The nature of time and the age of the Earth

Robert asked:

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

Answer by Peter Jones

If time does not exist then the Earth has no age so the question is odd as stated, but I know what you mean.

To make sense of the metaphysical non-existence of time, the idea that time is reducible, it is necessary to view the psycho-physical world as an aspect of Reality, the other aspect being unmanifest, timeless and placeless.

This double-aspect approach is explained and discussed at length by Hermann Weyl in hie writings on the continuum. He points out that we do not experience the passing of time but create it as a theory.  This leads to a dual-aspect approach for which time is contingent, albeit real enough in everyday life. This is the orthodox approach in the Perennial tradition and so we we see, for instance, that Meister Eckhart warns us against becoming too involved with time since it is not truly real.  The Buddhist sage Nagarjuna proves this and gives us his dual-aspect doctrine of ‘Two Truths’ for which nothing is really real. If you look around you’ll see that nobody who ‘reifies’ time as a fundamental phenomenon can make sense of it.

To reduce time we have to reduce all time-based phenomena. Thus your question is muddled. It reifies the planet Earth but rejects the reality of time. But time and time-based phenomena have to be reduced all together or not at all. The doctrine that time is not really real requires that the Earth is not really real along with its multifarious inhabitants.

Thus for the conventional or naively-real aspect the age of the Earth is a few billion years, while for an ultimate view or ‘metaphysically’ it has no age or true existence. Note that the idea is not that time does not exist but, rather, that existence is not what we usually think it is, such that time does not ‘really’ or truly exist as any more than a conceptual phenomenon .  Kant may also be worth a read on this topic.

A dual-aspect approach is vital since the extreme idea that time does not exist is clearly nonsense. Time clearly exists in a sense and the question is only in what sense. All this is explained in the literature of the Perennial tradition.

Space, time and reality

Robert asked:

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

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Good question! What a predicament for all of us, not just philosophers, to be told on one hand that time flows, which ought to mean it is a measurable quantity as our clocks show us; or, in the view of eternity, there is no such thing as time.

However, it is only a human dilemma. To understand the world as the theatre where past, present and future rules, we need a constant that hovers over temporality – something that ticks impartially in the background with unwavering regularity, but has no beginning nor end. We take in our stride (or try to ignore) that such an infinite clockwork makes it impossible to identify a moment in time, as likewise it is impossible to assign to any temporal occasion a definite location in infinite space. We need such a constant to deputise for the one thing we don’t have: a reference point at rest in the centre.

And so we devise conceptual makeshifts such as the fabled ‘big bang’, to which we cling as a feature to help us with ontological reasoning. We need this sort of thing so that science can operate instrumentally, e.g. measuring time as well as space by using the velocity of light in a vacuum as a constant. Yet light is also a phenomenon, and so we go round in circles.

Hence the answer to your specific question must be detached from the dubious conception of time as some kind of res fluidum. The age of the earth is simply a number that answers to its orbital motions around the sun, retrofitted to the moment of its ejection from the sun. It is a very inaccurate measure, since the length of each of those years is not a fixed quantity – consider that the very word “year” defines “1 orbit”, which varies constantly even now and compels us to insert leap years every now and then – but only God knows the length of leap years over a span of several billion years!

All this is bamboozling in high degree. Factually regarded the Earth’s age is not measurable by any means at our disposal. Whatever age our scientists derive from the solar carousel must revert to human intuition; and this would not ensure that the numbers associated with the genesis of the solar system are intelligible – if they were doubled or even multiplied by a hundred, would anyone genuinely comprehend the difference?

In sum: Make do. Don’t worry about time and space and how to reconcile their infinitude with a concrete distance/duration with which you can associate empirically. An existent cannot be finite and infinite. In fact, an existent cannot be infinite, as all existents are made of finite parts. But being finite, they must exist in time, i.e. to begin at one time and end at another. And now the only means at our disposal to unravel this question is to consult Einstein’s relativity. However be prepared for more perplexity here, because with “curved space” and “time dilation” the aforesaid problems return with full force.

Not a satisfactory answer to your question, I agree; but I suspect there really is no answer. Which may be one reason why philosophers have struggled with these conceptions ever since Anaximander put the idea of an “apeiron” (boundless cosmos) on the map nearly 2600 years ago.

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.

Kant’s critique of Descartes’ theory of knowledge

Adan asked:

What would Kant think about Descartes’ theory of knowledge?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

We don’t need to speculate about what Kant would think about Descartes’ theory of knowledge because Kant spells out his disagreement with Descartes in the Critique of Pure Reason.

Descartes believed that it was possible to intuit certain metaphysical truths because we have ‘clear and distinct’ ideas of them. But this is only on the condition, as he acknowledges, that God exists – which he thinks he can prove. If all my experience were produced by an evil demon then no ideas are clear or distinct even if we think they are. If God exists, then provided we use our powers of judgement responsibly, we can rely on our capacity to discover truths about the external world.

Descartes believes that he has a ‘clear and distinct’ idea of his soul qua ‘immaterial substance’. Belief in the existence of body as ‘material substance’ is justified because he experiences bodies outside him, in addition to his own material body, and God is no deceiver.

Kant has responses to all these points. In the ‘Refutation of Idealism’ in the Second Edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, he argues that experience is only possible on the condition that it takes a certain form, viz. spatio-temporal. We would be unable to identify ourselves as a subject if all we experienced was a series of experiences arranged in time.

A lot has been written about this remarkable argument, as an example of what has come to be known as a ‘transcendental argument’. Very good accounts can be found in P.F. Strawson The Bounds of Sense (1966) and C. Peacocke Holistic Explanation (1979).

