For The Times, They Are A-Changin'...
By Allan Eastman
Is Time On My Side?
Whatever the real and actual nature of Time may be, the reality that all we Human beings have to deal with is the unfolding of the duration of one lifetime. We are born, we grow to maturity, we age and we die. This is the story that every living thing tells, whether you want to think about it or not.
Philosophers and Physicists have many other different tales to tell about Time. I personally really like Julian Barbour’s assertion that Time is an illusion and merely consists of all the possible Nows in the Universe – that there really isn’t any such thing as past, present or future, except as a made up human conception. Each and every Now is as real and as relevant as any other one.
In this idea of Time, there is no mortality to existence. Impossibly lovely Helen of Troy still radiates her beauty in another When and Shakespeare sits writing a sonnet in Elizabethan London. That beloved dear departed eccentric old Auntie is still taking a tray of aromatic cookies from the oven, while you as a small child sit waiting for them to cool down enough to cram into your mouth.
All of these Nows are just as real as the one you exist in at this present moment, reading these words.
You could say that Barbour’s idea is actually a very comforting one – philosophically speaking - because in common with most mainstream religious teachings, it conquers Death. There may not be any paradisiacal afterlife Shining City or lush and lavish Garden to attend but it means that even when one’s earthly remains have long since turned to dust, somewhere and somewhen in the Universe, all the lovely Nows that make up any person’s Life still exist, alive and well.
But of course, that doesn’t seem to be what we experience in our own actual lives.
Somewhere about 50,000 years ago, it appears that tribal Homo sapiens started to conceive a kind of personal Time that registered duration. Perhaps they were also trying to understand and explain Death so they began to think of a future - of the comforting notion of said afterlife. That’s when they started to include funerary items in the grave sites for the use of the respected departed on the next stage of their mysterious journey. Or perhaps, they started to notice the repetition of the cycles of Nature – how key plants grew after the snows melted, or that the birds always returned or that other prey were in certain places at certain times. They realized that they could utilize the lessons of the past filtered through memory to affect their lives in the present.
Modern researchers think that this period – 500 centuries back or really, little more than 2,000 generations ago - may mark when Homo sapiens’ brain developed the capacity to utilize both short and long term memories to begin to form an idea of a speculative future. This process may have gone hand in hand with the development of more specialized language.
In essence, it is inventing “Time” as a concept within the human mind.
The ability to speculate about the future would have given these ancestors of ours a huge evolutionary advantage, as it leads directly to planning and organization - ultimately the seeds of civilization. This capacity in Homo sapiens’ consciousness appears to be almost unique in Nature and it may have allowed our species to dominate their direct rivals, the Neanderthals and in general, take over the planet.
In any case, this conception of the linear “flow” of Time came to be rooted in the human view of Life – “Time’s Arrow” flying from a past that is now gone, here through the present we perceive and on into a future that is yet to be revealed and experienced. This ancient conception lives on into our own times and it seems to have some underpinnings, in a human sense, in both physiological and psychological research.
In fact, this may represent one of the most important evolutionary steps in human development. The appearance of this mental time sense capable of imagining an unexperienced future may be what really drove on the process of what we like to call “progress.” This ability to speculate about the future depends deeply on the accumulation of experience of both a general and a personal nature and then the processing of this information into the brain’s long term memory. A lot of this happens during sleep but also in the acts of musing, contemplating, free associating, daydreaming and in other mental forms of activity. One wanders through one’s memories and speculates, and then, the sudden arrival at the “eureka” moment - seemingly out of the blue - which has been the source of many of the greatest discoveries and creations in the history of the world.
Such great leaps in human knowledge can be said to be a product of this unique human time travel of the mind. It is also important on the personal level of simply achieving the clarity of insight. And it is the product of Time as well, the accumulation of knowledge from the past over time, leading from this speculation about an unknown future to a new discovery here in the present. People still talk about needing “Time to Think.”
But we now appear to be entering a new era in human existence, where our fundamental relationship with Time which has characterized human life through all the previous centuries, is breaking down and transforming into something else quite different. It is not the perceived nature of Time that is changing but the ways that we conceive of it and our uses of Time are becoming radically altered from what has gone before. A great deal of anxiety accompanies this transition and the jury is still out on whether these changes are entirely positive for us, either as individuals or as a society.