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Time: The Big Squeeze

Peter Cave barely avoids being crushed into a singularity. Phew!

Can anything exist in time? “A philosophers’ typical worry!” laugh those sceptical of enterprises philosophique: “Musing upon such matters, no doubt, passes the time, but” – and here comes Samuel Beckett – “time would have passed anyway.” Time passing, though, involves future events becoming present and then past. That makes trouble, at least when philosophising.

Squeezed Into Nothing

We rely on both past and future. We plan for the wedding, perhaps the divorce later on – or simply look forward to the champagne. We glow when recalling a past success, and suffer remorse over our many faux pas. Events that we remember, and events that we look forward to, or dread, do not exist now, though. Neither the past nor the future exists now. What exists now – in the present – are the rememberings, anticipations and dreads. Anything which exists can exist only in the present – only now. But what constitutes the present? What is now?

Some people may slip into thinking that now possesses a definite duration – lasting for a few minutes, or a second, or a split second. Anything which has duration, though, hits the buffers of the reflections above. If ‘now’ has duration, then some of it must surely be past, and some future; and those portions therefore lack presence. So, here, in the present, we are squeezed into no time – into no time at all. A horror tale places captives in a cell, its walls slowly moving inwards: the captives will be squashed to death. Similarly, as we muse upon the past and future, we see how we are gradually being squeezed into a durationless present, a durationless now. Our present, our now, appears as a boundary between past and future lacking extension in time; yet even that description poses problems. How can we live in an extensionless boundary? How, indeed, can there be a boundary between past and future when both are non-existents? This reasoning squeezes time itself from existence.

Living Without ‘Now’

The paradox arises, claim some, because talk of ‘past, present, future’ – of what was, is and will be – misleads us. Instead of treating tensed time as basic, however, we should focus on events happening before, after or simultaneously with other events. If I say that the goose is cooking now, that amounts to nothing more than the cooking and my saying occurring at the same time. When I observe that Lady Jane won the Lingfield race, my observation occurs after her win. The tree’s temporal stage as sapling is before its mature willow stage, just as its roots are spatially below its branches.

If time is captured by putting events in this before/after series, then it can be argued that the events are all equally existent, whether or not, from our position, we see them as past, present, or future. This tenseless view of time understands the order of events as holding timelessly; hence there should be no puzzle about the present: the present, past and future are equally real. We are unsqueezed.

But the tenseless view fails to do justice to change. To use an example from McTaggart – the splendidly named John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart – a poker, painted black at one end, red at the other, is not thereby changing. Contrast that with a black poker placed in a fire: it was black and cold; it becomes red and hot. The cooking goose was raw and will soon be well done, even burnt. But if change requires more than the fixity of before and after – after all, before creatures existed, were not events changing from future to past? – we suffer again the temporal squeeze.

When To Stop

Even when computer programs realistically model the weather, we do not expect the programs to rain. Models model only to some degree, in some respects. Dividing time as if it’s a mathematical abstract line should be taken only so far when applied to our lived past, present and future. Our experience is not so simply divisible. You listen to a song cycle. Are you listening to all of it right now? Or must we insist that we hear only – what? – a second of sound, while remembering previous notes and anticipating others? I live in Great Britain – but all of it, or just a few square yards? Demands for exactitude can be inappropriate, even hazardous. Witness The Merchant of Venice: Portia’s demanding precision – a pound of flesh exactly – foiled Shylock’s aims. For much of living, mathematical accuracy is misplaced. At times, it is fine to treat France as hexagonal. When needing sliced bread, a bread knife is more valuable than the sharpest of razors. And what is present, now, may endure for a song, or Evensong, or as much as a year; or as little as a doorbell’s sharp ring. The context matters.

We should often resist finer and finer divisions; we should often resist precision. So it is that we avoid the squeeze – or do we?

© Peter Cave 2015

Peter Cave lectures for the Open University and New York University (London). He has a yen for quips, bow ties, opera and wine. His new book, The Big Think Book, just published by Oneworld, addresses 99 big questions. For video links, see petercave.com. If ordering The Big Think Book online from the publishers, use code THINK15 for 15% discount and free postage.

McTaggart on Time

In 1908 the idealist philosopher John M.E. McTaggart tried to prove that time wasn’t real. The best-remembered part of his argument today is his classification of theories of time into two kinds. ‘A-series theories’ say that time consists of past, present and future events. Whether an event is past, present or future depends on the observer. In ‘B-series theories’, one event is said to take place before or after another event, and this is independent of observer.

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