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Question of the Month

What Is Time?

Each answer below receives a book. Apologies to the many entrants not included.

“Time does not exist without change,” said Aristotle. Until recently, most physicists and cosmologists agreed with him. Recently, however, another argument is being offered: time needs to exist for change to happen. This means time must have existed before the Big Bang, since something, however small, had to change to ignite it. The relationship between time and gravity is, I believe, the key to the origin of the universe.

Time could be considered a viscous fluid through which movement happens, preventing us from moving forward too quickly and getting ahead of ourselves. In Einstein’s special theory of relativity, by travelling close to the speed of light, time becomes slower for the traveller, so that when they return to their point of departure they will be younger than those they left behind.

In Einstein’s general theory of relativity, time changes in relation to dense objects. Continuing with the viscous fluid analogy, this means that the viscosity around gravitationally significant objects is reduced, again allowing matter and energy to pass at a different speed relative to the external observer.

Time may also be considered a one-way valve, preventing us from going backwards. Entropy is part of the life-cycle of the creation and death of the universe. It will not let the broken glass reassemble nor the flame return to the match. Entropy, like rust on a shipwreck, will eventually degrade all organisation of matter in our universe. The remnants may be drawn to one another once again, due to gravity, to be crushed into a singularity, gaining gravitational potential ready for the next Big Bang.

In conclusion, time is a passive fluid in which we exist. It does not travel, it is inert and exists everywhere. It is the catalyst that allows energy and matter to move, combine, and break apart, creating the universe, and, through entropy, destroying it.

No physicists were hurt (or consulted) in the creation of this theory.

Richard Tod, Desborough, Northants

It is conceivable that we could have observed events ‘all at once’, in a ‘timeless’ state, but we don’t. We observe them sequentially. It is this observed sequence of events that generates, and indeed defines, the passage of time.

It may be argued that there are two kinds of time: time as measured by a clock, and time as we perceive it. Einstein argued that clock time – which we normally regard as defining ‘objective’ time – is partially interchangeable with space for moving observers, so that the dimension of time effectively becomes part of four-dimensional spacetime. If we view Einstein’s spacetime as a kind of landscape, the time trajectory for an individual may then be viewed as a journey across this landscape.

This view of time does have some extraordinary consequences, however. It apparently implies that past, present and future events all co-exist in a ‘timeless’ state, but they are, nonetheless, observed sequentially. Also, Einstein found that events that are viewed as ‘simultaneous’ by one observer are not necessarily seen as such by other observers. It is thus apparent that time is not so much a ‘dimension’ as an observed sequence of events, envisioned as a trajectory across spacetime. But it is the observer who perceives – and indeed generates – the phenomenon that we call the passage of time. Without the observer there can be no time; and, indeed, no universe.

Anthony Burns, Banbury, Oxfordshire

In PN Issue 153’s Letters, Dr Shaw writes that “time could be the simple running down of the Universe, or increase in its entropy [and our death] when rising internal entropy overwhelms all the body’s entropy-reducing mechanisms” (p.48). In 1996, Prof Cox, particle physicist, wrote of the relentlessness of entropy: “The Universe, bound by the laws of nature, [all] must decay” (Wonders of the Universe, p.228). Earlier, he had remarked that, “Time is woven into the … fabric of the cosmos” – and into our being, subject also to entropy (p.200).

Against the vastness of the cosmos, what of us? Our evolutionary and cultural history supplies a means to understand our time in the world. Martin Heidegger provides insights into our being in it and of it. In his Being and Time we find ourselves ‘thrown’ into the world, without volition, and rushing toward the death of our own being; bound by the structure of time – its past, present and future dimensions. We can recall or come to know of our past, or that of human history, while living in the present and anticipating the future. Here, time is what makes happening possible: the past has happened, the present is happening, and the future has yet to happen. Yet we can, in the present, imaginatively appreciate the nature and immensity of time outside our experience. Nevertheless, such anthropocentrism may be challenged. The question, ‘What is time for all species?’ seems apt.

Colin Brookes, Woodhouse Eaves, Leicestershire

Edmund Husserl addressed core philosophical issues around time in On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time. He considered how we continuously create a meaningful now. If we did not perceive duration in the living present, things such as music and language could not be understood. Somehow our reality is created as we integrate and retain in our minds a perceived past and an anticipated future. Thus our continual awareness of present meaning relies upon a development of a subjective awareness of time.

Following Husserl, William James described the now as the ‘specious present’, saying that we have to be able to comprehend duration to generate meaning and create our conscious awareness. We evolved ‘time consciousness’, to marry our experienced subjective awareness with an assumed external reality.

