Meditation on time is the preliminary task to any metaphysics.

Gaston Bachelard, Intuition of the instant (1932)

This question, does time precedes space?, imposes to look beyond the space-time we are all buried into and to firstly try to figure out what space and time are, or at least could be. Until any convincing knowledge about time and space is reached, such question of time preceding space has little meaning, if any. Still, we will work at giving it an answer.

Is Time Space and Space Time?

Time, as an event in time or a duration between two events, is mostly described in terms of space, especially in terms of relative topographic situations: Christmas follows/is after Thanksgiving (i.e. later than), Independence Day is behind us (now passed). Time can also be described as being above or below, up (time is up) or down (down time), or even high like in “High Middle Ages” corresponding to the opposite French bas Moyen Âge (lit. “low Middle Ages”), while to the French haut Moyen Âge (lit. “high Middle Ages”) corresponds the Early Middle Ages1.

Time also is described in terms of a movement, whether time is moving: passing time, (up) coming event, moving a meeting forward (i.e. earlier), New Year is coming up on us, time to make something has come, etc. or whether we are moving within it or towards some event: we are approaching the end of the Winter, we are racing through the semester, coming to the end of the month, etc.

Reciprocally, space can be measured by time: that cowboy town is so many times away it takes to sing that song2, San Francisco is just one hour flight away, that shop is only 45 minutes away. Even distances between planets or stars are measured with the help of time: the light-year (distance light travels in a year: 9.46 trillion km). e.g. Andromeda galaxy is 2,537 millions light-year to the sun.

If time is measuring space and space the time, are we measuring anything? Do we have here a catch 22? As William of Ockham († 1347) did put it: time is just the measure of a movement by another movement!

Measuring Time, from Cosmology to Particle

If the meter is the basis unit for distances, the second is the unit for measuring time.

Still partly using the sexagesimal divisions from the Babylonian civilization of South Mesopotamia in the beginning of the second millennium BC, the second is the 1⁄86400e of an average terrestrial solar day. The closest to the duration of such ephemeris second, now in use, are the “9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium-133 atom” (at a temperature of 0 K)3, which provides much better accuracy (an atomic clock is accurate to within one second in a few hundred million years).

Yet, this is when you get to the smallest measurable length and time that you get back to some common principle: Planck length is the unit of length that is the distance light travels in one unit of Planck time and Planck time unit is the time required for light to travel a distance of one Planck length (this is in vacuum, where light speed is at his maximum and, above all, constant). These units are the smallest measures bearing a physical meaning within current theories. Per Max Planck (1858-1957), “they necessarily keep their meaning at all times and for any civilization, even extraterrestrial and non-human; as such, they can be named ‘natural units’” (1899). Now, again, time is defined by a distance (i.e. space) and the distance by a time, both reflecting a movement: the one of light.

This means that the most scientific and objective approach of time & space, again, looks like a catch 22.

Evolution of Time

The philosophic literature about time is so colossal, from Anaximander, Plato, Aristotle, etc. to Kant, Bergson, Heidegger, McTaggart, Francis Kaplan, etc., that this short paper cannot even start to chart it.

Schematically, main questions have been –and still are—how time is both external (objective) and internal (subjective) or one only with the exclusion of the other? Is it continuous and infinitely divisible or composed of multiple indivisible instants? What is its ontological nature? Here some fragmented answers to these questions:

For Aristotle4, “we perceive, at the same time, the movement and the time”, therefore time is “something of the movement”. Yet, if “time doesn’t exist without movement or change”, still “it is neither movement nor without it”. But what is it then? Time is the number that the soul determines, distinguishing the before and the after: time is the “number of the movement”, its countable dimension.  ‘The subjective experience of time (“number”) and, at the same time, the objective characteristics of time as linked to movement (“anteriority-posteriority”) makes the heart of Aristotle theory. As an illustration, sleeping time, with no sensation, no movement, is not measurable and abolished by the soul. By linking soul sensation enabling to number with movement possibly countable, Aristotle condemned any future empirical or idealist reduction, if not anticipated phenomenology.

