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 the past and present are real while the future is not. 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 (although the basic idea dates back at least to McTaggart's B-Theory of time, first published in The Unreality of Time in 1908, only three years after the first paper on relativity). 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 undefined and nebulous. 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.


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 perceptions 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 (though in a case where one event A happens in the past light cone of another event B, all frames will agree that A happened in the past of B). So, in special relativity there can be no physical basis for picking out a unique set of events that are all happening simultaneously in "the present".

Many philosophers have argued that relativity implies eternalism.[3] Although he disagrees in a qualified sense, philosopher of science Dean Rickles notes that "the consensus among philosophers seems to be that special and general relativity are incompatible with presentism."[4] For example, Christian Wüthrich writes:

Presentists have responded in a variety of ways to the pressure exerted by the Rietdijk-Putnam argument... [A] presentist could deny Naturalism. Such denial could take different forms. One could, as does Jonathan Lowe, claim that SR is not a theory about time but about something else instead. Alternatively, one could retort by accepting that SR speaks to the geometry of space-time but reject that this has any ontological import, as does Dean Zimmerman (2008). Second, a presentist might reject SR-Realism, simply asserting that SR is not approximately true of the world. This could occur simply on a priori grounds... Also, considerations from quantum mechanics can be invoked in an attempt to establish that SR is false or incomplete insofar as it lacks an absolute, privileged frame of reference. This response comes in different flavours: (a) (non-relativistic) collapse dynamics require a preferred frame in which the collapse occurs; (b) Bohmian interpretations are incompatible with SR; and (c) invoke Bell's theorem to argue that some tenets of SR must be given up...

[A] presentist might simply bite the bullet and consequently relativize existence... since what is present is relative to an inertial frame, what exists becomes fragmented in that it depends on the choice of frame...

[Another] is to accept that SR offers a perfectly empirically adequate theory, but to insist that absolute simultaneity still exists. It is just that we cannot possibly detect the privileged frame of reference which determines the present. In other words, absolute simultaneity is not empirically accessible... [The] metaphysics fully relies on postulated extra-structure that can't even in principle be observed... It violates Ockham's razor so crassly that the move cannot be justified by putting some post-verificationist philosophy of science on one's flag.[5]
— Christian Wüthrich, "No Presentism in Quantum Gravity" in Space, Time, and Spacetime: Physical and Philosophical Implications of Minkowski's Unification of Space and Time

However, there are some, such as Dean Zimmerman, who have argued that it is possible to accept the physical predictions of relativity while adopting an alternative interpretation of the theory (For instance, see Lorentz ether theory) in which there is a single privileged frame whose judgments about length, time and simultaneity are the "true" ones, even though there would be absolutely no empirical way to distinguish this frame from other frames, and no real experience could identify it.[6]

[When] appealing to findings from empirically well-grounded disciplines, philosophers face a strong temptation to overstate their case — especially if their philosophical opponents can be relied on to be relatively innocent of new developments in the relevant science. I fear that some B-theorists have succumbed to the temptation, judging by the relish with which they often pronounce a verdict based on Relativity. They can practically hear the crunch of the lowly metaphysician’s armor giving way, as they bring the full force of incontrovertible physical fact down upon our A-theoretically-addled heads. But what actually hits us, and how hard is the blow? SR is false; GR’s future is highly uncertain; and the presentist’s conflict with either version of Relativity is shallow, since the presentist’s manifold can satisfy the same geometrical description as a B-theorist’s manifold, and afford explanations of all the same phenomena in precisely the same style. In these circumstances, how could appeal to SR or GR justify the frequent announcements that the A-theory–B-theory dispute has been “settled by physics, not philosophy”?[7]

— Dean Zimmerman, "Presentism and the Space-Time Manifold" in The Oxford Handbook of Time

Time as object or environment

While the present is intuitively understood as the object that moves through the environment of time, it is common to also describe time as an object that moves, in the same way that a passenger on a train perceives the environment passing by. This perception of the passage or flow of time can be confused with the previous idea of the present moving through time, leading to the misunderstanding that time is moving through time, i.e., that it is moving through itself. This illogical premise can lead to circular questions asking how fast time travels per unit of time:

The concept of "time passing" can be considered to be internally inconsistent, by asking "how much time goes by in an hour?" The question "how fast does time pass" seems to have no satisfactory answer, in which answers such as "a second per second" would be, as some would argue, circular and thus false. In addition, even if we do accept the above answer, then the statement "a second per second" can be expressed as a fraction which is always equal to "one". But this "one" has no meaning beyond being a number and is thus also the wrong kind of answer. Therefore, the argument goes, the rate of the passage of time is nonsensical.