Time was also at the core of the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. He considered temporality as the centre of our being. The present, he said, is not a series of nows flowing by, but an opportunity to ‘resolutely seize the moment’. This allows us to take control and shape our potential future by co-ordinating what he describes as a ‘having-been-ness’ with ‘what might be’. Heidegger differed from Husserl in moving away from a purely subject focus to a ‘being in the world’ approach. In a sense, he sees us as ‘embodied time’, with an awareness of the finiteness of our time being essential to living life to the full.

David Ward, Liverpool

For Heidegger, Time is death,
Eternity is void,
Human mortality’s the measure of all,
Forever draws no rasping breath.
Time is the pearl at the heart of Being
An hourglass shaping human living
To be is to be Temporality
Knowledge of death’s what sets us free:
The end of Dasein’s possibility.
And like that beautiful fabled city
Of far and ancient Kermanshah
Man knows himself through having-been
Finite, God-less, there, and thrown,
When the future merges with memory
The horizon is mine, and mine alone.
For Heidegger, Time is ekstase,
A triad convergence of destiny:
Past with present together with
Tomorrow’s maybe yet-to-be.
Only then can we decide how and what to be.
Yes, Time, for him, was no imposter
No thieving monster or grieving mirror,
But primordial unity.
Augenblick augenblick,
Glance at the starry sky,
Watch the moment sail on by,
And listen to the dulcet dreaming sigh
Of the idle clock’s slow, soft tick.
Time is resoluteness…
Time is resoluteness, hear it tick
For in that deep dark German forest
Of endless wandering whys,
Dasein too, in time, must die.

Bianca Laleh, Totnes, Devon

As a student of mathematics and physics, I am accustomed to working with the concept of time. There is arguably no more common and clearly defined variable in physics equations than time. However, what is time? We define the second as the basic unit of time, but what is a second? It seems that, unlike other mathematical concepts that can be understood purely by our intellect, one must experience time to know what it is. But how do we experience time?

‘I don’t have time’, is one of the most familiar expressions. We use it all the time without understanding its implications. It seems that the nature of time forbids us from possessing time, because, first of all, it is not material, and second, even if you decide to dedicate one hour of your time to something, you can never be certain that something else will not prevent you from doing it. Hence, you never have time. On the other hand, time also does not have you. For example, being free to take your life allows you to ‘freely’ escape time’s grasp.

If you do not have time and time doesn’t have you, what is left is either that you are time, or that time, at least as we conceive it, does not exist. We tend to make sense of time in terms of the past, present and future, which are constructs of our consciousness to make sense of our experiences and memories. While animals have memories, they do not ponder the future nor reminisce about the past, and hence they do not experience time in anything like the way we do. The past and the future are not physical places where we can go, and if they’re just arbitrary constructs to make sense of time, what can be inferred is that time is the present, and hence, we are time. In other words, we exist because of time, but time also exists because of us, because if we were not able to think about the past and the future, even if physical reality remained, time, at least as we know it, wouldn’t exist.

Filippos Georgios Sarakis, Athens

Since the dawn of philosophy the subject of time has been discussed, debated, dissected, and served as a point of contention for many scientists and philosophers. Should one have sided with Parmenides, who maintained that nothing moved, or with the cascading flux of Heraclitus, who believed in constant change? Then there was Zeno of Elia and his paradoxes dismissing motion, saying: “What is in motion comes neither in the place it is, nor in one in which it is not.” There are no guidelines in grasping the enormity of the question: ‘What is Time?’. One can only perhaps define what it is not: it is neither past, present, nor future.

None of its tenses are immobile. Not the past, because it has already passed; not the present, because it is always morphing into the past; and certainly not the future, which having glided through the present, melts into the past. The one undisputed reality from all this, is that it all becomes memory.

I conclude that our presence on this earth is the reason for the existence and awareness of the concept of ‘time’. I am also tempted to pose the question: What void would time occupy if we did not exist to acknowledge it? Would the universe without the consciousness of time have a beginning and an end within its own temporal limits?

Marina Hall, Chevy Chase, Maryland

Time to choose. Am I a ‘reductionist’ like Leibniz, believing that time has no meaning unless it is referred to objects that can relate an experience of change? Or am I a Newtonian ‘absolutist’, believing that time exists independent of anything? My initial answer is I want to be both! McTaggart’s theories want me to believe time is unreal because it can be either tenseless (‘B time’) or tensed (‘A time’). This rather confusing analysis seems to suggest that while I want to be both, I should be neither.

