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Did the passing of time come before everything else? As in, how long was there "nothing"? And if we can put a time on that, wouldn't time itself be something? And if so, is time the thing that "always was, always is and always will be"? Will time always exist, even if there was nothing else out there? I feel like it would have too. And is it possible for time and space to be the same thing? Like could time, space, and distance be the same thing? My brain is exploding thinking about this and I don't have the first clue about any of this. So forgive me if I come off as stupid. But it seems to me that time would be the thing that allows anything else to exist.

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  • 1
    Perhaps you could post this on the physics stack exchange instead of here. I think you'll find the answers there. Jan 24, 2020 at 7:35
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    The ontology and basic nature of time and space are studied by metaphysics, not by physics, so this is the correct place to ask.the question. I would just note that although time (persistence, duration) is necessary for existence as we usually define it, it would not follow that time is prior to existence. They may arise in dependence. You might like this youtube.com/watch?v=kW8CwGUW8vk. .
    – user20253
    Jan 24, 2020 at 11:00
  • @John Forkosh -- I consider the physicists I linked to all be writing philosophy more than physics in those works. And they are in wild disagreement, so as science it is currently pure speculation anyway. Plus ... we methodological naturalists don't see a firm boundary between science and its related fields of philosophy, reasoning, and informal empiricism ....:-)
    – Dcleve
    Jan 25, 2020 at 9:21
  • @John Forkosh -- do the links work now? Note in opposition to Chiara, Smolin is extremely opposed to the mathematization of physics.
    – Dcleve
    Jan 25, 2020 at 16:04
  • @John Forkosh -- Smolin objects to both reduction of physics to math, and to the accompanying assumption that physics and therefore matter IS math. The negative consequences of these assumptions for both science as truth, and enlightenment values and the worldview that democracy is based on, lead him to see this as a very worthy crusade. The middle link takes you to my review of his recent co-authored work with Unger.
    – Dcleve
    Jan 25, 2020 at 23:55

7 Answers 7

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There are three common models for time, and they give very different answers to your question. They all also all have apparent refutations, so -- welcome to philosophy!!!!

The most common model for most of history was to treat time as just a convenient metric to refer to sequential state changes. This is often called the "A" model of time, or Presentism in philosophy. In this model, "time" doesn't really exist -- it is an invented concept by us to refer to the history of state sequences, and to project future state sequences. The only things that actually exist are the things of the universe, and they only exist in their "present" state -- hence"presentism".

The more common model among physicists today is Block time, or the "B" model of time. This model treats time as a dimension of a 4-D Space-time continuum. This is Einstein's model behind General Relativity. In Block Time -- the past, present, and future all have the same status -- there is no special feature to the present. And the future is already set.

A third model is Growing Time -- which treats the PAST as in Block time, but the future does not yet exist. The present has a special status as the edge of Growing Time. Growing time was developed as a "fusion" model -- an effort to find away to incorporate the best features of Block time and presentism in a better model.

Here are several books by active contemporary physicists, arguing for each of these three models of time: https://www.amazon.com/Now-Physics-Time-Richard-Muller/dp/0393354814/ref=sr_1_2?keywords=now+book+time&qid=1579967482&sr=8-2 https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R16VWWZ5I5SC8Q?ref=pf_vv_at_pdctrvw_srp. https://www.amazon.com/Brief-History-Time-Stephen-Hawking/dp/0553380168/ref=sr_1_1?gclid=CjwKCAiA66_xBRBhEiwAhrMuLS7QxrEpXtl3TQz0U8hE_wcs5zI3JS_VA-5BwV4O7LEfxJDL0kbPhBoCxxEQAvD_BwE&hvadid=409937897484&hvdev=c&hvlocphy=9007826&hvnetw=g&hvpos=1t1&hvqmt=e&hvrand=1011146611814977205&hvtargid=aud-836718182849%3Akwd-24482383&hydadcr=24633_11410104&keywords=brief+history+of+time&qid=1579967433&sr=8-1

These books provided fairly criticisms of each of their competing models of time. Summarizing the critiques:

  • Block time provides no explanation of our sense of the present -- a theory of time which fails to predict or usefully understand the primary feaure of time -- is a remarkabley weak "theory".

  • Block time advocates generally assert that our experience of time is an illusion, and call for us to dismiss primary experience in favor of theory -- which is explicitly anti-scientific.

  • Block time is in conflict with all indeterministic models of Quantum Mechanics (which is most, or arguably all of them).

  • Presentism appears to be in conflict with actual physics, in which all events and interactions have duration -- an infinitesimal approach to time's extent -- cannot usefully address how our universe seems to be coupled into longer periods than an instant. This problem is referred to at the "thickness" of the present.