One key is to distinguish time from its measuring. When Averroes († 1198), as Aristotelian commentators, says that the number is a potency of the movement that the intellectual operation puts in act, while Aristotle says that time and movement are together in potency and in act5, this is because one talks about time while the other speaks about its measure. So nothing really new when St Augustine emphasizes that mind only can measure time, so that time is measured in the mind. However, he formulates the famous sound or song argument, per which, without the past (memory) and the future (mind tension), we would have exclusively present sensations and never the consciousness of a melody or of the unity of a song6. So, if measure of time is in the mind, this does not mean that time is in it.

Jumping to more recent times, we have to first acknowledge how time, in the meantime, has been considered differently by science. This came from the relative genius of Galileo about the fall of bodies. As he made time a simple parameter, the law became dead simple. Yet, as for the Galilean space (empty and infinite, deserted from any quality), Galilean time is just a parameter and nature of time becomes a useless subject. Of course, the mathematization of the reality, properly is the legitimate way of science; the danger is, when mathematics (as a pure quantitative reduction) is believed to be the reality and occults the largest share of an integral cosmos7.

No surprise then if time, based on pure grammatical logics8 (which is mathematics foundation), become irreal or an illusion (John McTaggart9, † 1925); or if we simply have an imaginary time: both not real or unreal (Stephen Hawking, † 2018), a pure mathematical representation of time (helping to connect quantum and statistical mechanics in some cosmological theories)10.

In the same vein, we have the list of views or options –hence pure rational hypothesis—established within analytical philosophy: presentism (only the present –things, facts and experiences—is real, both past and future are out of existence), eternalism (all points in time are equally “real”, so time passing is an illusion of consciousness), endurantism (things existing through time, exist in wholeness at different times, yet each instance of existence is a new one), and perdurantism (things through time exist as a unique continuous reality, being the sum of all of their temporalities). We believe that the common characteristic of these views is to miss a distinction between the absolute and the plane of existence. For eternalism, as example, seen from some absolute viewpoint, time passing may well be called an illusion (some maya would say the Hindus), but seen from a human existence, it is not because all times are metaphysically real in eternity, that time does not exist in the plane of existence.

If we now consider ‘truer’ philosophers, that is to say with less mathematical or mechanical thinking, we may probably obtain more interesting remarks, even if we may not get the final say on time. This seems to be the case with Immanuel Kant († 1804) making time (and space and causation) a form a priori (beforehand) of intuition –not a concept—, a mere sensibility. Therefore, if time is neither infinite or finite, it is because it is not a being; “things-in-themselves” exist, but there are neither in time or in space (which is why their nature is, per Kant, unknowable).

Henri Bergson († 1941) interestingly distinguishes between time and Duration. The time that can be numbered, counted, divided… is spatialized time, a projection of duration into space, while pure Duration is the fundamental given of consciousness, ‘rebellious to spatialization’. This Duration is the indivisible continuity of the internal life (indivisible because ‘unextended yet heterogeneous’), psychic facts having a purely qualitative dimension. So we are both inside time, and ourselves time (physically and psychically).

Martin Heidegger († 1976) seems to partly agree: ‘we do not exist inside time, but we are time’ (beyond sequential time), what Maurice Merleau-Ponty († 1961) formulates as follow: “Passing from a present to another present, I do not think it, I am not the spectator of it, I am myself time, a time that ‘remains’ and doesn’t ‘flow’ nor ‘change’”.

We could leave here the last word to Francis Kaplan († 2018), who too favors the notion of temporality over the one of time and considers, like Kant, that time and space are subjective notions11, making his own the definition of time as multiplicity of a unity and space the unity of a multiplicity.

Yet, shouldn’t all these be seen as catch 22?

‘Where’ or ‘When’ Could Time Precede Space?

