General Question


Why does time always move forward?

Asked by MRSHINYSHOES (13991points) March 17th, 2010

Why does time always move forward and not backward or stay constant? What force propels time to move forward all the time? Time causes us and other living things to age and die, causes inanimate things to deteriorate, sets and changes trends, and causes us to innovate and do away with the old.

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43 Answers

dpworkin's avatar

So snot won’t go up your nose when you sneeze.


@dpworkin Gross!!! Lol. But I think that has more to do with the Laws of Gravity than Time my friend! :P

dpworkin's avatar

Well it’s a jocular way of saying that time can run in only one direction because otherwise sequential events wouldn’t make sense.

lillycoyote's avatar

It keeps everything from happening all at the same time. Less stressful for everyone that way.


@dpworkin My question exactly——Why “does” it run in one direction??

elenuial's avatar

Time invariably moving forward is a requirement for a causal universe. If that were not the case, then we could not exist.

From another perspective, time doesn’t “move.” It’s just a dimension by which we measure and identify objects in the universe. Because the laws of causality hold, we can provide a logical ordering on objects and viewing them in such an order creates time as we know and sense it.

We perceive the universe in this order so that we can make sense of it.

Trillian's avatar

@MRSHINYSHOES, as I understand it, time is not, in fact, linear. It is only that we preceive it as going forward due to the constraints on our physical bodies. If we were to step out of our bodies, we would be able to experience time at any point in its happening.


@elenuial—only when I’m in a rush in the mornings and the clock hand seems to be racing faster than it should! Lol. ;)

dpworkin's avatar

@MRSHINYSHOES I just answered you question, twice, and @elenuial answered it, and @lillycoyote answered it. How much do you want? ?Or should I say much woh od want uoy


@Trillian——that makes sense. So I guess when we die, our spirits do not have to deal with time.


@dpworkin—-“woh od want uoy”——what?? Lol.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

Forward? That’s just what we call it. It may actually be moving in reverse. We may actually be born from the vomitos pukings of worms who assemble us one regurgitation at a time. We may actually die as we grow smaller and stupid, and there is nothing left to do but have a doctor cram us into a strange woman’s womb for disposal.

Yes, at death we get devoured by a giant hairy pussy monster

KatawaGrey's avatar

@MRSHINYSHOES: Have you read Slaughterhouse Five? In it, Kurt Vonnegut speaks of these aliens called Tralfamagorians did I spell that right? who experience every moment of time at the same time. They describe humans as being strapped to a train moving in one direction wile looking in a long steel tube and being unable to move their heads. In this way, humans only experience one moment of time at once and cannot look either forward or backward.

KatawaGrey's avatar

@MRSHINYSHOES: ? That was a serious answer… If you’re interested in the intricacies of time, it is an interesting book to read. It’s not a scientific text but it certainly does expand one’s mind.

wundayatta's avatar

I remember reading that physicists say that the math of time indicates it can just as easily run one way as another. I’m not sure how this can be true, but that’s what I remember.

ETpro's avatar

We speak of the Arrow of Time because to our perception, time moves forever forward. It never changes direction or speed. Old Man River is a wonderful, folk-interpretation of this concept. “He just keep rollin along.”

We think of space as three dimensional, and often toss in haphazardly that time is a fourth dimension. That’s not an accurate picture. We live in space-time, not somewhere in space at some time. Space-time is part of the fundamental makeup of our universe. Why that’s so is one of the questions we haven’t answered. We know what many of the laws governing the behavior of mass and energy are within space-time, but we don’t know why those laws are in play, and not some others.

We do know that the perception of time is relative to the observer. If I could travel at the speed of light, time would proceed at the usual pace in my perception, but to an observer standing still on earth watching me depart, I would appear to return before I left. So to that extent, time relative to a given observer can run in reverse.

We may never know the why of the most fundamental laws which govern our universe. If we fully understood how the universe was formed, could we form another of our own making? Should we?

filmfann's avatar

GA @susanc and @Captain_Fantasy!
I really love Slaughterhouse 5!

Captain_Fantasy's avatar

Bonus Points awarded for Kurt Vonnegut.

The Slaughterhouse Five” was outstanding. As for time moving forward, I think that how it goes for us.

Jeruba's avatar

How do you know it’s time moving forward? Maybe it’s you moving forward.

Or in other words, time is just the name we give to that experience of moving forward, which is essentially no different from the experience of change. If nothing changed, we couldn’t even exist. We couldn’t breathe or eat or digest or sleep or have day and night or the seasons or plants growing or anything. All of that is change. What is the difference between change and time?

Blondesjon's avatar

I desperately need it to.

lynfromnm's avatar

Time is just a way humans have devised to measure or quantify the distance between events. By measuring the distance between events, we’ve been able to measure age, predict equinoxes accurately and tell people when to expect us. Time is an invaluable tool, but it doesn’t move forward. We do. We are the ones moving, passing these markers we use to delineate the space between events. We can walk backward or stand still, but we cannot undo events that are done.

drfunko's avatar

Time is a man-made convention, which does not actually exist. In reality, there is no “forward” or “backward” motion because there is nothing to move. Even we/ourselves don’t move “forward,” we simply change. There is only the “now” and phenomena arising, ceasing, and changing in the present. The past is a memory and the future is uncertain, only the present is certain.

