Is Time an Illusion?

An old-fashioned clock face.

Generally speaking, we think of time as something simple and basic, that passes evenly from the past to the future. (Image: Rossco via Dreamstime)

In the hustle of our daily lives, we often hear people around us urging us to hurry up or we will not have enough time. Some say that they’re so busy they don’t have enough time. What is time? Is it when the sun rises in the morning and changes when the sun sets at night? Or is it the movement of the second hand on the clock? Generally speaking, we think of time as something simple and basic that passes evenly from the past to the future. It can also be measured by a clock. Would you believe it if we said that the concept of time does not exist and that it is only an illusion of the mind? Let’s talk about this mystery.

In 1851, a strange man was reported wandering through a German village speaking only bits of broken German. He said his name was Jophar Vorin, and claimed to come from a part of the world known as Sakria. He spoke and wrote in an unknown language that he called “Laxarian.” He told authorities that he was looking for his long-lost brother, but appeared in the village after encountering a shipwreck.

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There was another report in 1986 of a man named Pedro Oliva Ramirez. He was driving from Seville to a town called Alcalá de Guadaíra when he went around a curve and allegedly found himself on a six-lane highway he had never seen before. He continued driving down this straight road, seeing unfamiliar buildings and roadside. After continuing to drive on the highway for an hour, he spotted a sign pointing in three different directions. One was labeled “Malaga,” the other was “Sevilla,” and the last was “Alcabala”. He took the “Sevilla” detour, and without fully knowing why, he was standing outside of his home in Alcalá de Guadaíra. Frustrated and confused, he tried to retrace his steps, but could never find the crossroads, or the triple road sign.

Highway in Spain with cars driving and a mountain in the background.
In 1986, a driver went around a curve and allegedly found himself on a six-lane highway he had never seen before. (Image: Fotokon via Dreamstime)

Fast forward to 2008. A Spanish woman named Lerina Garcia woke up one day to find that her world had suddenly changed in some strange ways. Her bedsheets were unfamiliar, and the pajamas she was wearing were different from the ones she’d gone to sleep in. Her day got weirder when she went to work and discovered that she worked in the same building, but in a different department under a boss she’d never met. She also discovered that her current boyfriend is her ex-boyfriend and her new boyfriend whom she had been dating for a few months was nowhere to be found. The woman was found to be in good physical and mental health. So what happened?

There are many more unexplained phenomena like these. Could it be possible these people experience some sort of time travel or ended up in parallel dimensions? Let’s take a look at what our scientists have found about the mystery of time.

Aristotle’s view of time

What is time? The first person known to ask this question was the famous ancient Greek scientist and philosopher Aristotle. In his work Physics, he formulated the first classical view of time. What this simply means is that it is a measure of change. For example, someone goes out in the morning for two hours and then returns home. Hence, these two hours are a measure of the change that occurred between leaving and returning home.

Perhaps some will ask, according to Aristotle, if everything is not in motion and does not change, then does time also stand still and cease to exist? If Aristotle could hear this question, he would most definitely answer “yes.” But some would then ask, why is it that when I turn off all the lights at night and lie motionless in bed falling asleep, I can still feel the passage of time? Aristotle also pondered this question when he wrote his book Physics. In the book, he mentions that even if the body does not move, your mind is thinking. Once the mind thinks, we immediately assume time has passed. He said that “time is either movement or something that belongs to movement.”

Why is it that when you lie motionless in bed falling asleep you can still feel the passage of time?
Why is it that when you lie motionless in bed falling asleep you can still feel the passage of time? (Image: Dreamstime Agency via Dreamstime)

Newton’s absolute time

Some people may find Aristotle’s idea of time a little strange. This is understandable, as we were taught Newton’s concept of time in modern physics. Isaac Newton, the greatest mathematician and the most influential scientist of all time, believed it is absolute, exists independently of any perceiver, and progresses at a consistent pace throughout the universe. Even if all objects remained motionless and even if the activity of our souls were frozen, time would still pass, unaffected by anything. Newton used the letter t (time) to represent time in his physics equations.

For centuries, with modern physics based on Newton’s model, scientists have used various physical formulas to describe the world, all of which had included t. Although many people now regard the idea of time being independent and homogeneous as common knowledge, it was not a natural intuition for humans in ancient days. Most philosophers do not agree with Newton’s view. Leibniz, the famous German philosopher and mathematician, was strongly against Newton’s view of time. It is said that Leibniz’s name was originally spelled “Leibnitz”; however, he removed the “t” from his name to show that he did not believe in Newton’s theory of absolute time.

Einstein: Time is an illusion

Aristotle and Newton, the two most powerful scientists of their days, both gave different views on the subject of time. People were caught in between the two theories and pondered whose view was the truth.

Suddenly, another significant scientist, Albert Einstein, appeared with his theory of relativity. Einstein’s statement was even more confusing when he said: “Time is an illusion. The distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” This theory was too avant-garde for many people to accept. So how is this meant to be understood? 

