On Time


time cover3Mystically-inclined people say stuff like, “If you could only understand the mysteries behind our everyday lives…”…

Like here, for example, from J.J. van der Leeuw:

 “With the dawn of intellect the mystery of primitive man is lost and naught but facts in their vulgarity remain; in the sublime ignorance of a self-satisfaction, which doubts neither itself nor the world, man moves among mysteries which, could he but realize them, would strike terror into his heart.”

One such mystery is readily accessible to our immediate awareness: that of time.

What is time? Everybody thinks they know what time is, but when you think deeply about it, it becomes less and less clear what time is. If you have the time and wish to knock yourself out considering the various ideas that have been kicked around over time, about what time is, Wikipedia has a whole category page about time.

However, my intent here is less intellectual and more experientially-oriented. I want to share this funny little observation van der Leeuw made about time. It makes the mystery immediately accessible. His observation is this:

 “The present in itself has neither duration nor reality; not even the fraction of a second can be called the present.”

This is really a rather bizarre observation, when you think about it. We only experience the present. But as VDL says, the present has no duration. The past and future, really, are only ideas in our mind in the present. We remember the past (at least to some extent) and we anticipate the future. But we never directly experience either the past or the future, only the present. But the present has no duration. Just reflect on these facts for a few seconds and you’ll get what I am saying.

And once you do get it, you have to wonder: What does this say about the status of our existence?

Of course there are ideas about this on the Wiki-link above, but the point is not to rationalize this fact of our existence, but instead to just experience it. Contemplating on this, I believe, gives us immediate access to one of the mysteries to which VDL refers above.

Such contemplation has led me to conclude that time is a game called “guess what I am”.

6 thoughts on “On Time

  1. Hi there,
    Interesting post, but (having written a book on ‘time’ (a brief history of timelessness)), I think you may find there is a very significantly different way of looking at this that you may find interesting. And that the ‘time’ game is not ‘guess what i am’, but ‘are we totally wrong to assume it exists?’.

    I’ve explained how this may be possible in a few videos, (e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pSJ8A-w78xM and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ii3gxxn2reA )

    these apply to your post because you say,

    “The past and future, really, are only ideas in our mind in the present.”

    Which I agree with, but then you add,

    “We remember the past (at least to some extent) and we anticipate the future. ”

    Which is contradictory, either ‘the past’ is either ‘only an idea in our minds’, OR ‘we remember ‘the past’ ‘.

    Likewise either ‘the future’ is only, an ‘idea’ , OR ‘the future’ is some thing, we can anticipate.

    My point is, there is a question every article I have read on time seems not to have considered, which is this…

    “If everything in the universe ‘just’ exists and interacts, would this be enough to mislead us into thinking a ‘past’ and ‘future’ exist?”

    I think the answer to this is yes, and thus you correctly say “the past and future are only ideas”

    But, thus van der Leeuws comments do Not “make the mystery immediately accessible”. Instead they may cloud the issue by making the false assumption ‘seconds exist and pass’ and thus his unobserved conclusion…

    “The present in itself has neither duration nor reality; not even the fraction of a second can be called the present.”

    May be totally wrong… Because, if the past and future are Only ideas, then we are wrong to assume they, and time exist, and thus there is no passing time, and no fractions of a second,

    and thus the present is very far from being “not even a fraction of a second”, instead the present is totally ‘constant’.

    What I am suggesting is that we may be complete wrong to assume the past, and future and thus time and any or all of its features exist, and thus the whole universe may be completely, and very literally, “timeless”.

    All the best, if you have any questions please let me know or post a comment,
    matt mars

  2. Dear Matt

    Thank you for the kind and provocative comments. They are much appreciated.

    1. First thing is I may not have been as clear as possible. When you interpreted what I said as:

    “either ‘the past’ is either ‘only an idea in our minds’, OR ‘we remember ‘the past’ ‘. Likewise either ‘the future’ is only, an ‘idea’ , OR ‘the future’ is some thing, we can anticipate”.

