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Tallis in Wonderland

Seeing Time

Raymond Tallis keeps his eye on time.

All animals, all material objects, are caught up in events that seem to have a temporal location, a temporal order, and a temporal duration. Outside of human life, however, this is implicit rather than explicit. We alone table time and clock it. What is it about us that enables us to do this? I want to argue here that our sense of time as something ‘in itself’ is due at least in part to the strange, even paradoxical, character of vision. It is this, I believe, that has set us on a path in which our scientific understanding and our lived experience of time have diverged – something of which I have complained in a previous column (‘Time, Tense and Physics: A Theory of Everything But…’ in Issue 81). I would like to try out with you, my readers, some of the thoughts prompted by this idea. If I am talking nonsense, I am sure you will not hesitate to tell me.

Apparently Concealed

Our gaze sees not only what is visible, but also that there are things or parts of things that are invisible. An object which hid nothing, either its own interior or other objects behind it, because it was absolutely transparent, would be invisible. Instead, the visual field is dappled with visible invisibility – it has visible limits to invisibility: the curtained window, the bend in the road, the outline of the hill, all visually display that which is not seen, but might be. There is nothing comparable to this in the other senses. For example, although we sometimes talk of an audible, even a loud or deafening silence, this is not meant literally. We do not hear the inaudible as we see what is invisible.

This difference is linked with the character of visual experiences as being arrayed in a field. I see a multiplicity of items, and they belong together in a kind of unity – they are part of, and mark out, a continuous space in which the concealed and the revealed exist simultaneously. There is no comparable auditory or tactile field, in which the audible or tangible are made more explicitly coherent by the inaudible or intangible.

This property of having a continuous field is, I want to argue, central to the role of vision in making time explicit. You may think this a bit far-fetched, but stick with me. The visibly invisible is a present sign of that which is either not-yet or no-longer visible: we look over there and see that there is something we might see, or see better, or more completely, if we adopted another viewpoint; or did see, or saw better, or more completely, when we occupied our previous viewpoint. It is out of this sense of future and past visual experiences that I believe our awareness of the temporal depth of the world begins to grow.

Something else, however, is necessary to confer temporal thickness on the visual world, and through this, on the multi-modal world of sense perception. That something, you will not be surprised to learn, is change. However, if change is going to deliver the sense of temporal depth, it has to be registered as change, through the continuing presence of something that has not changed. A visible movement is such an unchanging change. Look at that object coming towards you. It occupies a succession of positions, P1, P2, P3, etc, at times t1, t2, and t3, etc. Yet the positions outlast the periods during which they are occupied by the object. P1, composed of the matter that surrounds the object at t1, is still there at t2, when the object has moved on to P2. And P3 is also present and visible then. Because all three positions are co-present in my gaze, I can see the past and future locations of the object as well as its present position. We can say that P1 holds the past of the object, as its past position, when it reaches P2.

Here then is one connexion between vision and the temporal thickness of human consciousness, and consequently of our lives – when we ‘look back’ at the past and ‘look forward’ to the future. The trajectory of the object, whose successive phases are ‘preserved’ in the material positions the object has occupied, enables past and present to exist side by side in the visual field.

So much then for the link between the human gaze and explicit time. You may not be persuaded that this is sufficient for time to emerge as something in itself (and eventually, as something to be measured) – particularly if, like me, you don’t believe that animals have our temporally deep consciousness, with an explicit sense of past and future, even though they too have vision, and in some cases more powerful than ours. Something else is required for vision to make time visible.

Seeing the Invisible

The first thing required is a sense that the visibly invisible really does exist, even though we cannot see it. This is linked to our conception that material objects are more than the experiences we have of them – they are, as John Stuart Mill put it, the permanent possibility of sensation. The other thing required, is a sense of one’s self as being both the same and as changing. This ties together a succession of experiences into an experience of succession. The best evidence of this (from, for example, Daniel Povinelli in Folk Physics for Apes: The Chimpanzee’s Theory of How the World Works, 2003) is that neither of these is available even to our nearest animal kin – the chimpanzees. That is why we do, and they don’t, have a temporally deep world.

