Sunday 8 December 2019

Understanding Time . . . and the River


When I was a kid, every spring there would be a massive invasion that looked like a snowstorm of big floppy-winged snowflakes.  We euphemistically called them "Mayflies."  When I was told that these flocks of shadflies only lived for 24 hours, I remember thinking "why bother?"  If you are only going to live for 24 hours, why bother living at all?

Other "Creatures of a day"

Fast forward a couple of decades, and I'm reading Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound.  Prometheus is being tortured for giving fire to mankind (bound to a mountainside, an eagle comes to eat his liver every day).  The gods ask him, "Why did you give this property of the gods to creatures of a day?" Wait a minute!  "Creatures of a day"--that's us; we human mortals.


Another couple of decades later, I'm watching the television series Cosmos:  A Spacetime Oddessy and Neil deGrasse Tyson is explaining that the history of our planet is barely a blink of an eye in relation to cosmic time.  The history of humanity is so minuscule there is no word in the English language to describe its brevity.  Okay, I get it, time is a matter of perception.  My apologies to the Mayflies.

What is time?

But I still don't get, I still don't understand, "what is it?"  What is time?  Like everyone else, I use the word and, like everyone else, I always pretend I know exactly what it means.  "Spacetime," oh yeah.  "The spacetime continuum," got it.  "The beginning of time," "the end of time," time's up," "on time," "overtime," "once upon a time"--sure, sure.  Is there anything more important to a mortal than time?  Shouldn't I know what it is?

A Brief History of Time

I've even read Steven Hawking's Brief History of Time. It was interesting to learn about black holes and quantum theory and time travel, and to get confirmation that "there is no unique measure of time that all observers will agree on." Yet, I was left to wonder, "What is this thing that everybody measures differently?"  "Brief history of time" is a cute title, but isn't there a paradox here?  Or is it redundant? Isn't "history" another word for "time"?  The "time of time"? I'm reminded that physicists escape answering what came before "the big bang" because "the big bang" was the beginning of time, and there can be no "before."  I just find this answer irritating.  (Probably why I'm not a physicist.)

Physics versus philosophy

Sean Carroll argues that physicists and philosophers have different kinds of answers to "what is time?"  Once physicists have an answer that works, they stop asking the question.  Only philosophers keep digging.  Julian Barbour is a physicist, and he offers a description of time that almost makes sense to me.  According to Barbour time is change, and if there is no change, time does not exist.

Time is an arbitrary system of measurement

I'm going to go one step further, and if I'm right, someone please contact the Nobel committee. What?  There's no Nobel for philosophy?! Okay, I'll accept the Nobel for physics.  Time does not exist as a thing that is measured.  Time is primarily a system of measurement, various arbitrary units of measure that we use to describe and calculate movement, change and velocity.

"Time" is a word

As I make seemingly bombastic, counterintuitive claims like "time does not exist," I need to remind you (and myself) that "time" is first and foremost a word.  It is a common error in thinking to assume that if a word exists, there must be some thing (an essence) existing in the world that corresponds to the word.  (The error even has a name:  it's called essentialism. Deconstruction is the fairly simple project  of displaying how words/concepts are "constructed" over time rather than being "essential."  See The Postmodern Hoax and Deconstruction and "Ways of Talking.")

Where do words come from?

In answer to the question "Where do words come from?", I would typically invite my Introduction to Literature students to create a new word.  The first steps were for them to give me a sound or series of sounds that were not a known word, then we would agree upon a series of letters that could represent the sound.  (The linguist de Saussure called these sounds/letters the "signifier.") Then I would invite the students to use this new "word" in a series of made-up sentences.  For example:  the students might give me something like "ugghwamp."  Then they would create a series of sentences:

"People with ugghwamp are always more attractive."

"I got drunk and lost my ugghwamp on Thursday night.'

"Ugghwump is the source of social inequality."

After we had created enough sentences, I would point out that the concept of "ugghwamp" was beginning to emerge.  (De Saussure called this the "signified.")  Ultimately, I would ask the class "Does 'ugghwamp' exist?"  The existence or non-existence of ugghwump in the world (de Saussure's "referent") would have no effect on the meaning or our usage of the word.  (This fact inspired de Saussure to postulate a new, independent science of signs called "semiology.")

There are many phenomena that we perceive and talk about--duration, sequence, pace, rhythm, persistence, history, movement.  From this collection of perceptions and statements, we have come up with the word "time."  

Heraclitus:  "You can't step into the same river twice"

In the very first philosophy lecture I ever attended, the professor presented Heraclitus's claim that "you can't step into the same river twice."  We live in a river of ever-changing particles on a planet swimming in a changing universe.  In terms of relative size, we are 7 billion souls living on a dust mite. We invented the concept of time to preserve the illusion that we can call "time out" and make the world stand still, and, like shadflies, to imagine our 24 hours of existence is an eternity.

"I Didn't Know What Time It Was"


  1. ...and then there is gravity. I heard a physicist on TV the other night who explained gravity as the tendency of objects to seek a position where time ran the slowest.

    1. Hi Garry, Been trying to reply for some time to your much appreciated observation. Finally figured out that Safari update has been blocking any comments on my blog, and I've switch to Firefox.

      Yes, the physicist's comments are exactly the type that baffle me. Seems to me it would be obvious and clear to say that gravity slows down change and motion, and time is the system of measure used to calculate the slowdown.

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