The dependence of time on change as a metaphysical principle

It’s hard to get anywhere in explaining what time is without saying that it is secondary or subsequent to change, and there is a pretty broad agreement that this is the case. Both Plato and Aristotle agreed to it, and their disciples followed them. Mc Taggart defines the principle in question well in his famous essay The Unreality of Time:

It would, I suppose, be universally admitted that time involves change. A particular thing, indeed, may exist unchanged through any amount of time. But when we ask what we mean by saying that there were different moments of time, or a certain duration of time, through which the thing was the same, we find that we mean that it remained the same while other things were changing. A universe in which nothing whatever changed (including the thoughts of the conscious beings in it) would be a timeless universe.

The immediate retort, of course, is that we have no problem imagining a world of completely frozen motion and thought (it’s a common enough sci-fi or comic-hero superpower) and there is a clear sense in talking about how long such a thing would be frozen. And so as long as we are thinking about  “A universe in which nothing whatever changed (including the thoughts of the conscious beings in it)”, why can’t we think of it existing for some time?  Even if we leave aside the question of “how long”, isn’t it obvious that a frozen world is still a temporal one, simply because the presence or absence of motion isn’t usually thought to have any effect on whether something is temporal? The genius of McTaggart’s explanation is that he incorporates a response to this: ” A particular thing, indeed, may exist unchanged through any amount of time. But when we ask what we mean by saying that there were different moments of time, or a certain duration of time, through which the thing was the same, we find that we mean that it remained the same while other things were changing”. And so we can eliminate this or that change from the temporal world, but to think on the basis of this that we could make some sort of radical division between thought and change would be, in light of Mc Taggart’s principle, the fallacy of composition. Whatever might change or not in a particular case, it remains that the modality of time tracks perfectly the modality of change.

This is a particularly powerful example of a metaphysical principle, not because it is the clearest one, but because it shows the sort of discourse on experience that metaphysics requires. The principle is not revealed by the repetition of experience, but by the deepening meditation on what is given in initial experience. There is a good deal of discourse involved in getting the point of seeing the principle clearly, but the discourse does not consist in a multiplication of some one experience nor in the unification of some field of data under a single idea. There is only the development of what is given in an initial experience of temporality, which reveals the nexus between temporality and a change that differs from the change in time.

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7 Comments

  1. MikeFlynn said,

    November 21, 2011 at 9:43 pm

    Einstein wrote in his paper on the orbit of Mercury that general relativity had stripped from time (and space) “the last vestige of objectivity.” He wrote elsewhere that if matter/energy were to disappear, time and space would disappear with it.

  2. Brian D. said,

    November 21, 2011 at 10:17 pm

    I just had this conversation with my juniors today, on Newton’s notion of absolute time (and space). I asked them to set aside doctrines learned from Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas and to consider what was their gut reaction to the notion of “the flow of time” in Newton. I.e., stop the universe in your imagination; does time continue to “flow”? The class was split, each giving pretty good reasons for holding their positions.

  3. Joel Feil said,

    November 22, 2011 at 10:23 am

    Where does Plato argue that time is secondary or subsequent to change?

    I thought that Newton got his ideas of the separability of time and space (so to speak) from (neo)platonists. In which case, one wonders whence the change in views?

    • November 22, 2011 at 10:46 am

      In the Timaeus, where he says there would be absolutely no time without the rotation of the spheres. He’s pretty emphatic about it too. I just read it yesterday but can’t find it offhand. It was one motivation for the post.

      • Joel Feil said,

        November 22, 2011 at 11:15 am

        How interesting. The text’s of the Timaeus that show that Plato (at least seemingly) thought of time as motion of the spheres can be found here: http://faculty.washington.edu/smcohen/320/timaeus.htm

        However, I’m still surprised by that Plato viewed time as a product of the motion of the spheres, though, to be sure, this was the conventional view of the Ancients. Does Plato speak of “time” elsewhere, in other terms? Some additional support for my confusion is found in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Time, which says the following:

        “The opposing view, normally referred to either as “Platonism with Respect to Time” or as “Substantivalism with Respect to Time” or as “Absolutism with Respect to Time,” has been defended by Plato, Newton, and others. On this view, time is like an empty container into which things and events may be placed; but it is a container that exists independently of what (if anything) is placed in it.”

        I have a vague recollection that Plato also thought that time wasn’t really anything at all.

        I do feel that you overstate the “broad agreement” that time is “secondary or subsequent to change” or motion (cf. Newton, Kant, etc.). This point is hotly disputed by many, many philosophers, including, if not Plato himself, at least many prominent followers of his.

      • November 22, 2011 at 2:55 pm

        The agreement I had in mind is one that stretched over different eras in thought and had many followers who held it (perhaps not always for the same reason). I don’t see how one can get very far speaking about what time is an an objective fact without giving it some necessary tie to motion or change – Newton doesn’t want to figure out what time is (it seems to me he just wants a homogenous and absolute time that stands behind the various disjoined times we could set our clocks by, but he is not interested in answering the question “what is time?”) and Kant doesn’t view it as a feature of the world.

    • November 22, 2011 at 10:59 am

      I found the section. It’s a little long to quote (search through it here), but one good quotation comes after a lengthy description of the the motions of the heavens: Time, then, and the heaven came into being at the same instant in order that, having been created together, if ever there was to be a dissolution of them, they might be dissolved together. While this is not exactly an order of dependence, it’s at least denying any ontological independence of time from the motion of the spheres.


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