Is time real

Is Time Real


The question ‘is time real?’ may at first glance seem simple, requiring nothing more than a single word answer…yes. However here lies a difficulty if we answer ‘yes time is real’ then we have the complex problem in trying to explain exactly what time is. We often use the term time in expressions such as ‘I ran out of time’ as if time is something limited, yet on the other hand we say ‘there is all the time in the world’ which infers that time is something unlimited, already we have ran into problems as something cannot be limited and unlimited simultaneously. We also make use of the phrase ‘time stood still’ indicating that time must have been in motion to begin with again this can be problematic as if time is unlimited then it would consume all of space and therefore have nowhere to move making a locomotive unlimited time implausible. Equally if time is static then it causes problems for change as things are normally said to change as time moves on, consequently for change to be possible some form of locomotive time must be present.


On the other hand if we answer ‘no time is not real’ we have an equally challenging task ahead of us as we must disprove all arguments that claim time to be either limited or unlimited, locomotive or stationary, or in fact any argument that posits time with an attribute. Having successfully done that we must then work out why we refer to time as an existing thing if its only attribute is non-existence, here lies yet further difficulty. Hence to answer either way this question is far deeper that it first appears.


From what has been said so far it would seem that the only plausible options open to us are time is a locomotive limited entity, time is a stationary and either limited or unlimited entity, or time is a non-existent. By looking at various arguments put forward for both the defence that time is real and for the case that time is not we shall come to realise that time is actually time is part of a four-dimensional framework which subsists as part of our cognition, or in Kant’s words, inner sense which allows us to experience the physical world and make sense of it, therefore time is real.


To begin let us first examine the arguments against the notion that time exists beginning with those of Conee and Sider who say “we ordinarily conceive of time as being something that moves…the problem with this way of thinking is that time is the standard by which motion is defined; how then could time itself move?” [1] If time does move, then it must move though some secondary time. Let us call time t and this new secondary time t’ now if t moves through t’, t’ still being a form of time and time being something which moves, then t’ would have to move through a further form of time t”. Now following this on would result in an infinite regress argument since every time we introduce a further form of time we would require an even further form of time, hence any notion of a moving or flowing time becomes absurd and so time must be static.


Conee and Sider also argue “time is just one of the dimensions of space-time” [2] and “time has a special direction: past to future”[3], this could be taken to be contradictory to the previous argument in which time is proving to be static as anything which has a direction must be moving. However this is not the case,  by direction they are not talking about direction of travel but the direction in which it points, for example if I were to stand stationary the way in which I would face would be my direction yet I am not moving, this is the same for time. From these two arguments we can come to the conclusion that both Conee and Sider believe time to exist as a static entity which is part a four-dimensional space-time framework.


There also seems to be two concepts of time known as A series and B series, and it would appear Conee and Sider are both advocates of the A series notion of time. McTaggart clearly explains how each of the two notion differ in his essay Time “I shall give the name…A series to that of positions…from far past through…to the far future…the series of positions which runs from earlier to later…I shall call the B series”[4]. However McTaggart does not support either of the two series instead he denies the existence of time, he argues “we perceive events in time as being present…this merely subjective…a constant illusion of our minds”[5] by this he means that what is present relies entirely on the subject and their temporal location. For example as if I were to say ‘presently I am writing this sentence’ then by the time you come to read it the statement will be rendered false as I wrote it in what would then be the past. Therefore any system of time based upon past, present and future will be completely subjective and therefore illusory, hence A series time cannot exist.


But what of B series time? McTaggart claims that “if then a B series without an A series can constitute time, change must be possible without an A series…but this is impossible…if there is any change, it must be looked in the A series”[6] the reasoning behind McTaggart’s claim that B series time is impossible is because subject x in b series time would be earlier than subject y and must always be this way in accordance with the notion of B series time then time never progresses and if time fails to progress then change fails to happen. Thus B series time cannot offer change only A series time can, but A series time cannot exist so neither can B series time as the latter depends on the former.


Loux states “we may concede that there are things that are not in time. Philosophers have claimed that God, is not a temporal being, and it has been argued the abstract entities like properties, propositions and numbers are outside time.”[7] If this is true and things do not exist outside of time then they must not change as only things within time change, yet we have heard of God changing form in the Bible as one night in a stable in Bethlehem God became human in the form of Jesus[8]. If the Bible is an accurate historical document then this goes against the notion that time is essential to change as if change can occur outside of time then time is no longer necessary for change, and thus time need not exist.


The idea of time not existing is far from being a modern notion, the Pyrrhonian Sceptics in Ancient Greece, along with the Stoics and Aristotle who shall be mentioned a little later, also denied time’s existence. The sceptical argument denies time on the grounds that if it exists it must be either limited or unlimited yet it cannot be either since “if limited…there will be a time with no time…which is absurd”[9] but “if unlimited…past and future exist, each of these will be present. But it is absurd”[10]. So what we are left with is a time which is not limited but not unlimited, or in other words something that both is and is not, with the is in this case meaning limited. Yet to have something that is and is not the predicate posited to it breaks the law of non-contradiction therefore time can not possibly exist without breaking this law.


