Looking at an argument for the unreality of time

Maha asked:

Time is composed of moments. Moments have no duration. Therefore time has no duration. This rather surprising fact is further supported by the following considerations. Time is illusory because time seems real but isn’t real. Furthermore down through the ages the best and brightest people have always thought time was illusory. What’s the fallacy? I am confusing if its composition or not? but even if its composition, I can’t explain why, because of the second part of the argument! looking forward to receiving from you!

Answer by Peter Jones

You seem to thought this through correctly. Im unable to make out what you mean by composition so cannot comment on that point, but the paradoxically of our naive or folk view of time is clearly not in agreement with our reason.

As you say, the present can have no duration, so it is not just our naive view of time but also our view of change and motion that are threatened by logical analysis. Zeno and Parmenides saw this long ago.

A solution for the logical absurdity of our ideas of time, change and motion once we have reified them you might like to examine the literature of mysticism. In particular you might like to look at Middle Way Buddhism. This would be not just because the philosopher-sage Nagarjuna, who explained the philosophical foundation of the Buddhas teachings in his Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, logically refutes the true existence of time, change and motion, but also because he puts an alternative view in its place.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I’m guessing that the question here isn’t whether or not time is real or has real duration but where are the fallacies in what you have stated as the argument for this conclusion. Actually, you give three arguments. Let’s look at these one by one:

‘Time is composed of moments. Moments have no duration. Therefore time has no duration.’

As stated, the argument contains a logical fallacy. A wall is composed of bricks but it is also composed of mortar (cement). If you drew a conclusion about the wall based on the assumption that it consists solely of bricks then your conclusion would be wrong. Is time made of something else, besides moments? I don’t know. We are not philosophizing about time but just evaluating logical validity.

Let’s add the word ‘solely’ and see if the argument fares any better. ‘Time is composed solely of moments. Moments have no duration. Therefore time has no duration.’ Well, now the problem is whether in fact we were right to make an analogy between bricks and moments. Dry stone walls are composed solely of stones and nothing else. But stones have a physical size. How could something that was composed solely out of bits that had no physical size have a physical size? Maybe if you allow empty space between the bits. But then (however you conceive of ’empty space’) aren’t you saying that the object is composed of bits with no physical size plus empty space?

Could that apply to time? Could time be composed of timeless moments plus ’empty spaces’ between the moments? Again, I don’t know.

Then consider this. Do moments exist? Is it correct to infer from the fact that you can divide and subdivide a period of time to infinity, that the time in question is composed of those of those infinitely subdivided parts? That’s a question that Zeno and Aristotle puzzled over. So far as the logical validity of the argument is concerned, you can say that the term ‘composed’ is not sufficiently well defined, so we are unable to evaluate the truth of the first premiss, as stated.

There are two more arguments we need to look at but these are easy.

‘Time is illusory because time seems real but isn’t real.’ — This isn’t an argument for the unreality of time because it simply assumes this as its premiss. If time is not real and if we believe that it is real then we are under an illusion. But who’s to say whether time is real or not?

‘Down through the ages the best and brightest people have always thought time was illusory.’ — I believe that in logic text books this is called an ‘argument from authority’. A fallacy.


One thought on “Looking at an argument for the unreality of time

  1. First fallacy: ‘Time is composed of moments.’ This phrase is a figure of speech and time is not ‘composed’ of anything. Time is not a ‘thing’. Time is illusory because, in part, it is not a thing.
    Second fallacy: ‘Moments have no duration’. Moments have whatever duration we assign to them. Their duration is arbitrary.

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