Einstein and Time: A Critical Evaluation

Jason Dulle

Special Relativity on Trial

Einstein is well known for his theory of relativity. Relativity comes in two forms: general, special. I am in complete agreement with the former, but I believe the great Einstein erred in some respects with regards to the latter.

The special theory of relativity states that matter-including time-slows down as it accelerates toward the speed of light. If matter could reach the speed of light, theoretically it would enter a timeless state of existence. While it has been demonstrated time and again that matter slows down as it accelerates toward the speed of light, is it the case that time slows down as well? I do not believe such to be the case.1

Is Time Physical?

The discipline of science is restricted to observing and testing the physical world-it cannot study the immaterial. For Einstein to observe and test time scientifically, then, would require that time be physical. But is it?

The worthiness of Einstein's conclusions hinge on one question: Is time physical? The answer is no. Time is immaterial.2 I know this because all physical things have physical properties: chemical composition, weight, height, etc. How much does time weigh? What is its chemical composition? Such questions are absurd when applied to time. Time does not weigh anything and is not composed of chemicals because time is not a physical substance possessing physical properties that can be measured and dissected. To think of time as a physical substance is to commit the categorical fallacy; i.e. confusing one category of existence/thought with another. It is like trying to look at man's soul through a microscope! It simply cannot be done. If time is not physical, then Einstein's experiments and conclusions concerning time were flawed at their very core.

Clocks and Time: Are They Identical?

Because time must be a physical thing to be observed and tested by the scientific method Einstein reduced time to clocks. For Einstein a clock is time, not merely a representation of time. He observed that as the speed of matter accelerated, the rate of motion in physical things-including clocks-decelerated. Einstein knew this to be true because he could compare a clock that traveled at high speeds to an immobile clock and see that the former had "lost" time in comparison to the latter.

This observation in itself is not objectionable. It is true that clocks in high speeds of motion move slower than clocks traveling in low speeds of motion, but the same is true of all other forms of material things. What is objectionable is the significance of this finding, specifically the way in which he extrapolated the behavior of clocks at high speeds to make pronouncements concerning the very essence of time itself. Equating time with a clock, he falsely concluded that time slowed down as matter accelerated toward the speed of light.

Einstein was inexorably led to this false conclusion because he confused time with that which measures time, reducing the former to the latter, and thereby falling prey to a sort of reductionistic fallacy. It simply does not follow that if clocks slow down time itself has slowed down, because a clock is only a physical representation of time, not time itself. We all understand that the behavior of clocks is not a reflection of the nature of time. That is why we do not conclude time has stopped when a clock's batteries run out of power and the clock stops ticking! Reducing time to clocks is like reducing love to hearts and kisses. While hearts and kisses are symbols and expressions of love, love is immaterial and cannot be equated with its physical representations and effects.

We know a clock is only a representation of time and not the essence of time because we can always ask, "How long did it take for the gears of the clock to move from here to there? To even ask this question makes it obvious that time is separate from clocks, for if they were one and the same this sentence would be nonsensical. It would be like asking "How square is that square?" If it is possible to conceive of time elapsing between the motions of the parts in the clock that is supposed to "tell us the time," then time must transcend the clock! Furthermore, it must transcend the clock in a metaphysical way because time lacks physical properties.

A clock is just another physical thing in the universe, made up of material parts. It is itself matter-in-motion just like ourselves, albeit in a consistent and patterned motion that we find useful for evaluating other forms of erratic and inconsistent motion such as our own. When comparing the consistent motion of the physical parts of the clock against the inconsistent motion of other physical things, we get an idea of how much time has passed.3

If material things slow down as they accelerate in speed, and a clock is a material thing, it goes without saying that the motion of the clock will decelerate as well. After all it is just another physical thing. While the hands of the clock may move slower because of its speed of travel in relation to light, time itself has not changed because a clock is a mere physical representation of time. What happens to the clock is not a reflection of what happens to time itself.

Einstein's error was that he failed to consider the fact that what happens to "time" in its reduced form as a physical clock cannot be legitimately extrapolated to speak to the true nature of time itself. What happens to the clock at the speed of light is what happens to all other material things (it slows down), but this does not mean time has slowed down--only it's man-made physical representation has slowed down. The only way time could slow down is if time is a physical thing. Clearly, however, it is not.

