Why time must have had a beginning

Here, I’d like to present a short argument for why time must have had a beginning, and why it is inconceivable that there could have been an infinite number of moments in the past.

To begin with, then:

1.

Time is composed of three parts: the past, the present, and the future.

2.

“Past” and “future” are relative terms.

For, the “past” is, “all the moments which came before the present.”

And, the “future” is, “all the moments that will come after the present.”

Thus, without making some reference to the present, neither of these words – neither the past, nor the future – would have any meaning at all.

3.

And the present is this moment “now” – the moment that I am currently perceiving.

4.

Now, for the present moment to exist, all the moments in the past must have already come to be present.

For, if a moment in the past had not already come to be present, then it would not have come-into-being before the present moment – in which case, it would not be a moment in the past (a moment that has already been).

5.

But, in order for all the moments in the past to have come to be present, the whole set of past moments must have been run through, one-by-one, until each of these moments had come into being.

For instance, imagine that there are only three moments in the past – A, B, and C. Now, since these three moments are in the past, all of them must have already come to be present. But, for these three moments to have come to be present, they must have been run through, one-by-one, until each one of them had come into being. For instance, first A might have come to be present; then, B; then, C – at which point, each of them would have come into being, one-by-one, and the whole group of moments would have come to be present.

6.

But, for these reasons, the number of moments in the past cannot be infinite.

For, in order for all the moments in the past to have come to be present, the whole set of past moments must have been run through, one-by-one, until each of these past moments had come-into-being.

But, an infinite number of moments can never be “run through” in this way. For if the number of moments in the past was truly infinite, then the process of going “one-by-one” through all of them would never terminate, but the moments would just continue to flow, and to flow onward, one-by-one, producing an ever larger and larger number of moments that had passed, without this number ever becoming infinite, and without the process ever being completed.

Yet, the process must have been completed. For if all the moments in the past had not already come into being, then I could not be where I am right now – in the present – at a point in which the whole past has already come to be.

Thus, the number of moments in the past cannot be infinite.

7.

Now, a number must either be finite, or infinite.

But, the number of moments in the past is not infinite.

Thus, the number of moments in the past must be finite.

8.

Now further, the moments in the past are arranged in a certain order, or sequence. For this one comes before that one, and that one comes before that other one, and so forth.

But in any ordered sequence with a finite number of members, one member must come first.

Hence, there must be a first moment in the ordered sequence of past moments.

But, the first moment in the past is just what we mean by a “beginning” of time.

Thus, time must have had a beginning.

9.

That much, then, for why time must have had a beginning, and why it is inconceivable that the number of moments in the past could be infinite.

A few last reflections.

If time does have a beginning, then it is meaningless to ask what came “before” this beginning. For, in order for anything to exist “before” the beginning of time, then there must be some time in which it existed – which would mean that there was time before the beginning of time – which is absurd. Thus, there cannot be anything before the beginning of time – not even space, or time.

Finally, even though the number of moments in the past must be finite, the number of moments in the future might be infinite. For the future really could just flow endlessly, without ever coming to a halt, since there is no point “after” the future that we have to arrive at. Thus, while the number of moments in the past must be finite, the number of moments in the future might be infinite, and never-ending.

13 thoughts on “Why time must have had a beginning

  1. Your argument, though interesting, relies on a healthy application of perspective bias. Though it is true that we are creatures which perceive time linearly, with a past, present, and future as you noted, that does not mean that this perception is an accurate representation of the nature of time. It is theoretically possible that all moments of time actually exist simultaneously on one plane, similar to our understanding of three dimensional space. I don’t begrudge drawing a conclusion based on the only point of view from which we’re capable, but knowing this should at least give you cause to apply some level of uncertainty to any conclusions about the nature of time as a whole.

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    1. Two thoughts here.

      First, I would say it’s not actually possible for all moments of time to exist simultaneously, on a single plane. If all of those moments existed simultaneously, then they would not be a plurality of moments – since two moments can only be distinguished from one another by occupying different places in time (i.e., not being simultaneous). To that extent, I would say that it’s possible for a four-dimensional object to exist in a single moment, and for this to be the only thing that exists (no “time” in addition, beyond the single moment where it exists); but in that case, I’d say that the fourth dimension of that object would be called “time” only in an ambiguous sense, and that, in the way that we normally use the phrase, it would not be time (but that the single moment in which it existed would be time).

