The idea that time isn’t “real” is an ancient one — if we’re allowed to refer to things as “ancient” under the supposition that time isn’t real. You will recall the humorous debate we had at our Setting Time Aright conference a few years ago, in which Julian Barbour (the world’s most famous living exponent of the view that time isn’t real) and Tim Maudlin (who believes strongly that time is real, and central) were game enough to argue each other’s position, rather than their own. Confusingly, they were both quite convincing.
The subject has come up once again with two new books by Lee Smolin: Time Reborn, all by himself, and The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time, with philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger. This new attention prompted me to write a short essay for Smithsonian magazine, laying out the different possibilities.
Personally I think that the whole issue is being framed in a slightly misleading way. (Indeed, this mistaken framing caused me to believe at first that Lee and I were in agreement, until his book actually came out.) The stance of Maudlin and Smolin and others isn’t merely that time is “real,” in the sense that it exists and plays a useful role in how we talk about the world. They want to say something more: that the passage of time is real. That is, that time is more than simply a label on different moments in the history of the universe, all of which are independently pretty much equal. They want to attribute “reality” to the idea of the universe coming into being, moment by moment.
Such a picture — corresponding roughly to the “possibilism” option in the picture above, although I won’t vouch that any of these people would describe their own views that way — is to be contrasted with the “eternalist” picture of the universe that has been growing in popularity ever since Laplace introduced his Demon. This is the view, in the eyes of many, that is straightforwardly suggested by our best understanding of the laws of physics, which don’t seem to play favorites among different moments of time.
According to eternalism, the apparent “flow” of time from past to future is indeed an illusion, even if the time coordinate in our equations is perfectly real. There is an apparent asymmetry between the past and future (many such asymmetries, really), but that can be traced to the simple fact that the entropy of the universe was very low near the Big Bang — the Past Hypothesis. That’s an empirical feature of the configuration of stuff in the universe, not a defining property of the nature of time itself.
Personally, I find the eternalist block-universe view to be perfectly acceptable, so I think that these folks are working hard to tackle a problem that has already been solved. There are more than enough problems that haven’t been solved to occupy my life for the rest of its natural span of time (as it were), so I’m going to concentrate on those. But who knows? If someone could follow this trail and be led to a truly revolutionary and successful picture of how the universe works, that would be pretty awesome.