Time and Existence

by Jason Stotts

I’ve long been interested in the question of the origin of the world. As I aged, and matured, the question changed form and became deeper – instead of wondering about the origin of the world, I wondered about the origin of the universe itself. This gave rise to the ultimate question – the question of the origin of existence.

This last question has bothered both philosophers and ordinary people for ages. It is, arguably, the very question which first gave rise to religious belief and the desire to believe in gods.

Having thought for a long time about the issue and having had some recent interesting discussions, I’ve come to understand the nature of the question more clearly than I had previously and I think more clearly than most people. To begin with, we need to make a few distinctions around which the argument will turn.

The first distinction that we need to make is between “existence” and “existents”. The former, existence, is the state by virtue of which we can say that a thing exists. By this I mean that existence, as such, is that in which all existents exist. The latter, existents, are the particular things which exist – this includes all instances of substance and all forms of actual energy. If you find this to be a rather difficult concept to wrap your mind around, think of the idea of the universe – the planets represent existents and the “space” represents existence. These concepts are clearly connected and can only be mentally separated.

The second distinction that we need to make regards the concept of “time”. Time is, as Aristotle noted, a phenomenon which arises from the movement of existents. This is rather obvious as the standard unit of measurement for a second is the vibrations of an atom in a vacuum (cesium, I believe) – the movement of the atom. Lest it be objected that that is only the way “humans measure time” (a shallow objection, but I will deal with it nonetheless). It should be understood that if one wants to disjoin time and motion, then one would have to assert the paradoxical claim that if one was watching a ball being thrown from point A to point B, that time TA does not necessarily precede time TB – which, of course, is nonsensical.

Now the idea of time gives rise to “temporal concepts” – concepts which signify a temporal relation, for example: before and after, now and then, earlier and later, et cetera. What makes this relevant to our discussion is that temporal concepts only apply to existents, since existents are that which gives rise to the very idea of time to begin with.

Now that we have articulated these distinctions, it is time to see where they lead us.

After much thought on the origin of existence, with the aid of the above distinctions, I have concluded that the very question is illicit. Since time is a measure of movement of existents, it does not apply to existence as such. Further, to ask what came before existence is to apply a temporal concept to existence, an illicit move. The problem is that existence “itself” does not have movement – it is the existents which are part of existence that move. Because temporal concepts do not apply to that which is not an existent, they clearly do not apply to existence itself and, ergo, to ask what came before existence is illicit. The only valid statement that one can make about existence, as such, is this: “it is”.

The problem seems to stem from an epistemic deficiency of imprecision in concepts and a desire to make everything that we experience conform to a temporal framework, which is the only way which most people can think. However, clearly this is illegitimate as some things are eternal. For instance, every element is eternal. While one can cause an element to change (with a tremendous amount of energy), the element remains in a different form – one cannot destroy an element.

The issues of epistemic precision and temporal conformity are certainly interesting issues, although they are beyond the scope of our present topic. However, it should be clear that one of the questions, that has plagued philosophy throughout the ages, has been solved. Now, the next time that someone asks you where existence came from, you can respond: “Existence is atemporal, there was no beginning and there will be no end.”

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