It seems reasonable to think that our experience of time as made explicit through vision is founded on a prior sense of being embodied subjects explicitly aware of bodily events such as the beating of our hearts or the panting of our lungs. These are rhythmic activities where the same is not the same – where there is both change (successive beats) and constancy (identical beats). This brings implicit time to the threshold of explicitness. But the liberation of time from the rhythms directly experienced in the privacy of the body, its emerging to being perceived as something in itself, depends on vision.

There is of course much more to our sense of temporal depth than is generated by this model. Seeing that items are old (or ‘olde’), for example, or young/new – which makes the visual field temporally deep beyond what is directly yielded through vision – requires more than the visual intuition that the item has occupied successive places in space. All I want to establish here is the role of vision in making time explicit in the most basic way, because this may explain how we become alienated from time, or how subjective time comes to be disconnected from objective time, and how the science of time eventually seems to mislay time altogether.

The Shadow of Time

The contribution of vision to our time sense is not confined to temporal depth. It also underpins temporal breadth – the sense of a ‘now’ of spatially spread-out synchronous happenings. We can see two events at once and yet keep them distinct. This is the origin of the shared or public sense of ‘now’ which enables us to co-ordinate human affairs.

One of the most fundamental modes of shared synchrony in human life is ‘the appointment’, and this originally drew upon another aspect of the visibly invisible: our capaciity to see darkness as well as light. The ability to use publicly visible shadows to tell us what time ‘it’ is, or to specify future ‘nows’, was exploited in the first clock.

This earliest clock – ‘the peasant’s clock’ – was the shadow of the human body. We arrange to meet when, say, our shadows are the same length as our bodies: that will then be ‘the same time’ for both of us. The intersections of our paths, meetings, assemblies, were thus co-ordinated in visible time, that is to say public time, which lies outside our bodies. Eventually we came to inhabit a fine-grained mesh of tabled, divided-up, extra-corporeal, public time. Visible darkness also supplied the fingers of the earliest genuine clocks – shadows cast by obelisks and sundial gnomons on marked-out space. In the case of an obelisk or sundial, time was measured by the distances between the successive positions occupied by the moving shadow, so with the aid of these early clocks, time was transformed from a set of locations, of public ‘nows’, into a visible quantity.

This is a fateful step. The representation of time as a quantity of space set us on a path which has ultimately led to the notion of time as a quasi-spatial quantity – as a dimension analogous to those of space. Time has now become a d’Artagnan joining the Three Musketeers of height, breadth and depth. It has been turned into a line connecting past, present and future. The geometrisation of space – inspired by ancient architects seeing sharp-edged shadows and beams of light – purified space into lines and angles, which set it up to be stripped down to naked quantities. Spatialised time was consequently also ready to be reduced in this way. The numbers in which time is re-presented to the eye were attached to points in space, though on mechanical clocks the moving finger replaces the moving shadow. Eventually, digitisation does without the middle man, spatial representation, altogether, and the number is generated directly, independently of a spatial location. 12:45 is not defined by a location any more than 12:46 is. The numbers flash up in succession in the same place.

Measured time, crash-dieted in this way to a number, governs our life with ever more minuteness at the same time as it diverges from a direct experience of endurance or of meaningful succession – from lived time. The succession of numbers has even less narrative meaning than the back and forth of the tick-tocking clock, and yet this regulates the many narratives of our lives with ever greater efficiency. As a result, time as tenseless quantities comes to be accepted as the essence of time. This time of physics, however, lacks many characteristics of lived time – notably, the difference between an anticipated future and a regretted past – the sense of that which we can change and the feeling of that which is done and dusted, immutable. This is what I complained of in the column I referred to at the start of this time piece.

Time for Rethinking

We need to claw back time from the jaws of physics. To do that we should to go back to the place where time as we experience it started to part company from time ‘out there’ – to look again at vision, which made time explicit and turned it into a quasi-space that was ripe to become number. After all, rethinking the nature of light transformed our understanding of the physical world, giving rise to relativity theory and quantum mechanics. Perhaps thinking as hard about vision with reference to space and time may have just as profound consequences. That is why I would like to know whether I am indeed talking nonsense. I am sure that readers of Philosophy Now will inform me.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2011

Raymond Tallis’ latest book Michelangelo’s Finger: An Exploration of Everyday Transcendence (Atlantic) is now out in paperback, and Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Mankind (Acumen) will be published soon.

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