The Stoics held the belief that the cosmos was “the god himself who…being the craftsman…taking substance as a totality back into himself in certain temporal cycles”[11], by which they meant the universe was caught on a temporal loop which ends and begins anew, a theory now taken by physicists as the big bang followed by a big crunch. This notion of time being looped is detrimental to the B series theory of time especially given that the Stoics also believed that “the cosmos, governed by reason, has the best possible organization, this is repeated in each cycle”[12]. Leaving us with a repetitive time which with every passing cycle will play out exactly as the previous did, the reason this is detrimental to B series time is the fact that for B series to work x must be earlier than y and must always be earlier than y, but under the Stoic concept of circular time we get x being earlier and later than y. This contradicts the B series view on time and therefore if time is circular as the Stoics believe then B series time cannot exist. 


However the Stoics do not deny time entirely, they “thought that time is incorporeal… a thing conceived of as existing on its own”[13]but it was also unlimited and infinite, infinite because it was looped and therefore has neither beginning nor end and unlimited because it could not be traversed in its entirety as once the ‘end’ is reached you will find yourself back at its ‘beginning’, that is the dawn of a new cycle. This usage of the word unlimited gets around the Pyrhhonian use of the word as the Stoics do not take it to mean something which can be extended infinitely in all directions but merely impassable, thus an unlimited time can exist regardless of the Pyrhhonian criticism. 


When discussing the fundamental principles of the cosmos Aristotle has this to say “if any one of them were infinite, the others would have been destroyed”[14], time being one of the fundamental principles of the cosmos then if it were to be unlimited then it would be extended in all directions pushing everything out of existence, this includes space and substance yet as space and substance continue to exist alongside time then time cannot be unlimited, as the Pyrrhonean Sceptics led us to believe. Another of Aristotle’s arguments against time is critical of A series time as it shows how the past and future are not real, thus proving that the flow of A series time is not plausible. Aristotle’s claim comes like this, “some of it has happened and does not exist, and some of it is in the future and does not yet exist…it would appear to be impossible for anything which consists of things that do not exist to exist itself”[15], the claim can be explained quite clearly as if time exists of non-existent sections then the only thing that can exist by combining these non-existents must be non-existence and therefore A series time cannot exist. 


So far we have looked at the arguments that time does not exist, and what cannot exist cannot be real. From what has been said we can now say that is seems unlikely that B series time can exist, but for A series time although the evidence suggests it does not exist McTaggart’s claim that A series time is subjective and therefore an illusion of the mind could be interpreted to mean that A series time subsists as a product of mind, in which case A series time is real whereas B series time is not. Now we shall look at the arguments for time’s existence beginning with looking at the revised version of B-series time.


It would seem B series time has already been condemned however there is a revised version which may bring it new life. This new version of B series time like its earlier format removes the idea of tense from time so there is no past, present or future but also removes the ideas that time as a flow from earlier to later. Instead “defenders of the new B-theory…take time to be just another dimension along with the three spatial dimensions”[16], so the revised B series suggests time to be part of a four-dimensional space-time framework as supported by the likes of Conee, Sider and Smart.


Smart is an advocate of static time as part of a four-dimensional framework claiming that “our notion of time as flowing…is an illusion which prevents us seeing the world as it really is”[17]. For Smart time is just another dimension to the three spatial dimensions so as things pass through the three-dimensional ‘cube’ that is space it also moves through this extra dimension known as time and if we were to dissect time into slices we would observe space and all forms of substance within changing, but time itself is not changing only space is changing and its temporal location along the fourth dimensional plane. So what Smart suggests is we ought to remove the notion of a locomotive time as being the cause of change, which requires a change in language, one which is without tense as opposed to the tensed language used for A series time. “If we are going to eliminate the notion of change we had better…eliminate…words such as ‘past’, ‘present’ ‘future’ and ‘now’”[18]. Having a language without tense would result in statements such as ‘I am typing this now’ into ‘I am typing this on the seventh of February 2010’, hence all statements using the terms ‘now’ or ‘present’ must be replaced by referring to the precise temporal location within the temporal plane. The same can also be said of statements using terms such as ‘past’ and ‘future’. Consequently it would seem the revised B series notion of time is more plausible than its predecessor, although it does require a change in the way we use language otherwise we shall remain in the shadows as to the true nature of time.  


Loux provides further support for the revised B series notion of time as he says “there can be little doubt that…contingent beings…appear to have their being in time”[19] and McTaggart “fails to show that the B series taken by itself is not a proper temporal framework”[20]. Proposing that time exists as an eternal principle which acts as “a dimension along with the three spatial dimensions”[21], even though this sounds a lot like the revised B series notion of time which sees time as part a four-dimensional framework but Loux adds that it is eternal, a concept he calls eternalism. Eternalists argue time to be an eternal existent, one which cannot have an ending, not to be confused with unlimited which implies it can stretched out in all directions time can only be stretched along its dimensional axis, which it can be forever according to eternalists.


