When people say “the universe began 14 billion years ago,” do they realize that this is not true in the slightest?
It’s not true not because they aren’t measuring things accurately. Rather, it’s not true because the standards of measurement cannot have possibly remained unchanged over such a time period.
To put it crudely, this is because there were no years back then. There were no years because there was no Earth rotating around the sun, no sun, no Milky Way galaxy… no us, and no anything we would recognize whatsoever.
To assume that years predate the universe and the solar system, or that they constitute an abstract measure that can be applied to the universe before the universe even existed (as such), is to assume that time is a container within which things move, and that both the container and the things in it are fundamentally stable and unchanging. It’s no better than the assumption that space is a container within which things move and that all are stable and unchanging. According to contemporary science — and according to the assumptions of the more adequate philosophical systems (okay, I’m setting up a standard there) — both of these sets of assumptions are untrue.
Time and space are folded together. (A process-relational approach would assert that they are folded together with experience; but we need not go there.) When all was one tiny, hyper-dense singularity, there was neither space nor time as we know it.
Let’s admit it: time as we measure it is part of the universe we have inhabited, a universe that has developed habits as it has grown and evolved. We are situated within those habits, not free of them; we inhabit a particular array of them, and learn to inhabit beyond our constraints as we develop new habits (with the aid of imagination, language, technology, and the rest) — as we become-other.
None of this is the same as saying that “time did not exist because we (humans) did not.” (That would be an anthropocentric form of ontological “social constructionism.”) Quite contrarily: time as we know and experience it is simply not time itself. If there is such a thing as “time itself,” we only know something about it through our experience of it, but to presume from that limited experience that we know what it is for any and all entities that have ever arisen, or ever will, seems arrogant to me.
All right then… With that off my chest I’ll cave in a little and agree to this: Since we have no other way of measuring it, we might as well say that the universe began so long ago that if we measured it in our earth years, the number 14 billion would be as good a number as any that we could give it. If that helps us inhabit the universe just a little more comfortably, then fine, have it that way.