What does science tell us about the nature of (granular) time

This is an essay I sent to Professor Dowker at RCSU in response to a short science writing essay competition they are organising


Not being a student at the RCS I'm of course not eligible to enter the actual competition, but the question inspired me.

So I have tried to explain that, while I suspect most entries will go straight on to talk about 'time' as if it is proven to exist, or 'obviously' exists, and then what science tells us about those assumptions, in my opinion, science may in fact tell us that we have completely neglected to follow the scientific method where it comes to proving the most basic initial hypothesis that a thing called time may exist. And, instead, just jumped to a conclusion and put most of our efforts into trying to make it fit observations.

The problem with this, is that where suggesting very loosely defined, and described in poorly defined, unseen and unproven entities (e.g. 'the past' and 'the future'), we may never find 'proof that our assumptions may be wrong. Worse still we may accredit miscellaneous evidence as supporting our assumptions. In simple terms, if we assume that poltergeists exist, then we may never find a 'disproof', and worse still we may accredit unexplained noises in the dark as being possible proof. Anyway, here's the essay.



“What does science tell us about the nature of (granular) time?”

(M.Marsden, As presented to Prof Dowker, RCSU Science Challenge 2014)

To avoid simply reworking existing opinions, blindly accepting customary conclusions unchecked, and, perhaps thus endlessly chasing a possibly leading question, let’s first look at what science basically tells us, and then what science may tell us about ‘Time’.



Science tells us to follow the scientific method if we wish to reliably ascertain the truth of a hypothesis. I.e (basically)...

1-Define a question

2-Make observations

3-Form a hypothesis

4-Test the hypothesis experimentally, and collect reproducible data

5-Analyze and Interpret the data, for modified hypothesis

6-Publish results and Retest ( by other scientists) 

Science also tells us to be very wary of blindly accepting a priori assumptions, and to exclude Argumentum ad populum, feelings, and personal (conformation) biases, as ‘facts unless dis-proven’.



As a working definition Wikipedia describes time as...

“Time is a dimension in which events can be ordered from the past through the present into the future...”



Newton’s work on Time suggests ‘it’ is uniform and universal. Flowing constantly between a past and future, in a fixed direction, at a regular rate, and distinct from space.

However, what Newton’s work actually shows us is only that where studying complex motion, e.g. an accelerating, or orbiting object, it is extremely useful to mathematically compare that motion to another example (or the idea) of ‘smooth constant motion’, e.g. the flow of water from a clepsydra, or the uninhibited rotation of a regular body etc.

What Newton’s work does not do however, is 1-define, 2-observe, 3-hypothesise, 4-experimentally prove, 5-publish data to prove, and 6-retest data... to show that extra to observed motion, the existence of a ‘past’ or a ‘future’, or the existence of a thing called ‘time’, which ‘passes’, must be present for matter to be able to exist, move and interact.


Einstein's work on ‘Time’ modifies Newton’s concepts, suggesting time is not regular, but dilated with velocity and acceleration or gravity, and that time and space are intimately related.

However, in “On the electrodynamics of moving bodies”, Einstein’s sole posit for time comes in a single paragraph, comparing the motion or rest of a train to the motion of a rotating hand on a numbered dial, (a Watch), ‘pointing to 7’.

However, from postulating

1 -The laws of physics are the same in all inertial frames of reference. And,

2. The speed of light in any inertial frame of reference is constant.

Einstein brilliantly deduces the conclusions of Relativity, (which of course are in essence observed to be correct), and, ‘automatically’ expresses his findings in terms of a thing called ‘time’.

But, (with respect) like Newton, Einstein only actually describes the fact that objects, trains, pointers on dials etc, can exist and be moving or stationary, and can be usefully compared.

Critically he just describes the train’s motion as motion, but the motorised ‘hands’ motion as ‘time’.

Thus he incorporates the ‘idea’ of time. But, does not also,  1-define, 2-observe, 3-hypothesise, 4-experimentally prove, 5-publish data to prove, and 6-retest data to prove, that, extra to the (dilated) motion of objects, light, or the effects of gravity etc, a ‘past’ and ‘future exist, and/or that an extra dimension (measurable quantity) called ‘Time’, must exist and ‘pass’ or be dilated, for matter to exist and interact at normal or dilated rates.

In other words, Newton and Einstein’s works only describe and compare, matter and motion, and in fact both completely neglect the scientific method where surreptitiously implying the extra existence of an unobserved ‘nebulous’, thing called ‘time’, and its implied attributes (past, future, arrow, different ‘times’, etc).

Instead both seem to have taken  a priori assumptions, general opinion, and personal (conformation) biases, as sufficient reason to ‘just assume’ a thing called ‘time’ must ‘obviously’ exist in some way, and, as you suggest, the only question is what is “it’s” nature.

(Critically if past,future and time are not actually proven the mathematics of space-time is still useful, but may need to be reinterpreted - i.e space-time is built on the assumption of time, but no matter how elegant, and despite common assumptions to the contrary, its equations do not prove the past or future exist).

The root problem here may be scientifically unnoticed, personal confirmation bias. Because, where any human is observing a moving object, light from that object is hitting their retinas and intricate electrochemical interactions are creating distinct physical patterns, of matter in-formation, in their minds.

As the observed object moves a comparison of the external scene and internal mental formations is instinctively made. The problem arises if we thoughtlessly conclude that certain patterns existing in our minds are thus ‘records of’, or worse ‘proof of’, a thing or place called ‘the temporal past’- which is created, as a result of ‘an extra dimension of time’ also ‘passing’ as things move.  Something they clearly, logically, reasonably, physically and scientifically are not. These patterns are thus also not sufficient reason to even suspect a thing called time exists.


So, in my opinion, what science, systematically and objectively applied, actually tells us about ‘Time’ is...

A - It is a very useful semantic and mathematical system for comparing motion.

B - But, although applying the hypothesis of “Time’s” existence as a genuine phenomena, and even asking questions about "it", we may have completely neglected to apply and follow the scientific method, even at the most basic level.

And therefore, unless we produce verified experimental proof, (as opposed to just ‘feelings’), that ‘the’ Past, Future and Time exist, and, proof that matter does not “just exist, move change and interact in ‘3’ dimensions” (as actually and only observed), misleading us into assuming a past, future and time, or time’s arrow, or ‘ordered events’ exist, then we should assume that only matter and  smooth, or granular, motion in 3 dimensions, exists. And, therefore that the universe may be, for want of a better word, ‘Timeless’.


Matthew Marsden


(Auth “A Brief History of Timelessness”)