The Problem of the Specious Present
Nihilism is the view that nothing exists. There are different kinds of nihilism; one can be a moral nihilist, for instance, holding that morality does not exist, or a religious nihilist, holding that God does not exist. The problem of the specious present supports a universal nihilism, the view that nothing whatsoever exists.
In order for something to exist it must have duration, it must exist for a certain amount of time. To say that something exists for no time at all, that at the very moment that it comes into existence it also passes out of it, is to say that it doesn’t exist at all. Unicorns exist for no time at all; so do square circles. Things that exist for no time at all don’t exist. In order for something to exist it must have duration.
The past and the future do not exist; they are not there, in the world. Perhaps the past once existed, and perhaps its effects can still be seen in the world today, but the past doesn’t exist now; if it exists now, then where is it? And perhaps the future will exist one day, but it doesn’t exist yet; again, if it exists now, then where is it? The past and the future clearly do not exist; the universe consists only of the gap between them, the present.
How large is the gap between the past and the future? What is the duration of the present? A minute? A second? A nano-second?
Clearly the present does not last as long as a minute. A minute consists of different temporal parts. First comes its beginning, then its middle, and then its end. Each of its parts occurs at a different time. If its beginning is present then its middle and end are future. If its middle is present, then its beginning is past and its end is future. If its end is present then its beginning and middle are past. If the present lasted as long as a minute then it would consist of past, present, and future elements, but that would be absurd; the present must be wholly present.
The same, though, could be said if the present were of shorter duration, lasting only a second, or even only a nano-second. In either case, the present would have temporal parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. If its beginning were present then its middle and end would be future. If its middle were present, then its beginning would be past and its end would be future. If its end were present then its beginning and middle would be past. If the present has any duration at all then it consists of past, present, and future elements, but that, as I said before, would be absurd.
The present, then, has no duration; there is no gap between the past and the future. It has already been seen, though, that to say that something has no duration is to say that it does not exist. The present, then, like the past and the future, does not exist.
If there is neither past, nor present, nor future, though, then what is there? Nothing. Nothing exists at all. Universal nihilism is true.