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Home | 2017 | December

What is time? Don't ask.

Posted by Richard on UTC 2017-12-24 11:15. Updated on UTC 2017-12-30

The three spirits

'Tis the season for Charles Dickens' (1812-1870) deservedly popular tale of the time-travels of Ebenezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol (1843).

Ebenezer's transformation from hard-bitten, misanthropic grump to cheerful friend of the poor is effected through the offices of three spirits: the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. It's a good tale well told, which carries us along with an effortless suspension of disbelief.


No one has ever been known to travel into the past either physically or as an observer. Ditto future.

Shadows and shades

We note that Dickens avoids all direct interactions between Scrooge and the three worlds of the visions of time. Nowhere does Scrooge intervene in these worlds, thus avoiding the now well-known time-travel paradox in which interference in the past makes the existence of the present impossible.

'These are but shadows of the things that have been,' said the Ghost. 'They have no consciousness of us.'

Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol, Chapman and Hall, London, 1843. online, p. 24.

It is a tradition of ghost stories that ghosts pass through the solid objects of our solid reality. In A Christmas Carol, however, the opposite is the case: the solidly real Scrooge and his spirit guides pass through the 'shadows' of these other worlds without hindrance. These are the otherwise unreachable places where the past and (possibly) the future is stored.

A light shone from the window of a hut, and swiftly they advanced towards it. Passing through the wall of mud and stone, they found a cheerful company assembled round a glowing fire.

Dickens p. 102.

The Ghost of Christmas Past

The time-travel paradox is a commonplace: a timely assassination of a young Hitler or Stalin, say, before they could do any damage would make the present an impossibility. It would also make the return of the time-travelling observer impossible. We cannot get round this, even with all the modern speculation about alternative quantum universes – Hitler or Stalin's damage would still exist in at least one of these universes, so the assassination would achieve nothing.

The picky modern physicist would read A Christmas Carol and wonder how Scrooge could even see or hear his visions of the past without having some electrodynamic impact on their worlds, since to see and hear these happenings requires some energy transfer – and who knows what the result of that tiny perturbation might be: butterflies flapping their wings and all that.

It is even conceivable that we might not just have to guarantee that the macroscopic structure of the present remains unchanged despite our presence in the past– we may have to preserve the microscopic structure, too: perhaps even the positions and the states of every atom or even every subatomic particle, for example. Each of these states is, after all, the result of some preceding state.

No, we cannot visit the past and never will, as observers or participants. The idea is humbug.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come

We also have a problem with Scrooge's visit to the future, but with a different restriction. Whatever Scrooge saw in 'the future' would be an absolute predestination. His guide is artfully titled the 'Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come' not the 'Ghost of Christmas Future'. Dickens clearly went out of his way not to use the obvious symmetry of the Ghost of Past-Present-Future, since a predestined future would allow no possibility of Scrooge's reform – Scrooge sees only a conditional vision of what might be if he doesn't change his ways.

'I see a vacant seat,' replied the Ghost, 'in the poor chimney corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.' 'No, no,' said Scrooge. 'Oh no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.'

Dickens p. 96.

Dickens spends some time on this subject. Not only is it the essential element of his story, that Scrooge has the possibility of redemption through his own actions, but it has also been at the core of the debate in the Christian church about the doctrine of predestination since at least the Reformation.

'You are about to show me shadows of the things that have not happened, but will happen in the time before us,' Scrooge pursued. 'Is that so, Spirit?'

Dickens p. 122.

'Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,' said Scrooge, 'answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of the things that May be, only?'


'Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,' said Scrooge. 'But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!'


'Spirit!' he cried, tight clutching at its robe, 'hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope?' For the first time the hand appeared to shake.

'Good Spirit,' he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: 'Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!'

The kind hand trembled

'I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!'

Dickens p. 149f.

Past, present and future in the Common Model

All the readers of A Christmas Carol conspire to share a view of something called 'time' that flows steadily and inexorably from somewhere called 'the future', through somewhere called 'the present' into somewhere called 'the past'. For the purposes of discussion we could call the understanding of time that is embedded in A Christmas Carol the Common Model of time. We may not be so taken with the idea of ghosts flitting around various parts of time and in and out of our bedrooms, but no one bursts out laughing at Dickens' use of the Common Model when reading or listening to the story.

The Ghost of Christmas Past (Amelia Bullmore) and Scrooge (Jim Broadbent) in a 2015 production of A Christmas Carol.

The Ghost of Christmas Past (Amelia Bullmore) and Scrooge (Jim Broadbent) in a 2015 UK production of A Christmas Carol. Image: ©Johan Persson.

Whatever the suspension of disbelief that is required in A Christmas Carol, Dickens, great storyteller that he is, manages to pull it off. We should, however, remember that one of the most successful TV advertisements of the 2017 Christmas season in the UK has been a series of video stories featuring a talking carrot, with two eyes and a mouth, savouring its seasonal boiling and roasting – and even falling in love, so suspension of disbelief seems to be the default position of the modern mind, whatever humbug confronts it.

The idea in the Common Model that there is a flow of time and some cursor position that we call the present is an old one. Heraclitus famously steps into a stream and notes that when he does it again his foot is not entering the same stream, leading to his ideas of the changeability of all things – all things flow or change, as he is supposed to have observed. Zeno fires his arrow of time, but thinks of it from the viewpoint of the arrow not the archer and ends up puzzling about infinity. Zeno's arrow flies, whereas Heraclitus' foot remains in the same position. The idea of a past and a future seems to be deeply embedded in our minds.

Let's try a fresh start.

The non-existent past

The past does not exist: you cannot touch it, see it, hear it, measure it or change it in any way. I am embarrassed even to talk about the past, because all we are really talking about is a label marked 'the past' that is not attached to anything.