A pair of glasses and an ink pen sit on graph paper with Einstein's equation for relativity written on it.
Einstein’s theory was too avant-garde for many people to accept. (Image: Bojan Dzodan via Dreamstime)

Before we continue, let’s talk about another concept that will help us to understand this topic better. One concept that has puzzled many physicists is that “the speed of light is constant.” What does that mean? We generally know that speed is relative. Let’s say one person was sitting on a train that runs at 50 meters per second, and on the train, there was a ball rolling at 3 meters per second. In the eyes of people on the train, the speed of the ball would be 3 meters per second. But if someone was standing on the platform and seeing the ball, the speed of the ball would be superimposed with the speed of the train, which would be 53 meters per second. So, many people took for granted that the speed of light was the same.

However, in 1887, American physicists Albert Abraham Michelson and Edward Morley conducted an experiment that brought unexpected outcomes. This experiment became known as the Michelson-Morley experiment. In their experiment, regardless of whether the direction of the Earth’s motion and the direction of light was the same or not, they found that the measured speed of light is always the same, that is, “the speed of light is constant.” With these results, if we replaced the ball with a photon, a massless particle of light, whether the people were on the train or the platform, they would see the photon at a speed of 3 meters per second. But how is this possible? 

The ‘magical’ time

So let’s now have Einstein solve the mystery for us. Einstein believed that there is no absolute time or space in this world, and he proposed a theory of the unity of space and time. In other words, time and space are one thing called “spacetime.” Physicists call the matter that makes up the world “field,” such as the temperature field or the electromagnetic field, and hence many experts say that spacetime is a gravitational field.

Image of a clock superimposed on a globe.
Einstein believed that time and space are one thing, called ‘spacetime.’ (Image: Newlight via Dreamstime)

Gravitational fields are no different from any other matter in the world. The world is a superposition of several fields, of which the gravitational field is one layer, and like other fields, it is neither absolute nor uniform and fixed. It can bend and stretch and interact with other fields.

With this theory, spacetime can also be as smooth as a flat surface, which is the version described by Newton that we are familiar with. But the field can also fluctuate, as is the case with the gravitational waves that can contract and expand. Therefore, the mystery is solved. The speed of light is constant because time and space are relative, which can be explained by Einstein’s theory of relativity. 

Einstein’s theory of relativity contains two theories — special relativity and general relativity. According to special relativity, time passes more slowly for fast-moving objects than for stationary objects. On the other hand, general relativity says that it passes more slowly for objects in strong gravitational fields than for those in weak gravitational fields. In other words, for a person standing on the ground, time passes more quickly for the head than it does for their feet because the head is further away from the ground where the gravitational field is weaker. So it looks like there might be some scientific basis for the claim that doing a handstand can be a good way to improve your beauty! So is Einstein right or not? Let’s look at some classic examples.  

Atomic clock experiment

In 1971, there was an experiment by two scientists, Joseph Hafele and Richard Keating, using four cesium atomic clocks. These atomic clocks use the standard frequency of the atomic nucleus to calculate and maintain the accuracy of time. The International Bureau of Weights and Measures reported in 2020 that a certain cesium atomic clock in Germany had an error of not even a second over 187 million years, therefore, it would be a very reliable tool to use in an experiment measuring whether time has changed or not.

An old Atomichron atomic clock.
Atomic clocks were chosen for the experiment because they can measure time without error over millions of years. (Image: Karen Foley via Dreamstime)

For the experiment, Hafele and Keating placed two cesium atomic clocks on two commercial airliners traveling around the world in opposite directions, one going east and one going west, and compared them to another atomic clock located at the U.S. Naval Observatory. The one going east — in the direction of the Earth’s rotation — would be at a faster relative speed compared to the one going west, which is against the Earth’s rotation.

According to general relativity, time becomes faster where the gravitational field is weak and according to special relativity, it becomes slower for faster objects. The atomic clock in the aircraft is at high altitude and high speed, while the atomic clock in the observatory is at ground level and is stationary, so both of Einstein’s theories of relativity were factored in. 

What were the results of the experiment? The atomic clock on the plane flying east in the direction of the Earth’s rotation (which means it was at a faster relative speed) was 59 nanoseconds slower than the one on the ground in the observatory, while the atomic clock on the plane flying west (at a slower relative speed) was 273 nanoseconds faster than the one on the ground. Einstein’s theories of general and special relativity were verified simultaneously.

Even the GPS positioning systems we use today require calibration daily. Otherwise, the atomic clocks on satellites would be 38 microseconds faster than the time on the ground each day. Don’t think this is not significant. If left uncorrected, the GPS would accumulate a positioning error of about six miles each day. 

Nasa twin experiment

In 2015, America’s NASA did a special human biology experiment involving a pair of twins. Astronaut Scott Kelly and his brother Mark are identical twins, which means they share the same genome. NASA sent Scott into space where he spent 340 days on the International Space Station. Mark stayed on Earth, awaiting Scott’s return to compare the genetic changes in the two men to study the effects of space life on the human body.

