Einstein on time being a stubbornly persistent illusion

Photo of Wrigley Building and Tribune Tower in the fog, captured on May 20, 2011 by Matt Maldre

What is time? Shortly before his death, Albert Einstein wrote:

“The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

What is the context of this quote?

I accidentally came across a discussion about this quote in a podcast that appeared at the top of my Soundcloud stream: Carlo Rovelli — All Reality Is Interaction

A random act of fate that this came my way. The episode is from over two years ago.

Paraphrasing: There are two forms of time:

  1. Time as we understand it scientifically
  2. Time as we understand it as human beings

With this quote, Einstein is not talking about time scientifically. He’s speaking of it as how we understand it as humans. That is, how we understand time emotionally. Human time is about our time in existence. It’s connected with death. We realize we have only a certain amount of time in which we are alive.

At the 17:75 to 23:26 mark of the episode is the conversation about time.

I transcribed the conversation:

Carlo Rovelli:
Let me tell you something that is central. You quoted, sentence by a phrase by Einstein. In which he says that time is a sort of persistent, stubborn illusion. That it doesn’t exist.

Carlo Rovelli (bolding mine):
Einstein wrote that, but he wrote that in a letter addressed to the sister in the family of his best friend—who had just died. So, this is not in a text to physics. This is in a letter to a sister who just lost his brother. A family who lost a member of the family.

Carlo Rovelli:
So the content is not a discussion about the structure of reality. It’s a letter to console. It’s a letter in which Einstein expresses his love of Michele Besso. Who has been his companion. In that phrase, Einstein writes to full people like Michele and me. Time is.

Carlo Rovelli:
He’s talking about his relation between with Michele. And he’s talking clearly about his own loss of Michele, and being in front of death. Because Einstein died one month and a little bit after Michele. He’s very close to Einstein death. And when he’s saying there is something illusionary in time, I think he’s talking about emotions. And he’s talking about something in a sense deeper and more important than the physical nature of time. He’s talking the illusory of life, of our experiences. I don’t think that phrase is Einstein should be taken too literally.

Host, Krista Tippett:
In a sense you are saying partly Einstein is pointing at this challenge of working with time as we understand it scientifically. And time as we understand it as human beings? Or simply being, or simply he’s being a human being there?

Carlo Rovelli:
I think that phrase is deeply being a human being. And talking about his love with Michele. And increasingly toward his death. In a month later, his death. Certainly time, in which, captures us in death. In profoundly because this is, think about time, is think about finitely. We’re not going to live forever. What is this time in which we are immersed. There is no time of fundamental level, nevertheless, we humans live in time. We live in time like fish in the water. For us, it’s impossible to think of ourselves without time.

End transcription.

More context of the quote

Albert Einstein wrote: “Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. For us believing physicists the distinction between past, present, and future only has the meaning of an illusion, though a persistent one.”

Christies.com offers this translation: “Now he has again preceded me a little in parting from this strange world. This has no importance. For people like us who believe in physics, the separation between past, present and future has only the importance of an admittedly tenacious illusion.”

I find it fascinating that this topic of time and death comes up now, just as I contemplate skulls and death at the Art Institute, the 64% chance that someone I know will die of the coronavirus COVID-19, wrote a blog post about a book, “A beginner’s guide to the end: practical advice for living life and facing death”.

(Photo of Wrigley Building and Tribune Tower in the fog, captured on May 20, 2011 by Matt Maldre)

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