    This is not what I meant. In both cases, I am meaning that the past and future are only ideas in our minds. In the case of the past, we call the idea a “memory” and in the case of the future, we call the idea an “anticipation”. In both cases, of memories and anticipations, they are just types of ideas in the mind. That is what I meant.

    You are incorrectly reading into my statement that when I use the terms “memory” and “anticipation” that I assume past and future are real. This is not at all what I meant. Calling some ideas “memories” PRETENDS the past was real, and calling some ideas “anticipations” PRETENDS the future will be real, for people who use the words in this fashion. I do not. They are both just ideas. Period.

    2. Now, as to the 2nd part of your message, it is very interesting. I think, in general, your intuition is correct. One of the ideas implied in my post is that it is perhaps not the best idea to get too tangled up intellectually with these matters. That was the point of directing people to the Wiki-page: to see the large variety, and sometimes contradictory, notions of time.

    The intellect can only go so far. Especially when it is trapped in what yogis call “vikshepa”, which is the normal state of mind of most people. (You can see my recent book What is Science? for full definitions of all these Indian terms). Even for those who begin to climb out of the vikshepa state, to be awake in this world is a state of consciousness called vitarka.

    Perceiving existence from the state of vitarka is something like being in prison. Leadbeater has a fitting metaphor of being trapped in a tower with a one or two tiny windows out which one can see the world. That would certainly limit one’s perception of the world. This is the vitarka consciousness we are in now.

    Therefore, it is really very difficult to try to figure out the nature of things, whether time, space, life, whatever, when trapped in the mental prison, the phase, or state, that our mind is in when we are awake to this world, and in the state that most people call “normal”, which is not normal at all, but the most limited state of consciousness there is.

    In spite of these extreme perceptual limitations, your logic seems to have gotten you to a glimpse into a deeper understanding of time and events.

    Again, your intuition is, I think, correct. All things are simultaneous, in some very deep sense. This is true not only for the physical world perceived by vitarka consciousness, but for all the 4 worlds.

    All that is, was, and will be abides in an eternal now that is, well…eternal.

    It is the limitations of our physical existence that prevent this from being an ever-present reality to our consciousness. van der Leeuw has some great insights about time and eternity and I recommend you check out his Conquest of Illusion.

    Further, it is not just a stairway with two steps. There are several stairs between the state we are in now and the state of consciousness that can perceive eternity. The “10 types of samadhi” post has the steps of the staircase. Also, my post “Monads, Planes, and Levels of Understanding” discusses the different levels between here and there.

    The hard thing for so many people to appreciate is that both can exist. Time and eternity are both real, just at different levels of existence, at different levels of consciousness. Time and eternity, being and becoming, space and nothing, life and death, materialism and idealism, numbers and infinity, change and changeless. They all have their place. God is infinite, you know. Just because we are limited does not mean God is.

    So, to summarize, yes, I think you are essentially correct, but please consider there is much more to perceive than can be perceived in our so-called “normal” waking state. Consider exploring these greater states of awareness. Take your ideas to the next level to which they are pointing you.

    3. Finally, I think it is possible you may have misinterpreted what van der Leeuw was saying. He was not talking about fractions of a second, except in the negative. The present has no duration, is what he was saying. And what I was saying is that the past and future do not exist as real things (but only as ideas in our mind in the present). So, if the present has no duration, and the past and future do not exist, then what exists? That was the mystery I was trying to get the reader to experience.

    Be that at is may, I would submit your’s and van der Leeuw’s insights are equivalent. They are like taking a glove and turning it inside out. They seem opposite, but they are just the same thing turned inside out (like yin and yang). Whether time, as we perceive it when awake in the physical world, is a durationless present, or, as you suggest, a constant present, we get the same end result: an eternal now.

    Finally, I will watch your videos and search for your book. Thank you for providing the links to the videos. I look forward to them. And thank you again for your comments and the stimulating discussion.

