Which Eternity?

Rand held her axiom Existence exists to include that the universe as a whole “cannot be created or annihilated, that it cannot come into or go out of existence” (1973, 25).[1] One would naturally suppose Rand was thinking that immunity from creation or annihilation means the universe has existed an endless time in the past and will exist an endless time in the future. Plausible as that picture appears, might the axiom Existence exists not strictly entail the endless duration of Existence? Might it entail only that at no time was there nothing at all or that at no time was there no time, yet not also entail that the duration of the existence of Existence extends into a past that is infinite?[2] Might the boundary of the past be finite, and at the first, the universe have its present mass-energy (as in classical GR back to the Initial Singularity) and be passing time, yet since it was the first of time, there be no “before” that first, and it simply not be sensible to talk of a “becoming” from a “before” the first?

In our philosophical reflection, should we prejudge the physics of whether the universe of mass-energy and its spacetime extend into an infinite or only a finite past? Should that issue be left to scientific cosmology to settle? Nearby issues such as whether time, space, or spacetime in any way have causal powers and whether there are more primitive physical elements from which spacetime arises should not be prejudged by philosophy, I say. Rather, thoseissues should be left open for scientific cosmology to settle. I think, however, that philosophy can and should go beyond observing that there was no time and will be no time at which there was nothing, go on to the conclusion that Existence is eternal, meaning endless in past and future.

If no Existence at all, then no character-identity at all. Had Existence come into existence, it would have to do so in a specific way, yet that way would be some character-identity, which requires some existents and is an existent, and by hypothesis there were no existents. Coming to be without a way, as Parmenides realized, is nothing.[3] Moreover: Coming to be is itself an existent. Coming to be of the all that is Existence would be coming to be of any coming-to-be at all. That cannot be sensible unless there were some background existence lacking any coming-to-be. But by hypothesis there was no existent of any sort—thence no existent lacking coming-to-be—before the coming into existence of Existence.[4] Therefore, Existence has no beginning. Then too, absent power of coming-to-be of its entire self, Existence cannot come to be not. That is, Existence has no end.

Rand did not accept the idea that the universe as a whole is in time. She thought that time was one of those things applying to things within the universe but not on up to the entire universe itself. One might sensibly say, in Rand’s view: Existence, the entirety of all existents, is eternal in the sense that it is outside of time, but not in the sense that it exists endlessly.[5] That is erroneous. As my life advanced in time, so did the Milky Way advance in time, Andromeda too and on up to the whole universe. That is how our modern physics has it also. The universe has a certain age since such-and-such event, most importantly, since the event of the Initial Singularity (or Planck-scale of the spacetime around that classically projected event). Existence as a whole endures through definite time, and that is not to say that time or alteration can exist without other sorts of existents.


[1] Cf. Aristotle, Cael. 279b4–84b5; Broadie 2009; Sorabji 1983, 205–9, 245–49.

[2] Cf. Lennox 1985, 68.

[3] “What coming to be of it will you seek? / In what way, whence, did [it] grow? Neither from what-is-not shall I allow / You to say or think; for it is not to be said or thought / That [it] is not. And what need could have impelled it to grow / Later or sooner, if it began from nothing?” Gallop 1984, Fragment 8, lines 6–10.

[4] Matter is mass-energy having nonzero rest mass. Only matter and its changes can be a clock. Were the universe to contain no matter, only pure energy, there would be nothing registering the advance of time. So far as I know from modern physics, time would yet advance while a pure-, all-energy of the universe and its changes (say, internal propagations at vacuum light speed) existed. A universe purely energy, of course, would be an existent.

The current picture from scientific cosmology is that the quantity of mass-energy in the universe today is the same there has been all the way back to the Initial Singularity. Particles of ordinary matter, the neutrinos (they have nonzero rest mass), emerged after the first ten-thousandths of a second following the onset of expansion of the universe from the Initial Singularity. Dark matter, having rest mass, may have been present before the neutrinos. I gather that at the present state of scientific knowledge the remote future (years from now about 10 to the 100th power, whereas the present day is only about 10 to the 9th power from the Initial Singularity) of our ever-expanding universe will contain only or very nearly only massless particles such as photons and gravitons (Penrose 2011, 139–49).

[5] Branden 1962; c. 1968, 82­–83, 101–2; Rand 1990 App. 273; Binswanger 2014, 26. Cf. Peikoff 1991, 16; Gotthelf 2000, 48.


