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THE MYTH OF PASSAGE It is commonly thought that time “passes”, that events that were in the future become present, and then become past events. This view seems to many to be intuitively obvious, and unquestioned. It goes by many names, such as the Moving, or Transient, Now, becoming, the flow of time, etc. The only question, for many, is is it more appropriate to say that time passes, or that we move through time. For example, when we say that Christmas is coming, do we mean that the day of Christmas is approaching us, or are we moving toward that day? Albert Camus wrote of a man for whom the passage of time was so real, that he had to steady himself, as though in a high wind. Associated with this view are certain beliefs about the past, present and future. In particular, these are interpreted as having unique ontological status. The present, or the Now, is picked out as being more important than other moments. And each moment is successively Now. The Past is regarded as real, and unchangeable, while the Future is many-fingered with possible and alternative sets of events. The Future is not determined, and possible becomes actual as the Now progresses in time. People often spatialize time, in the sense that they speak of the Future or Past as places, that one might visit, or come from. This is in part because of the notion of movement implied by the transient Now. Let’s begin by discussing the ontological status of the various temporal “regions”. Begin with the Present. What is the Present, or the Now? It is obviously not a particular time, picked out from other times, because all times become the Now. How can we say this meaningfully? Suppose I say that “At 1 1 2 2 one time t , the Now is “at” t , and at some later time t , the Now is at t .” If “Now” refers to a 1 moment, even different moments at different times, then all the above sentence says is that t is 2 earlier than t . The problem arises because we are using the term “Now” to refer to something other than just a moment. Think of the searchlight model. “Now” refers to both the illuminated part of the shoreline and the searchlight, or light, itself. So we can picture the searchlight directed at a particular spot on the shore. That is, we have two things; the light and the thing being illuminated. But is the “Now” something over and above a particular moment? When I say “I am typing this now”, I am certainly talking about a particular moment. If there is only one thing, a moment, then the significance of the “Now” disappears. If we want to claim that there is something else involved, something analogous to the searchlight, then what is it? How long does the Present, or the Now, last? Is it instantaneous? Could we be aware of it if it were infinitely small? Some talk of the “specious present”, meaning some finitely long, though short, period of time, of which we could be aware. But our brains process sensory input with a slight lag. So what we are aware of is the very recent past (some 2/10 of a second ago). So, in a very real sense,
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This note was uploaded on 02/14/2011 for the course PHIL 124c taught by Professor Humphrey during the Spring '11 term at UCSB.

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