The word 'past' exists, of course. We can even attach the definite article to it, 'the past', but the thing itself and the objects that it is supposed to contain do not exist. Just saying 'the past' does not make it exist, it just creates the label we would like to stick on this past if we ever found it. Whatever criterion of existence you choose, the past does not exist.

'What rot', you say. (Our readers, bless 'em, are rough diamonds given to verbal excess, but we wouldn't change them for the world.)

'The tree by the bridge was there yesterday, the bridge, too. The construction date of the bridge, 1928, is even written on the middle arch. How can that not have existed then? Here is a photograph of my wedding day, which certainly existed and which I remember well. Humbug!'

Well, the bridge may have existed at some moment in 1928, but that moment does not exist now. We have only the existence of the bridge now. The same goes for the tree and the wedding photograph. Rational people would presume that the tree, bridge and photograph which exist now did indeed exist in the past, but that was then, not now, and that past existence is no longer.

Only a few years after Dickens' tale appeared, the poet Edward Fitzgerald (1809-1883) in his Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1859) expressed well the immutability and unreachability of the past:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
    Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, First Edition 1859, Quatrain 51.

For all intents and purposes, therefore, the past does not exist. If you don't like what the philosopher says, you'll just have to take the poet's word.

'But this is preposterous', you exclaim, 'It is winter now, there is snow on the ground, this was the case 365 days ago and we have all the temperature records that show this. Something similar will probably be the case 365 days hence'. True.

But last winter and its snow exists only in your memory. The records that allude to it exist only at the moment. Unlike the Ghost of Christmas Past, you cannot take me back 365 days and show me that snow.

Is this idea in any way controversial? Of course not. Around five and a half centuries ago the French poet, tramp and all-purpose rowdy François Villon (1431?-1463?) wrote a poem we now know as the Ballade des dames du temps jadis, 'The Ballad of Ladies of Times Past'. He ended each of the four stanzas with the refrain: Mais où sont les neiges d'antan? Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) translated the poem into English in 1872, titled it 'The Ballad of Dead Ladies' and gave us the phrase that has passed into the vernacular: 'Oh, where are the snows of yesteryear!'

Where, indeed? Gone. And gone beyond all recovery. Trust the poets.

Augustine, a friend in need

Beset by the reader's scepticism and mockery I have to call for some third party support beyond poetry. In this case, the friend in need is Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430), the 'Doctor of Grace', one the seven great Doctors of the Church in the fourth century who established the foundations of Christian theology.

Do not dismiss Augustine because he was a theologian or because he was writing about 1,620 years ago and must therefore be hopelessly out of date and thus not worthy of consideration in our modern era. As Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), another great philosopher, put it in the introductory remarks to his 1928 work Vorlesungen zur Phänomenologie des inneren Zeitbewusstseins, 'Lectures on the phenomenology of the internal consciousness of time':

The analysis of the consciousness of time is an ancient conundrum of descriptive psychology and epistemology. The first one to tackle the enormous difficulties in this area, which were deeply felt and drove him to despair, was Augustine. The chapters 13-28 of Book XI of his Confessions need to be studied thoroughly even today by anyone occupied with the time problem, for our proudly knowledgeable modern era has not got as astonishingly far as or appreciably further than this great and serious thinker. Even today one must agree with Augustine: '[What, then, is time?] If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks me, I do not know.'

Husserl Edmund, Ed. Martin Heidegger, Vorlesungen zur Phänomenologie des inneren Zeitbewusstseins, Max Niemeyer Verlag, Halle an der Saale, 1928. p. 2 [quoting Augustine 11:XIV:17].

Bertrand Russell was also a fan of the philosopher Augustine and his Confessions in particular:

St Augustine, at most times, does not occupy himself with pure philosophy, but when he does he shows very great ability. […] The best purely philosophical work in St Augustine's writings is the eleventh book of the Confessions. Popular editions of the Confessions end with Book X, on the ground that what follows is uninteresting; it is uninteresting because it is good philosophy, not biography.

Russell, Bertrand. History Of Western Philosophy, Unwin, London 1946/1961, p. 351.

Readers will be pleased to learn that I am not going to ruin Christmas for them by writing a systematic explication of Augustine's thoughts here. There are plenty of editions of the Confessions online and plenty of guides and commentaries, too. When the translator lets him, Augustine writes clearly and without the technical jargon with which, say, the Scholastics bombard us. No, I shall merely reference him and quote a few passages from him. If you want more, then you are on your own.

Augustine's despair at the philosphical labyrinth into which he had got himself, a maze full of counter-intuitive ideas, was heartfelt:

And I confess to thee, O Lord, that I am still ignorant as to what time is. And again I confess to thee, O Lord, that I know that I am speaking all these things in time, and that I have already spoken of time a long time, and that 'very long' is not long except when measured by the duration of time. How, then, do I know this, when I do not know what time is? Or, is it possible that I do not know how I can express what I do know? Alas for me! I do not even know the extent of my own ignorance. Behold, O my God, in thy presence I do not lie. As my heart is, so I speak. Thou shalt light my candle; thou, O Lord my God, wilt enlighten my darkness.

Augustine Confessions, translated by A. C. Outler, 1955, 11:XXV:32.

Lucky Augustine! We atheists have no one to whom we can appeal for guidance and comfort in the dark night of the soul – apart, that is, from the all too frequent bottle of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon and, of course, Franz Schubert's transcendental String Quintet in C major (D 956).


After our detour to Augustine, let's return to our tree and bridge scene. If you, reader, are so sure that there is a time 'yesterday' containing this tree and this bridge, then take me to it, please. Of course you can't – because it doesn't exist. You may like to pretend that it exists, but it doesn't.

