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I know there are other hypotheses on time, but for this question lets go with this definition of time:

The indefinite, constant, continued progress of existence.

Now we have the three parts of time: The past, present and the future.

Lets define the past as:

Passed by in time and no longer existing

And the future as:

Moments yet to happen in time

And lets also say that the past of fixed and the future isn't.

Now the present is:

Existing or occurring now or at this point in time.

My problem here is the word 'now'.

If time is ever continuing and constant, then 'now' surely doesn't exist.

The particular point will be infinitely small and if we are constantly moving into the future, then the present will be part of the past.

So is there just a past and a present? Can it be that there is no such time as the present?

As I see it there are two possibilities:

There is no such thing as the present, just the past and future and we are inbetween

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Or

There is an infinitely small point in time which is the present (represented by the line), which is constantly moving forward into the future

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Forget all loopholes, wormholes and other time-related problems for this.

Is there such thing as the present?

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    This is so funny. open your eyes, there is nothing but the present. the present moment is all there ever is. Any philosophy that leads you into a conclusion that contradicts this truism, is nothing but utter nonsense. The future and past are nothing but human concepts. – nir Jan 19 '17 at 16:27
  • i think so, but haven't studied it. you'd be better off studying it... for me, the present has a real duration, what is problematic is when we think of it as an an infintely small instant. i will read your philosophy, yet it seems so obvious – user6917 Jan 20 '17 at 2:43
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    By "infinitely", I think you mean "infinitesimally". – MattClarke Jan 20 '17 at 3:20
  • If we are "in between" past and future, then wouldn't present just be the name for the time we are at? – virmaior Jan 20 '17 at 7:43
  • It's always the present. You write about the "now" as though it's an infinitesimal slice of time that you pass over as you move from the past to the future. That's not the case, we never exist in the past or move into the future. It's always the present. It's a bit like walking on a treadmill - the belt moves along, but you stay in the same spot. – Nuclear Wang Oct 26 '18 at 14:30

14 Answers 14

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Take a tall drinking glass, fill it 1/4 full with clear water and another 1/4 of yellowish oil, and let it separate and settle for a few minutes.

You'll have no trouble saying which part is water and which is oil. There will also be a very obvious boundary layer between them.

Now ask yourself, is this boundary a real thing?

The water and oil are each three dimensional substances. You can touch them, they are real.

But the boundary is only two dimensional. It has no substance or existence of its own, it is an artefact defined entirely by the existence of the water and oil.

Our universe is very similar, but it has four dimensions, not three.

A four dimensional past and a four dimensional future contact each other along a three dimensional boundary layer, which we call the present.

Again, ask yourself, is this boundary a real thing?

It is just as real as the boundary between the oil and water.

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The past is created by your memory of a present time. The future is based upon your your present minds abilities to draw upon those memories of the past......And here’s the kicker, then use them in the present to bend the future to your will.

  • I am not sure this answers the question: Is there such thing as the present? – Frank Hubeny Sep 19 at 3:16
  • Where are you now? And now? And now? And now? – Lord Sep 19 at 3:34
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  1. As a real (in a sense: of human reality, as opposed to conceptualizations) interface or meeting point between the future and the past, the present does not exist; it is an abstraction.

  2. Ontological time is backward: future precedes past. This is the same truth as "existence precedes essense", only expressed in terms of temporality, and the crux is that the past (facts about reality) borrows its meaning from the future (possibilities). A man (consciousness) becomes temporal (i.e. feeling time going) first in the ontological, or primeval time. Future does not be (it is anticipated, a possibility) and past is what "is" (has being).

  3. Psychological (aka secondary aka physical aka natural aka profane) time is segmented, consisting of triplets past-present-future, and the vector from past to future is not inherent to it, it is applied as a parameter serving utility. In the secondary time, future is a being, therefore it is always future-in-the-past.

  4. So, the Present in the psychological time is just a middle link in the triplet, the role to be the middle is arbitrarily appointed, otherwise the present is indistinguishable from the other two chunks. What in ontological time stands "in place of" the "Present" is the Moment (Instant). Moment is real but happens (i.e. is perceived, experienced) not always. Moment appears when the human basic project suddenly changes (i.e. other possibility get chosen which changes my situation in the world).