    Best wishes,


  3. Hi Don,
    Thank you for your reply, I composed a response but it got a bit too long 🙂
    I’ll edit it down,

    Thank you re your reference to the conquest of illusion, I have been reading it here

    and find it interesting, I am also of course focused on dissolving ‘illusions’ , specifically re time, and so far it seems VDL is a great thinker, but may have made an error that is (if i am right) interestingly common, in that many people who may have seen how time does not exist in an insight, then try to understand and explain what they have realised… in terms of time.

    e.g ‘there is no time, the past is gone forever’

    while im saying – there is no time, things just exist and move, the concept of ‘the past’ is actually moot and scientifically unproven – thus we need not say, and it is invalid to say ‘the past’ is gone.

    i`ll explain more clearly in another reply.

    (if you want the essence of my work https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pSJ8A-w78xM is the best video at the moment)

    What i am saying is ‘similar’ to some other exponents of the idea time does not exist, but significantly different in certain absolutely critical places.

    all the best.

    • Hi Matt

      Thanks for the nice follow-up. Well, I checked out your video above and found it to be very cool! It was interesting enough that I watched it all the way through!! Great job!

      OTHER READERS (all two of you!): Check out Matt’s video above. He gives a great talk (and yes, punch and pie are served).

      I see much better now where you are coming from and you pretty much have an air tight case in my opinion. If I was to interpret what you are doing in the terms I used in What is Science?, you illustrate in your talk very nicely how to separate sabda from jnana. How to separate mere words and their associated (fantasy) meanings from a direct and clear perception of our sensory experience.

      As you say, people make up this idea of time to explain certain sensory experiences (e.g. that things just change). But then, having made up the concept, it gets a life of its own and runs away in people’s imaginations, leading to such fantasy concepts as the past and the future.

      You show the sabda, the sounds, words, fantasies, to be just what they are. Your talk was like when Toto pulls back the curtain and shows the Great and Powerful Oz to just be a weak old man.

      One pet peeve on my part. You mentioned Leibniz very briefly at the beginning of your talk. As you can see from my blog, I’m a big Leibniz fan. He thought both time and space were relative and didn’t exist as things in themselves. He had a big fight with one of Newton’s ass-kissers, Sam Clarke, over the matter. You can read it here:

      Click to access leibniz1715_1.pdf

      Newton didn’t have the balls to debate Leibniz directly. Newton was a schmuck. End pet peeve.

      My favorite quote of yours: “No future no past, things just change.”

      To be a little more critical. I would guess there is a philosopher somewhere who says stuff similar to you. Kant was kind of close. Like Leibniz, he did not think time was real either, but is just an effect of how our minds work. Anyway, my point is, if you keep reading up on it, I suspect you’ll find others that share exactly your view. For sure your thinking reminds me of Heraclitus:


      Finally, one last piece of info. In Patanjali’s yoga, a similar idea is used. There is no direct reference to time per se. The word used is “parinama” which just means “change”. The Hindu view I so strongly advocate here sees the world very much as you described: incessant change in an eternal present. There is parinama, change, and there is the stuff changing, the gunas. And that is it. That’s the big picture of manifested existence. All the details are all the forms the gunas take.

      But there are deeper things in Hindu thought than just change and gunas. They are called (in English translation) the unmanifest and the Absolute. I guess, if I have any advice at all, it’s to keep digging. As I said, your intuition, which allowed you to so effectively synthesize all that intellectual information, has poised you this far. You admitted you didn’t have a theory why its all this incessant change. My only suggestion is you start to wonder why. Obviously you got the gifts to carry you past the question. In this regard, I think van der Leeuw’s viewpoint can help propel you into these deeper directions, if you wish to go there.

      Again, Matt, first, thanks for dropping in and letting me know you exist, and second, thanks for sharing your material. It really was very worthwhile, informative and fun and entertaining too.

      Have a great life before you break into pieces and go do something else!! 🙂

      Best wishes,


  4. Hi Don,
    Thank you very much fort that reply, and the links, there is so much on the internet it’s very useful when people point to specific sites etc.

    I’m rushing around presently, so can’t reply in detail, but I should say that many people initially think ‘others share exactly my point of view’ ( as you say ).