We have heard enough to try to answer that question. If physics, psychology or philosophy have not drawn us that far into understanding the origin and the nature of time, this is because it is a metaphysical question. Let’s consider the three initial viewpoints: the anthropological, cosmological & theological perspectives, that is to say the man, the world and God.

Starting with the human being, it is obvious that, on one hand, psychic phenomena consist in duration, where no space is involved and that, on the other hand, deep sleep (or deep coma) abolishes any duration. This makes time beyond space and linked to consciousness. In this respect, time doesn’t precede the birth of consciousness in space.

Considering the universe, we have the great surprise to find out that Ilya Prigogine († 2003), after several others were invited to do so, wrote on a dedicated wall of the Moscow university Lomonosoff his own say: “time precede existence”. Do we benefit here from a physicist affidavit that time, in physics, precedes space? To some extent, we could believe so! Prigorine indeed meant that time may have preceded the birth of our universe, considering the Big-Bang as an event among other events within time –time having no beginning and no end12. However, if the universe or some series of universes (from Big-Bangs to Big-Crunches, if ever this is still part of the cosmologic model) or series of other similar events pass in time, can we really say that some of them could be no spatial at all? If there is something, it is there.

Now, the situation is easier with God; He is not first and foremost eternal, then infinite, He is both eternal and infinite –outlining if necessary that eternity is not time (even some indefinite one) and infinity not space (space does not limit space, as time does not limit time).

So, if time doesn’t precede space in human being, in the world or in God, ‘where’ or ‘when’ could that be? The only ‘place’ this could be is ‘during’, or better said, through the process of creation, and if not chronologically, it could well be at least logically.

Time Precede Space!

It appears that Plotinus († 270) did the work for us13, within his conception of creation via emanations or derivations by/from the One (or the Good), through a logical movement called procession, among three Hypostases. The first derivation, from the One, is the Nous (Intellect, Logos), the next one is the World Soul (or Universal Soul), whose lower side is nature. From It, proceed individual human souls and matter.

This being reminded, how about time? Origin and nature of time is part of this processional conception14. From eternity –which is a total lack of succession and duration—, proceeds temporality –which is duration without succession—, before the time we know comes –whose succession is thus an accident15—. Time genesis occurs with the World Soul’s timeless “necessary initiative”: the movement of turning to Herself, willing to govern herself by Herself (III, 7, 4, 8-11). Estranging Herself from eternity, She engenders time, which, “before it became time, rested in being”.

This genesis of temporality is the only difference between the two hypostatic derivations (the Nous, then World Soul):  while the Nous stays still (immobile) fixing the One, the World Soul moves and by her incessant movement “engender time instead of eternity”. Yet, this temporality specifically is non spatial: “time is the life of the Soul consisting in the movement per which She passes from a mode of life to another” (III, 7, 4, 43-45). In her contemplation of the eternal model, the Soul temporalizes herself so that She can express and actualize her vision: “Her life is an act, and the time, which is this very life, belongs to her potency”16. Time is not outside the Soul, no less than eternity is not outside being. Time manifests itself in the Soul and is unitized with Her like eternity to intelligible beings. Precisely, to the indivisible totality of the Nous corresponds eternity and to the multiplicity of the sensitive world corresponds the temporality. Plotinian time is comprehended from the very activity of the World Soul, who engenders it, while, “for intelligible beings [who] rest in themselves in absolute serenity”(ibd., 6-7), time doesn’t exist. “To the Nous corresponds immutability, permanence, to the World Soul [corresponds] that which doesn’t stay identical to itself; Nous is indivisibility and unity, Soul is an image of unity, the unity that is in the continuous”(ibid., 50-54).

As a consequence, the Plotinian time, contrary to Aristotle’s one, “adds to the becoming an order and a perfection, for the essence of time is modelled on eternity. […] This is why it is anterior to the measurable physical time and to space, which has a scale”17. Precisely, the Aristotelian infinite only is by the side of perception (cf. Physique IV, 8, 208 a 16). For Aristotle, time is infinite, on the same terms as the number, because it is external to the various movements, like number to numbered things. Yet, Soul movement is, for Plotinus, native, so that all other movements relate to it.

