Consider the following sentence:

(Example A) "We need to go into the future and away from the past."

Every physicist sees time like Example A. The observer is moving towards some point in his future light cone, and away from the origin of his light cone. This sentence is the motion of time from the physicists (i.e. objective) perspective.

But subjectively speaking, the future is a bunch of events coming towards you, and the past is always receding from you. So you're no longer moving into the future, but rather the future is coming towards you, and the past is no longer something you're deparing from, but rather it is in continuous recession from you.


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    For the same reason that when we are standing on Earth the Sun revolves around us daily. When we make ourselves the center of everything, as we are wont to do subjectively to live this life, everything else gets to move relative to us.
    – Conifold
    Commented May 23 at 6:49
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    This may be culturally dependent - some societies view the future as being behind them and the past in front of them (theconversation.com/…), which makes the meaning of "the past is no longer something you're depar[t]ing from" somewhat ambiguous as it would be implying walking backwards to depart from the past. Commented May 23 at 18:44
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    This isn't a question about philosophy; it's a question about the underlying idea of an English metaphor. Commented May 23 at 21:31
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    Congratulations, you’ve reinvented the myth of Prometheus and Epimetheus! Commented May 24 at 7:17

6 Answers 6


One of the key notions of physics is that motion is relative- to say that A is moving towards B is equivalent to saying that B is moving towards A. Had you applied that notion to time, you would not have been confused. Saying that we are moving towards the future and away from the past is equivalent to saying that the future is coming towards us and the past away.

  • Did you mean to say "space" in the second sentence?
    – Barmar
    Commented May 23 at 14:36
  • @Barmar no, why did you suppose I did? Commented May 23 at 16:22
  • "Had you applied that notion to time" -- isn't that what they're doing in the question, and it's confusing them?
    – Barmar
    Commented May 23 at 16:22
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    @Barmar "So you're no longer moving into the future, but rather the future is coming towards you" shows that they didn't see them as equivalent, i.e. they didn't apply that notion in their question.
    – JoL
    Commented May 23 at 17:47
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    Now I understand. I thought you were saying that they would understand relativity intuitively if they had asked about space, but you're actually saying that they should just map what they know about space to time.
    – Barmar
    Commented May 23 at 17:49

I see a lot of answers with personal conjecture without reference, so I'm going to point you towards one published response to your question, that of the linguist and philosopher George Lakoff.

You ask:

Why is time, when viewed objectively, in reverse from when it's viewed subjectively?

Lakoff and some other co-authors (Nuñez, Johnson, etc.) who rally behind cognitive semantics have proposed that our brain relies on conceptual metaphors and that understanding time is a form of embodied cognition. From WP:

In cognitive linguistics, conceptual metaphor, or cognitive metaphor, refers to the understanding of one idea, or conceptual domain, in terms of another. An example of this is the understanding of quantity in terms of directionality (e.g. "the price of peace is rising") or the understanding of time in terms of money (e.g. "I spent time at work today").

In this case, Lakoff and Nuñez propose in Where Mathematics Comes From that there is a fundamental conceptual metaphor called Motion Along a Path, by which our brain makes sense of linear sequences by essentially repurposing the neural apparatus used for guiding the body motion through space to discuss a numerical dimension described by the Continuum. Since time is a single dimension of time-space under current physical understanding, we understand time as if we "move through it". Of course we don't literally move through time as motion is defined quite literally as a change of position in space relative to time. It is a low-level metaphor to say that we and time have a relationship of motion.

That being the case, there are two ways, since motion can be described with relativity (as in the relativistic physics of Big Al). There is no absolute frame of reference in modern physics such as the absolute space and time of Newtonian physics. Either we are in motion through time, or we are stationary, and it is time that moves. In Western society, we adopt the conceptual metaphor of conceptualizing ourselves in motion moving forward. But that is a conceptual metaphor relative to our culture, a point outlined in The Metaphors We Live By.

In Ancient Greece, it was common to conceptualize time as time in motion overtaking us from behind! Notice the implications of inference. If time is in motion and overtakes us, it often will be a surprise to us what we see since the future in this metaphor is not visible to us. It also implies that we are not in control of events, but rather they are sprung upon us. In contrast, to be in motion can lead to the inference that we choose our path through time in some sense, and that we are able to see and anticipate events.

Remember, we are no more literally in motion through time than we have a mind inside our skull. Time is an abstraction of motion (PhilSE), in fact. That Western society has embraced a particular metaphorical interpretation of what time is and attempts to impose that as 'objective reality' is more a commentary on intersubjectivity and the pervasiveness of theory-ladenness than actually establishes an airtight case for scientific realism: a notion exposed by important arguments by instrumentalists.


Physicists know just as well as anybody else that wherever you go, there you are.

In mathematical physics it is conventional to assign observers to the origins of their own coordinate systems. It's mathematically more convenient to transform between coordinate systems as needed according to mathematical transformation rules (a theory of relativity) than it is to have a constantly-changing coordinate system where the very meaning of one coordinate (for instance, x) changes depending on another coordinate (for instance, t).

The real-life parallel of pinning an abstract mathematical observer to the abstract mathematical origin of an abstract mathematical coordinate system is the conscious point of view, which never moves as the world sweeps by. Wherever I-here-now is with respect to everything else, with respect to I it's here, and whenever it is with respect to every other event, with respect to I, it's now.


Usually when dealing with physics related phenomenon like space-time or time cone everything usually should be seen relatively i.e., Einstein's theory of relativity works for this particular reason. It is all about a reference frame, here you are setting a point in time/ time cone as a reference frame and therefore you would want to see relativity to play out exactly like relativistic motion. Subjectively, we assume we are stuck at one point and then time moves toward us. In the second case, the time cone is fixed and we move towards it. It is just the concept of relativity which is applied to motion in physics now applied to the case of time. This is why it might seem reversed, but actually both are the same thing, funnily enough it could be the case from an outside observer that the reality is that you are moving towards the future and the future is moving towards you at the same time. All three of the scenarios are viable and the same. I really don't think there is another way of looking at it.

  • The term objectively is very misleading here because again, 'objectively' here is just saying from the perspective of the time cone/'past' or 'future' (which are points on the time cone). It is not "objective" but instead subjective/pertaining to the reference frame of the point.

Why is time, when viewed objectively, in reverse from when it's viewed subjectively?

Because the concept of objectivity includes accepting that we are ourselves moving into a larger and fixed whole, i.e., reality as a whole, while subjectivity by definition is on the contrary to see everything from the fixed vantage point of our individual perception of reality, which means that whatever we do, we see everything else as moving relatively to us.

Of course, the semantic only reflects the fact that we can change our point of view from subjective to objective and back. This in turn is presumably made possible by the fact that we have two points of view to begin with, two ways can conceive of our relation to the rest of the world (There are also interesting reasons for that but I guess this is good enough in itself).


The underlying reason is that the processes of separation as well as approaching — in time as well as in space — are in fact symmetrical, even if we perceive them in an asymmetrical fashion. Two things approach each other or separate from each other.

Modern European languages tend to have distinct words for the two viewpoints of symmetrical relations, but there are a few Latin examples which reflect this symmetry: Altus means high and deep (a cliff is a cliff, whether you are at its base or on the top); fides means to have faith in someone but also the loyalty of that person: One word to describe such a relationship!

In the same sense, the concepts of "separation" and "approaching" reflect a growing or closing gap, even if the processes are necessarily asymmetric from either point of view.

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