Time is Not Fundamental

Time is Not Fundamental

GUEST POST from Geoffrey A. Moore

For all my life I have been taught that time is the fourth dimension in a space-time continuum. I mean, for goodness sake, Einstein said this was so, and all of physics has followed his lead. Nonetheless, I want to argue that, while the universe may indeed have four dimensions, time is not one of them, nor is it a fundamental element of reality.

Before you think I have really jumped off the deep end, let me just say that my claim is that motion is a fundamental element of reality, and it is the one that time is substituting for. This is based simply on observation. That is, we can observe and measure mass. We can observe and measure space. We can observe and measure energy. We can observe and measure motion. Time, on the other hand, is simply a tool we have developed to measure motion. That is, motion is fundamental, and time is derived.

Consider where our concept of time came from. It started with three distinct units—the day, the month, and the year. Each is based on a cyclical motion—the earth turning around its axis, the moon encircling the earth, the earth and moon encircling the sun. All three of these cyclical motions have the property of returning to their starting point. They repeat, over and over and over. That’s how they came to our attention in the first place.

If we call this phenomenon cyclical time, we can contrast it with linear time. The latter is time we experience as passing, the one to which we apply the terms past, present, and future. But in fact, what is passing is not time but motion, motion we are calibrating by time. That is, we use the cyclical units of time to measure the linear distance between any given motion and a reference location.

As I discuss in The Infinite Staircase, by virtue of the Big Bang, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and the ongoing rush to greater and greater entropy, the universe is inherently in motion. Some of that motion gets redirected to do work, and some of that work has resulted life emerging on our planet. Motion is intrinsic to our experience of life, much more so than time. As babies we have no sense of time, but we immediately experience mass, space, energy, and motion.

Because mass, space, energy, and motion are core to our experience, we have developed tools to help us engage with them strategically. We can weigh mass and reshape it in myriad ways to serve our ends. We can measure space using anything as a standard length and create structures of whatever size and shape we need. We can measure energy in terms of temperature and pressure and manipulate it to move all kinds of masses through all kinds of spaces. And we can measure motion through space by using standard units of time.

The equation for so doing is typically written as v = d/t. This equation makes us believe that velocity is a concept derived from the primitives of distance and time. But a more accurate way of looking at reality is to say t = d/v. That is, we can observe distance and motion, from which we derive time. If you have a wristwatch with a second hand, this is easily confirmed. A minute consists of a wand traveling through a fixed angular distance, 360°, at a constant velocity set by convention, in this case the International System of Units, these days atomically calibrated by specified number of oscillations of cesium. Time is derived by dividing a given distance by a given velocity.

OK, so what? Here the paths of philosophy and physics diverge, with me being able to pursue the former but not the latter. Before parting, however, I would like to ask the physicists in the room, should there be any, a question: If one accepted the premise that motion was the fourth dimension, not time, such that we described the universe as a continuum of spacemotion instead of spacetime, would that make any difference? Specifically, with respect to Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity, are we just substituting terms here, or are there material consequences? I would love to learn what you think.

At my end, I am interested in the philosophical implications of this question, specifically in relation to phenomenology, the way we experience time. To begin, I want to take issue with the following definition of time served up by Google:

a nonspatial continuum that is measured in terms of events which succeed one another from past through present to future.

From my perspective, this is just wrong. It calls for using events to measure time. The correct approach would focus on using time to measure motion, describing the situation as follows:

an intra-spatial continuum that can be measured in terms of time as one event succeeds another from a position of higher energy to one of lower energy.

The motive for this redefinition is to underscore that the universe is inherently in motion, following the Second Law of thermodynamics, perpetually seeking to cool itself down by spreading itself out. We here on Earth are born into the midst of that action, boats set afloat upon a river, moving with the current on the way to a sea of ultimate cool. We can go with the flow, we can paddle upstream, we can even divert the river of entropy to siphon off energy to do work. The key point to register is that motion abides, inexorably following the arrow of entropy, moving from hot to cold until heat death is achieved.

If motion is a primary dimension of the universe, there can be no standing still. Phenomenologically, this is quite different from the traditional time-based perspective. In a universe of space and time, events have to be initiated, and one can readily imagine a time with no events, a time when nothing happens, maybe something along the lines of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. In a universe of space and motion, however, that is impossible. There are always events, and we are always in the midst of doing. A couch potato is as immersed in events as a race car driver. Or, to paraphrase Milton, they also move who only stand and wait.

A second consequence of the spacemotion continuum is that there is no such thing as eternity and no such thing as infinity. Nothing can exist outside the realm of change, and the universe is limited to whatever amount of energy was released at the Big Bang. Now, to be fair, from a phenomenological perspective, the dimensions of the universe are so gigantic that, experientially, they might as well be infinite and eternal. But from a philosophical perspective, the categories of eternity and infinity are not ontologically valid. They are asymptotes not entities.

Needless to say, all this flies in the face of virtually every religion that has ever taken root in human history. As someone deeply committed to traditional ethics, I am grateful to all religions for supporting ethical action and an ethical mindset. If there were no other way to secure ethics, then I would opt for religion for sure. But we know a lot more about the universe today than we did several thousand years ago, and so there is at least an opportunity to forge a modern narrative, one that can find in secular metaphysics a foundation for traditional values. That’s what The Infinite Staircase is seeking to do.

That’s what I think. What do you think?

Image Credit: Pixabay

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