      Secondly, my intention wasn’t actually to speak about the character of the world as it really is, apart from us. I do believe it’s possible that the world is radically different from what we understand, and that there really is no “time,” apart from the way that we perceive things. But, I would say that, if there is such a thing as time, then it does have a beginning. I would also say that there is at least a time that is perceived – that my perceptions, and experiences, are in a time – regardless of whether the events of the world, itself, are in time.

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  2. First time is a human concept and we require a clarity on the definition of Infinite.

    Infinite: limitless or endless in space, extent, or size; impossible to measure or calculate.

    Today the universe is considered to be infinite, and before the invention of high speed super computers, results of some calculations were infinite, because they were unperceivable by human beings. Maybe there lives another species in this universe which knows exactly how big the universe is. But it is still infinite in a human sense.

    Just because we have found a singularity, does not mean that it is the starting point. Maybe the singularity is a black hole in another universe. So should we consider the age of that universe too, while measuring time. And if so, how long do we go back to? Since this is unanswerable right now, time is infinite (atleast for the time being).

    This argument is based on two assumptions: (i) Time flows linearly and (ii) and since the past has already occurred, it must start somewhere.

    Assume, that you are a point on the boundary of a circle and you are moving forward, you could mark a point prior to your direction of flow as the past, and the point in front of you as your future. But where is the beginning of the circle. You know that someone must have started drawing the circle from a certain point, but you do not know from where! So if knowing something began makes it finite, then apropros, knowing that everything ends must make the future finite too!

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  3. I always wonder how time resolution applies to this argument. How do you describe the time within the boundaries of the moment? If you can not describe that I feel it might be possible that there are no moments and are, therefore, no before or after periods of each moment.

    When does each moment start and end? Does time have an ultimate resoltuoin? If its resolution continues to infinity does that affect the argument?

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  4. the problem is, human beings are ‘programmed’ to box things in, we have to have edges and limits on everything to actually understand it. Half the reason this is is because we see what we believe physically, if its real and you can touch it, see it, feel it, it gives it a form, makes it an object rather than a concept. you can see this in everything. The best way to think about everything is in terms of infinity, which is difficult and takes a degree of skill to work out the best way to do this. Time doesn’t have a beginning or an end, its as fundamental as energy and should be seen as a circle rather than a straight line with a start/finish.

    as said earlier, what was there before the beginning? energy is never lost, just transferred into different forms, life is infinitely complex to the point we cant even conceive it, nothing is repeated, its just that so many different realities possibilities (infinitely in fact) that are played out, time just goes on forever.

    Yeh, i’m shit at explaining things, idk give what I said a chance and it might make sense. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around these concepts of life for a while, but as I said, humans just arent programmed to understand infinity.

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  5. Some of these replies are good objections to consider. Here’s one more: Your argument will not work if the set of all past moments is uncountable. In fact, I believe it is uncountable (much like the uncountably infinite real numbers, rather than the countably infinite integers), because time seems to flow continuously. Thus there is no real way to totally order past events as you did in your example with events A, B, and C.

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    1. I gave a longer reply to Dave, below, which addresses this, but I do believe that time is just a set of moments, and more like a set of integers than a line. I would also say that it it seems to me to be logically conceivable for time to have a finite number of moments, and for these to be ordered in a sequence, as I do not see any contradiction in that possibility (unlike a line, where a line with a finite number of points would be an absurdity). To that extent, I would say that the conception of “A, B, C” is at least possible, whether or not it is actual.