Dr_Lawrence's avatar

I recommend that you read Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” to better understand Time.

Fenris's avatar

@elenuial : To expand, “time” is an illusion caused by the Universe increasing in entropy.

AstroChuck's avatar

Does it really? I’m not convinced that it does, just that we perceive it that way.

susanc's avatar

Well @MRSHINYSHOES<<< you seem to regret the perception (shared) that time only moves forward, and does harm by choosing that route. But why? Lots of good things happen in the supposedly-more recent part of this trajectory, which is only an artistic construct in any case.

And thank you very much to @filmfann for the witty GA given in advance of this posting, as behooves a believer in time’s illimits.

XOIIO's avatar

Time doesn’t exist, it is a creation of man. But if time were real (not the way we see it, but as a physical dimention) it would me a mess, all jumbled up.

mattbrowne's avatar

We might find a more conclusive answer to this question when one of our spaceships emerges from the other side of a wormhole.

filmfann's avatar

@Dr_Lawrence Hawking is a genius, but some of his ideas are crazytalk. Don’t go gooey all over this guy.

Trillian's avatar

@filmfann can you give me some examples of Hawking’s ideas that you find crazy? I saw the movie about him, but am not too familiar with all of his theories.

elenuial's avatar

A lot of folks are saying time doesn’t exist, which is both true and not true.

Saying that time doesn’t exist is like saying space doesn’t exist. Yes, our metrics for both are entirely man-made, but it is pretty easy to demonstrate that “over there” is not the same as “right here.” By the same token, “then” is not the same as “now.”

Time is a dimension. Think of it like a tag given to any object (“object” in space-time includes “events” as we normally conceive of them). It doesn’t exist intrinsically on its own. There is nothing we can point to and say, “That is time.” However, it is an observable and measurable property intrinsic to almost all objects in space-time (things get fuzzier on the subatomic level).

Saying things like, “We are all in a timey-wimey tangled ball,” and, “The past and future don’t exist,” while amusing to think about, are empirically not true (though may seem like it from the perspective of human perception, which is often very bad at apprehending the known universe). Things you experienced on your shroom trip don’t count as evidence. :P

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

Of course space/time doesn’t truly exist anywhere but within our own minds.

Now here is Nowhere.

That’s why the roller coaster feels like a flash for some, yet for others it feels like an eternal hell.

elenuial's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies So if I kick you in the nuts, you won’t do anything? After all, time doesn’t exist. Maybe your mind just made it up. Maybe you’re stuck in a hell of delusional nutkicking. Maybe it’s NOWHERE.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

Poor example dear. There is no shortage of human mind over matter achievements. Like walking over hot coals and even getting kicked in the nuts.

Perhaps I may not have reached this level of understanding, but others have, ultimately realizing that arguments for the existence of space/time must ultimately address the paradox of never being able to get there because one must always go half way first. If you can never get there, then there is no there. And if there is no there, there cannot possibly be a here.

You said yourself that the “laws” breakdown at the sub atomic level. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t everything reducible to the sub atomic level, where nothing ever touches anything?

Believing otherwise is delusion.

filmfann's avatar

@Trillian He felt time would reach a point, were everything would stop, and then go backwards. Cups that fell off a table, and shattered would jump back together. Lives would go back to the womb, until all matter was reassembled to that moment where the Big Bang occured.

elenuial's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies Really? You’re using Zeno’s Paradox to prove your point? Zeno’s Paradox is solved by a really simple formulation: the limit. Ever taken calculus?

Did you know that I can perform a lot of mind over matter achievements? Partially it’s because I’ve trained my body for years, and partially it’s because I know that those achievements are tricks and how they work. Most people can’t do them, and don’t know how they work, so they think it’s MAGIC. It’s not. Some people can do them and not know how they work. They tend to think MAGIC, too. Just because some people are gullible or foolish doesn’t mean that the Gnostic heresy is suddenly true.

And just because science and rational empiricism hasn’t explained everything doesn’t mean it’s wrong. I mean, really? “Oh crap,” says Heisenberg, “I can’t measure two qualities about this particle simultaneously. I guess we better throw out Newton’s Laws of Motion!”


RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

Yes. Really @elenuial

It’s quite a stretch to propose calculus as a resolve for Zeno. Calculus is nothing more than a theoretical descriptive tool. It does not work without making an assumption that decreasing quantities can be considered finite by presupposing a limiting value to an infinite process.

Like all language tools, calculus is appropriate for a specific intended purpose. But it does not prove discrete values for space/time. It only allows mathematicians to determine there own discrete values for the purpose of making calculations. Defining an infinite set is only in the mind of the one who defines it as such.

