See Inside A Matter of Time

Is Time an Illusion? [Preview]

The concepts of time and change may emerge from a universe that, at root, is utterly static

In Brief


  • Time is an especially hot topic right now in physics. The search for a unified theory is forcing physicists to reexamine very basic assumptions, and few things are more basic than time.
  • Some physicists argue that there is no such thing as time. Others think time ought to be promoted rather than demoted. In between these two positions is the fascinating idea that time exists but is not fundamental. A static world somehow gives rise to the time we perceive.
  • Philosophers have debated such ideas since before the time of Socrates, but physicists are now making them concrete. According to one, time may arise from the way that the universe is partitioned; what we perceive as time reflects the relations among its pieces.


AS YOU READ THIS SENTENCE, YOU PROBABLY THINK THAT THIS MOMENT—RIGHT NOW—IS what is happening. The present moment feels special. It is real. However much you may remember the past or anticipate the future, you live in the present. Of course, the moment during which you read that sentence is no longer happening. This one is. In other words, it feels as though time flows, in the sense that the present is constantly updating itself. We have a deep intuition that the future is open until it becomes present and that the past is fixed. As time flows, this structure of fixed past, immediate present and open future gets carried forward in time. This structure is built into our language, thought and behavior. How we live our lives hangs on it.

Yet as natural as this way of thinking is, you will not find it reflected in science. The equations of physics do not tell us which events are occurring right now—they are like a map without the “you are here” symbol. The present moment does not exist in them, and therefore neither does the flow of time. Additionally, Albert Einstein's theories of relativity suggest not only that there is no single special present but also that all moments are equally real [see “That Mysterious Flow,” by Paul Davies, on page 8]. Fundamentally, the future is no more open than the past.

The gap between the scientific understanding of time and our everyday understanding of time has troubled thinkers throughout history. It has widened as physicists have gradually stripped time of most of the attributes we commonly ascribe to it. Now the rift between the time of physics and the time of experience is reaching its logical conclusion, for many in theoretical physics have come to believe that time fundamentally does not even exist.

The idea of a timeless reality is initially so startling that it is hard to see how it could be coherent. Everything we do, we do in time. The world is a series of events strung together by time. Anyone can see that my hair is graying, that objects move, and so on. We see change, and change is the variation of properties with respect to time. Without time, the world would be completely still. A timeless theory faces the challenge of explaining how we see change if the world is not really changing.

Recent research attempts to perform just this feat. Although time may not exist at a fundamental level, it may arise at higher levels—just as a table feels solid even though it is a swarm of particles composed mostly of empty space. Solidity is a collective, or emergent, property of the particles. Time, too, could be an emergent property of whatever the basic ingredients of the world are.

This concept of emergent time is potentially as revolutionary as the development of the theories of relativity and of quantum mechanics a century ago. Einstein said that the key step forward in developing relativity was his reconceptualization of time. As physicists pursue his dream of unifying relativity with quantum mechanics, they believe that time is again central. In 2008 the Foundational Questions Institute (FQXi) sponsored an essay contest on the nature of time, and a veritable who's who of modern physics weighed in. Many held that a unified theory will describe a timeless world. Others were loath to get rid of time. The one thing they agreed on was that without thinking deeply about time, progress on unification may well be impossible.

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