None of this is to say Einstein's observations about the relationship of speed to matter were false. They were true. It has been confirmed all the more in the days of space travel. All matter, including clocks and the human body, slows down as it increases in speed, but this does not mean time has slowed down. Time remains constant because time is not a physical thing that can be changed. It is merely that which measures movement, or the rate of change in physical objects.4 It could be said that time is duration marked by sequence. We know time has passed because there has been sequential duration from one movement to the next. Where Einstein erred, then, was in thinking that time was a physical dimension to which his special theory of relativity applied. Whether matter slows down because of the speed at which it is traveling is irrelevant to the discussion of time because time is not a material thing and thus is not affected by speed as is matter. Einstein's observations about the physical simply do not speak to the immaterial.

Time Belongs to the Realm of Philosophy

Einstein failed to realize that an evaluation of time does not belong to the discipline of science at all, but rather to the discipline of philosophy as do all other immaterial things like thoughts, intents, the will, love, beauty, emotions, and the soul. He was trying to weigh a chicken (time) with a yardstick (science), so it should be no surprise to find that his conclusions are not sound.


Einstein was right in his claim that time is inextricably woven into the universe, but he was wrong to believe that what were woven together were two physical things. Time is not material. And if time is not material, it cannot be sped up. It remains constant in its immaterial essence as an "instantaneous now" regardless of the rate in change of matter. While the physical parts of a clock may slow down as it accelerates toward the speed of light, as a mere physical object this observation speaks no more to the nature of time than the observation that biological activity slows down as it accelerates toward the speed of light. Both observations note what happens to physical objects, not immaterial essences such as time. Seeing that Einstein's theory of special relativity applies only to material things-not immaterial things of which time is a part-we must reject his claim that time is relative.


Objections and Responses

Objection: It is fallacious to argue that time is not physical on the basis that it lacks physical properties. While time is not an object in itself with physical properties, time must be a property of the physical universe because it is related to the physical universe.
Response: I fail to see how it is fallacious to argue that time is not physical on the basis that it lacks physical properties. If physical properties do not make something physical, then what does? To say something can be physical without having any physical properties is like saying one can be a human being without human DNA! While it is true that physical things do not need to possess all the available properties of physical objects, physical things must have at least one or more of those properties to be considered physical. If something has genuine ontological existence, and yet lacks every conceivable physical property, it is not physical. It is metaphysical by definition.

There are three senses in which the physical sciences understand properties:

1. "Physical properties, or those which result from the relations of bodies to the physical agents, light, heat, electricity, gravitation, cohesion, adhesion, etc., and which are exhibited without a change in the composition or kind of matter acted on. They are color, luster, opacity, transparency, hardness, sonorousness, density, crystalline form, solubility, capability of osmotic diffusion, vaporization, boiling, fusion, etc.
2. "Chemical properties, or those which are conditioned by affinity and composition; thus, combustion, explosion, and certain solutions are reactions occasioned by chemical properties. Chemical properties are identical when there is identity of composition and structure, and change according as the composition changes.
3. "Organoleptic properties, or those forming a class which can not be included in either of the other two divisions. They manifest themselves in the contact of substances with the organs of taste, touch, and smell, or otherwise affect the living organism, as in the manner of medicines and poisons."5

Every one of these definitions is relegated to the realm of the physical.

I am not proposing that there is no relationship between time and matter. Indeed, there is. This relationship, however, does not de facto materialize time any more than the relationship of the body and soul materializes the soul, or dematerializes the body. The human body-soul dichotomy is truly analogous to our topic because what we do in our physical bodies (sins such as fornication and drunkenness, or even the lack of sleep) affects our soulish man, and what we do in our soulish man (forgive, trust) affects our physical bodies. We can even measure the soul's activity by its manifestation through the physical body. When we are physically sick we often feel spiritually down as well. When our soul is in rebellion against God this rebellion manifests itself in physical ways. Even though the body and soul are intrinsically connected and interact with one another, the soul's relationship to the body (a physical thing) does not make it physical.