Calculus, as a manmade tool, allows the user to “assume” or “define” the existence of “moments” to refute the Zeno paradox. This is a faux resolve, for it ultimately relies upon refuting Special Relativity, where it is noted that an “absolute present” does not and cannot exist, as each entity relates individually to its own space/time context. It also challenges Uncertainty Principle, for position and momentum cannot be known simultaneously.

I certainly appreciate your enthusiasm for mathematics. You’ve obviously worked very hard to earn your education. You set a fine example for everyone and I admire you for that. But jumping to tag MAGIC upon someone else’s point of view is a bit premature.

I have no desire to discuss magic, mysticism, or any other gullible foolishness. I don’t believe in such things.

There is no need to toss Newtonian physics aside. But you know as well as I do that new science has greatly increased our awareness far beyond that. Zeno presented a number of paradox, each generating a different puzzle altogether, depending upon space being considered as discrete or continuous, and/or time being considered as discrete or continuous. Calculus only addresses the paradox from the position of space/time being discrete, with no proof to back the assumption. Planck is a measurement. But that measurement will change with better instrumentation. It does not prove discreteness by any means.

elenuial's avatar

You realize, of course, that Zeno’s Paradox is also generated entirely within the mind for a specific purpose. I applaud your open mind—everyone should be a bit skeptical, really. Still, radical skepticism of the kind you seem to cling to, even in the face of empirical evidence, doesn’t buy you much either in terms of metaphysics or epistemology, and makes talking to one another essentially meaningless. I suspect that such is the fate of this conversation.

Still, if I burn down your house, and you get angry, then I think it’s safe to say that time exists. Or that our individual space-time context bubbles can somehow magically interact, which just maybe implies that there is a common context between the two which we can derive a metric for.

This is probably only going to make me cry, but since I have this slavish adherence to facts and evidence, I will only point a few out because I am a pedant, and not to fight you.

Calculus was created to deal with continuity. Calculus is continuous. That’s the point. There is nothing discrete in calculus.

That’s pretty much irrelevant, though. I can define a set of numbers to be discrete or continuous. Neither invalidates the number line itself. That’s just silly.

I’m not certain why you’re stuck on this discrete/continuous dichotomy anyways… How does it relate to proving the existence of time?

The axioms of real analysis do not refute Special Relativity, nor the Uncertainty Principle. Indeed, it would be quite difficult to derive these theorems without them.

re: Planck’s constant: bu-wha? What does that have to do with anything? Besides, the constant has both been derived theoretically and experimentally observed to a ridiculous number of digits of significance. I’m pretty sure we have that one down pretty well.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

@elenuial “I’m not certain why you’re stuck on this discrete/continuous dichotomy anyways… How does it relate to proving the existence of time?”

I’m not attempting to prove space/time. I’m discrediting it. I’m claiming it does not exist beyond that which we claim it does within our own minds. All of mathematics is based upon slicing up a fluid infinity with discrete points.

Point being, that I suggest a simple timeless spaceless ISness to reality. The space/time novelty is a creation of humans who attempt to describe it. In our dimensional existence, we must do this to cope with reality in a way that makes sense to us. And that’s fine, for the purpose of discussing the matter. I’d doubt very seriously if we could discuss it otherwise. Language breaks down when discussing the infinite. It is an inappropriate tool. I had to use the word “fluid” or “continuous” just to get my point across. But even those words invoke a presence of time. I do not suppose infinity truly has a nature of going on and on and on… in a time-full manner. And the only other word that comes to mind beyond ISness, would possibly be Cardinality.

Cardinality, as the quintessence of a concept. The true nature of “3”. The underlying foundation of “10” as an essence unto itself, beyond discrete points of description… beyond space/time. The same applies to “couch-ness” and why that is not the same as “chair-ness”. As such, those being our own points of interest, set forth as limits, I propose our entire existence, all of reality, to be the very same, sans the necessity for space/time to become manifest, as alpha and omega are nothing but points on a map that serve humans to describe the whole of…?

ETpro's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies You just think you are proving space-time doesn’t exist. Space-time has it just the other way around. It says that there is no such proof, because you do not exist to prove it. :-)

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

Sure I get the pun. But you know me… uh wait, you only know my thoughts. And that’s the true me, beyond the supposed physicality that temps us to believe that the me is flesh and bone.

When the illusion of my physicality dissipates, and the illusion of my physical death is upon you, the reality of my thoughts will remain as represented upon these forums. Others will be able to stop by, and know me just as well as you do currently. They will know the true me, from my thoughts into theirs. They will be much closer to the Cardinality of Me as pure essence of being, rather than the temporal body bag that deceives us all.

Yes, you are correct. As you say, I “just think”... for I am nothing more than thought. What else can a being of pure thought expect?

ETpro's avatar

Thanks for the thoughts. I’m reading Hofstadter’s I am a Strange Loop right now and thoroughly enjoying it, as I did his Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid/ The Strange Loop is all abuit his attempt to reconcile the maddeningly complex question of “I“ness. It appears to be an area of thought that draws you just as it does me.

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