# If nothing happens, does time still pass?

This question may have been asked before; actually, it's definitely been asked before, since it's on the topic of whether time is real or a man-made construct, but I don't believe it has yet been asked in this specific way.

We have 2 events, A and B. As long as we experience B after A, for us there was a passage of "time" in between A and B; that is, we can clearly say something must've happened in between A and B.

We can imagine time as an arrow pointing from event A to B.

However, now let's say event B never happens, we take it away. And we do this for any event B that may come after A, so that A is the only event that happened, period, ever.

Could we say that there is no longer any time? I mean, there is no event to even draw the arrow to!

Bear with me.

Now let us say event B suddenly DOES happen, and we are thinking of how long after A it HAS happened, that is, how long our arrow should be.

Normally, between A and B there would’ve been the passage of time. We would've been able to draw smaller arrows, and other events would have happened. But if NOTHING ELSE has happened in between event A and event B, doesn't that BY DEFINITION mean event B was right after event A? There must have been no time separating them, the arrow of time would have been infinitely small.

This is leading me to the conclusion that there really isn't anything fundamental about time, except something we designed to understand what we experience "in between" one event and another.

That is, if everything in the universe suddenly stopped, would there really be any time at all? Let's say we were creatures floating around in a space where literally NOTHING happens that we can clearly say came after something else. Would we ever come up with a definition of time?

Is time something fundamental, or a concept invented to describe how we experience events (and what even IS an event; I'm thinking about motion, including the motion of subatomic particles, but is that the correct interpretation)?

Physics answers greatly appreciated

Thanks!

• I've made some edits which you may roll back or continue editing. You can see the versions by clicking on the "edited" link above. A clock might be viewed as an event generator in case nothing else is. That it slows compared to a similar clock in a frame of reference going at a slower speed makes me wonder about time as well and hope someone has an answer to your question. Welcome to this SE! Sep 21, 2018 at 21:31
• Can you read the SEP article on time and tell me if that gives you an answer. If you're asking the question I think you're asking, then the answer is "philosophers do not agree on the answer." Sep 21, 2018 at 22:20
• How do you eliminate all events? As long as I'm alive, every breath I take and every thought I have is an event. I can time the difference between A and B by counting breaths if nothing else. No breaths means simultaneous. Sep 21, 2018 at 22:24
• This depends on what time is. If there is an external environment where something still happens, and internal area where nothing happens, then we might say time still flows. Otherwise, probably, no, because there is no one to confirm it. Sep 21, 2018 at 22:28
• I'm not understanding. If there are no external events, then the only person that time matters to is me, and I perceive time. If there is another observer I can communicate with, there are external events, and we can use them to establish time. It is not possible for me to be alive without internal events, and my corpse isn't going to have any perceptions. Sep 24, 2018 at 17:05

I'd say you're on the right track in suggesting that there is an existential connection between change and time. Thus the Perennialists and mystics are able to deny the reality of time only because they also deny the reality of change and the things that change. It has to be all or nothing for the reasons you sketch out.

But does time pass as you suggest? Does time pass you or do you pass time?

What you are suggesting, it seems to me, is that time is conceptual. Thus where there is no change in our mind then there is no time passing. Further, if mind is transcended then time must be likewise since its passing is not experienced.

Thus your question leads us straight to Kant and onward into mysticism without passing go. If you want to go there then I could recommend Abhidhamma Studies: Buddhist Explorations of Consciousness and Time by Nyaponika Thera.

• Are you using mysticism and idealism as synonymous here? Because while Kant may lead straight to many kinds of idealism, I'm not sure a connection between Kant and mysticism is very straight-forward. Sep 25, 2018 at 8:32
• @YechiamWeiss - Transcendental or Absolute Idealism is what I'm talking about but I don't like these phrases and prefer 'non-dualism'. I'd agree that Kant's relationship with mysticism is not straightforward but he's a useful example of someone who takes logic seriously and sees roughly where it's pointing. .
– user20253
Sep 25, 2018 at 9:33

Ernst Mach and Julian Barbour suggest that time is our perception of change, and perhaps that's one of the best definitions of time I've found. The only physical fact lying under such definition is change, which we can perceive subjectively.

Before answering your question, a mental experiment. Imagine you are a prisoner in a jail cell where you cannot perceive change, at all. No prisoners near, no windows, no signals, noises, visits, nothing. Evidently, in such circumstance you will quickly start losing the sense of time. We need change perception to be aware of time.

In such experiment, you have anyhow some change perception. You can feel your heart beating, your respiration has a rhythm, your body functions follow a period. Using such information, you have a minimal perception of change that allows you to get a minimal notion of time. In ultimate instance, you can count lambs.

But in your experiment, there are only two events (or one). That is equivalent to say that there's no perception of body functions, of respiration, of nothing. Not even labs counting. Cerebral death. The two events can be considered to waking up twice, for small instants, in the middle of the night, not knowing which is which.

Under such light, your question have two possible answers:

• "nothing happens", and "time still pass". That is equivalent to say that even if nobody hears it, there was a noise.
• "nothing happens", and time does not pass. That is equivalent to say that if nobody hears it, there was no noise.