Back on Earth, “Plotinus conclusion is that no particular soul, in order to measure uninterrupted time (physical), lives some uninterrupted time (psychologically). This means that the sensitive is not linked to spatialized time, but made of lived durations, the ones of incarnated souls, all of them making one only, similarly to the World Soul, and participate to the cosmic Soul, which, properly is time”18.

And Does Time Precede Space in Christianity?

Despite many analogies between Plotinian view and the Christian Trinity (as example: Nous or Logos as the Son, Universal Soul as the Holy Spirit, and Plotinian Nous being also “begotten, not made, consubstantial” with the One), we will directly go to the creation, trying to figure out if, there too, time precedes space. Scriptures and theology shall be our two sources.

Scriptures, as pure quotes, seems to just remind obvious points about time, as example:

  • God is the master of time, the “Ancient of days” (Dan. 7:9) and the Father is the only one, not even the Son, to know when time shall ends (Mt. 24:36, Act. 1:7).
  • There is time like an absolute unit: “for a time, and times, and half a time” (Apo. 12:14) implying that the rest (days, years…) is variable according to space.
  • Eternity is beyond past, present and future: “ The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun (Eccl. 1:9).

Now, if we consider the theological doctrine: creatio ex nihilo doctrine, a more complete formulation shall give us some precision about ex nihilo and involves the “two hands of God”(who are the Son and the Holy Spirit, per St Irenaeus). It says: productio rei ex nihilo sui et subjecti and creatio ex nihilo per Verbum in Spiritu Sancto. The first part means that the form didn’t exist beforehand (ex nihilo sui) nor did any preexisting matter (ex nihilo subjecti), that is to say that God is the unique cause, both formal and substantial. The second part precisely is linked to space and time. Effectively, we can directly relate the Christ to time whether creation (“all things have been created through him, Col 1:16), incarnation (we are in 2019 after Him) and Pleroma (at the end of time, everyone assembling into Him). Now, if God created the world through the Son, where did He do it? In the Holy Spirit. And so He represent both the unknowable limit of space and the immanence of God in the universe; Newtonian space as sensorium Dei is for us just that19. As the Son proceeds from the Father and then only can the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (in Catholicity), time precedes space in God. However, this does not happen chronologically, but logically only (human logic!).

So, if ever there is a more precise answer to be found, we have to consider in more details the process of creation, which is precisely what Genesis is supposed to provide us with, assuming a proper hermeneutic of the text.

Doing so, Genesis 1 seems very well to position time before space: “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day”; then: “Let there be a solid arch stretching over the waters, parting the waters from the waters… And God gave the arch the name of Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day” (Gen. 1:6-8).

Moreover, considering the paradise of Genesis 2: “And the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to do work in it and take care of it”, we obviously have time, but no space: nobody will pretend that this garden is somewhere in space.

These make the three steps of man creation:

  • Genesis 1 formulates the cosmogonic, macrocosmic or principial, or archetypal view. Here, beings are created – or “founded”, says St Augustine— in their intelligible, primordial, essential reality. Man is not considered as a personal being, but rather as a “nature”, among other natures20. Here there are neither time or space; here, we are within God intellect.
  • Genesis 2 is the microcosmic view, a personal man, then a personal woman, Adam and Eve, are existentiated into the Paradise. Here, there is time, but, as mentioned, this does not happen in space (the one we experience).
  • Later, after the original sin, that is to say the sin of origin, they are expelled into the world. Now, space and time are to be found.

It may seem odd to call for religious text to help metaphysical thinking. But if you do not want to consider that such text means something, what is sure is that you will just find in it what you put in it or regret not to find in it what you wanted. The key is to consider the intention of the author and to give him at least the benefit of the doubt, and, as such, to look beyond the pure textuality and to avoid using beforehand some reductionist historical-critical method. Otherwise, the approach is no more one of proper hermeneutic (however, of course, this proper hermeneutic can then be criticized).

