say time is an illusion. And then there is the English physicist Julian Barbour who says there is no passage of time, there are just snapshots of time – moments of time. 

But others – Lee Smolin for example – want to bring time back into physics. That’s because in some quarters physics has abandoned time. It’s not in the equations anymore, they have spatialised time. You have the three dimensions of space, and time is just another dimension like one of the spatial dimensions. So in these readings and theories there is no real passage of time and there is no feeling of presence. 

"Some physicists, like Einstein actually, say time is an illusion."

We all subjectively have this impression of a present moment – the here and now. But it doesn’t appear in physics – that worried Einstein. Einstein said ok, but then there is something called psychological time – so we as physicists study physical time and then psychologists should study psychological time. Nowadays you could say neural scientists should study how the brain processes time and how our perception of time evolves. 

Obviously we can judge duration and test subjects to see if they’re more or less accurate in judging duration. It’s what I do every day. That’s how psychologists work. So you might say we should bring these ideas together. Because if we as humans can talk about the passage of time, shouldn’t there also be a real, physical passage of time? And that’s what I would say I believe. There must be some real passage of time in physics. What that is of course is left to the physicists to debate. 

"Because if we as humans can talk about the passage of time, shouldn’t there also be a real, physical passage of time?"

Time is unidirectional. The cup that falls from the table crashes on the floor. It never goes in the other direction. The shards never fly up from the cup onto the table and assemble the cup. So you always see the arrow of time. Time only goes in one direction. 

Time is part of our everyday experience. It’s ingrained in ourselves. We can’t doubt this passage of time in psychology. You have to consider causality – if one snooker ball hits another snooker ball number one hits number two and that’s the temporal relation between the two balls, and not the other way around. This is important as a survival mechanism, to be able to detect the real temporal relation, and being able to judge duration. 

If someone tries to hit me, temporal processes enable me to duck or run away or whatever. So we can categorically state that conscious time exists, but of course we’re then talking about the biology of time and the psychology of time. And it could be that only through consciousness is time actually created – that’s a possibility that one could think about. But on the other hand what gives time a real existence? That is a question for the physicists. And a lot of physicists are coming back to saying, no, time is not an illusion, but it is actually happening in the world. It’s a physical entity.

I once had the existence of time conclusively disproved to me by that renowned temporal physicist, Ol’ Dirty Bastard of the Wu-Tang Clan. Back in the ’90s I was interviewing him for The Face magazine in Los Angeles. Apropos of nothing, and responding to a question only he had heard, he pointed to the clock on the wall of the studio.

“See that clock?” he said. “24 hours in a day, 60 minutes in an hour, 60 seconds in a minute. 2+6 = 6, 6+0 = 6, and 6+0 = 6. That’s 666, which is the Devil. And the Devil is an illusion. So that means time is an illusion too.” Poor Dirty, the world is a poorer place without him.