5 Minute Philosopher-Time

If I were to start by saying please give me 5 minutes of your time to read this post I think it would be a great example of the importance western society places on time, to the extent it has become our master and a strict master at that.  Too often the reason people give for not doing something is not the lack of importance or desire to do that thing, but the lack of time.  Without the construct of time society would have to use another framework to organise itself, not that this may be a bad thing, but it would be a major challenge.

However outside our regimented city life hours, minutes and seconds play a much-diminished role.  To some degree time and distance can be interchangeable, the question ‘how far is it to Geraldton?’ will be often answered as 5 hours rather than the number of kilometres.  When talking cosmic distances things become even harder to grasp, planetary distances are measured in light years.  It’s a better person than me who can grasp how far one light year is, let alone hundreds of them.

Society has been organising ourselves around time for about 2,500 years.  The first clocks were used to advise the populous when to attend church, its no coincidence that in the baroque period staunch catholic societies made the best clocks.  Navigators quickly developed portable clocks or chronometers to assist them in navigation.  Such modern day portable timepieces provide us with another conundrum, that of time not being a constant.  Give 2 people atomic clocks, start them and send one on a space trip, on their return the clocks will read different times, the amount of difference will depend on the speed travelled.  Time is not a constant.

Philosophers have long questioned our perceptions of time:

  • Will time go on forever?  If not what will replace it?
  • Why is time only 2 dimensional, or is it 3 dimensional, but we do not have the capacity to understand the third dimension?
  • Is time merely a figment of our imagination and in fact does not exist?

Tense (past/future) is another issue, again this is not a constant, what is in the future will eventually become the past.  To overcome this physicists use what they call a block view of time; they see time in a time-scape with past and present as arbitrary concepts depending on where we stand in that time-scape, interestingly this is still a 2 dimensional concept.  Block view works for physicists, as it allows them to step out of the time picture and study time as an outsider.  Some philosophers say block view is flawed, because if our lives were governed by block view we would never need to sit in the dentist’s waiting room feeling worried, but we do. In his book ‘The Mysterious Flow’ Professor Paul Davis described conventional time thus:

“In daily life we divide time into three parts: past, present, and future. The grammatical structure of language revolves around this fundamental distinction. Reality is associated with the present moment. The past we think of having slipped out of existence, whereas the future is even more shadowy, its details still unformed. In this simple picture, the “now” of our conscious awareness glides steadily onward, transforming events that were once in the unformed future into the concrete but fleeting reality of the present, and thence relegating them to the fixed past.”

His description of the future is open to question, his statement “the future is even more shadowy, its details still unformed” does not consider the fact that our future is destined by what we have already done.  From something as simple as making an appointment, to mankind’s actions causing global warming, our future is well mapped out and we should not abdicate our part in this.

If we accept time is not a constant we open up all sorts of questions.  I think it was Marina Lewycka in A Short History Of Tractors In The Ukraine who made the proposition that time changes as we get older, as a child time travels very slowly, for instance Christmas takes an ion to arrive, while at my age years do literally fly by, yes a bit tongue in cheek, but it gets you thinking.

When studying engineering at technical college our class was chosen as a pilot to attend the newly opened York University (UK).  The lecture series was on time and we attended talks on many aspects of the subject.  I have to say my take home message was that if this is university study it was much easier than complicated equations we were learning in mechanical engineering, electronics and thermal dynamics.  But the philosophy of learning is for another time.


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