In the ‘Paralogisms of Transcendental Psychology’ in the second part of the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant argues that knowledge of my identity through time as an immaterial substance is illusory. There would be no way to tell the difference between a continuing ‘soul’ and a series of momentary ‘souls’ communicating their states to one another like a line of colliding pool balls. In his terms, we mistake the ‘a priori unity of apperception’ for the perception of unity. Self-identity is a necessary theoretical parameter in deciphering experience, not something we actually experience.

For Kant, all we have is experience taking a spatio-temporal form, from which we form judgements about objects in space and our own position as an observer relative to those objects.

But now comes the crunch: there is no way to prove the existence of God, as Kant claims in his critique of the Cosmological, Teleological and Ontological arguments. All we can say (some commentators would say this is already saying too much) is that in addition to the world of phenomena, of which we can have knowledge in the ways described, there is a noumenal world, beyond space and time, strictly inconceivable to the human mind. If God exists, then that would be a fact about the noumenal world. Descartes’ claim that reality consists of immaterial and material substance – souls and bodies – goes beyond anything that human beings could ever know.

Verificationism and the self-defeating argument

Millie asked:

Who was it that first pointed out that the verification principle fails to stand up to its own criterion?

Answer by Graham Hackett

One of the most famous statements about verificationism is that it is self defeating under its own terms. A statement can only be verified, (according to verificationism), if it is either an analytic statement (self-evident) or shown to be true by scientific proof. However, we can argue that the statement of the verification principle is neither analytic, nor supported by scientific proof. Therefore it is self defeating. We need to be careful in just baldly stating this as an anti-verificationist argument, since Ayer and Carnap, and other empiricists attempted changes in definition in response to the self-defeating argument. We would need to check whether all definitions have the same weakness. 

In not answering your exact question about the origin of the self-defeating argument (SDA), I find that it it is mentioned many times by critics, but none of them admit to its first formulation. My own view was that it was kicked around by the Vienna school for some time, asserted, refuted and re-asserted. The SDA  may well have even been first formulated by a verificationist! The nearest I can get to a meaningful answer is to suggest that a reading of the argument between Carnap and Putnam would be revealing. But I don’t think that the SDA can be traced to any one source.

As an observation on SDA’s generally, they can be found in other areas of philosophy. For example, the foundationalist argument for knowledge, is (by some accounts) based on the idea that knowledge is based upon arguments, which are themselves based on further arguments, and so on, until we reach an argument which is final and needs no further support. Foundationalism, it is argued, is self defeating because it has no such  basic foundation. SDA’s have sometimes been described as themselves being self–defeating because the argument always regresses to something which cannot be supported by any further evidence, and which has to be held to be true by stipulation. Wittgenstein in his latter days may have held such a view. SDA’s can be very clever, but they are often wearisome.

Rather than rely on the SDA criticism of verificationism, a more powerful criticism is that it is based on a simplistic view of how science is conducted. Scientific procedure is not always based upon proceeding from one set of facts to another set of facts. Sometimes it proceeds by making assumptions or stipulations. Einstein based his success on making the assumption that the speed of light is fixed, and that nothing can exceed it. It has never been proved in the analytic sense, but the assumption has so far yielded correct calculations and forecasts. Quarks, bosons and other particles were long assumed to exist, even though no direct evidence existed for them. (That evidence was found long after this assumption was made.) It is very difficult to see how verificationism could cope with this approach to science. Karl Popper also remarked that his “falsifiable” approach to the conduct of science had killed verificationism. Even if Popper’s blow was not fatal, the description of science contained in Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions was.

Also much more powerful than the SDA, is the serious attack on verificationism made by Quine in his paper “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”. Are there any really self-evident propositions? Further, he questioned the whole notion of truth as consisting of atomistic self-evident or scientifically-proven propositions. Truth was much more a question of a mutually supportive network of propositions.

This argument is not as clever as the SDA, but it is more rewarding.

Asking the Big Questions (2)

Ross asks:

I’m a graduate in philosophy and I wish to write a book in philosophy. The title I have in mind is “Why philosophy matters: Asking the Big Questions”. I’m looking for advice as to whether this is a good theme for a book and what topics I should include in the book. I welcome any advice. Thanks.

Answer from Peter Jones

I feel it is an excellent idea for a book. But are you able to write it? Do you understand philosophy? Do you know why it’s important? Can you answer any of the big questions? The average professor of philosophy cannot answer these questions in the affirmative with the consequence that philosophy departments are facing growing criticism from the rest of the university and scientism is on the rise. It seems unlikely that a recent graduate can do any better than the professors who taught him.

I would suggest holding off on the book until you can answer the big questions. Otherwise it’ll be just another book telling us how the study of philosophy exercises our brain and helps prevent dogmatism but is otherwise useless, and there are plenty of these about already.

But don’t let me put you off. You might write something brilliant. I would start with the question ‘Why is philosophy difficult?’ This meta-question encapsulates all the others. The question ‘Why does philosophy matter?’ is a good one but you’ll have to provide a much better answer than your professors if the book is going to be interesting.

If you check the archives at ( a pro bulletin board) you’ll find much discussion of the current crisis in philosophy and the threat of job-losses and department closures, but no solutions. If you can provide one you’ll be the saviour of the hour.

As for topics, the heart of philosophy is metaphysics so a selection of metaphysical questions will do. All metaphysical questions are ‘big’ questions. But why persuade people to ask such questions unless you can answer them? Surely it should be you asking them and searching for answers. I worry this will be another book damning philosophy by discussing lots of important questions and failing to answer any, and there is already a vast literature that takes this approach. For this reason I feel you might be better choosing a more unusual title and theme and finding a new angle.

Don’t let me put you off since a good book is a good book even if it covers old ground. You may write something of great value to your intended audience. But were I a publisher I’d want something more exciting from an unknown author.

This is not advice but just thoughts. If you’re fired up to write then write.