Eternalism (philosophy of time)

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Eternalism is a philosophical approach to the ontological nature of time, which takes the view that all points in time are equally real, as opposed to the presentist idea that only the present is real,[1] and the growing block universe theory of time in which past and present are real while the future is not. Eternalism is the view that each spacetime moment exists in and of itself. Modern advocates often take inspiration from the way time is modeled as a dimension in the theory of relativity, giving time a similar ontology to that of space. This would mean that time is just another dimension, that future events are "already there", and that there is no objective flow of time. It is sometimes referred to as the "block time" or "block universe" theory due to its description of space-time as an unchanging four-dimensional "block",[2] as opposed to the view of the world as a three-dimensional space modulated by the passage of time.

Problems with the flow of time

Conventionally, time is divided into three distinct regions; the "past", the "present", and the "future". Using that representational model, the past is generally seen as being immutably fixed, and the future as at least partly undefined. As time passes, the moment that was once the present becomes part of the past; and part of the future, in turn, becomes the new present. In this way time is said to pass, with a distinct present moment "moving" forward into the future and leaving the past behind. Within this intuitive understanding of time is the philosophy of presentism, which argues that only the present exists. It does not travel forward through an environment of time, moving from a real point in the past and toward a real point in the future. Instead, the present simply changes. The past and future do not exist and are only concepts used to describe the real, isolated, and changing present. This conventional model presents a number of difficult philosophical problems, and seems difficult to reconcile with currently accepted scientific theories such as the theory of relativity.[3]


Arguments for and against an independent flow of time have been raised since antiquity, represented by fatalism, reductionism, and Platonism: Classical fatalism argues that every proposition about the future exists, and it is either true or false, hence there is a set of every true proposition about the future, which means these propositions describe the future exactly as it is, and this future is true and unavoidable. Fatalism is challenged by positing that there are propositions that are neither true nor false, for example they may be indeterminate. Reductionism questions whether time can exist independently of the relation between events, and Platonism argues that time is absolute, and it exists independently of the events that occupy it.

One of the most famous arguments about the nature of time in modern philosophy is presented in "The Unreality of Time" by J. M. E. McTaggart.[4] It argues that time is an illusion. McTaggart argued that the description of events as existing in absolute time is self-contradictory, because the events have to have properties about being in the past and in the future, which are incompatible with each other. McTaggart viewed this as a contradiction in the concept of time itself, and concluded that reality is non-temporal.[3]

Regarding change with respect to time, there have been proposed two opposite views: Russellian change (named after Bertrand Russell),[5][6] according to which change is things being one way at one time and a different way at a different time, and McTaggartian change,[4][7] according to which change is not relative to anything else.


The bar and ring paradox is an example of the relativity of simultaneity. Both ends of the bar pass through the ring simultaneously in the rest frame of the ring (left), but the ends of the bar pass one after the other in the rest frame of the bar (right).

Special relativity suggests that the concept of simultaneity is not universal: according to the relativity of simultaneity, observers in different frames of reference can have different measurements of whether a given pair of events happened at the same time or at different times, with there being no physical basis for preferring one frame's judgments over another's. However, there are events that may be non-simultaneous in all frames of reference: when one event is within the light cone of another—its causal past or causal future—then observers in all frames of reference show that one event preceded the other. The causal past and causal future are consistent within all frames of reference, but any other time is "elsewhere", and within it there is no present, past, or future. There is no physical basis for a set of events that represents the present.[8]

Many philosophers have argued that relativity implies eternalism.[9] Philosopher of science Dean Rickles disagrees in some sense, but notes that "the consensus among philosophers seems to be that special and general relativity are incompatible with presentism."[10] Christian Wüthrich argues that supporters of presentism can only salvage absolute simultaneity if they reject either empiricism or relativity.[11] Such arguments are raised by Dean Zimmerman and others,[12] in favor of a single privileged frame whose judgments about length, time and simultaneity are the true ones, even if there is no empirical way to distinguish this frame.[13]

Other views on eternalism and timelessness

The philosopher Katherin A. Rogers argued that Anselm of Canterbury took an eternalist view of time,[14] although the philosopher Brian Leftow argued against this interpretation,[15] suggesting that Anselm instead advocated a type of presentism. Rogers responded to this paper, defending her original interpretation.[16] Rogers also discusses this issue in her book "Anselm on Freedom", using the term "four-dimensionalism" rather than "eternalism" for the view that "the present moment is not ontologically privileged", and commenting that "Boethius and Augustine do sometimes sound rather four-dimensionalist, but Anselm is apparently the first consistently and explicitly to embrace the position."[17] Taneli Kukkonen argues in the Oxford Handbook of Medieval Philosophy that "what Augustine's and Anselm's mix of eternalist and presentist, tenseless and tensed language tells is that medieval philosophers saw no need to choose sides" the way modern philosophers do.[18]