Time is a basic factor in many scientific equations. If time does not belong to the realm of scientific investigation because it is not physical in nature (and thus not investigable by the scientific method) how is it that those equations work so well in the physical world? In some way time must be related to the physical universe, and hence is open to scientific investigation.
Response: Let me clarify what I am and am not saying about the role of time in scientific investigation. Yes, scientists must factor time into their equations to make sense of the physical world, but what are they factoring in? They are factoring in the rate of change in material objects. How are they evaluating this rate of change? They are doing so with clocks. What are clocks? Clocks are physical tools devised by man to measure the motion of other physical objects, not time itself. They consist of a conglomeration of material parts6 that represent time in a tangible way when in motion themselves. The consistency of the clock's motion is used to gauge the inconsistent changes in the motion of all other material things; i.e. we tell time by comparing the rate of motion in the physical parts of the clock to the motion of all other physical things. By comparing the amount of change in the clock to the amount of change in all else we come up with a measurement of how much time has elapsed. Clocks, then, are mere comparative tools intended to show us how much change in motion has occurred in the physical world in relationship to how much change has occurred in the consistent motion of the clock. Scientists are concerned with the rate of change of matter-in-motion. The clock gives them a consistent and objective control factor to accurately gauge that motion. While the clock serves this purpose well, the movement of the clock tells us nothing about the nature of time itself because time is immaterial.

It should not be thought that I am suggesting time be excluded from scientific investigation altogether simply because it is immaterial. Indeed, scientists must account for time when analyzing the physical universe because time is the duration between changes in motion, and they are studying matter-in-motion. The problem is that to make time part of their equations they have to physicalize time by reducing it to mere clocks. Such a reduction of time is necessary to make sense of their experimentation, but the way in which the apparatus used to represent time (clocks) is affected by the experiment cannot be extrapolated out of the realm of scientific experimentation to be heralded as the true nature of time. The findings are only limited to time in its reduced form as a physical clock. While it may be necessary for science to test material things using time as part of their equations, they cannot use the conclusions they gleaned from this reductionistic form of time to speak to the real nature of time.

Objection: You seem to have two definitions of time-time as understood by science, and time as understood metaphysically-the latter representing true time, and the former a tortured human construct (since science cannot get to time itself).
Response: I hold to one, not two definitions of time. Time is metaphysical, no ifs ands or buts about it. While time is metaphysical, its existence is recognized through observation of the physical world much like God's existence can be recognized through observation of the physical world.7 Since science is the branch of study pertaining to the observation of the physical world science must account for time in their equations. But since science cannot get to time itself, they use the physical, man-made representation of time to track its passing.

Objection: To say the study of time belongs to the realm of philosophy rather than science seems to presuppose two things: the two disciplines are separated by some unsurpassable gulf; the superiority of philosophy over science.
Response: To claim that the study of the nature of time properly belongs to the discipline of philosophy is not to claim the superiority of philosophy over science, nor that the two disciplines are separated by an unsurpassable gulf. My assessment comes from a recognition of the purpose, scope, and limitations of each discipline. Neither science nor philosophy can address all matters of truth in and of themselves. There are some things that only science can speak to; there are some things only philosophy can speak to; and there are some things that both disciples can speak to concurrently with varying degrees of contribution.

I argue that the study of time belongs to the realm of philosophy because time is an immaterial thing, and only the discipline of philosophy is equipped to give us true knowledge about the metaphysical. The discipline of science is limited to an examination of physical things. We look to science for answers concerning the true nature of the physical world (e.g. the functions of the cell), and philosophy for answers concerning the true nature of the immaterial world (e.g. God, angels, the soul, emotions, guilt, beauty, etc.). Looking to science to tell us about the true nature of time makes as much sense as trying to weigh a chicken with a yardstick. It's simply the wrong tool for the job. Science simply cannot tell us anything ontologically meaningful about the nature of time. It can, however, tell us some practical things about time on a reductionistic and practical level-how time appears to be from the human perspective when using clocks as our guide to time-and therefore is of value. See my article titled "Investigating Faith: Placing Religious Truth Back Into the Arena of Knowledge" at www.apostolic.net/biblicalstudies/faitharena.htm.

Science and philosophy are both concerned with time: the former because time is part of the real world we live in; the latter because time is immaterial. The discussion and investigation of time cannot be relegated wholly to one discipline or the other because time affects both the material and immaterial worlds, but the true nature of time can only be ascertained by the discipline of philosophy because of the inadequacy of science to give us true knowledge about the metaphysical.

