If the idea of Eternalism as expressed by those like J.M.E. McTaggart and Sean Carroll is true (as much of physics seems to suggest), the idea of the present moment being more real than the past or future is just a biological illusion. If that's the case, then what does it mean for our consciousness to in some sense exist eternally at every moment in our lives? I have to imagine that we're continuously retreading the same path through space-time that is producing the same experience over and over, only experiencing it linearly one moment at a time because of the limitations of our perception. I see this as different from Nietzsche's idea of Eternal Recurrence; we aren't appearing in different incarnations that have identical experiences over infinite time but continually reliving the exact same experience.

Good explanation of Eternalism and Presentism here.

Edit (11/16/21): I actually posed this question to Sean Carroll last year on his monthly AMA and his answer was of course that we don't know what the implications of eternalism are for consciousness, but it has something to do with the nature of the arrow of time and the second law of thermodynamics. The link should automatically go to the correct timestamp, but if not it's 1:43:01. What he said doesn't vindicate my point but it's definitely interesting input into the discussion.

  • There's two different flavors of eternalism, one accepts McTaggart's B-theory of time in which there isn't any notion of a "present moment" moving along the timeline, another is the moving spotlight model where there is. I'd say most eternalists would go for the former idea, in which there's no sense of even a subjective spotlight of consciousness that moves along your worldline, so it wouldn't make sense to ask if it "resets" when it reaches the end.
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Jun 27, 2020 at 17:24
  • If eternalism is true the idea of "treading" or "looping" does not make sense, it unwittingly reintroduces some external "time". It would mean that the only real things are causal relations and "consciousness" arranges them into a sequence. It does not happen "repeatedly", it does not "happen" at all, it just is, eternally so.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jun 28, 2020 at 0:20
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    why do you see eternalism as needing a loop of some kind?
    – Ewan
    Commented Nov 14, 2021 at 15:00
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    What I mean is that we don't perceive everything as "one eternal now," so that means the events of us being conscious aren't happening all at once, so there is at least one such set of events that exists contra eternalism. (Hence the quip, "Time is an illusion," which depends on a metaphorical or false definition of "illusion.") Commented Nov 16, 2021 at 21:21
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    It's not about being aware of the whole spacetime block, but the whole of our subsection of that block. What does, "All times are equally real," mean for us if not, "All events are equally real," and yet if all events are equally real but are not unified in an eternal now, what is the point of eternalism? Doesn't it become an empty proposition, then? Commented Nov 17, 2021 at 18:19

4 Answers 4


I think you are misunderstanding Eternalism, which to my eyes is essentially just another way of thinking about a deterministic universe.

If the universe is deterministic, there is nothing special about the present. The present is simply the state of the universe at time t and no more or less real than the state at time t+1 or t-1

No reincarnation or repetition is implied. Its just like having a film reel, each frame is as real as any other when its not in a projector. But the film still has a beginning and an end and you only watch it once.

  • If Eternalism is true, couldn't you say that you never "watch" the film at all? To me it seems the projector would represent the "specious present" that McTaggart claims doesn't exist. Commented Nov 18, 2021 at 0:53

There is no stasis (not even the idea of stasis) without movement, and vice versa. A circulating moving spotlight of a fixed context is thus one at least coherent depiction of an eternalistic universe. What else would categorize such a universe, as gleamed by Hinton, Mach, Planck, Einstein and William James, and succinctly codified by Lawrence LeShan, can be found in a very brief essay I recently published with the Journal of Conscious Evolution


Nietzsche's compelling, robust championing of circular eternalism (minus his aborted attempt to appeal to the wrong physics--having died 5 years before Einstein's Relativity, and unaware of Hinton's Fourth Dimensional musings)--is elaborated in my book, The Illusion of Will, Self, and Time (SUNY Press).


I cannot understand why you would say that the idea of the present being more real than the past or the future is a biological illusion, unless you are using the word real in a very specific sense.

The present at any point in space has a special importance because it is the location at which events occur. You can, for example, take a photograph of the present- you cannot take a photograph of tomorrow or yesterday. Therefore in at least one concrete respect the present is more real than the past or the future.

If you accept that the interaction between a camera and its environment that causes a photograph is one that takes place in the present- or at least over a succession of presents amounting to the camera's exposure time- then why would you not suppose that your conscience operates in a similar way?


Our phenomenological evidence suggests that all qualia happen in what we experience as the present moment. Thus, if there is no uniquely determined present moment (or short duration/interval) as eternalism holds then we need some sort of account for the phenomenology.

Your suggestion that each subjective moment/duration exists externally in itself as an endlessly looping consciousness of that moment/duration suggests that any solution for the eternalist would need to respect a law of symmetry. What I mean is that if the eternalist wants to reject the notion that there is any distinguished present then any account they give of phenomenal consciousness must be symmetric across all moments in time. As Hypnosifl mention above there are versions of the block universe view which posit a moving spotlight of the phenomenal present, but this involves the notion of a distinguished present where consciousness arises. It isn't clear to me that such a view is a form of eternalism at all since the moving present is non-eternal. If the eternalist wishes to reject the distinguished present this leaves several options.

1. Momentary consciousness - This is your suggestion. Each moment of subjective awareness for each being occupied eternality by a phenomenal perciever that exists only for a single subjective moment (which may be longer than an instant on the B-series, but still fairly short). If true this would have implications for our understanding of personal identity over time. For example, I would have less reason to fear being tortured tomorrow since it would be a different phenomenal subject who will experience the pain.

2. Endless copies of consciousness - Another symmetric solution is to say that there is a phenomenal subject who moves forward through the moments, but as each moment in the past if vacated by phenomenal subject 1 it is occupied by phenomenal subject 2. Like an endless series of train cars. This is symetric, but re-introduces a notion of flow of time that might be unnacceptable to the eternalist. After all, the flow of phenomenal subjects between moments in time cannot be happening in physical time. It must be occurring in a second time-like stream which would not supervene on the physical universe. In this picture I would have reason to fear being tortured tomorrow because the same phenomenal consciousness I am currently will experience the torture tomorrow. However, there are other ways in which this picture gives us different reasons. For example, if I take a risk that could result in causing myself to suffer for a brief period of time, I am not only risking my own brief suffering, but I'm risking causing that suffering to an infinite sequence of subjects. On the other hand every time I experience pleasure I'm bringing pleasure to an infinite sequence of subjects. At the very least we can say that this picture would be radically revisionary of how we currently think about the phenomenal subject.

3. Zombie world - I think whether they admit it or not, most actual B-theorists are committed to something like what David Chalmer's describes as a world filled with philosophical zombies. That is a world with beings who have identical physiologies down to the neuronal firings, but who lack phenomenal consciousness.

None of these options seem very attractive and I take this as a serious objection against eternalism.

I also wanted to note, that it doesn't help eternalism to say that the perception of tensed time is explained by human psychology. Since if psychology supervenes on the physical (which most eternalists would affirm) then any psychological mechanism would also exist eternally and therefore in principle could not explain the phenomena of a changing present.

I would really like to find somewhere in the philosophy of time literature where these issues are addressed directly. It's possible that it's out there somewhere but I haven't found it. For the most part, as far as I have seen in the debates on time in the analytic world, B-theorists (eternalists) consistently ignore, dodge, or misrepresent the philosophical issues raised by the connection between the present moment and phenomenal consciousness (if I'm wrong about this, and I hope I am, please point me to somewhere in the literature where this is dealt with).

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