Quantum physics

Some philosophers appeal to a specific theory that is "timeless" in a more radical sense than the rest of physics, the theory of quantum gravity. This theory is used, for instance, in Julian Barbour's theory of timelessness.[19] On the other hand, George Ellis argues that time is absent in cosmological theories because of the details they leave out.[20]

Recently Hrvoje Nikolić has argued that a block time model solves the black hole information paradox.[21]


Augustine of Hippo wrote that God is outside of time—that time exists only within the created universe. Thomas Aquinas took the same view, and many theologians agree. On this view, God would perceive something like a block universe, while time might appear differently to the finite beings contained within it.[22]

In Buddhism, a special term Dharmadhatu is translated as 'total field of events and meanings' or 'field of all events and meanings.' Here the 'Block Universe' seems to not only encompass every possible event in the physical universe but also have a psychological component.[citation needed]

Dirck Vorenkamp, a professor of religious studies, argued in his paper "B-Series Temporal Order in Dogen's Theory of Time"[23] that the Zen Buddhist teacher Dōgen presented views on time that contained all the main elements of McTaggart's B-series view of time (which denies any objective present), although he noted that some of Dōgen reasoning also contained A-Series notions, which Vorenkamp argued may indicate some inconsistency in Dōgen's thinking.

Objections to eternalism

Common sense

Philosophers such as John Lucas argue that "The Block universe gives a deeply inadequate view of time. It fails to account for the passage of time, the pre-eminence of the present, the directedness of time and the difference between the future and the past."[24]

A flow-of-time theory with a strictly deterministic future, which nonetheless does not exist in the same sense as the present, would not satisfy common-sense intuitions about time. Some have argued that common-sense flow-of-time theories can be compatible with eternalism, for example John G. Cramer’s transactional interpretation. Kastner (2010) "proposed that in order to preserve the elegance and economy of the interpretation, it may be necessary to consider offer and confirmation waves as propagating in a “higher space” of possibilities.[25]

In his discussion with Albert Einstein, Karl Popper argued against determinism and eternalism from a common-sense standpoint.[26]

In fiction

Eternalism is a major theme in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. The Tralfamadorians, an alien species in the novel, have a four-dimensional sight and can therefore see all points in time simultaneously. They explain that since all moments exist simultaneously, everyone is always alive. The hero, Billy Pilgrim, lives his life out of sequence, which, among other things, means that his point of death occurs at a random point in his life rather than at the end of it.

Eternalism also appears in the comic book series Watchmen by Alan Moore. In one chapter, Dr. Manhattan explains how he perceives time. Since past, present, and future events all occur at the "same time" for him, he speaks about them all in the present tense. For example, he says "Forty years ago, cogs rain on Brooklyn" referring to an event in his youth when his father throws old watch parts out a window. His last line of the series is "Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends." Alan Moore explores this idea even further in his 2016 novel Jerusalem. In Jerusalem characters who have died leave the three dimensional physical world and transcend to a higher spatial dimension populated by the deceased, by demons and by angels. From their new perspective, the dead can choose to re-live their lives or visit specific moments in history.

In his science fantasy novel The Number of the Beast, Robert Heinlein has one of the novel's protagonists, the mathematician and "geometer" Dr. Jacob Burroughs invent a device that navigates through time as one scalar dimension in a six-dimensional universe. The novel carries its main characters through time and many alternate universes, some of which are fictional worlds, accessible by quantum-wise progression through one of the six axes of the universe that Burroughs' invention can access. In this novel, there is not only block time, but a block plenum of many alternate universes, each a quantum step along an axis of space-time.[27]