    “Anyway, my point is, if you keep reading up on it, I suspect you’ll find others that share exactly your view. For sure your thinking reminds me of Heraclitus:”

    – but i very sincerely am pretty certain this is not the case. Certainly not Mctaggert, Plato, Socrates, Heraclitus, Aristotle, Galileo, Newton,Einstein, hawking etc etc

    If you glance at my bibliography…

    these are some of the books I read in trying to disprove what I was thinking, I only produced the book as I saw none of these ( and many other authors/speakers ) had ‘seen’, let alone seen and addressed the key questions I ask.

    which are
    A- what do we actually observe ( i suggest things exist and move)
    B- is this enough to mislead us into thinking a thing called ‘time’ may exist and need to be explained.

    With respect Heraclitus’s work suggests one can not step into the same river ‘twice’ – while i am saying ‘perhaps there is just a massive universal collection of matter that moves and changes?

    Some of that matter makes up a set of atoms we may call a river, and some a set of atoms holding the ‘idea’ in someones head that “one can not step into the same river ‘twice’ ”

    ( ie the set of atoms in anyones head can hold any ‘idea’, but one has to check the words in that idea relate to real things, in this case the erro may be that Heraclitus’s work uses the word ‘twice’ – and thus he must prove this word has meaning ( ie there is a ‘twice’ ) for him to use it in a proof or explanation ).
    Another key difference i think may exist is that no other analysis on the possibility of timelessness incorporates and explains Einsteins Relativity successfully , ie other positions are incomplete – which is completely unacceptable to science ( and genuine spiritual understanding)

    I try to show the reasoning here

    really got to rush , sorry, but just to add, the reason i say
    “timelessness is not a ‘theory’ ”

    is not because i need a theory, but to point out that (imo) if someone believes in ‘time’, then THEY have a theory – specifically a theory that “extra to what is observed, a thing called ‘time’ is needed to explain what we observe”

    while i am saying
    “i seem to observe a universe of matter that exists and interacts…. AND that seems to be enough to explain all that i observe”

    ie – i do not see the need for , or proof of a thing called time – but i think i can see why we may mistakenly think there may be a thing called time.

    – myu point is to highlight to others that they have a theory and ( as i say in the book )

    The onus of proof is thus with anyone claiming an extra and invisible intangible thing ( time) exists, and not in asking others to disprove the idea.

    i may not know “how and why” there is a universe full of matter that exists and interacts – and i don’t have a theory how or why it all exists, – but we cant say
    “i don’t know why everything exists…. therefore ‘this’ proves that a thing called time exists”.

    Sincerely, please let me know of any other people who you think may share the same or a very similar pov to my self, ( ie please post some names or links), I am always open to new information.

    matt marsden

  5. Hi Matt

    I’ve been pretty busy lately and don’t have time for a long reply but just a couple quick comments.

    1. The above video, I think, is weaker than your longer talk. Wormholes are particular types of solutions to equations used in cosmology. I don’t know any of the details. But I would guess from other equations I do know pretty well, that the above is a qualitative interpretation of specific solutions to the equations. So, it is not really advisable to tackle a qualitative interpretation of the solution to some equations because such interpretations are, well, open to interpretation! It is always, in these cases, more advisable to tackle the equations head on.

    You find this kind of situation in quantum mechanics where the qualitative interpretation to the wave equation is still, after all these years, being debated by physicists!

    So, I know this is not the most satisfactory response, but when dealing with mathematical topics, it is, I think, the most realistic response.

    2. Luboš Motl posted an interesting post that I think gets to the heart of what you are trying to do, at least with respect to physics:


    Time, as used in physics, is a cornerstone of what they do. Again, it’s less the qualitative interpretation, than it is how time is used as a variable in a variety of different contexts. One could legitimately argue that time, as used as a variable in different physics contexts, does not even have a homogeneous interpretation! The whole reversibility vs. irreversibility debate still rages in physics. Few scientists tackle it directly though because it is not as productive as other problems that have lower hanging fruit. One tends to find people outside physics, like philosophers, more inclined to deal with the reversibility vs. irreversibility debate.

    Ok, that’s all I have time for at the moment. Thanks, Matt!



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