How Can Time Be an Illusion?

11/14/2011 11:23 am ET | Updated Jan 14, 2012
  • Peter Baksa Investigative Journalist/Entreprenuer/Author of 'The Point of Power'

So, time is a measurement, but does everyone experience it in the same way? Imagine the student in class watching that clock; those five minutes until he's free can seem like an hour. Or that same student out on the play yard having fun: That hour can seem like the previous five minutes. It's all relative.

Time flies, or you've got it on your hands. Both old sayings can be used to measure the exact number of minutes passing. It just depends on your perspective. You perceive time as speeding on by and so it does, or if something seems to take forever, then it will indeed be a long time waiting. These could be merely psychological effects, not real at all, right? Are they?

We could invoke the old uncertainty principle here, which states, "You cannot measure a thing without altering it." So, if we measure time, then do we alter it? If because we're impatient we imagine it to be going faster -- a way of measuring it -- then does it actually speed up for us? Our own senses are our primary measuring tools, allowing us to both measure and interact with the world around us. So if we measure time, then we interact with it. If our perception of its passage alters how we think we're measuring it, then we alter that which has just been measured.

Yet, we cannot talk time without invoking Einstein once more. Time is relative, can be altered by speed or by location. Hop on a spaceship heading toward the nearest star, traveling at 90 percent the speed of light. For the passenger, travel time would be but a couple of hours, while on Earth, it'd be several years. But those same equations that tell you this will also tell you that the year you arrive on that other star, from the point of view of said star, may not be the same one as here on Earth. It's all relative because even time is not an absolute.

I've mentioned before the experiments done to demonstrate this: The two atomic clocks, exactly in synch at the beginning, one kept on the ground, the other loaded onto a jet which then starts circling the Earth as fast as it can go. When the jet finally lands the clocks are compared, and found to be different. The one on the plane has lost time because its timeframe has been slowed down by the increase in relative speed. Nothing in the rest of the world was affected, except that clock and the jet couriering it.

We perceive time as running linear, and yet in the above experiment it was demonstrated to be rather non-linear. The closer you approach the speed of light, the slower the passage of time. So time can be altered, and yet we still observe its linear tradition in everyday life. Then what gives, what exactly is going on? Time is supposed to be absolute, yet it is not; it's supposed to be proceeding at its own unchangeable pace, yet it does not.

Time, it would seem, is a matter of perception. Perceive it going fast, and it will; imagine it going slower, and it will -- your measurement of it alters its flow. We construct devices and define units with which to measure it, but all that is in our heads, just a convenience we use to keep track of things. Time itself is an illusion, its inevitable passage mere phantom trickery. We perceive it proceeding at such a pace, and so it must.

But what if we perceived it otherwise?

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