∆ Einsteins 'Distinctions'.

1.                 What were the distinctions that Einstein saw?


“For we convinced physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent.” Einstein.

As all the waves in the ocean, near and far, ebb and flow in the 'present', an airliner plans to land in the 'future', tire tracks and fossils seem to be proof of the recent and distant 'past' - and yet everything is all here now in this one scene. 

So if all of this is just here now, what are the 'distinctions' between past, present and future, that Einstein talks about?

If Einstein suggested that the distinctions between the past the present and the future were persistent illusions, just what do we mean by each of these components of time, and what are the distinctions ‘between’ them ?
In the above quote (made in a letter to the widow of his friend Martin Besso), Einstein is talking about the concept of 'block-time', where is it considered that 'the past' and 'the future' are similar to 'over there' and 'back there' etc. But none the less he is describing a framework that mentions 'past' and 'future', and thus for the possibility 'Timelessness' to have integrity quotes like this need to be addressed to be certian they can be understood and re-interpreted meaningfully, without time.

(It is worth outlining here here that if the universe is 'simply timeless' then we (may be) mistakenly labling 'fixed patterns' of matter in-formtion in our minds as (memories) 'of the past', and lable patterns we deliberately construct in out minds as 'ideas about 'the' future'. If time exists, then this is valid interpretation of 'memories' and ideas of the future, but the fact we can hold, or create mental formations in any form does not prove that time exists.
Externally we tend to see fixed (and erroded) formations of matter as being 'old', (e.g. a rock, or a rotting tree trunk) and smooth, shiney or well functioning collections of matter, as 'new' (e.g. a car rolling off a production line). Whereas any decent scientist knows that just changing the shape of something can't possibily make it 'new', and thus the matter that makes up all things must essentially all be the same 'age' even if time does exist. )
(see >∆ Parents and children, there isn't 'really' an 'age' gap? )

Definition of a 'distinction'.

Einstein talked about the distinction between the past the present and the future. If we assume that by ‘distinction’ we mean a way of declaring or showing that two or more things or cases are clearly different or separate then we can look at the world around us and see if we can spot basic distinctions in the ways that ordinary things move and change and in the way that simple events happen that might be mistaken for the apparent distinctions of the past, present and future.

To do this we will have to take things step by step and so not all questions can be addressed simultaneously*, there may also be places where these alternative explanations do not at first seem correct because they do not tie in precisely with your own initial personal assumptions about just what the past present and future are and what properties each may have.

(* but all the answers could be said to exist simultaneously, because if there is no time, then simultaneity is all there is =)

 Where alternative explanations don’t correlate perfectly happens there are two main possibilities to consider…

-My alternative explanations are incorrect, which is therefore proven by the fact that they do not perfectly substitute for some particular distinction, e.g. They do not fully explain all the attributes we know the past, present and future to have,


-The initial assumption generally held by many people that ‘the distinctions between the past, present and future are real’, is in fact incorrect as Einstein suspected;

And therefore, my explanations will not compare precisely with any subsequent ‘false assumptions’ about the nature of ‘time’.

In this second case it is the fact that the two explanations do not match that shows there may be a problem with our original long held assumptions. Consider what might happen If you talk to someone who sees a stage show and as a result comes away believing in magic, and you re-explain how things may only seem to magically appear and how things may seem to magically disappear, your explanations may not match the other persons expectations perfectly for two main reasons, either because …

  • You are wrong and magic does exist. So your mundane explanations don’t cover all the amazing things that happen when magic occurs, and a thing really does magically appear or disappear, thus proving you are wrong….


  • You are right, and magic does not exist. So your explanation doesn’t correlate with everything assumed by someone who wrongly believes magic is real. And your explanation doesn’t explain everything they want to have explained. Not because your explanations are wrong, but because they have false expectations. 


So the essence here is to realise that if a replacement explanation does not precisely cover an assumed distinction of time, this does not automatically mean the replacement is wrong. In fact, if you consider the magic analogy, the correct explanation for how a trick is performed will always go against the misunderstanding that a fooled audience member may have. And interestingly, the correct explanation may often be much simpler than what was assumed to have happened, or occasionally more complex.