So, from this perspective, your question would be highly biased by preconceived ideas about perception. If the existence of the time entity is subjectively dependent, the idea of modifying the perceptive conditions would only have a rhetoric impact, since we cannot modify our perception to such extreme.

• It's not so much that if nobody hears it, there was no noise; what if we existed in a reality where there didn't NEED to be time to separate two different events? What if the perception and the sound happened at the same "time"? My question was more supposed to be along the lines of: do events happen in time, or is time a necessity for the way in which we perceive events? Sep 22, 2018 at 17:59
• Such question addresses very profound ideas about existence and perception. I can formulate a perfect equivalence of your question, not in relation to time, but space: Do physical bodies exist in space, or is it space a necessity for the way in which we perceive physical bodies?. This, in order to assess the problem from a different perspective: there are no physical bodies in nature. Everything is just atoms (or quantum fields) and emptiness. Things, as space, seem to be just subjective manifestations of our perception. Reality seems to have a poor coherence with our perception... Sep 22, 2018 at 18:14

There's no contradiction between "time is something fundamental," a physics/metaphysics thesis, and "time is a concept invented to describe how we experience events," an epistemic/conceptual thesis. I would combine a "don't know" answer to time (or rather, spacetime) being fundamental, with a "yes" to your second option.

There's a respectable hypothesis in physics wherein the far future of our universe might be an extremely boring place, where almost nothing happens. Sean Carroll describes it at http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2014/05/05/squelching-boltzmann-brains-and-maybe-eternal-inflation/ The boring empty universe still continues expanding, however, so maybe that's something.

The interval of a second is currently defined as exactly 9 192 631 770 cycles of a Caesium atomic clock. Furthermore the definition has changed several times.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second

From this we see that: 1. The interval of a second is completely arbitrarily chosen. 2. Scientists take great care to construct high precision relative time scales. This brings us to how Science sees the time dimension:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spacetime

Relativity theory tells us that time is integral to the fabric of "Reality". That is, any measurements an Observer makes must be done in four dimensions. Now we can say that: 1. Scientifically speaking a time interval can only be said to be real when observed, with an appropriate external time scale. But, 2. An Observer independant Spacetime interval underlies Special relativity.

From 1. we would say that indeed there are no time elapsed between A and B. However from 2. there is a mathematical abstraction that could correlate to and independent spacetime.

But wait there is more:

Taking Quantum and Relativity together we also find, 1. not only an isolated system for A and B, but the whole universe must be without events in order to have a truly Timeless interval. However it is unclear whether the previous sentence is even valid because of a) the large areas of discord between Quantum and Relativity theories and b) the different interpretations of Relativity, and especially Quantum, theory.

Philosophic implications

There are no consensus among philosophers-of-science about the true nature of time. But from a Physics standpoint Time does not exist independently of Space, and some would add Observers.

Time, as we know it is a method of tracking events, the "time" we know is something that is defined by man, but something defined by man is not always created by them, "time" will always flow, without time, we would not be able to see, hear, think, thus be.

That is, if everything in the universe suddenly stopped, would there really be any time at all?

even if "everything stopped" time would not, time exists outside our brains and thoughts, quantum particles and such are constantly moving, no matter where.

Let's say we were creatures floating around in a space where literally NOTHING happens that we can clearly say came after something else.

There is never a situation where "nothing happens", there are situations where you may think "nothing is happening" but constantly something is happening, particles are always moving, they never stop, even without there being someone to "define" time, time will exist.

Time is not something that is defined by events. time is what defines the events, for something to happen time must pass.

What you are thinking here is similar to Schrödinger's cat theorem, which basically implies

Does something exist if no one observes it?

In the theory, the cat that is put into a poison gas box, and is at the same time alive and dead because it is not observed, but the same cannot be applied to time, time is not something you can "observe" but it still moves

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schrödinger%27s_cat

I don't think we can acknowledge the possibility that nothing happens in any physical universe without positing complete uniformity, having maximal entropy. Furthermore, I think there are cosmological and metaphysical issues with such a universe, not the least because it requires a very substantive infinite quantity.

Possibly the question is placed regarding a physical universe containing exactly nothing. But this doesn't allow event A to take place, provided that A is defined physically.

Given that the premise of the question is implausible, I would say it's not necessary to address the specific question of whether time passes.

• And virtual particles mean that even an empty universe cannot remain empty. Something is happening, even if that thing is just constant annihilation of spurious arising potentials.
– user9166
Nov 8, 2018 at 18:55
• @jobermark, without intending to quibble as much as discuss a minor point that you bring up: as emphasized by William Lane Craig, virtual particles exist: such an empty universe contains more than exactly nothing. Nov 8, 2018 at 19:19
• The point is that space creates events all on its own. Even at maximal entropy, space has the potential to create a thing and it's opposite randomly. A state of uniformity could not last.
– user9166
Nov 10, 2018 at 1:13
• You would have to get rid of the space, too, to have nothing happen. Any configuration within space does not change its nature.
– user9166
Nov 10, 2018 at 1:17

It depends.

If nothing is changing because in fact there is nothing there then it's right to say that no time is passing because there is nothing there including time.

If nothing is changing because everything is actually in stasis but could potentially change then time is passing.

If nothing is changing because everything is actually in stasis and cannot even in principle change then time is not passing because time is the potential for change.

If nothing significant is changing then time is still passing.