Do we have ‘time’ for this?

Why did Albert Einstein reject the existence of time? originally appeared on Quora: the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Einstein; The first Timelord?

Answer by Paul Mainwood, Doctorate in the philosophy of physics, on Quora:

Let’s start by guessing that the question is referring to one particular passage that Einstein wrote. This comes in a letter to the family of Michele Besso, his life-long collaborator and closest friend, and was written a few days after Einstein learned of his death.

Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.

Einstein did not reject the existence of time. Instead, he rejected the distinction between past, present, and future. This may seem like a minor difference, but it is not.

In this passage Einstein is referring to the “block universe” conception of spacetime. It’s hardly surprising that he accepted it, since although it came from the work of others (principally from Hermann Minkowski, one of Einstein’s teachers) it is the framework in which his own theories of special and general relativity are most naturally expressed.

The block-universe view of physical reality contains time, but in a way remarkably different to our usual conception. It presents a four-dimensional view in which all events across time and space are on an equal ontological footing, with no sense in which present events are judged more “real” or “actual” than past or future ones. It is also very difficult to recover any meaningful sense in which time “flows”.

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