Is Everything Happening all the Time?

In the 90s I read an interview with Frank Zappa where he expressed the belief that “everything was happening all the time.” That is, time is almost illusory–there is no real past, present, or future. Or to be more precise, such states are primarily based on perspective of a sentient individual. Here are Zappa’s comments:

Oh, the other thing that you have to realize is time doesn’t start here and end over there. Everything happens all the time….The reason I can say that is time depends on the point from which you’re looking at it. It only appears that things are transpiring because we are here. If we were someplace else, they would not have transpired yet. If you could move your point of reference to the event taking place, you could change the way in which you perceive the event. So, if you could constantly change your location, you could live the idea that everything is happening all the time.

When I first read this, I could not grasp this idea. Now, I think I have a better understanding of it, especially the part about the way the past, present, and future seemed (wholly?) based on perspective. On the other hand, how can everything be happening all the time? How can an individual be born, become a teenager, adult, elderly and then die–at the same time?! Those events don’t seem dependent on perspective (or are they?). This is something I have yet to grasp. If anybody can help me understand this better, I’d love to hear from you.

8 thoughts on “Is Everything Happening all the Time?

  1. You probably aren’t too far from grasping the concept if you already believe in an infinite God. My idea of God and his infinity is that he exists in the past, the present, and the future all at once.

    If you instead believe that he simply WILL exist in the future and can see from the present what happens in the future, it’s a little bit of a leap. In this case God doesn’t actually exist yet in the future: he just knows the future and since he’s omnipotent, will definitely exist in the future, thus making him infinite.

    Whatever time is, if you believe in the creator, you kind of have to accept that he created time. Would it be likelier that he created it so that we, the creation, exist in it linearly and unidirectionally and he does as well? Or that he created it such that we exist linerarly and unidirectionally while he oversees the whole thing at once?

    If time travel is possible, then you could travel forward in time while I’m still in 2021. At this moment, you would exist in the future at the same time I exist in the (that is, my) present. If God doesn’t exist in that future, and can only see ahead into it, my concept of God is kind of broken. But if when you get to 2041, God exists, then I and God exist in 2021 while you and God exist in 2041. And if this is the case, then so does everything else and everything in between.

    Another way of thinking about it: if I’m reading A Wrinkle in Time, I may be on page 1 but page 101 already exists. I can skip ahead to it. What if time is like a book? Where everything exists at once, but we are restricted to whatever page we’re on and we can only move forward in the book?

  2. You make a lot of good points, but I want to focus on one:

    What if time is like a book?

    I like this analogy. It helps–but could we say everything is happening at once? I mean, it one sense yes. All the action and details, from beginning, middle, and end, exist–i.e., “happening at the same time.”

    In a way, analogy might also explain the predestination to some degree. The “book” (i.e., everything in three dimensional space and time) is already completed. If God is the author of this book, then he determined everything; additionally, if the book is completed, then the actions we’re (seemingly) experiencing now are also completed and in that sense predetermined…or at least has that characteristic. (I still think there is also some element of free will in all this.)

    1. Depends on how you define predetermination. I have friends who think the fact that the future is known by someone means our future is predetermined.

      I disagree with this take. “There is also some element of free will in all this,” you say, and I think is absolutely true. That God knows what our decisions are and what the outcomes are does not mean we don’t determine our own futures — it only means he’s already aware of them. I want nothing to do with a universe where my decisions are already determined. I can deal with their already being known.

      The book analogy works if you imagine different people reading the book in different places at the same time, which is true of well-read novels such as The Great Gatsby, for example.

      This is why the correct way to write about art, even literary art specifically consumed in a specific order, such as a novel or film, is in the present tense. When we write about Gatsby, we don’t say “Gatsby was driven by a need to prove himself worthy of Daisy’s love.” We say “Gatsby is driven by a need to prove himself…” Because it all exists at once, in the present, even if we don’t experience it that way.

  3. Depends on how you define predetermination. I have friends who think the fact that the future is known by someone means our future is predetermined.

    To me, this is an odd and maybe incorrect way to define “predetermination.” My current theory is that human language and the human mind are incapable to fully capturing the actual state of things, with regard to the free will-predestination debate.

    The book analogy works if you imagine different people reading the book in different places at the same time, which is true of well-read novels such as The Great Gatsby, for example.

    That is more helpful, but in a way that analogy is still limited in explaining the concept. In a book, everything in the book isn’t really occurring at the same time. In a way, the sections of the book only occur when someone is reading them (which is the reason your suggestion is helpful). But, on another level, the sections in the book aren’t occurring unless someone is reading it…

    …I feel like the issue here is that I can’t think outside of linear time. Events occur linearly. For events that cause a series of other events the sequence seems essential. In this situation, future events cannot occur before the events that cause it. If I swat a fly, how can the fly be dead before I swat it? This state of affairs is inaccessible to me, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully understand it.

    This is why the correct way to write about art, even literary art specifically consumed in a specific order, such as a novel or film, is in the present tense.

    I don’t really get this. Why is speaking about characters or events from a book or film incorrect?

    1. Speaking about characters or events from a book or film isn’t incorrect. We do it all the time. But the way we learned to write about them in school, and the way we continue to write or discuss them now, is in the present tense. Look at any summary of any film in any review and you’ll see it’s written in the present tense, no matter where in the sequence of the story the description comes from.

      1. I don’t plan to keep making the concept work for you because your difficulty is perfectly reasonable, but you know the sun is 8 light minutes away from earth, right? I think this is related but I can’t make the abstract pieces of it connect for me. When we look at the sun, we’re seeing the sun of 8 minutes ago, and what’s happening right now won’t be visible to us until 8 minutes from now.

        The light from the sun 8 minutes ago exists to us in our now, while what’s happening now won’t be experienced by us for another 8 minutes. These things are happening all at once, in a sense: the sun of 8 minutes ago, the sun of right now, and the sun of 8 minutes from now, at least from where we are in time.

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