You see the tree in its present state. From yesterday's tree you have only a memory. Ditto the bridge. The date on it is also in the present and forms a historical record, a reference to a calendar. But the bridge of 1928 or any time in between is no longer accessible. The date inscription when it was first erected in 1928 is not even in your memory.

It is not reasonable to believe that this scene – the totality of objects in it, to be precise – is held somewhere in a storage facility called 'the past', 'yesterday' or '1928', a storage facility that can be visited at will by the Ghost of Christmas Past, but for which we poor mortals have no key. A 'secret place', was Augustine's term.

Similarly, your wedding day is in your present memory; the artefact of the photograph is also in the present: not one molecule of the photograph is in the past.

Let us say that after a particularly fierce argument with your spouse over the amount of time you spend looking out of the window at trees and bridges and reading unproductive websites like this and daydreaming on abstruse philosophical problems when you could be usefully employed instead in cleaning the house and doing the washing – let us say you take the photograph of that foolish coupling and throw it on the crackling yule log in the hearth – spousal immolation by proxy, as it were. What difference would that make?

None, because the photograph has a completely independent existence from the non-existent things we assign to a non-existent past. You will still retain the memory of that that person you married, but that is simply a current neurogical state in your brain. There was a time, as you now may not wish to remember, when that person was the love of your life. Whilst the photo will have recorded certain visible features of your wedding day, your memories are very much influenced by your present state of mind.

For if there are times past and future, I wish to know where they are. But if I have not yet succeeded in this, I still know that wherever they are, they are not there as future or past, but as present. For if they are there as future, they are there as 'not yet'; if they are there as past, they are there as 'no longer.'

Wherever they are and whatever they are they exist therefore only as present. Although we tell of past things as true, they are drawn out of the memory – not the things themselves, which have already passed, but words constructed from the images of the perceptions which were formed in the mind, like footprints in their passage through the senses. My childhood, for instance, which is no longer, still exists in time past, which does not now exist. But when I call to mind its image and speak of it, I see it in the present because it is still in my memory.

Augustine 11:XVIII:23

Literary types reading our quotations from Augustine will find their thoughts turning to T.S. Eliot's poem Four Quartets. With complete justification: Eliot had studied Augustine's Confessions closely and you will find phrases from both works resonating – 'Footfalls echo in the memory' or 'Time past and time future / What might have been and what has been / point to one end, which is always present.' – [Eliot, 'Burnt Norton' I] We have no time to follow this rabbit down its hole, which is probably appropriate in a piece about the non-existence of time. You have been spared – spirit of Christmas and all that.

A personal note

Looking for opinions on Saint Augustine, with some hope I took down Volume II of Frederick Copleston's (1907-1994) A History of Philosophy, 'Augustine to Scotus'. It was a surprise to find that in his fifty pages on Saint Augustine, Copleston devoted merely half a sentence to mentioning that the Confessions 'contain a treatment of time'. Perhaps Augustine's 'treatment' wasn't religious enough for Copleston, the Jesuit professor of philosophy.

It was even more of a surprise to find, almost hidden behind the front flap of the dust cover of the book, a handwritten dedication from a close friend, dating from a Christmas forty-nine years ago, almost to the day. I had forgotten (memory!) that the book had been a Christmas gift – some people get socks, some Jesuit histories of philosophy. Not long afterwards we parted amicably and went our mutually unknown ways.

The inscription stopped me in my tracks, so unexpected was it. But all that stuff is gone and is now beyond reach. Only memory is left to be reawakened and the only artefact remaining is the aura (™Walter Benjamin) of that handwriting. Eliot knew:

Ash on an old man's sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.
Dust in the air suspended
Marks the place where a story ended.

Eliot, Thomas Stearns. 'Little Gidding' (1942) from Four Quartets in Collected Poems 1909-1962, London, 1963, p. 216.

The non-existent future

If we could have degrees of non-existence – which obviously we can't, something either exists or it doesn't – the future would be even more non-existent than the past. Unless we are completely deterministic in our views, 'the future' is really only a projection of our current hopes and expectations.

You expect the tree and the bridge to be there tomorrow and indeed for quite some time to come, so you can project its presence into this non-existent storage unit we call 'the future'. The continued mortal existence tomorrow of your now detested spouse is not so certain; nor yours, for that matter: hearts can fail, kitchen knives are easily to hand. None of this has happened yet, so it does not exist. We can accept that the probability of something occurring is real – the bridge may collapse or the tree fall over or you may find yourself descending the stairs headfirst – but until the event occurs it does not exist. It is merely a possibility.

We note that alone among Scrooge's three spirit visitors, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come never speaks, despite all Scrooge's many questions: all Scrooge's enquiries are met with silent gestures. This behaviour is so pronounced that it seems unlikely that Dickens put it there just for dramatic effect. Perhaps, since the future does not exist but is merely conditional upon what has gone before it, silence is the only response – and its spirit should be even more ephemeral than the others.

Future events, therefore, are not yet. And if they are not yet, they do not exist. And if they do not exist, they cannot be seen at all, but they can be predicted from things present, which now are and are seen.

Augustine 11:XVIII:24

Whatever may be the manner of this secret foreseeing of future things, nothing can be seen except what exists. But what exists now is not future, but present. When, therefore, they say that future events are seen, it is not the events themselves, for they do not exist as yet (that is, they are still in time future), but perhaps, instead, their causes and their signs are seen, which already do exist.

Therefore, to those already beholding these causes and signs, they are not future, but present, and from them future things are predicted because they are conceived in the mind. These conceptions, however, exist now, and those who predict those things see these conceptions before them in time present.

