What analogies are there for thinking about the flow of time? Assuming that time has the following characteristics:

  1. Only the present exists (not the past and future)
  2. The present is a fiction
  3. The future contains the past
  4. The flow of time is irreversible.

I simply do not have the cognitive skill necessary to fully imagine such a scenario. Obviously philosophers have deployed metaphors to describe time, before:

  • Heraclitus' super famous use of 'river of time'
  • I believe the physicist Eddington's 'arrow of time'

But the first falls foul of 1 (the whole goddamn mississippi exists), and the second 2 (arrows have real effects).

  • if a bad question, likely cannot be improved. so just leave a comment and i'll erase, please :)
    – user25714
    May 18, 2017 at 23:55
  • 2
    Some of your options are close to the standard metaphysical theories of time, eternalism, presentism, and growing block, another option is that time is an illusion. They invoke various metaphors, but above all try to articulate coherent doctrines that explain our intuitions of time.
    – Conifold
    May 19, 2017 at 0:50
  • 1
    The past containing the future is one way to state hard determinism. But future containing the past? I suppose by analogy it should be something like "final destination" shaping how we approach it today, like Chardin's Omega Point. I am afraid I do not follow the "line in euclidean and non euclidean space" part. Topology of a "line" (1-manifold) can only be interval/segment/ray or circle, which space it is in is irrelevant.
    – Conifold
    May 19, 2017 at 5:26
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    Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.
    – user4894
    May 19, 2017 at 18:08
  • 1
    "What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.” – Saint Augustine
    – user20153
    May 19, 2017 at 22:41

1 Answer 1


Assuming time has the following characteristics? I don't really agree with any of the characteristics there. What does it mean to say the present is fictional?

To me those characteristics are fairly characteristic of metaphysical assertions which transgress the boundaries of sense.

I think the river analogy is the most common one. Wittgenstein had some great things to say in his Blue and Brown books about how the analogies people make with time cause a lot of the philosophical muddles people get into. When people see an analogy, they tend to ask questions that don't make sense. E.g. there is a certain analogy between time and a river. That is all well and good, but it runs into problems when people carry the analogy too far (like Augustine did with his puzzlement about time).

If one imagines a log flowing down a river, while we stand on the bank, we can imagine saying the log is now downstream, now in front of us, now upstream. That kind of analogy is used to describe events in time. One can ask meaningfully "the log has gone away, I wonder where it is now". But to carry this idea over into the analogy with time is the misstep in thinking. It causes one to ask questions like " oh, I wonder where the past has gone, and whether it exists"

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