There is a major problem though in that the question of time is no different from space. One can similarly ask, "how much space is contained in a meter?" — and face a similar objection.

"Time passing" may be seen as a metaphor for the continuous human experience of some expected future events becoming directly experienced qualia, while experienced qualia becoming just objects of memory.

McTaggart's argument

In The Unreality of Time, J. M. E. McTaggart divided time into an A-series and a B-series, with the A-series describing events in absolute tensed terms (past, present, and future) and the B-series describing events in terms of untensed temporal relations (before and after). He also added the notion of a "C-series", a series that has an order but with no notion of time, like a series of letters. He went on to argue that the A-series was needed for anything deserving the name "time",[8] since he argued that only the A-series can allow for genuine change,[9] and he considered change to be an essential part of any reasonable definition of time.[10] But, he argued, the A-series was logically incoherent,[11] so he concluded that time was unreal,[12] and since he also believed the B-series depended on the A-series,[13] he also concluded that only the C-series could remain as a meaningful ordering.[14] However, various philosophers (sometimes identified as "B theorists") have held that the remaining B-series qualifies as a valid framework for a theory of time, sometimes called the B-Theory of time.[15]

The Eternalist alternative

Eternalism addresses these various difficulties by considering all points in time to be equally valid frames of reference—or equally "real", if one prefers. It does not do away with the concept of past and future, but instead considers them directions rather than states of being; whether some point in time is in the future or past is entirely dependent on which frame of reference you are using as a basis for observing it.

Since an observer at any given point in time can only remember events that are in the past relative to him, and not events that are in the future relative to him, the subjective illusion of the passage of time is maintained. The asymmetry of remembering past events but not future ones, as well as other irreversible events that progress in only one temporal direction (such as the increase in entropy) gives rise to the arrow of time. In the view suggested by Eternalism, there is no passage of time; the ticking of a clock measures durations between events much as the marks on a measuring tape measures distances between places.

Eternalism has implications for the concept of free will, in that it proposes that future events are as immutably fixed and impossible to change as past events (see determinism).[citation needed]

Eternalism makes two assumptions, which are separable. One is that time is a full-fledged real dimension. The other is immutability. The latter is not a necessary consequence of the first. A universe in which changes are possible may be indistinguishable from the fully deterministic many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, in which there are multiple "growing block universes".[citation needed]

Philosophical objections

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"[16]

The comment summarizes the main objections. In more detail, they are:

Subjective sense of flow

Whilst the idea that there is some objective sense in which time is flowing can be denied, the fact that conscious beings feel as though it is in some sense flowing cannot. However, if the flow of time didn't have an objective existence, then it is argued conscious beings would simultaneously experience all moments in their lives. A response is that since the brain presumably perceives time through information processing of external stimuli, not by extrasensory perception, and obeys the laws of causality, it is hard to see how the flow of time, whether it exists or not, could make any subjective difference: all conscious beings are built to perceive time as a chain of events, whether or not it occurs as such.

Apparent differences between past, present and future

Many of our common-sense attitudes treat the past, present and future preferentially.

  1. We apparently fear death because we believe that we will no longer exist after we die. However, if Eternalism is correct, death is just one of our temporal borders, and the forms of the world with you alive in it would continue to exist even as one consciously moves forward through time toward dissolution.
  2. You are about to go to the dentist, or you have already been. Common sense says you should prefer to have been already. But if Eternalism is correct, then a resemblance of you in the future is already feeling better.
  3. When some unpleasant experience is behind us, we feel glad that it is over. But if the Eternalism is correct, there is no such property as being over or no longer happening now—it continues to exist timelessly, alongside eternal, unchanging moments of perfect contentedness.