  • Block time is very useful in both relativity, and in modeling the outcomes of QM interactions, while presentism cannot support either. Using the "indirect inference to reality" model of science -- this is strong evidence for block time over Presentism.

  • Growing time gives the present a special status, adressing one flaw of Block time, but in growing time the present is absolutely SECONDARY to the past. But we don't seem to be able to interact with the past -- and the present seems to be far far more important than the past -- so a model that declared the inaccessible past to be "real", and the present is special in only a minor derivative way -- is still not a particularly useful model, and it too is contradicted by immediate experience.

  • Growing time also does not address the "thickness" problem for an instantaneous present -- the past/future boundary in Growing Time cannot have dimension or "thickness".

Under Block Time, there isn't a "before" either time or space, both appear or not, together. Under Presentism, time is just an arbitrary logic attribute of prior states, and logic pre-exists matter and matter states, so "time" would be first. Under Growing Time, only past time exists. Whether the universe is independent or not of time, and there could be a "before" is unclear, the model needs further development.

However, given that each model has falsifications of it, another way to summarize the status of a "first time" is -- we don't have a good model, so we don't know how to answer your question.

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From a physics standpoint, the passing of time came with everything else; it began with the Big Bang. Space and time are not the same thing and cannot be treated on equal footing when describing spacetime because it is possible to freely move backwards and forwards in the three dimensions of space but you cannot freely move backwards or forwards through time.

The relationship between the beginning of the universe and the beginning of time is dealt with in any college-level astrophysics description of the Big Bang. This forum is the wrong place to go into this in detail but there are a number of book-length popularizations of this topic that are available for non-physicists. Chief among these is A Brief History Of Time by S. Hawking.

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  • In Einstein relativity Space and Time are one thing and there is no difference between Space and Time. In Einstein relativity there not one "now" and in the same Time several "nows" Can exists
    – user47436
    Aug 27, 2020 at 8:47
  • Which Einstein relativity? @HassanJolany
    – JeffUK
    Aug 27, 2020 at 12:27
  • @HassanJolany, you are wrong. spatial dimensions and the time dimension are not equivalent in relativity. they may be part of a larger whole but they are mathematically distinct and do not behave identically. google spacetime metric to see why. Aug 27, 2020 at 16:20
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In absolute sense there is nothing called Time. Time is an illusion. The term, 'Advaita' (Non-dual) itself denies even the slightest difference that might arise when we say oneness; since there must be a second thing to say oneness. 'To experience advaita' in this life itself is possible; assures this vedanta. Then, as you mentioned, there must never be two here it this vision; in the case of time and space also.

These two links explain the answer to your question:

  1. https://www.advaita-academy.org/blogs/the-illusion-of-time/

  2. http://www.advaita.org.uk/discourses/knowledge/time.htm

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The concept of Nothingness is in high level of self-awareness. You can identify nothingness with Consciousness. So the true undrestanding of Time must be described by Consciousness. Space-time is the lowest level of reality. Space-time-Consciousness is high level of reality.

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228785585_Relation_Between_Time_Mind_and_Consciousness

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780123738738000797?via%3Dihub

http://www.newdualism.org/papers/J.Smythies/Smythies-JCS2003.htm

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Don't worry if your head is exploding, time is one of the most vexed topics in philosophy and physics, not to mention psychology and theology. The problem dates all the way back to Heraclitus (all is flux) and Parmenides/Zeno (all is one) and is famously addressed by St. Augustine: "What is time? If nobody asks me, I know; but if I were desirous to explain it to one that should ask me, plainly I do not know.” (So reminiscent of Justice Potter on pornography!)

It is useful to remember that time, by one standard, is a formal measurement of durations by some means of constant repetition, and that this was crucial to the development of modern physics. Galileo had no stopwatch and "timed" pendulums using his pulse. According to Mumford the standardization of mechanical time and timepieces evolves with ways to call the hours for prayer in Western monasteries, coupled with chimes and eventually village clocks.

But what is time really? You may want to read a brief introduction to Einstein's special relativity and Minkowski's "spacetime." Then, by way of contrast, a brief description of Bergson's concepts of living or biological duration.

One famous description in philosophy is J.M McTaggert's distinction between "B Series" as immutable relations of things happening "before" and "after" one another. Then "A Series" time is the same series with a designation of "the present." He famously uses this to prove the "unreality" of time, but this is all pretty obscure and outmoded now, I believe. Yet is is a useful distinction to read up on.

