# Does there necessarily have to be a beginning to time?

Although, I can conceive of a potentially infinite amount of time ahead of me, for it is not actual as it remains to be experienced, I can't conceive of a potentially infinite amount of time behind me, for having been experienced it is actual, and being actual it is finite, as I can't conceive of actual infinities.

Hence there is a beginning to time.

Has anyone discussed this argument in the literature?

• IMO, you can conceive of neither equally... Mar 6, 2012 at 1:50
• Is that because you're holding that we can't conceive of infinites? I can agree with that. But though I can't grasp an infinite future in its entirety, I can grasp the idea of a potentially infinite future, whereas I can't do that with a potentially infinite past. Mar 6, 2012 at 2:17
• Possibly related philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/2281/… Mar 6, 2012 at 3:08
• A joke by Wittgenstein: "... 9, 5, 1, 4, 1, 3. Done!" "What were you doing, God?" "Oh, just reciting all the digits of pi backwards." - twitter.com/seanmcarroll/status/47343988474261504
– nir
May 9, 2015 at 21:44
• This has been commented on in the Vedas, Upanishads and numerous Hindu commentators. Time is endless in both directions. May 10, 2015 at 15:19

## 6 Answers

There is a pretty fundamental fallacy at play in the argument. Let's take it step by step.

I can conceive of a potentially infinite amount of time ahead of me, for it is not actual as it remains to be experienced

True. Naturally, since no one (yet) has proven to be immortal, the vast majority of that infinite time "ahead of you" will also be "without you"; but either way, we can conceive of, say, the year 2090, or the year 20000000[...insert zeroes at leisure...]000090.

I can't conceive of a potentially infinite amount of time behind me, for having been experienced it is actual, and being actual it is finite,

Wrong. You have experienced a small fraction of that potentially infinite time "behind you", but there is nothing stopping you from conceiving of, say, the year 1890, which (to all appearances) occurred without your presence. Of course, if you are a Buddhist, the year 1890 did include your presence, in some manner or another, but that's neither here nor there-- and that's precisely the flaw in the argument. Imaginary time is symmetrical, whether we imagine ourselves around to experience it or not.

Has anyone discussed this argument in the literature?

Nope, for reasons that should be apparent.

• I haven't probably phrased myself clearly enough in the question. I'm not talking about my own actual lifetime. Living through, as in your example, 122 years doesn't trouble my imagination. Nor would living through 5000, or 10 billion years. But no way can I imagine myself living through an infinite amount of time. Have I misunderstood you, are you saying that this is imaginable? Mar 6, 2012 at 8:13
• I am saying two things: 1) Yes, this is imaginable, and the Buddha is reported to have imagined precisely that, and 2) it doesn't matter, anyway, as we don't need to imagine ourselves having lived through an infinite amount of time to be able to imagine that that time occurred anyway without our presence. To summarize: if you can imagine living through an infinite amount of time in the future, you can likewise imagine living through an infinite amount of time in the past; and, one can imagine an infinite amount of time passing (in the future or the past) without imagining living it. Mar 6, 2012 at 8:40
• I didn't say that I could imagine living through an actual infinite. I said that I could imagine a potentially infinite future. There is a difference, whether you happen to agree with it or not. According to the SEP, Aristotle argues that in the case of magnitudes, an infinitely large magnitude and an infinitely small magnitude cannot exist. In fact, he thinks that universe is finite in size. But he explicitly argues for an eternal universe, presumably for the same reason stoicfury did. I'm simply making the point that his argument should apply to both time & space. Mar 6, 2012 at 9:31
• I'm using 'myself living through' as a rhetorical device. To reiterate, I can't imagine an infinite time occurring, in the same way Aristotle presumably couldn't imagine an infinite amount of space being traversed. Mar 6, 2012 at 9:50
• @dorfman: What you said about the Buddha is interesting. Could you expand on that? Mar 6, 2012 at 9:58

The question seems to invoke a rather specious argument but it seems like a genuine concern so I'll counter it with another thought experiment: Why can't you just always conceive of an earlier time? Let's say you're right, and that time started at time T. Certainly one can conceive of a time just before T, right? In fact it seems to be embedded in our very concept of time that there is always a before and after...