Anagnostopoulos, G., editor, 2009. A Companion to Aristotle. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Aristotle c.348–322. B.C. The Complete Works of Aristotle. J. Barnes, editor (1984). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Branden, N. 1962. The “First Cause” Argument. The Objectivist Newsletter 1(5):19.

——. c.1968. The Basic Principles of Objectivism. In The Vision of Ayn Rand 2009. Gilbert: Cobden Press.

Binswanger, H. 2014. How We Know. New York: TOF Publications.

Broadie, S. 2009. Heavenly Bodies and First Causes. In Anagnostopoulous 2009.

Gallop, D. 1984. Parmenides of Elea – Fragments. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Gotthelf, A., editor, 1985. Aristotle on Nature and Living Things. Pittsburgh: Mathesis.

Gotthelf, A. 2000. On Ayn Rand. Belmont: Wadsworth.

Lennox, J. G. 1985. Are Aristotelian Species Eternal? In Gotthelf 1985.

Peikoff, L. 1991. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York: Dutton.

Penrose, R. 2011. Cycles of Time. New York: Knopf.

Rand, A. 1973. The Metaphysical versus the Man-Made. In Philosophy: Who Needs It. New York: Signet.

——1990. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. Expanded 2nd ed. H. Binswanger and L. Peikoff, editors. New York: Meridian.

Sorabji, R. 1983. Time, Creation, and the Continuum. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

2 thoughts on “Which Eternity?

  1. As a matter of interpreting Rand, I’m not sure it makes sense to think of her view as you characterize it here as consistent with implying “only that at no time was there nothing at all or that at no time was there no time, yet not also entail that the duration of the existence of Existence extends into a past that is infinite.” The simple reason for this is that it is what some classical theists have thought: Augustine takes it up in response to objections of the “what was God doing before he created time?” variety (he may be drawing in part on Plotinus or the Neoplatonic tradition, but I don’t know that material very well), and Aquinas as I understand him is committed to much the same idea. It more or less follows from a conception of God as eternal (in the strict sense of being outside of time) and of time as essentially tied to change: God is intrinsically eternal and unchanging, and it is only within the realm of created, finite entities that we get any change, so it is only within the realm of those entities that we get any time. Since the view that “at no time was there nothing at all or that at no time was there no time” is consistent with theism and a view of the universe as a divine creation, it had better not be all that Rand’s view entails if Rand is right to think of her own view as ruling out theism or creation.

    I have two misgivings about the rest of your reasoning here. First, if we’re trying to take theistic alternatives seriously, we need to reckon with the ways in which, within a theistic framework, God is no part of the universe but is also not nothing either. On such a view, it has never been the case, and can never be the case, that nothing whatsoever exists, but it is possible for no finite beings whatsoever to exist, and the universe of finite beings may be (though it may also not be) temporally finite. We could not, of course, speak of a time at which the universe of finite beings did not exist, because there is no time apart from the universe of finite beings. But we can hold that the universe of finite beings is itself temporally finite without supposing that it had to come into being from a prior condition in which nothing whatsoever of any sort existed. In other words, I don’t think your Parmenidean strictures get us to a temporally infinite universe of finite beings.

    The second misgiving, though related to the first, is independent of it: it is that your use of ‘Existence’ seems to involve either a category error or equivocation between categories. Whether or not we deny that existence is a predicate or property, existence is not a thing that exists; to speak of existence coming into existence is either nonsense or a weird way of saying something that would be more clearly said in another way. I don’t think this point depends on a substance ontology, though I think it is easiest to make most clearly in a substance ontology: existence, if it is a property at all, is a property that things have, not a thing; so we need to talk about things existing, not about existence existing. I think the same goes even if we suppose (as I am not prepared to suppose) that ‘things’ are ultimately just bundles of properties; here too, existence is not some independent property, it’s something that belongs to or is true of properties or clusters of properties.

    At least some of what you say would survive reformulation to accommodate these points. Your Parmenidean strictures, for example, could be reformulated to avoid treating existence as though it were something that exists and instead to require that anything that comes to be must come to be from some sort of antecedently existing thing. I don’t think classical theists, at least, would object to that, despite all the talk of creation “ex nihilo” — that God does not create the universe of finite beings out of some pre-existing finite beings is not to say that those things come to be in the absence of any background existence (indeed, the Parmenidean demand is typically one that theists require for their arguments), only that they come to be in the absence of any background existence of finite beings.