Objection: If time is not physical in some relevant way how can it measure the movement of physical things?
Response: Time does not measure movement in the same way a yardstick measures length. A yardstick is a standardized physical measuring device used to measure other physical things, whereas time is not physical and does not exist in standardized units. (See appendix) Time isn't even something that exists as an entity in itself to be measured directly. It is somewhat analogous to coldness. We can measure coldness, but not by measuring the amount of coldness; we measure coldness by measuring the absence of heat. Similarly, we measure the passing of time, not by measuring its passing directly, but by observing movement in the material world and inferring that time is responsible for the sequence and duration of the movement. Time is necessarily contingent on matter for its existence and expression.

Time is not matter-in-motion, but is recognized by matter-in-motion. Time is the rate of change that can be measured. What is the change that time is rating? It is the change in motion of material things. How do we know time has elapsed? Is it because there is a physical quality to time that we observe changing? No, we know time has elapsed because material things have changed. We recognize the existence of time by observing the material world, not by observing time itself. We can only observe matter-in-motion, and our observations of matter-in-motion force us to recognize that time is required to make sense out of this change in matter from one state to another. Time is not a physical entity that is accomplishing this change in motion, but an immaterial something that is witnessed to by this change, and required to make sense of the change.


Time is distinct from our measurement of it. Time is not intrinsically divided up into measurable segments. The divisions of our clock and calendar are man's invention to make sense of and measure movement in the physical world, not a reflection of reality itself. The basis of our clock and calendar is the movement of Earth in relationship to itself and the sun.8 A clock is a system of material parts that move in such a manner that its full cycle of consistent movements corresponds to the day/night cycle of the Earth's rotation on its axis. Beyond that, the basic increments of the clock-seconds, minutes, and hours-are rather arbitrary. They are human divisions with no ontological status. We could have just as easily divided the day into 12 hours of 120 minutes, 12 hours of 60 minute segments consisting of 120 seconds, 6 hours of 120 minute segments consisting of 120 seconds, etc. We could even do away with seconds altogether, or further divide seconds into subsets without any damage to time. The divisions of the clock are mere convention, devised to measure duration between changes in matter.

As just stated, our measurement of the day and year are based on the movement of the Earth on its axis and around the sun, making those two bodies the only truly objective standards for our reckoning of time. Even then, this "objectivity" is only objective from the perspective of Earth. Once we leave Earth the day and year become subjective and irrelevant measurements of time. The amount of time it takes for Mars to rotate on its axis and around the sun is different than it is on Earth, and thus the length of a day (one full rotation on its axis) and a year (one full rotation around the sun) would change from planet to planet. So even the length of what we call the day/year is based on our Earth-bound perspective. The division of "day" and "year" are based on the movement of the Earth in relationship to itself and the sun, not on any correspondence to the very essence of time itself. Apart from an Earth-bound perspective, not only would seconds, minutes, and hours be entirely subjective, but so would days and years. The clock/calendar, then, is only useful for measuring motion on Earth.


1. I am indebted to Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason ministries, and Christian apologist/philosopher, William Lane Craig, for their contributions to my thoughts on this topic. For further reading see Craig's, Time and Eternity: Exploring God's relationship to Time.
2. What I mean by "immaterial" is that it lacks physical properties, not that it does not exist. Something does not have to be physical to have genuine existence. If it did then God Himself could not exist, and neither could the human spirit.
3. To say "such and such an amount of time has passed" is not a statement about time, but rather the amount of motion that has transpired.
4. We often picture time as a spectrum on which the bar of the present is moving along from one end to the other. The fact of the matter is that time does not move; we move. Time has no duration. It is not linear, but punctiliar. While it is much easier to make proclamations concerning what time is not, rather than making proclamations concerning what time is, the best description of the nature of time is that of an indivisible, instantaneous "now" (and therefore a constant). What we call "duration" is merely a consecutive series of nows, each "coming into existence" one instant and "passing out of existence" the next. While the process is infinite and immeasurable, the human attempt to "tell time" is an attempt to count the number of "nows" between each movement of matter.
5. Online dictionary entry, "property," found at http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=property
6. Whether they are metal or atomic.
7. Although the former cannot be missed, the latter can.
8. Although other cultures have used other planetary bodies such as the moon for their reckoning of a year.

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