Einstein’s distinctions all in one scene.

The view from a hill.

If you were standing on a hill near an island airport you might be simultaneously surrounded by a number of different things with seemingly different properties.

At your feet you might see various rocks, all ‘here now’, and if you picked one up and cracked it open with a hammer you might see the detailed fossilised remains of some creature. Looking down at the ocean waves hitting the beach and out to sea they would all seem to be in action, moving and flowing and also ‘here now’, on the path leading down the hill to the airport behind, you might see some tyre tracks, and in the far distance you might see a minute dot in the sky, which just happens to be a massive fully loaded airliner. Low on fuel approaching the airport behind you and clearly hoping to land.

All of these observed things can be said to ‘be in existence now’ yet we might see or consider them in a number of different ways; Ways that can give us a good general overview of what Einstein meant by the ‘distinctions between the past the present and the future’ before we define each of them separately in detail.

The fossilised remains, although here now, actually in your hand, also seem to be evidence of the past, and in particular evidence of a life that happened in the past but is not happening any more, while the ocean waves near or far, hitting the shore, hitting rocks off the shore or just rolling and breaking way out to sea all seem to be very real, dynamic, and ‘happening now’, in other words the waves can be said to be present, or happening in the present, the tyre tracks are here now and may be subsiding slowly and the distant aeroplane approaching the runway looks as if it will arrive and land in the future.

Observations like this are the key to understanding how and why we think there are really distinctions of past, present and future because in the scene described above we can at first basically agree that everything that we can directly see and perceive is ‘here now’[1].

However it is important to consider how each different part of the scene can have different physical properties. Each thing, be it the aeroplane, the wind, the sea and so on, can be in different states, have different amounts and types of motion or energy associated with them, be in different locations, and have different speeds and different directions compared to other objects or collections of matter.

So the fossilised remains, although just here now, are clearly a result of a previous event[2], where a living moving creature expired in some mud or sediment, and the mud then became hardened as the conditions around it changed. So you and I end up looking at a very static object, which amongst other things is shaped as a result of some creature’s existence.

The ocean waves, near or far, are constantly very visibly in motion, so we as humans see them as ‘happening’ and so no matter how near or far they may appear to be, we sense that the waves in the distance are moving and changing just as much as the waves close by. So we are happy to say that all of the waves are doing something, i.e. happening, or being in existence ‘now’ and so the ocean is seen as clearly being part of the present.

The motion within the waves themselves might seem to be both quite well organised in some places and very chaotic in others; As in the regular flow of quite evenly spaced similar sized waves heading towards the shore from way off the coast, compared to the chaotic ‘foam’ created as a wave breaks over itself or more spectacularly over the shore or an outcrop of jagged rocks, causing water to spray off in all directions.

The tyre tracks in soft mud leading down the hill are also ‘here now’, and also, evidence of a past object and event, namely some vehicle existing and moving along the path, but unlike the fully hardened nature of the fossil the tyre tracks may also be sinking back into the mud as we watch. This would probably happen much more slowly than the rate at which the waves move and change, too slowly for us to see, but possibly fast enough such that the tracks were virtually invisible by the end of the day. So the tyre tracks are seen as ‘present’, and also as evidence of the past, and also as changing, so their disappearance is a predicted future event.

The massive airliner that just looks like a dot to us, is trying to land, and because it is low on fuel we can say it is as guaranteed as anything can be that one way or another it will land in the near future, hopefully safely and on the runway behind us.

Reviewing all relative aspects of the scene.

So all the things described in this scene can in simple terms be said to ‘be here now’, the waves near or far, the airline way ahead in the distance but approaching fast, the static fossil in your hand, the tyre tracks in the mud, and the airport, unseen because it is behind you, and so on, are all here now and are also changing in different ways, quickly, slowly, simply or chaotically.

But now look what happens if we merge together the key distinctions of each different thing having different amounts and types of motion within them, being in different locations, having different speeds and different directions and then also factor in the observation that all of the attributes that each thing has only really makes sense if it is seen in relation to, or ‘relative to’ some other thing.

