See Inside A Matter of Time

That Mysterious Flow [Preview]

From the fixed past to the tangible present to the undecided future, it feels as though time flows inexorably on. But that is an illusion

In Brief


  • Our senses tell us that time flows: namely, that the past is fixed, the future is undetermined, and reality lives in the present. Yet various physical and philosophical arguments suggest otherwise.
  • The passage of time is probably an illusion. Consciousness may involve either thermodynamic or quantum processes that lend the impression of living moment by moment.


"GATHER YE ROSEBUDS WHILE YE MAY,/OLD TIME IS STILL A-FLYING.” SO WROTE 17th-century English poet Robert Herrick, capturing the universal cliché that time flies. And who could doubt that it does? The passage of time is probably the most basic facet of human perception, for we feel time slipping by in our innermost selves in a manner that is altogether more intimate than our experience of, say, space or mass. The passage of time has been compared to the flight of an arrow and to an ever rolling stream, bearing us inexorably from past to future. Shakespeare wrote of “the whirligig of time,” his countryman Andrew Marvell of “Time's winged chariot hurrying near.”

Evocative though these images may be, they run afoul of a deep and devastating paradox. Nothing in known physics corresponds to the passage of time. Indeed, physicists insist that time doesn't flow at all; it merely is. Some philosophers argue that the very notion of the passage of time is nonsensical and that talk of the river or flux of time is founded on a misconception. How can something so basic to our experience of the physical world turn out to be a case of mistaken identity? Or is there a key quality of time that science has not yet identified?

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