Augustine 11:XX:26

The grammatical future

The uncertainty about the future is implicit in the use of 'future tenses' in English. We still call them future tenses, but they are not. Past and present tenses are used to express past events or states in relation to the present. They can do this because the sequence of events has already happened and is thus known.

One can argue that nearly all of the future tenses in English are really types of conditional or statements of intent. An example of a simple statement of intent, typically expressed using 'to be going to' is: 'I am going to go shopping tomorrow'. We can even use the 'continuous' present in this intentional way: 'I am going shopping tomorrow'. When we talk of events on timetables or scheduled events or events that occur regularly we even use the simple present: 'The train to Manchester leaves at 15:15' – even though it has not yet left. Grammatically, therefore, the future is a strange place of current meanings and expectations.

Consider, too, all the subtleties of 'shall' and 'will' we still had in English only fifty years ago, before they were flattened by careless usage and rap singers. Some examples in the spirit of the season on which you might ponder might be: 'You shall go to the ball, Cinders!', 'You will go to the ball, Cinders!', 'You are going to go to the ball, Cinders!' There can be a time element as part of this future, such as in the future perfect, but even then the overall meaning is some form of conditional. Dickens' 'Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come' operates in such modes.

Existence and reality

As already noted, Augustine agrees with us about the non-existence of the past and future:

But, then, how is it that there are the two times, past and future, when even the past is now no longer and the future is now not yet?

Augustine 11:XIV:17

Professional and hobby philosophers will have been jumping up and down almost since the first paragraph, requiring some definition of existence. The answer is simple: existence is what you think it is. If you are an Idealist who frets about the existence of an external world, then that is fine by me: if I say time doesn't exist then it doesn't exist in whatever way you might want it not to exist.

If, on the other hand, you believe that there is an external objective reality, then that is also fine by me: you just have to go and find some past or future time existing somewhere and go and kick it like Samuel Johnson kicked the rock in refutation of Bishop Berkley's idealism. I feel confident that you won't be able to do that.

You may point to the fact that immaterial things – 'ideas', for example – can exist. We cannot, for instance, deny the fact that Pythagoras' Theorem 'exists'. That idea seems to go beyond its representation in a book, but the exact modus of its existence is an ancient philosophical quarrel that is unresolved to this day.

It doesn't matter, because the 'idea' of Pythagoras' Theorem that generates something that mathematicians and clever children carry around in their heads clearly does not have the same ontological status as your lunch last Tuesday. And we speak here not even of your memory of your lunch last Tuesday – pesto alla genovese, since you ask – and the process of your consumption of same – inelegant and messy, since you ask – but however you twist and turn it, last Tuesday's lunch no longer exists.

'Where are the lunches of yesteryear?', we sigh, 'the beef stew and pork pies and treacle sponge puddings of my childhood?'. Gone. And thus, however you twist it or turn it, past and future time does not exist. Pythagoras' Theorem is not in that secret place whereof Augustine speaks:

Who is there who will tell me that there are not three times – as we learned when boys and as we have also taught boys – time past, time present, and time future? Who can say that there is only time present because the other two do not exist? Or do they also exist; but when, from the future, time becomes present, it proceeds from some secret place; and when, from times present, it becomes past, it recedes into some secret place?

Augustine 11:XVII:22

How long does the present last?

When we were considering the Common Model of time that lies behind A Christmas Carol we had enough problems on our plate and so we failed to think about the puzzling fact that the events revealed by the Ghost of Christmas Present become in an instant, as it were, part of the past. But for how long were these events present? What is the duration of the present? This was a topic that puzzled Augustine more than a millennium and a half ago:

But let us examine even that, for one day is never present as a whole. For it is made up of twenty-four hours, divided between night and day. The first of these hours has the rest of them as future, and the last of them has the rest as past; but any of those between has those that preceded it as past and those that succeed it as future.

And that one hour itself passes away in fleeting fractions. The part of it that has fled is past; what remains is still future. If any fraction of time be conceived that cannot now be divided even into the most minute momentary point, this alone is what we may call time present. But this flies so rapidly from future to past that it cannot be extended by any delay. For if it is extended, it is then divided into past and future. But the present has no extension [=duration] whatever.

Augustine 11:XV:20

Augustine comes to the same conclusion as we must: the present has no duration. And he does this fourteen centuries before Newton and Leibniz formalised the treatment of infinitesimally small increments. Some clever physicist may be able to work out that the present can be described as being a quantum amount: a minimum indivisible duration, somehow connected with the constant speed of light or the Universal Constant or… whatever. Mathematicians may see just another example to be handled by the infinitesimal calculus – I couldn't possibly say. But lacking a knowledge of calculus, a workable concept of infinity or even quantum physics, Augustine's thoughts ultimately founder upon the imponderables of his age:

We speak of this time and that time, and these times and those times: 'How long ago since he said this?' 'How long ago since he did this?' 'How long ago since I saw that?' 'This syllable is twice as long as that single short syllable.' These words we say and hear, and we are understood and we understand. They are quite commonplace and ordinary, and still the meaning of these very same things lies deeply hid and its discovery is still to come.

Augustine 11:XXII:28

'[T]he meaning of these very same things lies deeply hid and its discovery is still to come.' You can say that again. But Augustine, despite the limitations of the period in which he lived, demonstrates his great insights at every turn. His greatness also rests on the rigour of his thought and his intellectual honesty: if he does not understand something he says so and does not hide behind humbug. The high praise for the quality of Augustine's thought by Edmund Husserl and Bertrand Russell is quite justified – Husserl once more: '[Augustine needs] to be studied thoroughly even today by anyone occupied with the time problem, for our proudly knowledgeable modern era has not got as astonishingly far as or appreciably further than this great and serious thinker'.