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  6. My comment does not change the gist of your argument but hopefully will improve its clarity. You use the same words “moment” or “moments” to refer to two different aspects of time: an “instance” of time and an “interval” of time. An instance of time is like a tick mark on a clock, say 12:00:00 midnight. The second hand passes by but there is no actual passage of any length of time associated with this tick mark, or instance of time. As the clock hand moves from midnight (12:00:00) to one second after midnight (12:00:01), it passes by a lot of instances of time (e.g. 12:00:00.02, 12:00:00.14, 12:00:00.586, 12:00:00.5861, etc.). In fact an infinite number of instances of time are passed through, but there is no length of time associated with any give instance. The clock hand sweeps through an infinite number instances of time but it only requires one second of time to accomplish this task. Also this means that the number of instances of time between one second in the past (or any point in the past) and the present is also infinite.

    An interval of time is a finite amount such as a second, day, or year. Adding intervals of time together increases the amount of time that must pass by, and thus an infinite number of intervals passing by requires an infinite amount of time. Thus your argument that if time had no starting point an infinite number of intervals of time would have to pass by to get to the present time

    With that said, we come to your statement: “Thus, the number of moments in the past cannot be infinite”.
    If “moments” refers to instances of time then this statement is clearly false. However if “moments” refers to intervals of time, then your argument is clearer, and might be true

    I think “moment” could be used when referring to an instance of time, but I would use “interval” (or “increment”) of time when you are referring to a specific amount of time like seconds, hours, years.

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    1. Hello Dave,

      Thank you for your thoughtful response, and I think I understand the distinction that you have in mind. With regard to that distinction, however, I would say that a second just is a group, or a set, of moments – that it is not a different kind of object from the moment, in the way that you are suggesting, but that a second is to the moment as a group of humans is to an individual human being. To that extent, there could be a finite number of seconds, but if the number of moments were infinite, this would just mean, “a finite number of groups of infinites” – which would still open up the sorts of problems that I went through in my argument.

      My argument for that position – that each interval of time is just a group of moments – was given in an earlier post, at https://thephilosophy.blog/2017/01/11/what-exactly-is-time/ , and runs from points 13 to points 20. The short version for my argument is that the present is a moment, and that each part of the past must have been the present (which means that each part must have been a moment), and that each part of the future must become the present (which means that each part will be a moment); but, past, present and future are the only parts of time; thus, each part of time is a moment, and hence, time is just a set of moments. From there, it would follow that each “interval” of time is just a sub-set – a smaller group of moments – and, also, that it is logically possible for the number of moments in the set to be finite, rather than infinite.

      You may very well have objections to that argument or position, of course, and if you do, I’d be glad to hear them. But, I have at least given some thought to the question, and am inclined to think that “second” and “number of moments” are just interchangeable terms – at least, as much so as “three” and “number of ones” are interchangeable.”

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  7. As long as “moment” is considered to be any non-zero increment of time, then one can use any increment of time they prefer to set as equivalent to a “moment”. Let’s just use seconds, thus one second = one moment. and seconds = moments..

    Here is my objection to your argument and it centers on thinking about this question: “When did time start, and are there enough seconds (moments) to get from the Start of Time to Now?”. So could the Start of Time be 10 seconds ago, and are there enough seconds to pass through to get from this Start of Time to Now? Yes, one needs only 10 seconds. But then we can ask could there be more time available time which would allow us to push back the start before this 10 Second Start of Time? Again yes, the Start of Time could be 11 seconds ago and in this case we need 11 seconds to get from this new Start of Time to Now. And of course 12 seconds ago also works, and so on, and thus we can push back the Start of Time as much as we like but we always have enough seconds available to pass through to get from any Start of Time instance to the present Now instance. All of which just confirms your premise that if there is a fixed “beginning” of time, then there are enough [a finite amount of] seconds (moments) available to get from any Start of Time instance to our Now instance.

    What happens if we just keep pushing back the Start of Time instance? We see that we always have plenty of time available and just add more seconds needed to fill the gap from any Start of Time to Now. But if we never stop pushing back the Start of Time instance, then it vanishes into an infinite past. As this happens the amount of seconds (moments) that have to pass by (the Length of Time which exists) also grows toward an infinite amount. This is because for every second that the Start of Time is pushed back another second is available to pass through. Thus there are enough seconds (moments) available to get from an infinite past to Now. A beginning of time becomes meaningless, and essentially Time has always existed.

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