Buddhism and the illusion of time

Here is a great article (or rather a lecture) that unites a lot of my recent interests in philosophy.

In this lecture, David Velleman, argues, like I do in this post, that we should think of ourselves as perduring rather than enduring. We have spatial parts and the parts pervade space. The unity of all these spatial points compose me. I am not each of these points, but rather the agglomeration of them. The perdurantist says something similar about time. The claim is that we have temporal parts or slices and that we are not each of these slices, but rather the unity of all the slices together. So, each moment I’m alive is a different part of me that exists that way forever.

This goes hand in hand with the belief that time does not flow. Rather, time, on this interpretation, is just a “container” like space. People and things are located sometime and they always reside there unless they move (moving Napoleon from his temporal position to our temporal position would require time travel for example, which phsyics, by the way, says is theoretically possible), just like the walls in my room are always 2o feet from each other unless they move.

Velleman claims that the illusion that time flows, which is in part due to our belief in a unified self over which it flows, causes us pain. The primary example from Velleman is death. We think that when someone dies, they are gone. However, the eternalist about time (someone who believes that time is like space) just believes that the person no longer exists in a simultaneously temporal position. Death, on this view is no different than realizing that one of my good friends is in Dallas and not in Boston with me. Of course, since time travel is much more difficult than spatial travel, death would still be a de facto permanent separation, even though strictly speaking, a dear friend who died would still exist, just at a temporal distance.

According to the eternalist, and perhaps the Buddhist too (tying this philosophical issue to yet another one of my recent interests), death is life having a good friend move to Saturn. You couldn’t really visit, but he’s not non-existent.


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