By relative here I am not referring to Einstein's theory of relativity, but just saying we have to be aware that the waves in the sea might have a lot of motion relative to the subsiding tyre tracks in the mud, but not much motion relative to the speeding airliner. The speed of the aeroplane through the air might seem very fast, but not so fast relative to the speed of the fan blades spinning at a tremendous rate in its engines. The fossil you hold may seen to be very stable and unchanging relative to the tyre tracks that may subside over ‘hours’, but relative to a solid diamond the fossil may seem to be a very fragile, rapidly crumbling, and temporary thing.

 From where you stand and look the airport might seem to be behind you, but relative to the airliner it is ahead. Relative to you the distant waves are far away but relative to the airliner they are just below, relative to you the airliner is moving fast, but relative to its passengers it is basically stationary, and relative to some other airliner cruising high above and at full speed the airliner on approach to land may be actually going backwards.

 Relative to you the airliner is approaching, but relative to the airport it took off from it is diminishing or receding, and relative to that airport the aeroplane’s presence is a thing of the past, but relative to the airport behind you its presence is hopefully a thing of the future.

Trying to consider all these factors at once, relative energy, relative rates of change, relative directions, speeds, locations and so on might seem a bit confusing or a bit irrelevant depending on your initial point of view, but if you do consider them one by one and how they relate relative to each other, you may be able to see how many different and subtle ‘distinctions’ arise within the mix.

And you may be able to see how within this simultaneous swirl of different types of motion happening at rates and in different directions we as humans may mistake many of the relative distinctions that we see as being ‘distinctions of a temporal past and future’, even though it is also obvious that we are just in the middle of a large collection of matter that is moving and changing in various ways and at various rates.

For example if you combine the fact that everything is constantly changing, with the fact that we each only have our own limited points of view, and can only see what we are directly looking at- then you can see how that which we ‘physically move forwards into’, or that which ‘physically moves towards us’- always seems to us to be ‘new’ and so it always seems to be part of the future.

However, anything that we ‘have already seen’[3], and that we are moving away from, or that is moving away from us, either becomes immediately invisible as it passes out of sight ‘behind us’, or just harder and harder to see because the distance between us and it is increasing. So anything receding loses its significance accordingly, and to us from our limited and single point of view, anything that is receding becomes ‘a thing of the past’. And because once a thing is behind us or too far away we don’t directly perceive it, then whatever it is, we actually think ‘it’ (the object the event etc) is ‘in the past’, that is to say, over, finished, stopped, done, or no more.

We can also note here that matter ‘integrates’ and ‘disintegrates’, and that different collections of matter do so at different relative rates. So if we see some existing water vapour condense and become visible we see it as a ‘new’ cloud, and if the cloud disintegrates into particles that still exist but are too small for us to see, then we consider the cloud to have ‘gone’, and to be a thing of the ‘past’. We too become integrated and disintegrated, as do fossils and airliners, all at differing rates.

Summary of the view from a hill.

So if we look at the initial view from a hill in detail we can see all the apparent distinctions of time happening at once.

To us, the sea and its motion all seem to be here now, because we can see and deduce that the entire ocean is moving ‘now’. But we also conclude that the ocean didn’t just appear, so it must have existed in the past, and, it can just disappear, so it will exist in the future.

 The fossil seems to be here now, but also be proof of the distant past, and the life of a long gone plant or animal. The muddy tyre tracks seem to be proof of the recent past motion of a now ‘gone’ vehicle, while the airliner on approach to land must have been made in the past, seems to exist ‘now’ and is due to arrive and land in the future.

If however the distinctions between the past, present and future are just illusions, then we can reinterpret the whole scene by just saying ‘everything is here now’. Everything that makes up you, the hill, the fossil, the tyre tracks, the vehicle that made them, the ocean, the airliner, its passengers and the airport it is aiming for, all clearly exist ‘now’.

We can look at all of this presently existing and changing matter and categorise it however we choose, into say, things that are heavy or light, fast or slow, bright or dull and so on.

We can also categorise the presently existing matter into what we think is evidence of the distinctions between the ‘past’, the ‘present’ and the ‘future’.