See also.

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You ask whether there is such a thing as "the present". Presumably, you are asking whether or not "the present" is a quantifiable, identifiable period in "time", presupposing that there is an objective, linear flow of time in a line from past, possibly through the present, towards the future. That is, the question assumes the universe is three dimensional space modulated by the passage of time. And it is a fascinating question, the answer to which is probably unknowable. But in theory, I agree that if you view the universe as merely three dimensional, the "present" would be so infinitesimal and fleeting as to be virtually non-existent. This contrasts significantly with those "guilty" of presentism - suggesting that the present is, in fact, all that exists. In other words, the only reality is what can be discerned at any given point in time by any individual. I personally subscribe to the block universe theory of space-time, or eternalism, which suggests that space-time is actually an unchanging four dimensional block in which time is the fourth dimension and different times are as real as different places and all existence in time is equally real and "already there". Thus, I would say that "the present" does exist, and go further and say that it actually co-exists with the future and the past.

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(I am a layman, so this is just my personal take on the question.)

I think we need to consider that either: a) there is no present, or b) the present is all there is. [Or, I guess, c) we don’t even exist.]

I'd place my bet on b). Here's why.

I think we can agree that it is impossible for us to experience any "real" present since, technically, that would be experiencing an infinitely small point in time. Yet here we are, moving through time and space, from past to future, yet always only ever experiencing the present (we don’t experience what we call the past, we only remember it in the present – we don’t experience what we call the future, we only visualize it in the present). Therefore, the present is all there is, because that is where we only ever exist, and would therefore have to include, in that present, what we conceive as the past and the future.

The passage of time could be merely an illusion, as we experience various events along the entropic forward arrow of time.

A couple of crude analogies could be a map, or a road.

Time could be likened to a map – a thing – with past present and future all contained therein, as opposed to a flow. As we move along in life, we're merely projecting ourselves onto different points of the map. The point on the map where we were before still exists right before our eyes, the same as it did before; just as the point on the map where we’ll be next week exists, presently, right before our eyes, even though that event is still in the future.

Time could be likened to a road we’re travelling on. The road exists, in its entirety, right now, from beginning to end. But the point we’re currently occupying is not the reality of the road; the entire road is the reality of the road. The segment of the road already traversed may be behind you (in the past), but it’s just as real as it ever was. Same with the road ahead – still in the future, but as much real as it ever was, or will be. The entire road is present, regardless of where you are on it.

To summarize, since we do exist (my personal opinion) and since there is no such thing a ‘present moment’ then there can only be an all encompassing ‘now’.

  • If you do know of any source that takes a similar view to the one you are presenting that would strengthen your answer and give the reader a place to go for more information. Welcome to this SE! – Frank Hubeny Nov 10 '18 at 19:46
  • Sir Michael Dummett, Truth and the Past (Paperback) ISBN 10: 0231131771 / ISBN 13: 9780231131773 Published by Columbia University Press, United States, 2006 – Geoffrey Thomas Mar 23 at 18:27
  • Craig Bourne, A Future for Presentism. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford (2006) ISBN 10: 0199568219 ISBN 13: 9780199568215 – Geoffrey Thomas Mar 23 at 18:30
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I was thinking the same thing "is there actually a present time," and this has come about in respect to some Christian views on open theism as the past is no longer active and the future is unknown by God.

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_theism)

However, how do we measure time in respect to history, the present and the future? History we can measure because it has happened. As for the present, what does it consist of? One millionth of a second and it is history. As for the future, it is progressive for as long as we are in it, but just as the present becomes history, so does the future.

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    I added some edits which you may roll back or continue editing. You mentioned open theism. Do you have references to texts that led you to these views? References give the reader a place to go for more information and they strengthen your answer. Welcome to this SE! – Frank Hubeny Oct 26 '18 at 13:23
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The mistaken assumption you're making is that the present moment is infinitely small. It's not. This is the same reason why the mathematical notion of the continuum fails to capture the notion of the physical continuum. It's a lot more complex than that.

But whereas it's easy (!) to experiment on atoms, it's very much more difficult to experiment on atoms of time. The Planck time is well out of reach of present technology.

