An Introduction to the Philosophy of Time

Cambridge: Polity Press (2018)
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Abstract

Time is woven into the fabric of our lives. Everything we do, we do in and across time. It is not just that our lives are stretched out in time, from the moment of birth to the moment of our death. It is that our lives are stories. We make sense of ourselves, today, by understanding who we were yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that; by understanding what we did and why we did it. Our memories shape our present selves, since we are the product of who we were, and who we remember being. Yet who we are lasts for but a moment. It is who we will be that demands attention. We are forever projecting ourselves into the future. We painstakingly plan for the needs of our future selves, all the while knowing that while what we do will make those future selves who they are, still, our future selves are elusive. So it is not simply that we happen to live our lives in time, the way, say, one might happen to live in Australia, or Singapore. It is hard to fathom how things could be otherwise. What would it be to live a life without time? Yet time itself is intangible. Though we are keenly aware of what has been ‒ of pain and loss, regret and pride ‒ and of what might be ‒ of anticipation, and dread, and longing ‒ time itself seems unaffected by anything we do. Though we can anticipate a future birthday cake, time itself cannot be tasted. Though we can dread a future dentist’s appointment, time itself cannot be touched. Though we remember the crunching of leaves this past autumn, time itself cannot be heard. How can it be that something so central to each of us, to who we are, and what we care about, can be so spectral? What, in the end, is time? Is time real, like a substance in which each of us, like insects in amber, finds ourselves trapped? Is time a dimension through which we can move? Is time not a thing at all, but some connection between events? If time is real, what is it like? Does it flow like a river, taking each of us prisoner in its current, washing us ever closer to the end of our lives? Is time like a cresting wave, coming ever closer to each of us from the future, engulfing us, and then receding into the past? Or is time static? Like a one-way road that each of us might wander, with no chance to turn back? Or perhaps time is like none of these things. Perhaps time is more like space; something we can navigate freely, so that we can visit different times just like we visit different places. Perhaps we can we travel in time the way we can travel in space. These questions, and many more, are the focus of this book. Now, you might wonder what philosophers are doing writing a book about time. Surely that’s a job for physicists! It is true: a great deal of what we know about time stems from our understanding of physics. However, even in physics we find that there are questions about time that go unanswered. Moreover, increasingly, physicists are turning to philosophers for help in understanding the role that time plays in current physical theories. Our goal is to get the reader up to speed on some of the central issues that influence our understanding of time so that they too may play a role in this ongoing discussion between science and philosophy. We hope that in doing so it will become clear what philosophy can bring to the study of time. There is a natural narrative in philosophy regarding the study of time, and we have chosen to organise this book according to that narrative. However, the book may also be approached in a ‘choose-your-own adventure’ spirit. While later chapters build on material introduced in earlier chapters, you can skip around, reading the book in any order you choose. For the instructor, this means that she can design her course around this book in any number of ways, depending on the particular topic she wishes to focus on.

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Author Profiles

Sam Baron
Australian Catholic University
Kristie Miller
University of Sydney

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