But even now it is manifest and clear that there are neither times future nor times past. Thus it is not properly said that there are three times, past, present, and future. Perhaps it might be said rightly that there are three times: a time present of things past; a time present of things present; and a time present of things future. For these three do coexist somehow in the soul, for otherwise I could not see them. The time present of things past is memory; the time present of things present is direct experience; the time present of things future is expectation.

Augustine 11:XX:26

Fortunately, the everyday-life solution is always available: the suspension of disbelief and the retreat into useful and pleasant fictions such as those we encounter in A Christmas Carol. Augustine, having driven himself to distraction in this crazed world of non-existent time, also came to this conclusion:

If we are allowed to speak of these things so, I see three times, and I grant that there are three. Let it still be said, then, as our misapplied custom has it: 'There are three times, past, present, and future.' I shall not be troubled by it, nor argue, nor object – always provided that what is said is understood, so that neither the future nor the past is said to exist now. There are but few things about which we speak properly – and many more about which we speak improperly – though we understand one another’s meaning.

Augustine 11:XX:26

Non-existent present – non-existent time

Since without doubt most readers have already come to the conclusion that I am having some sort of psychotic episode, possibly related to a surfeit of Cabernet Sauvignon, I may as well double down.

If the past does not exist and the future does not exist, then what is time? Surely that doesn't exist, either?

Well put. No it doesn't.

There is surely no point keeping the term 'time' to refer just to the 'present'. Time without a past or a future makes no sense. Similarly the term 'present' loses any meaning once the realities of past and future are removed. If we can't use the words 'past', 'present', 'future' or 'time', what can we say?

What about using the term 'being' instead?.

For if we retain the words 'present' and 'time', the next thing we know is that we are asking questions such as 'what is the duration of the present'. Such a question is invalid, since durations are simply transitions from future, via present, to past. But since we have abolished these three positions, it is invalid to speak of the 'present' as having a duration.

'Being', on the contrary, just is.

Augustine was particularly interested in time as a way of establishing the difficult concept of eternity. Indeed, it was with eternity that he started his meditations at the beginning of Book 11. He almost reached our position of viewing 'the present' as 'being', but got sidetracked by the thought that if the present had no duration then it was simply another word for eternity. The better word – less theologically troubling – might have been 'timelessness'.

From our irreligious point of view, when the organism dies, being ceases. At this point that personal 'time' does not need to stop, nor does it need to change over to 'eternity'. Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1922 almost reached the same point from another direction, in calling the transition to death an entry into timelessness, not eternity. We would say, having abolished past, present and future – all time in fact – that 'being' itself is timeless.

During life, 'being' is instantiated into consciousness by the action of memory. In the jargon of computer code, memory 'persists' being. Before we knew better and dispensed with the word 'past', we would have called this process the 'creation of the past'.

Augustine, writing around sixteen centuries ago, gives us a good example of the interaction of the conscious mind and memory. It is quite remarkable to read how he uses the expression 'past' without requiring its necessary existence:

I am about to repeat a psalm that I know. Before I begin, my attention encompasses the whole, but once I have begun, as much of it as becomes past while I speak is still stretched out in my memory. The span of my action is divided between my memory, which contains what I have repeated, and my expectation, which contains what I am about to repeat.

Yet my attention is continually present with me, and through it what was future is carried over so that it becomes past. The more this is done and repeated, the more the memory is enlarged – and expectation is shortened – until the whole expectation is exhausted. Then the whole action is ended and passed into memory. And what takes place in the entire psalm takes place also in each individual part of it and in each individual syllable.

This also holds in the even longer action of which that psalm is only a portion. The same holds in the whole life of man, of which all the actions of men are parts. The same holds in the whole age of the sons of men, of which all the lives of men are parts.

Augustine 11:XXVIII:38

'Consciousness', 'memory' and 'being' are intimately linked, the direction of the instantiation is 'being' to 'memory' to 'consciousness'. An anaesthetic can remove consciousness; injury, chemicals or deterioration can remove memories; death removes being. When death occurs and Wittgenstein's state of timelessness is achieved all three elements are discontinued in their heirarchy. Who needs time?

Time in scientific knowledge

My readers are now ranged against me, looking at watches and clocks, smartphones, laptops and tablets, waiting tetchily for lunchtime to arrive and free them from this nonsense. They are probably all pondering what sort of professional help would be best for me, for I have abolished the little t symbol that has been so useful to millions of scientists since the beginning of the scientific revolution.

Our scientific understanding of time and distance allows us to understand all the clockworks, great and small, among which we live. How can I remove past and future and thus time itself?

But who can measure times past which now are no longer, or times future which are not yet – unless perhaps someone will dare to say that what does not exist can be measured? Therefore, while time is passing, it can be perceived and measured; but when it is past, it cannot, since it is not.

Augustine 11:XVI:21

Nowadays we can launch a satellite from our rotating planet orbiting the sun, project it through the solar system, slingshot it round another planet and cause it to arrive for a punctual rendevous with an asteroid or comet with such accuracy that for months the two objects are travelling in parallel in the same direction, in orbit around each other.

How could this be done without the little t in all the equations, classical and relativistic, that made this incredible feat possible? If this is so, then how can that little t, so essential, useful and successful, represent a property that does not exist?

Archetypes and instances

The Greeks taught us to think of space analytically, as consisting of perfect lines and points and everything else that could be constructed from them. In doing so we leave the real world behind: points are without size and have only position, straight lines are just constructions of points without width and have only start and end positions and orientation to other points and lines; non-straight lines are just constructions of point positions.

The Greeks thought that their geometrical abstractions, being purer than the messy, approximate world that humans live in, were the archetypes of reality. God was a geometer and human reality was a poor imitation of the divine mind.

