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Time has been studied by philosophers and scientists for 2,500 years, and thanks to this attention it is much better understood today. Nevertheless, many issues remain to be resolved. Here is a short list of the most important ones\u2014what time actuallyis; whether time exists when nothing is changing; what kinds of time travel are possible; why time has an arrow; whether the future and past are real; how to analyze the metaphor of time\u2019s flow; whether future time will be infinite; whether there was time before the Big Bang; whether tensed or tenseless concepts are semantically basic; what is the proper formalism or logic for capturing the special role that time plays in reasoning; and what are the neural mechanisms that account for our experience of time. Some of these issues will be resolved by scientific advances alone, but others require philosophical analysis.
Consider this one issue upon which philosophers of time are deeply divided: What sort of ontological differences are there among the present, past and future? There are three competing theories. Presentists argue that necessarily only present objects and present experiences are real, and we conscious beings recognize this in the special \u201cvividness\u201d of our present experience. The dinosaurs have slipped out of reality. According to the growing-universe or growing-block theory, the past and present are both real, but the future is not because the future is indeterminate or merely potential. Dinosaurs are real, but our death is not. The third and more popular theory is that there are no significant ontological differences among present, past, and future because the differences are merely subjective. This view is called \u201cthe block universe theory\u201d or \u201ceternalism.\u201d
That controversy raises the issue of tenseless versus tensed theories of time. The block universe theory implies a tenseless theory. The earliest version of this theory implied that tensed terminology can be removed and replaced with tenseless terminology. For example, the future-tensed sentence, \u201cThe Lakers will win the basketball game\u201d might be analyzed as, \u201cThe Lakers do win at time t, and time t happens after the time of this utterance.\u201d The future tense has been removed, and the new verb phrases \u201cdo win\u201d and \u201chappens after\u201d are tenseless logically, although they are grammatically in the present tense. Advocates of a tensed theory of time object to this strategy and say that tenseless terminology is not semantically basic but should be analyzed in tensed terms, and that tensed facts are needed to make the tensed statements be true. For example, a tensed theory might imply that no adequate account of the present tensed fact that it is now midnight can be given without irreducible tensed properties such as presentness or now-ness. So, the philosophical debate is over whether tensed concepts have semantical priority over untensed concepts, and whether tensed facts have ontological priority over untensed facts.
1.What Should a Philosophical Theory of Time Do?
2.How is Time Related to Mind?
3.What is Time?
1.The Variety of Answers
2.Time vs. \u201cTime\u201d
3.Defining Time Order with Causal Order
4.Linear and Circular Time
5.Does Time Emerge from Something More Basic?
4.What does Science Require of Time?
1.Relativity and Quantum Mechanics
2.The Big Bang
4.Atoms of Time
5.What Kinds of Time Travel are Possible?
6.Is the Relational Theory Preferable to the Absolute Theory?
7.Does Time Flow?
8.What Gives Time its Direction or \u201cArrow\u201d?
1.What Needs to be Explained?
2.Explanations or Theories of the Arrow
9.Is Only the Present Real?
10.Are there Essentially Tensed Facts?
11.What is Temporal Logic?
Should it define the word \u201ctime\u201d? Yes, but it is improper to demand that we define our term \u201ctime\u201d as a prelude to saying anything more about time, in large part because, as we have learned more about time, our definition has evolved. What we really want is to build a comprehensive, philosophical theory of time that helps us understand time by solving problems about time. We do not want to start building this theory by adopting a definition of time that prejudices the project from the beginning.
Although there are theories of how to solve a specific problem about time, it is always better to knit together solutions to several problems. Ideally, the goal is to produce a theory of time that will solve in a systematic way the constellation of problems involving time. What are those problems?
Another problem is to decide which of our intuitions about time should be retained. Some of these intuitions may reflect deep insights into the nature of time, and others may be faulty ideas inherited from our predecessors. It is not obvious which is which. For one example, if we have the intuition that time flows, but our science implies otherwise, then which view should get priority? Philosophers of time must solve the problem of how to treat our temporal intuitions.
A third problem for a philosophical theory of time is to clarify what physical science presupposes and implies about time. A later section of this article examines this topic. Most all philosophers of time claim that philosophical theories should be consistent with physical science, or, if not, then they must accept the heavy burden of proof to justify the inconsistency.
A philosophical theory of time should describe the relationship between instants and events. Does the instant that we label as \u201c11:01 A.M.\u201d for a certain date exist independently of the events that occur then? In other words, can time exist if no event is happening? This question or problem raises the thorny metaphysical issue of absolute vs. relational theories of time.
A theory of time should address the question of time\u2019s apparent direction. If the projectionist in the movie theater (cinema) shows a film of cream being added into black coffee but runs the film backwards, we in the audience can immediately tell that events could not have occurred this way. We recognize the arrow of time because we know about the one-directional processes in nature. This arrow or unidirectionality becomes less and less apparent to us viewers as the film subject gets smaller and smaller and the time interval gets shorter and shorter until finally we are viewing processes that could just as easily go the other way, at which point the arrow of time has disappeared. Philosophers disagree about the explanation of the arrow. Could it be a consequence of the laws of science? The arrow appears to be very basic for understanding nature, yet it is odd that asymmetries in time do not appear in the principal, basic dynamical laws of physics. Could the arrow of time reverse some day? Philosophers wonder what life would be like in some far off corner of the universe if the arrow of time were reversed there. Would people there walk backwards up steps while remembering the future?
Another philosophical problem about time concerns the two questions, \u201cWhat is the present, and why does it move into the past?\u201d If we know what the present is, then we ought to be able to answer the question, \u201cHow long does the present last?\u201d Regarding the \u201cmovement\u201d of the present into the past, many philosophers are suspicious of this notion of the flow of time, the march of time. They doubt whether it is a property of time as opposed to being some feature of human perception. Assuming time does flow, is the flow regular? If the flow is irregular, then perhaps Friday seconds last longer than Thursday seconds, as the flow of Friday time slows to a crawl, or perhaps Friday might contain more seconds than Thursday.
Are there ontological differences among the past, present, and future? Some philosophers doubt whether the future and past are as real as the present, the feature that is referred to by the word \u201cnow.\u201d A famous philosophical argument says that, if the future were real, then it would be fixed now, and we would not have the freedom to affect that future. Since we do have that freedom, the future can not be real. Some philosophers consider this to be a clever, but faulty argument.
For a last example of a philosophical issue regarding time, is time a fundamental feature of nature, or does it emerge from more basic features\u2013in analogy to the way the smoothness of water flow emerges from the complicated behavior of the underlying molecules? From what more basic feature does time emerge?
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