Anyway, we can affirm that time precedes space in Christianity.


Buried into time (and space), yet we believe we could approach some of the mystery of time and, metaphysically, could become convinced that time precedes space. Maybe have we progressed beyond St. Augustine initial statement: “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain it to one that asked, I know not” (Confessions, XI, 14). And, as we have not developed the notion of instant, we could leave the last word to the philosophe Louis Lavelle († 1951): “the instant is a cross between time and eternity”, which probably allows us to talk about this subject.


  1. French metaphor sees « higher » for “earlier” and “lower” for “later”, alike in a top bottom chronological list.[]
  2. E.g. “Arizona Killer”, “Bucking Broncho”, “Bury me not on the long prairie”, “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”, etc.[]
  3. The International System of Units (SI), 8th ed., 2006, p. 23 (on line).[]
  4. Physics IV, spec. 10-14, called by Aristotelian commentators The Treatise on time.[]
  5. Cf. Physique IV, 14, 223 a 16-29.[]
  6. This is what he calls ‘distention of mind’ (we simultaneously access the past in memory, the present by attention, and the future by expectation; Confessions XI, 26).[]
  7. In this respect, Galileo fall of bodies law, has not proven wrong Aristotle basic law (the heaviest falls first, which works on Earth), nor did Einstein’s one (equivalency between acceleration and gravitation, 1907) prove Galileo’s law wrong, these are just successive generalizations (like the consequential general relativity, 1915). Similarly, Euclidian geometry still works well to build up a house.[]
  8. “Unreality of time comes from our descriptions of it that are necessarily either contradictory, circular or insufficient” (McTaggart). These descriptions are stuck within logic, as a rational reduction of intelligence. Thinking is thinking beyond words! See our Métaphysique du paradoxe (L’Harmattan, 2019).[]
  9. Cf. The Unreality of Time (Mind 17, 1908).[]
  10. We mention here Hawking as he often switches from science to philosophy: “From the viewpoint of positivist philosophy, however, one cannot determine what is real. All one can do is find which mathematical models describe the universe […] So what is real and what is imaginary? Is the distinction just in our minds?” (The Universe in a Nutshell, Bantam Books, 2001, p. 59). See Wolfgang Smith, “Response to Stephen Hawking’s; Physics-as-Philosophy” (Sophia, vol. 16, n° 2, 2011) or Science and Myth: With a Response to Stephen Hawking’s the Grand Design (Angelico Press, 2012); in its French translation, the subtitle makes the point: ‘from physics to science-fiction’! (L’Harmattan, 2013).[]
  11. Cf. L’irréalité du temps et de l’espace [The Unreality of Time and Space] (Cerf, 2004).[]
  12. He is here metaphysically correct, ‘before time’ and ‘after time’ means nothing; see “Chrono-Sophia, Thinking the End of Time”.[]
  13. The Enneads 3.7, treatise 45, On eternity and time.[]
  14. We follow here the synthetic work of Agnès Pigler, « La théorie aristotélicienne du temps nombre du mouvement et sa critique plotinienne » [The Aristotelian theory of time as the number of movement and its Plotinian critic], Revue Philosophique de Louvain, 4th série, vol. 101, n°2, 2003, pp. 282-305.[]
  15. For Plotinus, to be measured by movement (albeit the celestial revolution) is an accident to time. For him, movement only is what, at the most, measures a determined time. Quite an inversion to what we commonly believe![]
  16. Agnès Pigler, ibid., p. 301.[]
  17. Ibid., p. 304.[]
  18. Ibidem.[]
  19. Per Joseph Addison († 1719): “But the noblest and most exalted Way of considering this infinite Space”.[]
  20. We follow here Jean Borella, in his master piece: Un homme, une femme au paradis [”A Man, A Woman in Paradise”], Ad Solem, 2008.[]