October 04, 2015

The Passage of Time

Hello Dr. Craig

First of all I apologize for my English, I'm French and it may be that you are obliged to decode some of my sentences. Thank you for the work you do, I'm studying neuropsychology and I especially like your site resources. Furthermore, when you come to France? You must know that here, many university students are becoming interested in apologetics and your work are not for nothing.

I am writing because I am interested much in free will and I currently work on the implications of the B-or-A theory of time. I agree with you that joining the A theory is a prerequisite for free will.

Einstein's relativity is often highlighted to support the B theory of time, but it does not explain the passage of time. According to them, the passage of time, also called psychological time, is not objective but subjective, an illusion produced by our brain. However, in my research I came across a recent argument of a French philosopher who seems to refute this explanation of the passage of time. According Quentin Meillassoux both proposals generate a paradox he calls the paradox of ancestry. In the French paradox is this: "comment concevoir l'émergence de la conscience dans le temps si le temps a besoin de la conscience ?" / "how to design the emergence of consciousness in time if time needs of consciousness?" Indeed, if the flow of time depends of consciousness, there can be no ancestry in the events that preceded the advent of consciousness, but we now know that objects and events have existed before the human consciousness emerges.

Is there a flaw in the reasoning of the philosopher? I would like to hear your opinion about this, because it seems that this paradox is a significant obstacle for proponents of the B-theory of time or at least their explanation of the passage of time.

Bless you.



I am just thrilled to hear from a French Christian, Joel, and to learn that Reasonable Faith material is being used in France. The publication of Foi raisonnable (Éditions la Lumière, 2012) in France is for me a dream come true. Jan and I were actually in southern France this past summer for a conference, and I am ready to speak in France should an invitation to do so be forthcoming. Having lived for some time in France, we have a burden for the French people, to see the church equipped intellectually and to see a revival of Christianity in France.

I was tickled by your question because it reminded me of a conversation I had with a Swiss graduate student some years ago. As a French speaker, he found it next to impossible to communicate to his colleagues his interest in tensed versus tenseless theories of time. Since in French the word for time and the word for tense is the same, namely, temps, he found himself quite a loss to how to communicate something like tenseless time. People didn’t even know what he was talking about! I think this is one of the best illustrations I’ve seen of how language can inhibit or facilitate our ability to conceptualize things philosophically.

Now for those unfamiliar with the terms, let me explain that according to a tensed theory (arbitrarily designated an A-theory) of time, the difference between past, present, and future is an objective feature of reality, whereas according to a tenseless theory (or B-theory) of time, the difference between past, present, and future is just a subjective feature of human consciousness, rather like the difference between here and there. In the absence of self-conscious observers, things would still exist at their spatial coordinates x, y, z, but they would not be here or there. In a similar way, in the absence of self-conscious observers, events would still be located at a temporal coordinate t, but they would not be past, present, or future, according to the B-theorist.

Now in fact I do not think that a tenseless theory of time is incompatible with free will. So long as causal determinism is false, it does not seem to matter so far as libertarian freedom is concerned whether one’s future choices exist. This takes us into very interesting discussions of divine foreknowledge of future free choices.

You’re right that special relativity theory is often appealed to as a justification for a tenseless theory of time, a claim which is multiply flawed. I want to draw your attention to a fascinating dialogue that occurred between Albert Einstein and the great French philosopher of time Henri Bergson in the spring of 1922 at the meeting of the Société Française de Philosophie in Paris, which was subsequently published in the Society’s Bulletin.[1] I have defended Bergson’s argument in this exchange in a forthcoming article, “Bergson Was Right about Relativity (well, partly)!” in Time and Tense, ed. S. Gerogiorgakis (Munich: Philosophia Verlag, 2015), pp. 295-330.

I, along with most A-theorists, agree that the passage of time, or psychological time, is purely subjective. Time passes quickly when you’re having fun! But don’t confuse the passage of time with temporal becoming. To affirm the objective reality of temporal becoming is not to affirm that time is literally passing by, but rather to affirm that things really do come into and go out of being. The British philosopher C. D. Broad aptly called this “absolute becoming” because things do not merely come to be F, where F designates some predicate like “fat,” “blue,” or “ripe,” but they just come to be, period (or as our British friends say, full stop). The A-theorist is committed to the objective reality of absolute becoming, not the passage of time.

I do not know M. Meillassoux’s work, but the paradox of ancestry you relate might be better rendered: “how to conceive the emergence of consciousness in time if consciousness is a necessary condition of time?” The objection here seems to be that the tenseless time theorist is caught in a vicious circularity. So understood, this does not seem to me to be a good objection. The claim of the B-theorist is that consciousness is a necessary condition of the passage of time, but not of time itself. Time would exist even if there were no conscious observers, but nothing would be present; just as space would exist if there were no conscious observers, but nothing would be here. So time (and space) need to exist in order for conscious creatures to come to exist in the course of the evolutionary process, and once they do, says the B-theorist, then certain things will be here and now for them. This position, however misguided, does not seem to me to involve any vicious circularity.

Best wishes for your further studies, Joel! Que le Seigneur vous bénisse!


1. “La théorie de la relativité,” Bulletin de la Société Française de Philosophie 17 (1922): 91-113. That portion of the dialogue involving the exchange between Bergson and Einstein has been translated as “Remarks concerning Relativity Theory,” in Bergson and the Evolution of Physics, ed. P.A. Y. Gunter (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1969), pp. 123-135.