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I think your question gets at something very interesting. If the present is an infinitely narrow interface between the past and the present, how does anything happen at all?

You can look at resolutions of Zeno's Paradox for some methodological answers, and energy and momentum derive from them which are invariant through time.

I wrote a quick summary of some views from modern physics on time and causality in Is it possible for something to have no cause? This talk was good too, on doing physics with time as emergent rather than fundamental https://youtu.be/1ogiQ2E6n0U (it's pitched at the non specialist). Something like, there are no things only sets of possibilities and echanges, which we call events.

There are different functional roles for the meaning of present. The physics one, which is limited by the speed of light, with things getting closer in time-connection with closeness in space. There is a psycological present for humans too, to do with our ability to take in perceptions and react. We might analogise back, to say that speed of interactiin can be imagined as the finite extension of 'now', in physics for light to bounce out and back, like in psycology for perception and reaction.

A hummingbird has a different sense of the present to a human, and a cosmic ray particle a speed of change much closer to the fundamental light-speed limit, than the practical speed of change of say an atom of frozen helium.

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An important thing to consider is that everything you have conceptualized relies on time being continuous rather than discrete. Because it is not necessarily the case that time is continuous (I.E. it may be discrete), it is not necessarily the case that the "now" moment encompasses 0 units of time. There is no inherent reason why there can't be a sort of granular/discrete nature to time like there is with matter (which is composed of discrete atoms).

As an analogy think of water. It certainly doesn't look discrete, but actually it is composed of typically imperceptible atoms. If you had a bucket of water, slowly poured it out, and defined a plane over the top of the bucket such that all water to the left of the plane was considered in the bucket and all water to the right of the plane was considered out of the bucket, you might think, if you thought that water was not in any sense discrete in nature, that all water must be inside or outside the bucket because the thickness of the plane is 0. But actually water is composed of discrete atoms that of non-zero volume in 3D space, and so any atom of water sliced by that plain is neither inside nor outside the bucket (at least not totally). If water in the bucket is present time and water out of the bucket is past time the water atoms sliced by the plane are now time.

We have no reason to believe that time is discrete, but we have no reason to believe that it is continuous either except that we perceive it as continuous in the same way that we normally perceive water to be continuous.

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I too, contemplate the marvel of the 'present' and conclude there is no such thing by the following analogy. The past is infinite in time and the future will be of infinite time also. If time was a rail way line, the present is where the two endless rails meet, pressed hard against each other (ignore the fact they are welded together for this analogy). The joint or gap, and there is no gap because they abutt tightly, is what we could call the present.... where the past meets the future. As there is no gap, there is also no present. As we cannot return to the past or step into the future, this gap or lack of it, the 'glorious present', is really a state of the human minds creation. We can however enjoy the sense of 'present' albeit for several seconds or minutes as where the past meets the future, and "be in the now' because human imagination can expand the zone of time longer than the gap itself. That's just the wonderful ability that the human mind has due to its sheer will and imaginative abstractions, but is not to say the 'present' in the railway line, has a space between its join in my hypothetical example, it doesn't. In the popular book 'The Power of Now' this expanded abstraction of time is what the book is based on i feel, as the gap itself "Now" between past and future, is practically zero in dimension and time lapse and therefore, such vast power owed to this perceived entity, the now, is an alluring fiction.

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Other answerers have already pointed this out. It appears that all that we experience is present. My added value though is that thinking of present in mathematical terms is wrong. Existence is inherently extended and indivisible. So just as there are no truly atomic particles there are not time slices, gaps or vacuums in existence. I subscribe to the Muslim neoplatonic philosophers' view that from pure simplicity of the superior principles of cosmos, multiplicity and divisions in lower realms of existence arise. Human mind due to its nature can descend in the hierarchy of existence to witness division and multiplicity but can also move higher along the hierarchy via philosophical contemplation only to see all the divisions and components witnessed in lower levels fade away in unity of the superior planes of existence.

