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The Varieties Of Temporal Experience

By Allan Eastman

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So, What The Heck is Time, Anyway?

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Does Time really exist or have we invented it within our human psyches? It seems that the human conception of "Time" is based on two contributing factors.

©iStockphoto.com/Drew Stephens

In the last edition of All The Time In The World, we talked about the kind of Time we experience personally in our lives – External or Objective Time, the agreed upon quantitative Time that schedules our existences and Internal or Subjective Time, the much more flexible and elastic Time that we experience within ourselves – whose motion appears to depend upon what we are doing or how we are feeling or even what stage of Life we are in. Both of these kinds of human Time experience seem to be tangible and real but are they?

Even as I was writing that last article, I felt I was giving short shrift to the experience of Subjective Time, that there was so much more to explore and to try to understand about it so let’s get into it a little further here. For me, because of things like my Jamaican experience, the main question has become about whether Time really exists or not as some kind of force that we sense or is it something that we have invented within our human psyches and have embedded in our cultures to help define reality for us.

What does Science tell us? Einstein’s relativity calculations and later advancements in Physics show that Newtonian linear durational Time doesn’t appear to exist on a Universal scale.  Time moves more slowly when one’s velocity increases and basically comes to a stop under the intense gravitational attraction of a black hole. At the opposite end of the spectrum, quantum mechanics - when looking at sub-atomic phenomena – notes things like an event occurring before its cause. An explosion in a particle can occur prior to the development of the conditions which create it.

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String theory is uncertain whether Time should be treated as a dimension at all – in fact, a lot of the most advanced thinking in Physics suggests that Time must not be considered to have motion or flow of any kind. It is simply there. A 4-D view of the Universe is that Time is as motionless as any of the other 3 dimensions – height, width, depth – and should only be seen as a near infinite collection of individual Nows.

So, where does our human notion of linear durational Time come from? Is this idea of Time invented within the human brain? And is our conception of it culturally based?

Many aboriginal cultures all over the planet have (or had) no conception of Time, whatsoever. And those that did, most generally, conceived of Time as something cyclical – something more in tune with the cyclic patterns of Nature – the turn of the seasons, the waxing and waning of the Moon, the rise and fall of the Sun. Time in this conception is circular, nor linear, returning repeatedly to the same points. Some civilizations - as in Hindu or Mayan cosmologies - even theorized extremely long cycles within creation, 1000’s or 10’s of 1000’s of years, but these too invariably returned to the same point.

It seems to me that 2 main factors contributed to moving this traditional human conception of Time over to the relentless linear notion of Time that most of us live with these days. The first is cultural, or more specifically religious. The rise of the monotheistic religions, first Judaism and then more powerfully, Christianity, demanded a fundamental change in the human conception of Time. In order to discredit the competing “pagan cults” that preceded them, the Church had to force its flock out of thinking about Time as something cyclical and nature based and toward the idea of a single Deity created Life which had a beginning - when all was put in place – and an ending, when the faithful would be reunited with God in Heaven. That is, there is a linear passage of Time from one fixed point to another and everyone is at some point or another on this continuum.

But the real measurement of what we mean by “Time” occurs in the human brain. And this measure has come to mean linear durational Time. So, the 2nd key factor lies within the human head itself. Of course, there is the question - does culture create the psyche or does the psyche create culture? Or are they mutually symbiotic? But let’s pass over that for the moment.

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