    I don’t know the physics very well, but I’ve not been able to convince myself that these questions can be settled within physics, though of course the physics is relevant. We’re firmly in the territory of principles and claims that cannot be subjected to empirical tests, even on a generous conception of empirical tests. Of course we might reject any effort to address these questions in any other way, though the necessity of going beyond empirical scientific methods even to argue that we should restrict ourselves to empirical scientific methods seems to complicate that approach. I wouldn’t insist that we must take metaphysical theorizing about these questions seriously, just that arriving at a very definite conclusion about them involves metaphysical theorizing and not purely empirical theorizing.

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    • Thank you, David, for responding to this. Your remarks are very helpful.

      Concerning Rand’s view, I see I’ve caused some unnecessary confusion by my order of presentation. In my first paragraph, only the first sentence was the view of Rand. The rest of her view does not come until the fourth paragraph. She did not follow the natural progression from “no creation or annihilation of all that exists” to “the totality of existence is endless in time, past or future.” Rather, as in my fourth, final paragraph, Rand simply denied that time is something that could apply to existence as a whole.

      The first presentation of her view in print, so far as I know, was in that 1962 article by Nathaniel Branden. He was also presenting that view—time is inapplicable to existence as a whole—in his lecture series The Basic Principles of Objectivism. He brings up the issue in offering a rebuttal of the First Cause argument for the existence of God in the ex nihilo Creation context, that context being commonplace in the culture. Branden and subsequent Objectivist expositors of Rand’s position continued to address the question of the finite or infinite extent of time through which the universe exists (the universe being what they meant by all that exists, including mind as part of the universe) as affiliated with the idea of an external cause of the existence of the universe. In their Objectivist view, the whole did not require and could not have a cause, the idea of cause is inapplicable to this ultimate whole, and the idea of time is also inapplicable to this whole. They would say (Peikoff in his 1976 lecture series The Philosophy of Objectivism) that it is sensible to say that the whole of existence is eternal if meaning by that that whole is outside of time, but not sensible to say it is eternal in the sense of existing through time without end or beginning. Being outside of time, of course, would also mean that the whole of existence could not have a beginning or end in time.

      These proponents of Objectivism were like Ayn Rand in their education. They were thinking about these issues in the history of classical philosophy, such as you touched on and such as the history set out in the Sorabji book I cited. That really won’t suffice. It was not until the 1960’s, if I recall correctly, that the idea of black holes (infinitely dense but finite mass) and an Initial Singularity took hold in physics. Black holes are singularities too. When physicists come to implications of physical infinities from the mathematical devices that are otherwise successful in describing physical realities, they look for things that prevent such infinities in physical reality. The infinities had been in the mathematical equations for spacetime implicit in Einstein’s field equations for general relativity (1916), but for a few decades, if I’m recalling the history of black-hole theory correctly, it was held that a specific physical factor would prevent gravitational collapse of matter and energy into the spacetime singularity we now call a black hole. But by the 1960’s physicists had shown that the preventing factor did not prevent after all, and theory of black holes and of a Big Bang singularity were off and running. And with enough decades and expense since then, the tests and spectacular accuracy of Einstein’s GR have been in our headlines.

      Physics and me with it certainly reject the idea that the universe as a whole is outside of time. The time being marked by the coo coo clock behind me and the time being marked in the corner of my computer screen, is the time there is and the only time there is (contra Heidegger). It is physically real pure-time slices on the physically real local spacetime. Following the GR equations for the universe as a whole back in time, all of spacetime was a point with absolutely zero extent. Time appears in that picture to come into existence at the Big Bang, and it comes into existence with mass-energy afoot and having the same amount of mass-energy as there is in the universe today. But physics has had, since facing up to that startling picture, a new intervening factor for that Initial Singularity, though only down at the so called Planck scale of spacetime (one over ten to the 35th power, as I recall), a tremendously small smallness about that projected absolute initial point inferred from the classical GR equations: quantum field theory yet needing to be fathomed in that situation. So they say the quest of physics for what happens way-close-about the Initial Singularity is not yet done.

      My new thought, explored in my post, is that I’ll go ahead and argue, as I did, from the philosopher’s chair, that ‘final physics’ will find the mass-energy (ever some nonzero amount) of the universe has existed forever and will exist forever.

      Thank you again, David, for all of your response.

      In the metaphysics of Rand, Existence took the place of Being, with likeness, but differences. Entity took the place of Substance in the categories, with likeness, but differences. In my book in progress these last five years, I try to set out those conceptual reformulations. I’ve not far to go in completing my own metaphysics, a transfiguration of Rand’s, though I expect another 4-to-5 years to complete the book. I’ll cut it off about that time, even though philosophy never ends while minds live, as I’d be seventy-five by then.

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