When you look at the photos released by NASA, does it seem that Scott looks younger after being in space and flying around Earth at high speed? Since NASA had not released any photos of the two men before they took part in the experiment, we can’t say for sure whether Scott would have looked younger before the experiment took place. However, NASA’s research does prove that Scott is aging slower than Mark.

Scott and Mark Kelly after NASA's twin experiment.
Mark Kelly (left) and twin brother Scott Kelly (right) at the completion of NASA’s twin experiment. (Image: via NASA)

It turns out that when NASA did genetic testing, they found that Scott’s body aged significantly slower during his time in space. This was because the telomeres, located at the ends of the chromosomes, shortened at a lower rate. Telomeres are a small segment of DNA found at the end of a cell’s chromosomes, and their function is to prevent damage to the chromosomes. As people age, telomeres become shorter and cells gradually age and die.

In the twins’ space experiment, Scott’s telomeres slowed down, while Mark’s continued to age at a normal rate. However, when Scott returned to Earth, his telomeres soon went back to their normal rate of shortening. There is an ancient Chinese saying that a day in heaven is a thousand days on Earth. In different positions and spatial dimensions, the rate of change in time is completely different. In one dimension, a day may have just passed; but on Earth, we may have already experienced the rise and fall of a civilization. Is it also possible that the people in the cases we mentioned at the start of this article accidentally came from another spacetime?

Block universe

Based on Einstein’s theory of relativity and the four-dimensional view of the universe as the unity of spacetime, in 2015, Bradford Skow, a professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, proposed a theory of the block universe. It describes how the past, present, and future all co-exist “now” in a four-dimensional universe that consists of three dimensions of space and one dimension of time. All moments that exist are relative to each other and have their coordinates in spacetime.

The block of the universe is static, standing still in four-dimensional spacetime — there is no passage of time, no movement of the stars, the world is a static piece and each point on the timeline corresponds to an image of three-dimensional space at that instant. The whole moving universe is made up of countless such images of three-dimensional space.

If we could look outside the block universe, it would be as if we were watching a film in this world. You can choose any point in time to watch what is happening at that moment. We all know that when we press the play button, the movie will continue playing. So block universe theory also has a corresponding button where humans feel the irreversible passage of time.

Movie clapperboard and film sitting on a wooden surface superimposed on the image of a city skyline at night.
If we could look outside the block universe, it would be as if we were watching a film in this world. (Image: Oleg Dudko via Dreamstime)

MIT physicist and philosopher Max Tegmark and the British physicist Julian Barbour argued that this button is our brain. The passage of time is an illusion of our brain, such that the neuronal structure of the brain allows us to remember the past, but will not tell us what will happen in the future. That’s why memory gives people the illusion that it is passing and everything is moving from the past to the present and into the future. If this is true of the universe, how can we transcend the illusion and see the past, present, and future? Is it possible for anyone to do so, given the current state of science? 

The serial universe: different dimensions have different time

In 1934, a British soldier, aeronautical engineer, and philosopher John William Dunne wrote a book about his precognitive dreams and a theory of time that he later called “serialism.” He believes time varies in different dimensions. Our physical brain inhabits one time dimension. Our conscious mind inhabits the next level of time dimension and so on all the way to an ultimate consciousness, like our soul. He proposes that when we die, only our physical body in the initial level of time dies. Our higher selves are outside of this time and are effectively immortal. His theory was never accepted by mainstream science. It is possible that science today is not advanced enough to fully explain the mystery of time.

The story of the Shakya clan

In ancient India, after King Virudhaka had usurped the throne, he decided to destroy the Shakya clan, home of Buddha Shakyamuni. It is said that three times in succession, Shakyamuni sat on the road that his army must take to dissuade King Virudhaka. On the fourth occasion, Sakyamuni did not stop him and the Shakya clan was annihilated.

Three wooden sculptures of Buddha Sakyamuni.
Three times in succession, Shakyamuni sat on the road as the army passed by in order to dissuade King Virudhaka. (Image: Sai Chan via Dreamstime)

When one of Shakyamuni’s disciples, Moggallana, asked Shakyamuni why this happened, Shakyamuni explained that long ago, King Virudhaka used to be the kingfish in the water, who was eaten by the people who lived by the river. His flesh was shared among 500 people, who were the Shakya clan. At that time, Shakyamuni was a small child who did not eat the fish, but out of curiosity, had once struck the kingfish three times on the head. It was for this reason that Shakyamuni actually had a headache for three days after he became Buddha.

After the kingfish reincarnated as King Virudhaka, he targeted the Shakya clan, wiping it out completely. As for what would happen to King Virudhaka, Shakyamuni predicted that seven days after the massacre, King Virudhaka and his army would definitely be destroyed. Sure enough, seven days later, King Virudhaka and his army perished in a big storm. So how did Buddha know the future without any access to scientific studies and theories? According to the Buddhists, those who practice cultivation and enlightenment have insight into fate and are able to observe the past, present, and future. In that case, is Buddha the greatest scientist of all? 

So what are your thoughts on time? 

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