In our real world, if we pencil a tiny point onto a sheet of paper it is not a point in the geometrical sense: it is a three-dimensional object made of graphite on a three dimensional sheet of paper. We cannot create a Euclidean point because any and every point we create has to exist – and to do that it requires at least three dimensions of space.

Humanity is left with its approximations of Euclid's perfect figures. For example, the French like to call their country l'Hexagone, and if you look at a map or satellite image of France and ponder a little, your brain will see the similarity. But in fact it is a very poor similarity, one that relies on the wonderful integrative capacity of the human brain for analogy and fuzzy logic and the ability to overlook things that simply do not fit. A little like suspension of disbelief, in fact. But probably every French person accepts l'Hexagone as an appropriate reference to France.

We throw around geometrical terms with abandon: we might call a photograph or a painting a two-dimensional representation when, of course, it is nothing of the sort. It is three-dimensional, because it will always have some thickness. We can talk of three-dimensional images, which are, of course, three dimensional on account of their thickness, but not in the way that is meant by the optical illusion they contain.

In the real world we use descriptions and images in books to identify trees, wildflowers, fungi or whatever, but these are not archetypes of these organisms: they are not used as the templates for creating them. They are instances, or more precisely, representations of instances. We don't have archetypes of these things from which the seemingly endless variety of real world instances is derived. Even for man-made objects we have no archtypes – a 'chair', for example. There is no archetype of a chair in the reference standards laboratories of any country. Picasso can paint a representation of an object and we might call that a representation of a 'chair', but you wouldn't want to try to sit on it.

William Blake, 'Newton', c.1800. Image: Tate Gallery, London.

William Blake's (1757-1827) magnificent vision of the world-famous Sir Isaac Newton as a geometer constructing his soulless abstractions in the midst of the endless subtleties of nature and life (1795-c.1805). Need we say more? Image: Tate Gallery, London. [Click to view a large image in a new tab.]

In fact, since the real-world is 'real' – it is our world, the one we live in – and geometrical analysis is abstract, the true situation should really be reversed. Geometrical understanding is the metaphor for reality, not vice versa. William Blake saw this: Newton is a small part of a much larger scene.

Creating space-time

In 1637 René Descartes (1596-1650) and others such as Pierre de Fermat (1607-1665) laid these point and line abstractions out in a coordinate framework that permitted numerical analysis in two, three and ultimately any number of dimensions. By analysing movement (that is, change in position through time) the mathematicians came up with vectorial analysis.

The powerful analytical description of space was famously extended in the first years of the 20th century by Albert Einstein (1879-1955) and Hermann Minkowski (1864-1909) as the concept of space-time, in which we think of 'events' – combinations of space and time – rather than spatial dimensions with a detached flow of time. Objects cannot exist independently of time and the time at which they exist is as much a property of them as their size and position. The theories, however, are only metaphors for reality.

Such analysis has proved to be an immensely powerful tool that is behind just about every modern scientific activity. There is no challenge to that, except that the scientific metaphor for time leads us into conceptual errors when we move into other fields.

In vectorial analysis and space-time, time can be treated as just another dimension. A line can be drawn along the axis of that time 'dimension', that extends infinitely if necessary. The reference frames of modern physics allow us to imagine events that have a computable past and a (usually) computable future. In this system, the past and future are abstractions, just as much as a point is an abstraction, they are metaphors which lead us to a useful analysis and understanding within the terms of that formalism.

But just because we can draw lines going backwards and forwards in time, doesn't mean that those times really exist in the real world. As we have already noted, we can calculate trajectories in such coordinates that move through past, present and future, but just because we can do this with our conceptual time axis doesn't make it real.

All the other analytical dimensions (at least up to three) that are within reach can be reached somehow in the real world: we can move our draughts around the board from (approximate) place to (approximate) place. We can't move them in time. We may remember those positions, and remember our changing them, but that is all we can do. Time is therefore not an axis like the axes of spatial dimensions.

We have a clue to this special status of time when we only consider that, although we can conceive of many dimensions of space, we can only conceive of one 'dimension' of time. It is therefore not really a dimension – just one more dimension of a set we call an 'event' – but for the purposes of analysis we can pretend it is.

Freeing the mind from mathematics

Let's recap. The memory we have is not the thing itself. Having a memory doesn't mean you have the past. Your memory of a past event is not the past: it is only the moderated recollection of some event or state. You don't have the future at all, so the present is really a 'point in time' – taking the geometrical definition of point. Or even better, if we throw out the concepts of past and future altogether – because they are completely unreal for us – we no longer have that something we call time. Time does not exist in the real world. In the mathematical world it is an extremely useful fiction, but that is just a metaphor of reality.

'Just a minute', you say (wittily, given the context), 'What about clocks? Clocks measure time, so it must exist'. Well, not really. Clocks are just some kind of electrical or physical process with a present state. They are really no different to a landscape scene. They just change state in a finer-grained way. When we look at them we see their present state, but their past state is a matter of memory or record. Even if we photograph them, the photograph only exists at the present point in time. Like everything else in our real world, clocks have neither past nor future.

We also have to recognise that this 'time' which a clock supposedly records is not absolute time at all. Heraclitus' stream flows, but what we measure are the intervals since an arbitrarily chosen reference time, e.g. some astronomical phenomenon such as the position of the Earth in its orbit etc.

We have abolished time in the philosophical, ontological sense. Why are we still allowing it to exist in the field of science? The short answer is: because it has a definition and a formal meaning in science.


Let's take an example from that very time-dependent field, acoustics. We can hear sound timelessly in the real world yet analyse it as time-based waveforms in the mathematical world. Suppose, for example, I am listening to Schubert's String Quintet in C major (see above).

