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LATEST DIALOGUES The Flow of Time in a Timeless Universe

“Time no longer appears to us as a gigantic, world-dominating chronos, nor as a primitive entity, but as something derived from phenomena themselves. It is a figment of my thinking.”

—Schrödinger, Erwin.

If you were to stand outside the universe—outside both space and time—and look at your life, you would see your birth, your death and every moment in between laid out as distinct points. From this angle, time does not flow, but is static and fixed.

This view of the universe may seem strange, but for many physicists, it is the one that best suits the current theories of space and time, such as Einstein’s theory of general relativity. In this block universe—as it’s called—past, present and future are all individual points. And our perception of time flowing from the past towards the future is only an illusion.

Some physicists, though, are not comfortable relegating time to the backwaters of physics, and are attempting to reconcile our perception of flowing time with the equations that describe the universe.

In order to bring meaning back to the “now” of our lives, these saviors of time have turned to quantum physics, which says that the future isn’t set until we measure a quantum object—at which point its state becomes fixed.

Viewed this way, we live on the leading edge of a growing block universe, with future possibilities coming into existence every time we take measurements. So each “now” determines the future, a future that is always just beyond our reach.

Not all physicists agree, though. For some, just because we don’t know what the future will be, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist—any more than not knowing what’s on the other side of a building means that nothing is there. And other physicists think that each “now” leads to multiple universes—the so-called “many worlds” scenario.

In the end, though, this disconnect between physics and our perception of flowing time could just be a matter of psychology. You create the appearance of movement by thinking that the “you” reading this article is the same self that ate breakfast this morning or went running yesterday.

But in fact, all those selves are distinct, each one existing at a different point in time—which you could see simultaneously if you stepped outside of the universe. It’s only when your mind ties all these separate selves together that time starts to flow, much like flipping through the frames of an animated movie.

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Shawn Radcliffe is a science writer, yoga instructor and creator of fiction and humor. He has written about science, health, meditation and yoga for, Men's Fitness, Greater Good and more. He also tackles the humorous implications of spirituality and science on his blog, Branáin - Ravenously Curious.

9 Responses to “The Flow of Time in a Timeless Universe”

  1. August 09, 2014 at 5:02 pm, Mit Jones said:

    Questions; The definition of the universe from Oxford Dictionary ” All existing matter and space considered as a whole; How many wholes can you have ? Once you were to discover a
    multiple universesmultiverse your observation would make it part of the whole ” Poof no multiverse”

    If space is a property of the universe what is the universe expanding into ?

    If it is all illusion aren’t we all just dicribing the trick.

  2. August 09, 2014 at 10:32 pm, cybervigilante said:

    The universe can have no “meaning” by definition. All meaning is contextual. As the largest thing and the only thing, the universe has no context in which to have meaning. The word “meaning” doesn’t even apply to it.

  3. August 12, 2014 at 3:50 pm, Steve Casselman said:

    The universe is fractal. It’s not 4D or 13D it’s 3.5D. It is the extension of the real numbers by the imaginary numbers. The unit vector of the imaginary numbers is the square root of negative one (-1)^1/2. This makes sense because the universe is discrete and compact, not continuous.

  4. August 14, 2014 at 1:05 am, Mit Jones said:

    Just two more question, this watcher of life, what can he see, is it the physical self
    manifesting each moment in a linear universe.

    Is this manifestation created by space or by time in reference to space,

    Maybe it is a thought construct created by the watcher ??

    Once you discover it is an illusion, everything else is just describing the trick.

  5. December 19, 2014 at 5:29 pm, khaki said:

    Time therefore should diexpect in me.

  6. September 14, 2015 at 9:53 pm, Udaybhanu Chitrakar said:

    Physicists say that our universe is expanding. But when it is asked: what it is expanding into, the answer we usually get is that it is not expanding into anything, because it is not embedded into any bigger space-time. That means universe as a whole is neither in any space nor in any time; as a whole it is thus spaceless and timeless. If we could see the universe in its entirety, then we would have seen that there is neither any space nor any time. But we can see only a part of the universe at any occation and that is why space and time appear so much real to us.