Status of conscious observers

Eternalists often appeal to the idea that the flow of time is a subjective illusion. However, Eternalism takes its inspiration from physics[citation needed] and needs to give a physical account of observers. One could, for instance, portray conscious observers as moving through the block universe, in some physically inexplicable way, in order to account for the subjective sense of a flow of time. But there is no need to do so to explain the subjective flow of time.[citation needed] Their opponents claim that the time-flow itself, as an objective phenomenon, is physically inexplicable, and that physics is simply misrepresenting time in treating it as a dimension.[citation needed]

Determinism and indeterminism

Previously, it was noted that people tend to have very different attitudes towards the past and the future. This might be explained by an underlying attitude that the future is not fixed, but can be changed, and is therefore worth worrying about. If that is correct, the flow of time is perhaps less important to our intuitions than an open, undetermined, future. In other words, a flow-of-time theory with a strictly determined future (which nonetheless does not exist at the present) would not satisfy common-sense intuitions about time. If indeterminism can be removed from flow-of-time theories, can it be added to Eternalist theories? Regarding 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.[17]

In his discussion with Albert Einstein, Karl Popper argued against determinism:

The main topic of our conversation was indeterminism. I tried to persuade him to give up his determinism, which amounted to the view that the world was a four-dimensional Parmenidean block universe in which change was a human illusion, or very nearly so. (He agreed that this had been his view, and while discussing it I called him "Parmenides".) I argued that if men, or other organisms, could experience change and genuine succession in time, then this was real. It could not be explained away by a theory of the successive rising into our consciousness of time slices which in some sense coexist; for this kind of "rising into consciousness" would have precisely the same character as that succession of changes which the theory tries to explain away. I also brought in the somewhat obvious biological arguments: that the evolution of life, and the way organisms behave, especially higher animals, cannot really be understood on the basis of any theory which interprets time as if it were something like another (anisotropic) space coordinate. After all, we do not experience space coordinates. And this is because they are simply nonexistent: we must beware of hypostatizing them; they are constructions which are almost wholly arbitrary. Why should we then experience the time coordinate—to be sure, the one appropriate to our inertial system—not only as real but also as absolute, that is, as unalterable and independent of anything we can do (except changing our state of motion)?

The reality of time and change seemed to me the crux of realism. (I still so regard it, and it has been so regarded by some idealistic opponents of realism, such as Schrödinger and Gödel.)

When I visited Einstein, Schilpp's Einstein volume in The Library of Living Philosophers had just been published; this volume contained a now famous contribution of Gödel's which employed, against the reality of time and change, arguments from Einstein's two relativity theories. Einstein had come out in that volume strongly in favour of realism. And he clearly disagreed with Gödel's idealism: he suggested in his reply that Gödel's solutions of the cosmological equations might have "to be excluded on physical grounds".

Now I tried to present to Einstein-Parmenides as strongly as I could my conviction that a clear stand must be made against any idealistic view of time. And I also tried to show that, though the idealistic view was compatible with both determinism and indeterminism, a clear stand should be made in favour of an "open" universe—one in which the future was in no sense contained in the past or the present, even though they do impose severe restrictions on it. I argued that we should not be swayed by our theories to give up realism (for which the strongest arguments were based on common sense), though I think that he was ready to admit, as I was, that we might be forced one day to give it up if very powerful arguments (of Gödel's type, say) were to be brought against it. I therefore argued that with regard to time, and also to indeterminism (that is, the incompleteness of physics), the situation was precisely similar to the situation with regard to realism. Appealing to his own way of expressing things in theological terms, I said: if God had wanted to put everything into the world from the beginning, He would have created a universe without change, without organisms and evolution, and without man and man's experience of change. But He seems to have thought that a live universe with events unexpected even by Himself would be more interesting than a dead one.[18]
— Karl Popper, Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography

Relation to physics

Eternalism takes its inspiration from physics, especially the Rietdijk-Putnam argument, in which the relativity of simultaneity is used to show that each point in the universe can have a different set of events that are in its present moment. According to Presentism this is impossible because there is only one present moment that is instantaneous and encompasses the entire universe.

Some philosophers also appeal to a specific theory which 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]

Relation to pre-McTaggart positions

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]

The philosopher Katherin A. Rogers argued that Anselm of Canterbury took an eternalist view of time,[23] although the philosopher Brian Leftow argued against this interpretation,[24] suggesting that Anselm instead advocated for a type of presentism. Rogers responded to this paper, defending her original interpretation.[25] 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."[26] 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" in the manner that modern philosophers do.[27]

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 be encompassing not only every possible event in the physical universe but also having 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"[28] 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.

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."