• Thats a good point. I don't know how to resolve my own question as well as the one you're asking. But I don't understand why you see the argument as being specious: Countering one paradoxical statement with another doesn't resolve either, but complicates both. Mar 6, 2012 at 2:52
• It's specious because while it seems valid on some level, it clearly goes wrong somewhere as my little counter-example highlights. Unfortunately, sometimes with these things it's easier to see that something is wrong than to point out the exact flaw. Mar 6, 2012 at 6:55
• This has nothing to do with my own argument. But does this mean that you don't agree with the conventional notion that time began with the big bang? Mar 6, 2012 at 8:25
• The Big Bang doesn't suggest all time began with it. It is merely demarcated as the earliest knowable point in the timeline of our universe. We have predicted how long ago it occurred, but that doesn't mean time started with it; it just means that we lack the ability to predict any further back. Mar 6, 2012 at 16:29
• @stoicfury From a lot of positions, for instance Hawking's imaginary time, the big bang does presuppose no time before it. If space and time are a single thing, you cannot compress all of space to a point and let time flow. Also at a certain density of matter, time is flowing perpendicular to its ordinary direction, which means by our standards looking backward, it just was not passing.
– user9166
May 10, 2015 at 18:11

Imagine time as circular. That would mean it has neither a beginning nor an end, yet it is still finite in length.

Time has traditionally been viewed as either like a circle or like a line. Plato, Aristotle and many other Greek and Roman thinkers, particularly the Stoics, advocated a circular view of time. Linear time first appeared in Hebrew and Zoroastrian Iranian writings. Seneca was an advocate of linear time. Augustine thought time was specifically like a line segment. It had a distinct beginning and end, from Genesis to judgement day. Later on Aquinas agreed, and even further on Newton mathematically represented time as a line in his equations. Prominent thinkers such as Barrow, Leibniz, Locke and Kant all agreed with a linear type of time, and in the 19th century time was widely regarded, in both philosophy and science, like a line. It wasn't until 1949, when Kurt Godel, working with Einstein's equations, developed "closed loops of proper time", which are semi-circular in that they allow one to end up where they started after going forward in time.

The internet encylopedia of philosophy

• This does not answer the question "Has anyone discussed this argument in the literature?". This should be a comment.
– user2953
May 10, 2015 at 5:41
• It could use some elaboration, but I think it's potentially useful or helpful to someone. May 10, 2015 at 17:34
• @Keelan In a trivial way this quote is part of 'the literature', so this is a more compliant answer than mine or virmaior's. Sometimes long comments just get to be answers, especially when the comment is a long version of "that question lacks perspective".
– user9166
May 10, 2015 at 18:15
• @jobermark I don't actually have an answer posted here on this question... May 11, 2015 at 23:26
• Sorry, that is stoicfury.
– user9166
May 11, 2015 at 23:35

I accept the result of Kant's antinomy on time, from which he deduces that time is a human interpretation, imposed on thought, and not a real thing. Then to address a question like this, we have to decide what we are really talking about when we speak of time passing. For me, that is the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

If time is not a dimension, but is the effect of the ongoing increase of entropy, then it cannot be infinite in either direction, especially if it is linear.

As we reach utter pattern-lessness, time should have more and more difficulty moving forward. If there is in fact a state of such disorder that it no longer allows for the osmosis of heat, time will eventually stop. At the same time, if entropy decreases backward in time, it must lead back to a state of very high order. At either end, time slows asymptotically as either freedom or movement becomes so rare that what is going on cannot be seen as the passage of time.

In one interpretation, the fluctuation theorem says time can flow in either direction, but must reverse at a point of zero or maximal entropy. So if we managed at the right point to reverse the dependency of our processing and storage mechanisms, we could experience the time reversal as continuing forward, with all of our thermodynamics reversed.

This implies to me that the two ends of time need to be symmetrical, and it cannot be possible to experience a limitless future with a fixed beginning, in a consistent way. If time is reversible, imaginary time can be boundless in either direction, and real time as process we actually observe must stop at both ends.

