- The basic question to which I wish to address myself in this lecture is simply the old one, does time really flow or pass? The problem, of course, is that genuine flowing or passage is something which occurs in time, and takes time to occur. If time itself flows or passes, must there not be some 'super-time' in which it does so? Again, whatever flows or passes does so at some rate, but a rate of flow is just the amount of movement in a given time, so how could there be a rate of flow of time itself? And if time does not flow at any rate, how can it flow at all?
- A natural first move towards extricating ourselves from these perplexities is to admit that talk of the flow or passage of time is just a metaphor. Time may be, as Isaac Watts says, like an ever-rolling stream, but it isn't really and literally an ever-rolling stream. But how is it like an ever-rolling stream? What is the literal truth behind this metaphor? The answer to this is not, at first sight, difficult. Generally when we make such remarks as 'Time does fly, doesn't it? — why, it's already the 16th', we mean that some date or moment which we have been looking forward to as future, has ceased to be future and is now present and on its way into the past. Or more fundamentally, perhaps, some future event to which we have been looking forward with hope or dread is now at last occurring, and soon will have occurred, and will have occurred a longer and longer time ago. We might say, for example, 'Time does fly — I'm already 47' — that is, my birth is already that much past, 'and soon I shall be 48', i.e. it will be more past still. Suppose we speak about something 'becoming more past' not only when it moves from the comparatively near past to the comparatively distant past, but also when it moves from the present to the past, from the future to the present, and from the comparatively distant future to the comparatively near future. Then whatever is happening, has happened, or will happen is all the time 'becoming more past' in this extended sense; and just this is what we mean by the flow or passage of time. And if we want to give the rate of this flow or passage, it is surely very simple — it takes one exactly a year to get a year older, i.e. events become more past at the rate of a year per year, an hour per hour, a second per second.
- Does this remove the difficulty? It is far from obvious that it does. It's not just that an hour per hour is a queer sort of rate – this queerness, I think, has been exaggerated, and I shall say more about it in a minute — but the whole idea of events changing is at first sight a little strange, even if we abandon the admittedly figurative description of this change as a movement. By and large, to judge by the way that we ordinarily talk, it's things that change, and events don't change but happen. Chairs, tables, horses, people change — chairs get worn out and then mended, tables get dirty and then clean again, horses get tired and then refreshed, people learn things and forget them, or are happy and then miserable, active and then sleepy, and so on, and all these are changes, and chairs, tables, horses, and people are all what I mean by things as opposed to events. An accident, a coronation, a death, a prize-giving, are examples of what we'd call events, and it does seem unnatural to describe these as changing — what these do, one is inclined to say, is not to change but to happen or occur.
- One of the things that make us inclined to deny that events undergo changes is that events are changes — to say that such and such an event has occurred is generally to say that some thing has, or some things have, changed in some way. ...
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