The age of the Earth and the reality of time

Robert asked:

What is the age of the Earth if time does not exist?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The age of the Earth, according to my Google search, is 4.543 billion years. If time does not exist the age of the Earth is 4.543 billion years. Just out of interest, I asked Google about the distance of the Earth from the Sun and got the answer 151.54 million km. If space does not exist then the distance of the Earth from the Sun is 151.54 million km. I remember learning at school that it was 93 million miles but that is just an approximation.

How can this be? You ask. A philosopher who says that time isn’t real is saying, in effect, that time is something else from what we thought it to be. Ditto space. That is a big claim, and overwhelming to take in if you are new to philosophy. Nothing is what it seems but is in fact something else! Whew!

The view that time is unreal is an important notion in the history of philosophy, going back to the Presocratic philosopher Parmenides, who was uncompromising in his opposition the ‘opinions of ordinary mortals’. In the 20th century, the most notable proponent of the unreality of time was John McTaggart, in The Nature of Existence (1921). McTaggart was an idealist. Generally, metaphysical idealists agree that space is unreal.

These claims – about the unreality of time, or of space – make sense to me, absolutely. I’m not going to say whether or not I agree, as I still haven’t at the time of writing made up my mind. In relativistic physics, of course there is no ‘space’ or ‘time’ as we naively conceive these, only space-time. But let’s stick with metaphysics.

There was a time, specifically Oxford, UK in the 1950s, when philosophers scoffed at these ideas, and poured scorn on the great achievements of their predecessors. J.L. Austin, in Sense and Sensibilia (1962), remarked, ‘There’s the bit where you say it and the bit where you take it back.’ He was talking about theories of perception but the jibe applies quite generally to any would-be metaphysician who ‘wants to have it both ways’, for example about time or about space.

Austin was a clever man, but the antics of the ‘ordinary language’ philosophers of his generation now look to us just silly. They lived in an ideological haze of their own creation, reinforced one another’s Luddite determination to wreck the achievements of the philosophical system builders of previous generations, and replace their insights with what now reads like superficial common-room banter. It must have been mystifying to be an undergraduate philosophy student during those bleak times.

The renowned sociologist Ernest Gellner wrote a book, Words and Things (1959) which rips the arguments of ordinary language philosophers to shreds. Even in the 1970s when I was an undergraduate at London University, Gellner was looked at askance, as an outsider who had no right to criticize the ‘experts’. Gellner died in 1995. My sister Elli Sarah had him as her tutor when she was at the London School of Economics in the late 70s, and says he was extremely intelligent, rigorous, fair-minded and kind.

The question of the ultimate nature of time, or space, or space-time is very, very deep. It is a real question that requires long and committed inquiry, not a pseudo-question that can be brushed aside with a sneering comment from the likes of Austin.

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