• I have heard this explanation about time slowing down or space shrinking several times including by physicists but there is one thing I don't get. If time and space are relative then what does that even mean to the average dude in that shrunk and dead slow coordinate of space time? For all he cares time and space are perfectly ordinary for him, aren't they?
– nir
May 10, 2015 at 17:19
• In the theory I am coming from, subjectively, time near heat death would mean insane unpredictability. As time slows, random changes in energy would become macroscopic. Stuff would just move or warm up or cool down, and that would be normal. Early in history near total order, the background entropy that lets us feel like everyone else is sharing time would not be there. Time would noticeably pass at different rates in different places Reversed time would mean entropy increases subjectively in your experience. Heat would not spread, it would coalesce, stuff would un-burn...
– user9166
May 10, 2015 at 17:48
• @nir -- forgot to tag you on the comment above.
– user9166
May 10, 2015 at 18:02

... as I can't conceive of actual infinities. Hence there is a beginning to time. Has anyone discussed this argument in the literature?

Yes, actually even someone who could conceive of actual infinities, namely Georg Cantor. Here are some quotes of his. They have been stated in private letters but meanwhile exist in printed form:

"With respect to the creation of the world and its temporal beginning I completely agree with you Reverend Father but I also agree with St Thomas Aq., who contests in his Opusc. de aeternitate mundi the mathematical provability of this theorem (that a temporal beginning of the world has to be assumed). [...] If it is said here that a mathematical proof of the beginning of the world in finite time cannot be given, then the emphasis is on the word 'mathematical' and only in that respect my opinion is in agreement with St Thomas. On the other hand, just based upon the true teaching of the transfinite, a mixed mathematical metaphysical proof of the theorem might well be possible. In so far I differ from St Thomas, who holds the opinion: 'Only by belief we know that the universe did not always exist, and that cannot be checked by proof on its genuineness'." [G. Cantor, letter to A. Schmid (26 March 1887)]

"I definitely agree with you, Reverend Father, in the assumption of a temporal beginning of the world. I have always considered the contrary dogma of present natural sciences as violating good reason in highest degree." [G. Cantor, letter to A. Schmidt (5 Aug 1887)]

"I do not only maintain with all Christian philosophers the temporal beginning of the creation, I also claim like you that this truth can be proven by rational reasons. [...] The foundation of actually infinitely great or, as I call them, transfinite numbers does not entail that we have to refrain from rational proofs of the beginning of the world." [G. Cantor, letter to J. Hontheim (21 Dec 1893)]

"[...] for instance, the time elapsed since the beginning of the world, which, measured in some time-unit, for instance a year, is finite in every moment, but always growing beyond all finite limits, without ever becoming really infinitely large." [G. Cantor, letter to I. Jeiler (13 Oct 1895)]

"With great interest I have studied your essay: 'The teachings of holy Thomas of Aquino about the possibility of a creation without beginning.' It was very satisfying for me to see the position of holy Thomas concerning actual infinity be discussed from such a profound expert and to learn that I had correctly understood holy Thomas in this point and related questions, in particular that his arguments against the actual infinite in creatis or against the possibility of actually infinitely great numbers has, for himself, not the meaning of a demonstratio, quae usquequaque de necessitate concludit leading to metaphysical certainty, but was in his own eyes only probable to a certain degree." [G. Cantor, letter to T. Esser (5 Dec 1895)]

Time is infinite - there was no beginning - there couldn't be, just like numbers you can subtract 1 from any number, infinitely. If you believe there was a year ago, and a 10 years ago, then theres no reason you should have to stop adding zeros, infinitely, to represent a time that happened.

• If you have a reference this would help support your answer and give the reader a place to go for more information. Welcome to Philosophy! Jan 17, 2019 at 8:01
• What I know about time and space cant be found in any reference. Jan 17, 2019 at 14:34
• @john Doe: Time is not like a number - numberr is an abstraction whereas time is physical. There in lies a distinction that you mind find fruitful to ponder on. Jan 17, 2019 at 18:30
• Numbers can represent time - 1 hour = 1 number, or 1 year = 1 number. And of course numbers are infinite, so is time. Jan 17, 2019 at 19:13