Where matter is integrated and stable, we can categorise it as being simple and distinct objects or ‘things’, such as in the formation of a fossil, tyre track or airliner, we tend to see this as being evidence that shows there is a distinct thing called the past, in which things have been made, or have happened, that are not happening ‘now’.

Where matter is changing or moving very dynamically, such as the motion of the waves in the sea or the flight of the airliner, we see this as evidence that shows the distinction of ‘now’ or the existence of the present moment, a moment that is different from ‘past moments’.

And when we look at where things are ‘heading to’, or what they seem to be ‘changing into’, as in how they tyre tracks are fairly rapidly subsiding, or where the airliner is heading, we tend to categorise this as being evidence that proves there is a distinct thing that exists called ‘the future’.

But in all of these cases we are just looking at the same vast collection of matter that is all constantly existing and, moving and changing.

The only real distinctions that we see (and mistake for being distinctions of time) are distinctions in the relative ‘speeds or rates’ at which things move, change, integrate and disintegrate, and the relative ‘directions’ in which things move, change etc.

Even when we pool all of the distinctions of motion that we see around us and try to show how they can be misunderstood as being distinctions of the three main features of time, past, present and future, we may still want to say, yes... but all of this is movement and change is constantly happening now, as a result of the flow of time, or our movement through time, into the future as we leave the past behind.

Breaking the vicious circle.

The bad news is this leads to a vicious, self sustaining circle of logic, the good news is that vicious circles can be broken at any point.

The vicious circle of logic works, as long as we look at it as if time exists, because the reasoning is... time exists, so the distinctions, past, present and future exist. So the various formations of matter and types of change around us prove that the past present and future exist. And motion itself proves that time flows, and flows between these three distinctions.

If however we start by suspecting these distinctions may be illusions, then we see the different types of objects, change and motion as just being what they are, collections of existing matter moving and changing in different ways relative to each other...now.

We then see that the only ‘distinction of time’ we might safely insist is real is the distinction that things must have happened ‘in the past’ for ourselves and the world around us to appear as they do now.

But how ourselves and all that we see, the hill, fossil, ocean, highly complicated manmade airliner etc, can all be explained if matter just exists, moves, changes, integrates and disintegrates in a multitude of ways... without all ‘motion’ having to leave any ‘unseen, and completely redundant and ineffectual temporal past record’.

And with all ‘change’ needing a supply of energy and a physical place for it to happen. A supply of energy such as you would physically find ‘trapped’ in a fuel tank, or a sandwich, and a physical place such as ‘the air’ or a field; but the ideas that as well as energy and a location, ‘events’ also need an ‘invisible thing called ‘the future’ in which to ‘come from’ or happen, a ‘past’ to go into’, and an invisible thing called ‘time’ to ‘flow’ for them to happen are also seen as being completely unfounded and unneeded and therefore probably untrue.

These kinds of interpretations may seem far too simplistic to explain the great mysteries of the past and the future, but try stepping back and looking carefully at what the two points of view, time and timelessness, each ask you to believe.

Time asks you to believe in the directly observed, ‘present’, matter, the flow of energy, the interaction between different forms of matter, space, and the completely unseen, yet apparently essential past, the unseen yet apparently essential future, and the unseen yet apparently essential ‘flow’ of the unseen yet apparently essential ‘time’.

While timelessness asks you to believe only in the directly observed, ‘present’, matter, the flow of energy, and the interaction between different forms of matter.

>>∆ Galileo and Time.

[1] Discussions about special relativity and how distance and time can be seen to be interchangeable will unnecessarily overcomplicate matters here (because relativity may be explainable in terms of distance and change, not distance and time) so are addressed separately in the appropriate chapter. Also the idea that everything we see or perceive is slightly in the past because ‘light takes time’ to reach out eyes, is not the point here.

[2] Remember here that by ‘timelessness’ I am not suggesting that things do not happen, move and change, but that there is ‘no temporal past ‘, i.e. no other ‘constantly created record of events’ extra to things like fossils, and part of a fourth dimension etc.

[3] If we ‘have seen’ something then it means we cannot see it now but we have a re-presentation of the thing in our minds as well now.