The problems of time reach into the works of nearly every major philosopher, so there is really no "getting to the bottom of it." Speaking of which, it's interesting that your question about "before" time seem to be itself as old as time, with propositions appearing in so many creation myths worldwide.

As in Genesis, it is often seen as an infinite regress of "chaos" giving way to acts of serial, then exponential division. Not so different in basic storyline from what physics tells us around the campfire today.

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Any change takes time therefore time is a change of state of the observables which not only includes sun , moon , stars , clocks but also changes in body like heartbeat , breath etc , changes in feelings , changes in perceptions, changes in degrees of free will , changes in state of consciousness.

All conditioned phenomena are impermanent. Being impermanent they express or ,we can say ,they utilise time. Time might look stationary or not moving , that is , no change is observed, but sooner or later change occurs and act of time is acknowledged.

Even nothing is impermanent. Nothing changes and that change gives a sense of time. Time will always be found as nothing remains as it is forever.

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Our most successful models of reality assume that time is a one of four dimensions of spacetime. The distinctions between the three models of time mentioned in an earlier answer- namely, presentism, block time and growing block time- can be put aside if you focus on the fact that while spacetime has many of the features of block time, it does not mean that all past present and future events exist. On the contrary, modern physics assumes that everything in the Universe is moving through spacetime. The past, therefore, is a region of spacetime we have been through, the future a region we have yet to reach, and the present is the region in which events occur. All particles trace out trajectories in spacetime, known as 'world lines'. Particles are treated as points on world lines for the purpose of making calculations, but it is possible that particles have a finite temporal extent in the same way that they have a non-zero spatial extent. Our psychological experience of a unique present arises very naturally in this model, since the present happens to be the localised region of spacetime which each of us is passing through when we interact with the environment around us. 'Now' is rather analogous to the idea of 'here' in that respect.

An understanding of time based on modern physics merges aspects of the three models of time mentioned earlier. Spacetime can be considered as a 4-d block through which everything moves. The present is the instantaneous position of objects within the block, and the past is the part of the block through which everything has moved and where events have happened. Note that the earlier events no longer exist in this model, since the Universe is continually moving through spacetime, so if in a thought experiment you went back to the region of spacetime the Earth occupied a hundred years ago, you would not find it there any more and you could not kill your grandfather. Likewise future events do not exist, and they are not pre-determined- since they depend on the results of events taking place as the Universe moves through spacetime.

I must add that I found it rather amusing to read, in a respected philosophy journal, a 'refutation' of presentism based on the observation that it didn't allow time travel. I wonder how far physics would have progressed if we ruled out theories that did not support all our irrational fantasies and misconceptions.

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  • This answer is confused about what space time is. “Moving thru space time” introduces a new parameter, time-prime, which is logically just a state series, IE A-series time. Meanwhile, relativity, which treats local time as not generalizable, is incompatible with the presentism assumed in this answer. There is an ongoing effort in physics to see if relativity can be recast so it IS compatible with a universal present, but to do that, SPACE needs to be relativized! This approach is called shape dynamics, and I believe relativized space will also be incompatible with your description.
    – Dcleve
    Oct 8, 2023 at 13:38
  • @dcleve in what way is SR incompatible with my answer? Oct 8, 2023 at 14:29
  • Your post has multile incompatibilities with GR. This line is explicitly incomapatible: " if in a thought experiment you went back to the region of spacetime the Earth occupied a hundred years ago, you would not find it there any more". If one revisits the past in "space-TIME, then the earth will be in the location it was in, so yes earth would be "There". This error exemplifies how you misunderstand space-TIME as not actually including TIME fully, you are treating it as a word that you just paste onto 3-D space, then applying a time-prime to it.
    – Dcleve
    Oct 10, 2023 at 12:17
  • You also refer to the "universe" traveling thru space-time. This is the same error. There is no such "travel" in GR. The past and future are both fully bound up in the block. AND there cna be no single "present" in SR. Einstein's multiple thought problems demonstrated this. Presentism is incompatible with GR, as one cannot define common time outlise a light V. The incompatibility of a common pesent with GR is explicitly discussed in multiple time references, and is a major feature of Smolin's books on the subject.
    – Dcleve
    Oct 10, 2023 at 12:21
  • In block time, our sense of a "present" is described as an ADDED feature -- a POV that travels thru space-time. But there is no universalizable common POV, and this POV has no relationship to time as a dimension. Einstein asserted repeatedly that time, in the sense of this POV-centric series of state changes, was an illusion in GR. And one of the main reasons he opposed the Copenhagen Interpretation of QM is because it DOES leave a future undetermined, and hence is incompatible with block time, and the SR that requires the Block.
    – Dcleve
    Oct 10, 2023 at 12:28

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