The real-world experience is that the sounds simultaneously made by five instruments arrive at my ears. The sound I hear is a composite – after all, I only have two ears to listen to this sound. The sound may in fact be coming from one or two or any number of sources: in the present case five instruments in a concert hall plus all the additional reverberations and the occasional unwrapping of a boiled sweet, or the sound may be coming from loudspeakers or through a pair of headphones. It really doesn't make much difference for our purposes.

The two holes in my head, each one equipped with a transducer, take this sound, turn acoustic energy into electrical energy in certain nerve bundles and pass the whole mess into my brain for it to sort out.

My brain will be able to distinguish most of the instruments for most of the time: it can differentiate volume, tone, attack and many, many other characteristics of the sound. It will also recognise individual notes and patterns of notes that recur, sometimes with variations, throughout the piece. I haven't 'heard' the music until it has been processed inside my brain. No perception has taken place until that moment. The 'music' I hear is entirely a construct of my brain.

When people who have been blind suddenly gain the ability to see, their brains take some time to structure and comprehend what is being seen. The brain has to learn how to deal with the strange electrical signals now coming from the eyes.

A similar process occurs when deaf people suddenly become able to hear, the brain has to adjust to this new flood of electrical signals.

We note this in a less dramatic way when we listen to music. At the first hearing of a piece – of whatever genre – it will inevitably sound strange. The best word for it is 'unfamiliar', because as we listen to it repeatedly it becomes incresingly familiar – our brains, drawing on memory, gain a deeper understanding of the piece.

Once we are familiar with a piece we can even compare different performances of the same work by different performers. As we listen to more music we also build up expectations for future pieces: we expect certain common patterns structures and patterns – the verse-refrain structure in songs, for example.

Hearing and sight – indeed all the perceptions – are processes that take place in the brain. How the brain performs this complex interaction between sensory integration, memory and consciousness is outside our scope: the research into it is still at an elementary level. But what we can say is that the brain does not need the concept of present or use any mechanism to instrumentalise it. We only have consciousness – that is, some kind of mechanism for focussing attention – and memory, which may be somewhere in a range from extremely short term to extremely long term.

Our memory is not simply a passive recorder, thank goodness, otherwise our brains would fill up with rubbish before our first birthday. Memory deletes some items or emphasises the content of other items as a continuing process. As a result of this process, some memories disappear, or become less accessible, or perhaps more prominent. This process also applies to our perception of past time, its sequencing and its synchronicity.

Examining this process more closely would exceed the scope of our meditation on time. We leave the subject of being, memory and consciousness, therefore, with a quotation from John Betjeman's poem By the Ninth Green, St Enodoc. It is, after all, the job of poets to concentrate into a few words the ideas for which we plodders need to write tomes:

Why is it that a sunlit second sticks?

What force collects all this and seeks to fix

This fourth March morning nineteen sixty-six

Deep in my head?

Betjeman, John. 'By the Ninth Green, St Enodoc' in High and Low (1966), in Collected Poems, John Murray, London, 1993, p. 242. ©John Betjeman.

Boffins ahoy!

Enter our scientist, lab-coat flapping and coloured pens bristling. He or she has a completely different view of this music phenomenon. To the scientist, the sound we hear is simply our response to a complex wave form, which can be graphed quite simply as amplitude over time, giving frequency. Each instrument in the quintet is creating some kind of waveform, each reverberation, too, and the whole lot is arriving at our ears merged in some way – because, after all, we only have two ears.

Mathematical operations can reduce this complex waveform to a combination of simpler waveforms. The waveform can even be manipulated in various ways by electronic and computing devices. That is, the scientist announces, the empirical, 'real' view of things – empirical truth, if you like.

In this view the complex waveform runs under the cursor of the present, almost as a gramophone record under the stylus of the pickup-arm. The transducer organs in the ear respond to this instantaneous present. The amplitude of the wave changes at whatever sampling frequency has been used. Integrated over time, the signal expresses frequency information and ultimately all the pattern information of the piece.

If we are listening to an electronic reproduction of the music, the original complex waveform has been sampled (hacked into slices) at something like 44 kHz and then desampled (the pieces stuck back together again) and arrives at our ears through some kind of transducer. Every process in this scientific understanding of acoustics requires the little t, the scientific abstraction of time. Without time no waveform would be possible, no sampling could be undertaken.

The scientist likes to speak of the passage of sound between instruments or loudspeakers and the listener in terms of pressure waves passing through the conducting medium of air. Well, that is one interpretation.

In contrast, in the real world the transducers of the human ear do not simply follow a waveform. They receive sound in the manner in which they can receive sound, that is, according to their construction. They don't need time, either as a present point or as elapsed time to listen to music. They are not waveform processors, nor electronic devices. Their operation may indeed be analysable as waveform transducers, but that is just one more analysis in the domain of scientific understanding.

The scientist would say that electrical impulses run along our nerve pathways at a finite speed – and who would deny that? But our real world understanding does not care about speed. The impulses arrive at the brain when they arrive, and are processed in the manner in which they are processed and are perceived and enter our memory. Our brain in its consciousness and memory knows nothing of waves or transmission speeds. The sound it processes is just one more aspect of being.

Furthermore, the 'time' that we perceive in music is entirely a mental construction. Our brains process the signals from our ears and out of them make music with all its characteristics, its durations and tones etc. In other words, we are back to our definition of present as 'being' combined with consciousness and memory.

The scientific view of the world is merely a metaphor or a model of the real world. Our understanding of acoustics and its time-based waveforms is a metaphor of the behaviour of sound in the real world, a tool of understanding, if you like. It is not itself real, except within its own terms. If those terms need a little 't', then so be it.

So after this lengthy ghost story in front of the hearth, we bend and stir the embers so the sparks fly upwards and the flames begin to flicker once more. 'Well', we say to ourselves, 'that's Christmas for another year. Glad it's over at last – but how slowly time passes when the story is long!'