Epicurus argued that time is neither substance nor predicate but a predicate of predicates, as he said in the two fragments; “nor must one predicate anything else of it, as though it had the same substance as this particular thing”[22] and “Epicurus says that time is a property of properties”.[23] By this what is meant is that time is incorporeal but is also something which cannot be posited to things instead it exists outside the boundaries of substance and predicate in realm of its own. It could then be argued that this realm in which time exists is the realm of cognition making time a substance of mind; hence time does not exist but subsist.


Kant was another strong advocate that time was real having believed that “time is a necessary presentation that underlies all intuitions…all actuality of appearances is possible only in time. Appearances…may go away; but time itself cannot be annulled”[24]. So for Kant time is not something which happens to be real, but it is also necessary and cannot be removed, so just what does Kant mean when he claims time is a presentation? Unlike others such as Smart who argue time is objective Kant claims “time is not a universal concept”[25], in fact he argues “time is merely a subjective condition of our intuition…time is nothing”[26]. Although what Kant means here by nothing is not something which is non-existent, instead Kant suggests time is an entity without substance, thus it cannot be part of the realm of phenomena, which is the physical realm. Time is an entity of cognition and being an entity of cognition it must subsist as a product of mind or as Kant calls it ‘inner sense’. This view can be seen clearly in the Critique of Pure Reason where he states “time is not something that is self-subsistent or that attaches to things as an objective determination…for if time were self-subsistent it would be actual. But if on the second alternative…then it could not precede the objects”[27]. A view supporting Epicurus’ idea that time is neither substance nor predicate, we also see support from McTaggart that A series time is subjective and cannot exist, yet McTaggart fails to deny time as a subsistent, so perhaps there is some truth in Epicurus’ and Kant’s claims that time subsists as a substance of mind.


To conclude it seems to be the case that time is real, and it is a four-dimensional space-time framework, and therefore only the revised B series concept of time is real. However there is some convincing evidence suggesting time subsists as revised B series time. Since any form of space/time framework we have is going to be a man-made device created by our cognition then time could only ever be a substance of mind and therefore only be real in the sense that it subsists as opposed to existing as part of the physical world we experience through our senses. Furthermore time is static and unlimited only as far as it can stretch along its dimensional axis for all eternity.                                 





  • Aristotle, 2008, Physics (Translated by Waterfield), Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Conee. E and Sider. T, 2007, Riddles of Existence a Guided Tour of Metaphysics, Oxford: Clarendon Press
  • Gerson. L and Inwood. B, 1997, Hellenistic Philosophy Introductory Readings (2nd Edition), Indianapolis: Hackett
  • Kant. I, 1996, Critique of Pure Reason (Abridged (Translated by Pluhar)), Indianapolis: Hackett
  • Kant. I, 2007 , Critique of Pure Reason (Reissued Edition (Translated by Smith)), Basingstoke (Hampshire): Palgrave Macmillan
  • Loux. M. J, 2007, Metaphysics a Contemporary Introduction (3rd Edition), Abingdon (Oxfordshire): Routledge
  • McTaggart. J. M. E, ‘Time’, in Loux. M. J, Metaphysics Contemporary Readings (2nd Edition), 2008, Abingdon (Oxfordshire): Routledge, pp 341-350
  • Sellars. J, 2006, Stoicism, Chesham (Buckinghamshire): Acumen
  • Smart. J. J. C, ‘The Space-Time World’, in Loux. M. J, Metaphysics Contemporary Readings (2nd Edition), 2008, Abingdon (Oxfordshire): Routledge, pp 383-394
  • The Holy Bible accessed at (21:36 05/02/2010)

[1] Conee and Sider, Riddles of Existence a Guided Tour of Metaphysics, 2007, pg. 44

[2] Ibid, pg. 50

[3] Ibid, pg. 50

[4] McTaggart, Time, 2008, pg. 351

[5] Ibid, pg. 351

[6] Ibid, pp. 352-353

[7] Loux, Metaphysics a Contemporary Introduction (3rd Edition), 2007, pp. 205-206

[8] Luke 2:1-20

[9] Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, 47.141 

[10] Ibid, 47.142

[11] Diogenes Laertius, 7.137

[12] Sellers, Stoicism, 2006, pg. 99

[13] Sextus Empiricus, Adversus Mathematicos, 10.218

[14] Aristotle, Physics, 2008, 204b22

[15] Ibid, 217b32

[16] Loux, Metaphysics a Contemporary Introduction (3rd Edition), 2007, pg 224

[17] Smart, The Space-Time World, 2008, pg 385

[18] Ibid, pg 386

[19] Loux, Metaphysics a Contemporary Introduction (3rd Edition), 2007, pg 206

[20] Ibid, pg 212

[21] Ibid, pg 213

[22] Diogenes Laertius, Letter to Herodotus, 2.72

[23] Sextus Empiricus, Adversus Mathematicos, 89. 219

[24] Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 1996, A31

[25] Ibid, B47

[26] Ibid, A35

[27] Ibid, B49-A33


Posted on February 14, 2010, in metaphysical, philosophical and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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