Further choices are offered between ‘presentism’ and ‘eternalism’. A presentist says that the only aspect of time one can experience is the present, as the past is no longer present, and the future is indeterminate, and so also can be said not to exist. I have a real problem with this: it’s like telling me the Holocaust didn’t happen! So I must be an eternalist, where time can be the fourth dimension, where past, present, and future continually exist.

To me, time is both absolute and relative. Absolute, since it is intellectual arrogance to believe that if we did not exist, neither would time. We all are just moments in the absoluteness of time. As Nietzsche stated, “how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks with nature. There are eternities during which it did not exist. And when it is all over with human intellect, nothing will have happened.” But my temporal moment is significant: it is a lifetime in the relativity of my existence. It is also collective: I am part of a collective humanity, with a known past, an uncertain present, and many possible futures. But how will this collective intellect decide the future? As the saying goes, only time will tell.

Jack Parr, Beaumaris, Australia

“Before me, there was no time, after me there will be none. With me it is born, with me it will die.”
Daniel von Czepko, Sexcenta Monidisticha Sapientum III, II (1655)

This mystical verse of a German poet reveals the necessity of experience for time to exist. Later, Immanuel Kant made a similar claim, that “if we take away the subject… then not only the relations of objects in space and time, but even space and time themselves disappear; they cannot exist in themselves, but only in us” (The Critique of Pure Reason, 1781). Kant called time the form of inner sense, the pure form of intuition. He further described time as an a priori (prior to experience) notion that is necessary to allow us to comprehend sense experiences; but it is not a substance in itself. Instead, time is the framework within which “the mind is constrained to construct its experience of reality.” Along with Kant, I believe time is a universal organizing principle our minds use to structure our experience of events.

Although time is ‘empirically real’ (that is, not a mere illusion, but an accurate way of experiencing things), Kant also asserted that time is ‘transcendentally ideal’. In his transcendental idealism, Kant encourages our minds to transcend direct experience to discover the necessary conditions of that same experience. Kant calls this sort of knowledge ‘synthetic a priori’ – meaning, truths of reason which add to our knowledge but which are necessary and universal. Kant concluded: “Time is not an empirical concept. For neither co-existence nor perception would be perceived by us if the representation of time did not exist as a foundation a priori.” We need time in order to experience, so time cannot be found in experience. So Kant showed that time is not a fully objective reality, as Newton supposed, but nor is it a mere figment of our imagination, as Hume claimed. Instead, time is a necessary way in which we think about the world, rather than the way in which the world really is.

We are only able to discover the conditions that regulate our knowledge of the world as it is experienced. We can never tell in what ways reality as it exists in itself independent of experience is spatial and temporal, but only that the sensed world of appearance must be so for us. Hence, any effort to reason about the nature of time as a thing-in-itself will be a waste of time.

Nella Leontieva, Sydney

Time is the currency of change, and a system of measurement. This involves correlating different states through a mediating standard, be it a clock or the rotation of the earth. The same process is used with currency. The market value of different items is correlated through a common standard, be it the pound, the dollar, or the peso. The analogy between the two systems can be shown through the expressions ‘spend time’, ‘waste time’, ‘invest time’ and ‘save time’. We think of time and currency in the same way.

I know there are those who want more than a measurement. They grasp the immensity of the universe. They notice the almost infinite succession of past states lined up behind us, and so intuit that there must be an empty temporal container which the universe fills as it continuously rolls over into the future. This is the view that things happen within time, as though time is some kind of metaphysical container. I do not believe this intuition is supported. The universe is constantly in motion. Change is a feature of every object and their relationships. Change is a re-arrangement of things. This does not compel us to believe that the universe was birthed into some kind of container, either spatial or temporal. It is self-contained, and the change is internal. There are relationships, including temporal, between various objects or events; but if two people are in a relationship, we don’t think of their relationship as an extra third entity, except in poetic ways. Similarly, there is no requirement that something called ‘time’ exists in order to account for the existence of change. Rather, we use the idea of time to order a succession of states and to compare durations. Time is a kind of modelling, and a model is distinct from the thing represented.

So time has the same ontological status as monetary value or mathematics; but not as a coin, a clock, or gravity. Perpetually standing at the most recent state of the universe, we seek knowledge that a future is waiting to receive us. Time does not provide that assurance. A more compelling answer to the uncertainties of the future is inertia or heat.

Mike Mallory, Everett, Washington

Next Question of the Month

The next question is: How Will Humanity End? Please give and justify your answer in less than 400 words. The prize is a semi-random book from our book mountain. Email the Editor. Subject lines should be marked ‘Question of the Month’, and must be received by 12th June 2023. If you want a chance of getting a book, please include your physical address.

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