A word to the already wise


The technical term for most of the ideas put forward in this article is 'Presentism'. I have gone out of my way to avoid the modern technical terminology for the discussion of the existence of time, whether past, present or future – and particularly logical conundrums such as McTaggart's Paradox and his A-series and B-Series constructs. In respect of these in particular it is of no real importance whether (to use the language of data structures in computing) moments of time are considered to be processed in a list, a pushdown stack, a linked list or any other structure.

Any viewpoint that originates in that curse of philosophy, Hegelianism, as McTaggart's ideas do, is doomed from the start. Furthermore, most of the modern contributions to the subject accept the scientific metaphor for the world as a reality on which human consciousness is dependent. Human consciousness must then implement all the mathematical constructs of scientific formalism, which in turn leads to oddities such as the growing-block theories.

All science requires a time concept and it seems of little concern whether special and general relativity and quantum theory allow certain temporal states or not. I have not the slightest interest in wormholes: they, too, are merely metaphors – and very hypothetical ones at that. All these science things belong to the domain 'science' and are thus metaphors for perceived reality, whereas the present article concerns itself with the philosophical domain of being, ontology, and the perception of being.

Mathematical/objective space-time in perception

The French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941), a great influence on T.S. Eliot's thought, made a clear distinction between perceived time and space-time. In this article I have taken the position that, as far as the scientific space-time metaphor of the world is concerned, time is simply another dimension of analysis. Bergson called this time 'mathematical time' and found it to be a property of space, thus anticipating the space-time events of relativity theory.

In contrast, he considered the time and the durations that organisms perceive as being profoundly different from mathematical space-time, an understanding which, from our point of view, constitutes a breakthrough in this field. He also emphasised the fundamental importance of memory to perception and consciousness and its role as the repository of 'the past'.

After all these philosophical advances, for which he deserves great credit, he foundered on the difficult interrelationship between mathematical time and perceived time. This was largely because, in our opinion, he was not able to detach the formalism of space-time from the 'real' world; he was not able to demote the powerful metaphors of the new science of his times to being just another aspect of understanding; he was not able to reconcile the co-existence of the two realities.

We have already mentioned the German philospher Edmund Husserl in connection with his praise of St Augustine.

Husserl is a neglected figure in the world of non-German philosophy – unjustly, but understandably so. He writes in a German style that is extremely dense, a style which even native speakers find a hard slog. Pity his students: we are told that he read the work from which we have already quoted, Vorlesungen zur Phänomenologie des inneren Zeitbewusstseins, to them in four hours. We hope this means four lectures and not four hours – by the end of the latter, time would have almost come to a standstill for the poor lambs.

He (like Bergson) was of Jewish extraction and as such lived at the wrong period in German history. He laboured under many restrictions and was never able to benefit from the intellectual exchange that would have refined his ideas. Much of his work was never published until after the Second World War. He was a prodigious scribbler whose mountain of papers was only saved by being smuggled out of Germany. As a consequence, Husserl fell down the Nazi memory hole, only to re-emerge long after into a world that had moved on. Some of his papers are still to be published.

Husserl wrote an interesting analysis of the mechanisms of perception, particularly of sound, but for us it founders on his assumption of the primacy of space-time. Husserl had started his career as a mathematician and what Bergson called 'mathematical time' was at the core of his understanding of the world. Husserl therefore takes what he called 'objective time' as a given and attempts to analyse what he calls 'time consciousness' in these terms.

The analysis is interesting, but ultimately flawed, since the 'time points' he uses as a basis for this perception are never properly defined. Husserl's listener hears the note of a violin, for example, but we never find out the duration of that 'time point' and consequently what quantum of perception flows into memory. His general ideas support Bergson's idea of the primacy of memory, but the specifics of Husserl's analysis, though interesting, are ultimately doomed to fail.

Update 30.12.2017

Trusting more to poets than to modern philosophers to clarify our concept of time, here is a lambent piece from the Austrian writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal's series Terzinen über Vergänglichkeit (1894-6), being the kind of thing that geniuses knock off when they are merely twenty years old.

We have done our best to ruin it with our literal translation, ignoring the tricky metrics and rhyme scheme of the terza rima.

Terzinen über Vergänglichkeit I

Terze rime on Transience I

Noch spür ich ihren Atem auf den Wangen:
Wie kann das sein, daß diese nahen Tage
Fort sind, für immer fort, und ganz vergangen?

I can still feel her breath on my cheek:
How can it be that these near days
Are now distant, distant for ever and completely gone?

Dies ist ein Ding, das keiner voll aussinnt,
Und viel zu grauenvoll, als daß man klage:
Daß alles gleitet und vorüberrinnt

This is a thing that no one fully understands
And much too horrible for one to complain:
That everything glides and flows past

Und daß mein eignes Ich, durch nichts gehemmt,
Herüberglitt aus einem kleinen Kind
Mir wie ein Hund unheimlich stumm und fremd.

And that my own self, obstructed by nothing,
Glides to me here from out of a small child
like a dog uncannily silent and strange.

Dann: daß ich auch vor hundert Jahren war
Und meine Ahnen, die im Totenhemd,
Mit mir verwandt sind wie mein eignes Haar,

Then: that I was too, a hundred years ago
And my ancestors, in their shrouds,
Are related to me like my own hair,

So eins mit mir als wie mein eignes Haar.

At one with me as my own hair.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874-1919), 'Terzinen über Vergänglichkeit I', in Hofmannsthal, Hugo von, and Mathias Mayer.Gedichte, Reclam, 2008, p. 21. Source Gedichte (1922).
Translation ©FoS.