See also


  1. ^ Kuipers, Theo A.F. (2007). General Philosophy of Science: Focal Issues. North Holland. p. 326. ISBN 978-0-444-51548-3. 
  2. ^ "Block" here refers to the idea of spacetime as something fixed and unchanging, like a solid block, and not to the actual geometric shape of space or spacetime.
  3. ^ a b Markosian, Ned (2014), Edward N. Zalta, ed., "Time", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 ed.), retrieved November 18, 2017 
  4. ^ a b J. M. E. McTaggart, "The Unreality of Time", Mind 17: 457–73; reprinted in J. M. E. McTaggart, The Nature of Existence, Vol. 2, 1927, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: Book 5, Chapter 33.
  5. ^ Bertrand Russell (1903), The Principles of Mathematics, Routledge, 2009, p. 476 §442
  6. ^ Ludwig Jaskolla, Real Fourdimensionalism: An Essay in the Ontology of Persistence and Mind, Springer, 2017, p. 31.
  7. ^ Sydney Shoemaker, Identity, Cause, and Mind: Philosophical Essays, Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 50.
  8. ^ Savitt, Steven F. (September 2000), "There's No Time Like the Present (in Minkowski Spacetime)", Philosophy of Science, 67 (S1): S563–S574, doi:10.1086/392846 
  9. ^ Thomas M. Crisp (2007), William Lane Craig; Quentin Smith, eds., "Presentism, Eternalism, and Relativity Physics" (PDF), Einstein, Relativity and Absolute Simultaneity, footnote 1 
  10. ^ Dean Rickles (2008), Symmetry, Structure, and Spacetime, Elsevier, p. 158, ISBN 9780444531162 
  11. ^ Wüthrich, Christian (2010). "No Presentism in Quantum Gravity". In Vesselin Petkov. Space, Time, and Spacetime: Physical and Philosophical Implications of Minkowski's Unification of Space and Time. Fundamental Theories of Physics. Springer. pp. 262–264. ISBN 9783642135378. LCCN 2010935080. 
  12. ^ Yuri Balashov (2010), Persistence and Spacetime, Oxford University Press, p. 222 
  13. ^ Zimmerman, Dean (2011). "Presentism and the Space-Time Manifold". In C. Callender. The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Time (PDF). Oxford Handbooks in Philosophy. OUP Oxford. pp.163-244 (PDF p.119). ISBN 9780199298204. LCCN 2011283684. 
  14. ^ Katherin A. Rogers (2007). "Anselmian Eternalism". Faith and Philosophy 24 (1):3-27.
  15. ^ Brian Leftow (2009). "Anselmian Presentism. Faith and Philosophy" 26 (3):297-319.
  16. ^ Katherin Rogers (2009). "Back to Eternalism". Faith and Philosophy 26 (3):320-338.
  17. ^ Rogers, Katherin (2008). Anselm on Freedom. Oxford University Press. p. 159. ISBN 9780199231676. 
  18. ^ From Kukkonen's chapter on "Eternity" in The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Philosophy edited by John Marenbon (2012), p. 529.
  19. ^ "Platonia", Julian Barbour's time-skeptical website
  20. ^ Ellis (2006). "Physics in the Real Universe: Time and Spacetime". Gen. Rel. Grav. 38 (12): 1797–1824. arXiv:gr-qc/0605049Freely accessible. Bibcode:2006GReGr..38.1797E. doi:10.1007/s10714-006-0332-z. 
  21. ^ Nikolic H. (2009). "Resolving the black-hole information paradox by treating time on an equal footing with space". Phys. Lett. B. 678 (2): 218. arXiv:0905.0538Freely accessible. Bibcode:2009PhLB..678..218N. doi:10.1016/j.physletb.2009.06.029. 
  22. ^ John Polkinghorne (2011). Science and Religion in Quest of Truth, p. 64.
  23. ^ Vorenkamp, Dirck (1995). "B-Series Temporal Order in Dogen's Theory of Time". Philosophy East and West, Volume 45, Number 3, 1995 July, P.387-408.
  24. ^ John LucasThe Future p8
  25. ^ "The Quantum Liar Experiment Kastner". Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics. 41 (=2). 
  26. ^ Popper, K.R. (2002). Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography. Routledge Classics. Routledge. pp. 148–150. ISBN 9780415285896. LCCN 2002067996. 
  27. ^ Heinlein, Robert (1986). The Number of the Beast. New York: Fawcett Publications. pp. 512 pp. ISBN 978-0449130704. 
  • Smart, Jack. "River of Time". In Anthony Kenny. Essays in Conceptual Analysis. pp. 214–215.
  • van Inwagen, Peter (2008). Metaphysics. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

External links

  • Biswas; Shaw; Modak (1999). "Time in Quantum Gravity". Int. J. Mod. Phys. D. 10 (4): 595. arXiv:gr-qc/9906010Freely accessible. Bibcode:2001IJMPD..10..595B. doi:10.1142/S0218271801001384. 
  • Davies, Paul (September 2002). "That Mysterious Flow". Scientific American. 287 (3): 40–45. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0902-40. 
  • Markosian, Ned (2002). "Time: 8. The 3D/4D Controversy". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 2006-12-20. 
  • Nikolic, Hrvoje. "Block time: Why many physicists still don't accept it?" (PDF). 
  • Petkov, Vesselin (2005). "Is There an Alternative to the Block Universe View?" (PDF). PhilSci Archive. Retrieved 2006-12-20. 
  • Duda, J (2009). "Four-dimensional understanding of quantum mechanics". arXiv:0910.2724Freely accessible [physics.gen-ph]. 
  • Wüthrich, Christian (2011). "The fate of presentism in modern physics". 
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