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 which can navigate through time as one scalar dimension in a six-dimensional universe. The novel carries its main characters through time as well as many alternate universes, some of which are fictional worlds, accessible by quantum-wise progression through one of the six axes of the universe 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.[29]

See also


  1. Kuipers, Theo A.F. (2007). General Philosophy of Science: Focal Issues. North Holland. p. 326. ISBN 978-0-444-51548-3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  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. See footnote 1 of Thomas M. Crisp, "Presentism, Eternalism, and Relativity Physics" in Einstein, Relativity and Absolute Simultaneity (2007), edited by William Lane Craig and Quentin Smith.
  4. Dean Rickles (2007). Symmetry, Structure, and Spacetime , p. 158.
  5. Wüthrich, Christian (2010). "No Presentism in Quantum Gravity". In Vesselin Petkov (ed.). 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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. see section 1.1.2 of philosopher Yuri Balashov's book Persistence and Spacetime (2010, Oxford University Press) for a brief discussion. Balashov himself considers this view to be "misguided", but notes that "some authors" have advocated it, citing the following sources:
    • Craig, William Lane (2001), Time and the Metaphysics of Relativity
    • Craig, William Lane and Smith, Quentin (2008), Einstein, Relativity and Absolute Simultaneity
    • forthcoming (at the time of Balashov's writing) paper by Dean Zimmerman, 'Presentism and the Space-Time Manifold' (see in particular the discussion starting on p. 90), to appear in Craig Callender (ed.), Oxford Handbook of Time
  7. Zimmerman, Dean (2011). "Presentism and the Space-Time Manifold". In C. Callender (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Time (PDF). Oxford Handbooks in Philosophy. OUP Oxford. pp.163-244 (PDF p.119). ISBN 9780199298204. LCCN 2011283684.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "Time, as we have seen, stands and falls with the A series"
  9. "Changes must happen to the events of such a nature that the occurrence of these changes does not hinder the events from being events, and the same events, both before and after the change. Now what characteristics of an event are there which can change and yet leave the event the same event? (I use the word characteristic as a general term to include both the qualities which the event possesses, and the relations of which it is a term -- or rather the fact that the event is a term of these relations.) It seems to me that there is only one class of such characteristics -- namely, the determination of the event in question by the terms of the A series."
  10. "It would, I suppose, be universally admitted that time involves change"
  11. "My main thesis is that the existence of any A series involves a contradiction."
  12. "We have come then to the conclusion that the application of the A series to reality involves a contradiction, and that consequently the A series cannot be true of reality. And, since time involves the A series, it follows that time cannot be true of reality. "
  13. The B series, on the other hand, is not ultimate. For, given a C series of permanent relations of terms, which is not in itself temporal, and therefore is not a B series, and given the further fact that the terms of this C series also form an A series, and it results that the terms of the C series become a B series, those which are placed first, in the direction from past to future, being earlier than those whose places are further in the direction of the future.
  14. "Our conclusion, then, is that neither time as a whole, nor the A series and B series, really exist. But this leaves it possible that the C series does really exist. The A series was rejected for its inconsistency. And its rejection involved the rejection of the B series. But we have found no such contradiction in the C series, and its invalidity does not follow from the invalidity of the A series."
  15. Loux, Michael (2006). Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction, Third Edition, p. 205
  16. John LucasThe Future p8
  17. "The Quantum Liar Experiment Kastner,". Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics. 41 (=2).<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. Popper, K.R. (2002). Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography. Routledge Classics. Routledge. pp. 148–150. ISBN 9780415285896. LCCN 2002067996.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  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/0605049. doi:10.1007/s10714-006-0332-z.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. Nikolic H. (2009). "Resolving the black-hole information paradox by treating time on an equal footing with space". Phys. Lett. B. arXiv:0905.0538. doi:10.1016/j.physletb.2009.06.029.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. John Polkinghorne (2011). Science and Religion in Quest of Truth, p. 64.
  23. Katherin A. Rogers (2007). "Anselmian Eternalism". Faith and Philosophy 24 (1):3-27.
  24. Brian Leftow (2009). "Anselmian Presentism. Faith and Philosophy" 26 (3):297-319.
  25. Katherin Rogers (2009). "Back to Eternalism". Faith and Philosophy 26 (3):320-338.
  26. Rogers, Katherin (2008). Anselm on Freedom. Oxford University Press. p. 159. ISBN 9780199231676.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  27. From Kukkonen's chapter on "Eternity" in The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Philosophy edited by John Marenbon (2012), p. 529.
  28. 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.
  29. Heinlein, Robert (1986). The Number of the Beast. New York: Fawcett Publications. pp. 512 pp. ISBN 978-0449130704.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Smart, Jack. "River of Time". In Anthony Kenny. Essays in Conceptual Analysis. pp. 214–215.
  • van Inwagen, Peter (2008). Metaphysics. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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