Time is a good example, we ordinarily think of it as divided into past, present and future, yet upon contemplation we realize that there's no past and future, but only "present" and even furthermore all the sense of past and future depend on our present, as past in some sense always accompanies us in present as does future. More surprisingly then we realize that the moment we think of present we lose it hence the contemplation can't help but to take us to probably the supreme understanding that only Martin Heidegger -- and Mulla Sadra to credit this not-yet recognized genius of my heritage -- appear to have realized: Being, as only Being can truly be above all categories including present, and while being indivisible, inexhaustible, ineffable yet be the source of all that is divisible, exhaustible, and describable! Therefore when we're trying to capture the present, we are actually aiming at Being, but this would always be a missed aim as Being despite being the principle of everything remains always inaccessible!

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    Hi Infatuated. Just stopped by to agree. Metaphysics descends into chaos when we reify time, as Zeno notes, and this would be why the view of Plotinus and Mulla Sadra, and of the entire Perennial philosophy is not chaotic but systematic. The only time is Now. The 'Holy Instant', the 'Divine Present', the \Perennial Now', the 'I Am' of the Old Testament. All those who investigate consciousness first-hand end up agreeing with you, Kant, the Buddha and Meister Eckhart. The physicist and mathematician Herman Weyl explains all this in his writings. – PeterJ Sep 13 '17 at 15:26
  • @PeterJ Hi, glad to find a like-minded perennialist in this "reified" world! Thanks for introducing Herman Weyl! Will have to read him one day! – infatuated Sep 13 '17 at 19:46
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Despite the strange, if well written, proposition you begin with, what seems to be doing your work is this:

If time is ever continuing and constant, then 'now' surely doesn't exist.

The particular point will be infinitely small and if we are constantly moving into the future, then the present will be part of the past.

Emphasis mine. You don't seem to have dervied the claim from anythig specific, but maybe time must be composed of infintely small instants, else e.g. we can't easily model it geometrically.

Perhaps the gist of it is that if the present (today) is infintely divisible there must be an instant which is most now. In the similar way to how every past event has an instant it has ended, and the future has a time it must begin, the present must have both. And these are the same time. At least supposing that when we divide up the present duration we mark something that is before or after: and what is before a present event is in the past.

But, unfortunately, that's just question begging.

Cleatly some people deny the reality of the present, as some reject the idea of tense altogether. And maybe even it's true that the present is an infinitely small instant. I see no pressing need to accept either from your question, and would I think humbly suggest that our mathematical models and expressions are robust enough to handle infinitesimals.

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I agree with Lio, i.e. you could take your reasoning the other way round:

  • the present is actuality (everything perceivable).
  • memory is an imprint of the past (a sound recording, a video, or an archeological artifact are always in the present, otherwise one could not experience them).
  • the future is an imagination of what could be (or will be).

Both memory and the imagination of the future (their form, not their content) are actual; they can be experienced, because they are in the present. The perception of the past and the future occurs in the present.

Conclusion: the only actuality there is, is the present. The concept of past comes from experiencing a recording of motions, and the concept of future from an imagination of motions. Both past and future are abstractions (ideas).

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  • If will be happy to provide citations if the person who asked the question requires it. The purpose of this site is to answer the question of the person who asked the question, not to submit university essays to moderators for a passing grade. It is not always necessary to make towering displays of erudition. – fralau Oct 30 '18 at 8:28
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This is a rather tricky question to answer, there is always a different view point.

The 'present' is what you can experience

Present is best described by experience (though this is also slightly tricky). You cannot experience the past or the future, only the present.

Of course light, sound and other experiences take time to reach you so any event takes time to reach you. So once you experience it the event is in the past...right? General relativity agrees that you experience something which originates from an event in the past. However what I would argue you experience is the light of that distant star hitting your eyes. The moment it hits your eyes is the present, that is your experience. The idea of the star, your inferred information about that star etc are all secondary to the actual photons.

The line of the present is thin*, yes, but it is where we live so we cannot discount it's existence or you wouldn't be able to distinguish past from future.

*The thinness perhaps defined by your reaction time (like the shutter speed of a camera).

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    Not so sure about your big bold sentence. Maybe, the present is what you are experiencing. What you can experience seems to be the future (depending greatly on the meaning of "can"). – virmaior Sep 12 '17 at 3:36
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    "It appears... more natural to think of physical reality as a four-dimensional existence, instead of, as hitherto, the evolution of a three-dimensional existence." Einstein, link, page 4 – Chris Degnen Nov 13 '18 at 12:56

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