PM5320: Concerning Time

Time is a circle - by its nature beginningless and endless, yet finite in duration.

All things repeating endlessly - not new and differently each time, but exactly the same every time - or in other words, only once.

Every moment both before and after itself - the past coming after the future, the future before the past.

An ultimately indefinable thing, something which just is; one of the fundamental aspects of reality not further definable in terms of anything else. "Time flows", which we know to be true -- but cannot explain what that means. This is one of the great mysteries of being. Time is not space and space is not time. Time is a dimension of experiential space; but it is a different category of dimension. There is only one dimension of this category. Time is circular, time is a circle. Time is finite yet unbounded. Time is subjective -- it flows at different rates for different people. Yet it is always commensurable, thus it ultimately constitutes a coherent whole. It is possible to travel through time -- in circular time we are all time-travellers, going back to the past via the future -- time-travel proper is simply taking a shorter route. Time is subjective -- we travel forward in time whenever we sleep. Yet it is intersubjective, since every subjective time ultimately unites to form one whole. Every moment is both before and after itself, the past coming after the future, the future before the past. All things repeating endlessly, not new and differently each time, but exactly the same every time -- or equivalently, only once. The circle of time is also known as the 'Great Cycle' of time -- for in lesser cycles, things repeat similarly, but in the Great Cycle things repeat exactly the same.

 Why is time circular?

Time must be circular for the following reasons:

  1. the beginninglessness and endlessness of the soul, its increatability and indestructibility
  2. the finitude of the soul
  3. that there is naught but souls and their experiences, so time can be naught but a dimension of the experience-space of souls

By the above principles, it follows that time must be a circle. For, being finite, it must be either circular or bounded. But, if it was bounded, then souls would begin and end. But, since souls neither begin nor end, it must be circular.

The soul being finite, meaning both that every soul is finite, but that also there is a finite number of possible souls, means that:

  • If time were infinite, then there could not be an infinite succession of times at which souls exist, for that would require either a finite number of infinite souls, or an infinite number of distinct finite souls: for a soul to exist at every moment of infinite time, there must be either an infinite number of temporally finite souls, or one or more temporally infinite souls. Hence, we conclude, if the soul is finite, there must be either finite time, or in an infinite time only a finite subperiod of that time in which souls exist, with no souls existing outside that finite subperiod
  • Assuming time is Archimedian, then if there is a finite subperiod of infinite time in which souls exist, then there must be an earliest moment at which souls exist, with no souls ever existing prior to that moment, and a latest moment at which souls exist, with no souls ever existing subsequent to that moment, with the latest moment finitely later than the earliest moment; therefore, there is a single finite subperiod between the earliest and latest moment, such that all souls that exist, exist during that single finite subperiod, and no souls exist in the infinite subperiod preceding that finite subperiod nor in the infinite subperiod succeeding that finite subperiod, although there may be moments within that finite subperiod during which no souls exist either.
  • However, by the third principle above, there can be no time at which no souls exist. Therefore, time must be finite.

Time refers to past, future and present, and the passage of days, weeks, months and years. It is such a fundamental concept, it is impossible to define it without essentially being circular; but although we struggle to define what it is, we all know it.


There are two fundamental views of time -- the 'dynamic' and the 'static' view. The dynamic view holds that time is somehow 'flowing' -- that only the present now exists, the past doesn't exist anymore and the future doesn't exist yet. Many people have this intuition, yet it is notoriously difficult to explain it in a coherent way. "Time flows" -- what does that mean? How fast does it flow? At one second per a second? At one day per a day? Central to this view of time is the concept of 'now'; yet now is inherently elusive -- as soon as you mention it, it is not 'now' anymore, but instead then.

The static view of time, by contrast, sees time as much like space. Past, present, and future all exist, at their respective times. The proposition "X exists at time T" is equally true whether T is before 'now' or after 'now' or right 'now'. This is a view of the world which gets rid of any special status for 'now'; it is simply an empty indexical, a product of language rather than some deep aspect of reality.

J. M. E. McTaggart, in his book The Unreality of Time, called the dynamic view A-series and the static view B-series. He argues that both views of time are inadequate, which he sees as proof that time itself is ultimately unreal and an illusion.

Modern physics generally assumes the static view of time. The dynamic view of time is assumed to be a product of human psychology rather than a fundamental aspect of reality. In general relativity and quantum cosmology, time and space are no longer viewed as fundamentally distinct; that time and space are incommensurable is an essential part of the dynamic view.

In theology

These different views of time can also be seen expressed in different positions in Christian theology. The viewpoint of classical theism supposes that God exists outside of time, which is to say eternally. This inevitably implies a static view of time, since every moment to God is seen as equally present. By contrast, process theology supposes that God exists in time, and assumes fundamentally a dynamic view of time. This view of God ends up being more limited -- even God doesn't know what will happen in the future, because the future hasn't happened yet. Process theologians see the future not yet existing as being esssential for the possibility of free will; adherents of classical theism claim that free will is still possible in their view, although their explanations of how this comes about -- most commonly, middle knowledge -- are very hard to comprehend.

Arrow of time

The dynamic view of time includes the concept of time having an arrow -- time flows, and it flows only in one direction, forward -- from past to the future; not backward, from the future to the past. Adherents of a static view do not believe this apparent directionality is a fundamental property of time itself; it is an emergent phenomenon due to effective time asymmetries in the laws of physics, such as the second law of thermodynamics.

Extent of time

The different possible views about the extent of time:

  • time is finite having a beginning and an end - this corresponds e.g. to a cosmology of Big Bang followed by a Big Crunch
  • time is infinite having a beginning but no end - this corresponds to the Big Bang followed by an endless expansion of the universe. It is also the traditional view of Christian theology (time began when God created the world, but time will never end due to everlastingness of the heavenly reward / hellish punishment.)
  • time is infinite having no beginning and no end - this corresponds to steady state cosmology. It was the traditional view in Greek and Roman thought, prior to the triumph of Christianity
  • time is infinite having no beginning but it does have an end - it appears that no one has ever seriously subscribed to this view, but it is theoretically possible
  • time is finite but having no begining and end - this would require circular time, in which the future is followed by the past and the past is preceeded by the future (as a circle is finite yet unbounded)

Friedrich Nietzsche's doctrine of eternal recurrence could be seen as corresponding to the last possibility, in which the history of the entire universe (and hence one's own life within it) is repeated endlessly, exactly the same every time.

One frequently hears it stated that non-Western cultures (e.g. indigenous cultures; Asian cultures such as Hinduism or Buddhism) have a 'cyclic' rather than 'linear' view of time. However, although they see history as composed of cycles of progress and regression, the successive cycles are not identical to each other but distinct. Things repeat, similarly each time, but not exactly the same each time. This means their view is really that of "time is infinite having no beginning and no end", rather than "time is finite but having no beginning and no end".