  7. May 13, 2016 at 7:26 pm, Granucci55 said:

    So I may be a little late to the party that is this discussion and i may just be a 16 boy that doesn’t have a doctorate in physics that most of your probably do but I have an idea of mine that I would like you to ponder over. But first i must give you a little bit of basis and background for my idea

    So if you thing of dimensions as that something of a specific dimension can see and comprehend of not only its own dimension but of all those of lesser complexity than its own dimension, for instance a 3D object can see and comprehend objects not only other 3D objects but 2D and 1D objects (but not those objects of 0D and -1D, but those two things are from another theory of mine and I wanna keep this to a one idea max) just the same the same as a 8D object can see and comprehend other 8D objects and 7D and so on and so forth. Us 3D objects can see and comprehend the first and second dimensions because what they perceive to be their universes, what i call the 1D universe and the 2D universe, is contained within our own universe. The same would go for our 3D universe and what it is expanding into if my previously state claim is correct then what our universe is expanding into would be the 4D universe and by that same logic we would also be expanding into the 5D universe because the 4D universe would be contained by it and it goes on and on, and as you know every time you go up in a dimension you have to add a dimension to the objects of this dimension, such as to go from a 2D object, which is just height and width, to a 3D object you have to add a new dimension,length, to it.

    So if you are correct and what you are saying about stepping outside the universe would show you the lay out of time then along with what I am saying being correct then would that mean that the forth dimension is height, width, length, and time?

    If you have any response or question for me you can email me at;

  8. February 04, 2017 at 4:30 pm, Jake kenner said:

    The nature of the flow of time and timelessness explained in the Real Time Traveler:

  9. December 29, 2018 at 4:39 pm, Anderthal Kord said:

    At the end of his article, Shawn Radcliffe brings up the question, is the person you remember eating breakfast this morning, and going for a run yesterday, the same person as the you of right now?
    Let us analyze this from the block universe perspective.
    In this reality, all of your past, present and future moments exist. You exist within three-dimensional space, at each moment of time. If we accept the popular definition of time as the fourth dimension, and if we accept the fact that we exist in both space and time (as past and future versions of ourselves), then, simply as a matter of definition, we are fourth-dimensional beings—we exist in both space and time. There is nothing mysterious or paranormal about our existence as fourth-dimensional beings—it is simply referring to the fact that our existence extends both in three-dimensional space and one-dimensional time.
    In fact, we can precisely define our physical existence as fourth-dimensional beings. Within the block universe, we exist between two specific points—the first point we can define as the moment we were first conceived, as a single cell, and the last point as the moment we die. We exist between these two moments, within the block universe, as a single, complete, physical entity.
    We are fourth-dimensional beings.
    Is the person you remember eating breakfast this morning the same person as the you of right now? If you look at this from only a three-dimensional perspective, then the answer is no. The person you remember eating breakfast is at a different time than you are now, and so it is occupying a different space. But from a fourth-dimensional perspective, all of the three-dimensional beings that are “you” throughout time form a single being—a fourth-dimensional organism. The question of whether some past self is the same as your present self is equivalent to asking, is your feet the same as your hands? Of course they are not the same, but they are a part of the same organism.
    To accept this view of reality requires a revision of our concept of self—or does it? When we think back upon our memories and experiences, we define these things as “our life”—as who we, as a part of our identity, as making up our self. They define who we are as a person. The same concept applies to how we view the future—as forming the basis of our hopes and dreams, as the “us” to be.
    We have always thought of ourselves as fourth-dimensional beings, even if the terminology seems strange and unfamiliar.
    This concept is unsettling, however, because, if our future exists, then free will must be an illusion. So the true question becomes: Why, throughout our entire lives, do we have the strong impression that we are free to decide our fates, in this present moment?
    An answer to this last question can be found here.

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