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When Are You?

By Allan Eastman

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Thinking About Time

Sign-post depicting time

Some people believe that time is invented by humans to sequence and compare events.

©iStockphoto.com/Sufi70

One can distil what our greatest Philosophical Thinkers over the centuries have come up with to two main ideas of what Time is.

One idea holds that Time is part of the fundamental structure of the Universe, a dimension in which events occur in sequence. Time exists like a series of images on a film strip, the past recorded and still existing in some When in the Universe and the future a series of empty frames waiting to be recorded. This is the “Realist” point of view which more or less follows on from Newton.

The opposite philosophy is that “Time” – as something really definable - does not really exist at all. The Greek Sophists thought that Time is not any kind of reality but is merely a concept. And Philosophers like Zeno and even the Buddha have described Time as an illusion.

The more modern theories, derived from Leibnitz and Kant, state that Time does not refer to any kind of container that events and objects pass through, or to any entity that has flow to it but that Time is only part of a basic intellectual structure invented by humans to sequence and compare events. Time is neither an event nor a thing but rather an intellectual construct devised by people to try to describe what is going on in their reality. One modern theory maintains that Time doesn’t exist except as a configuration containing all of the possible “Nows” in the Universe.

See what I mean about the elusiveness of coming up with a workable definition of Time?

Many of these admittedly brilliant answers seem to be more about what Time does, not what it is. And the opposing view is that it doesn’t exist at all except as a concept in our own minds. So let’s just say that all of our greatest brains haven’t come up with a truly satisfying definitive answer yet and let’s move on to what Time seems to be to us personally.

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For The Time Being

Our senses tell us that we seem to exist in 3 dimensions of Space (up-down, left-right, front-back – pitch, roll, yaw – height, width, depth) and one dimension of Time (past through present to future). It is fairly easy to define our position in space but doing so in Time is more ephemeral.

We apparently live in an endlessly renewing present, aware of our environment and the events in it – the past, even a millisecond ago, is already gone and the future is unknown – sometimes predictable and sometimes not. We can’t touch or experience the past or the future except through imperfect and incomplete memory on the one hand and speculation and imagination on the other.

How often do we believe that we have a perfect memory of a place, say, only to go back there and find that the reality is very different from what we remember?

And experience seems to teach us that the future never turns out exactly as we’d expect. We sit here and calculate how our portfolios are going to increase in the future only to be blindsided by the sudden unanticipated debt crisis and the bank failures that cripple the markets and make us poorer. We’re lucky if we keep the jobs we once envisioned passing our lives doing. In fact, it often seems like anything we can imagine about our futures is exactly what it turns out not to be.

The present is all we can really count on but what is the present?

Just sit for a moment and try to sense the flow of time passing through you. What are you experiencing? Can you actually feel the past becoming the present and moving on into the future? How long does your present seem to exist? A fraction of second in which we see, hear, touch, smell and taste ourselves and our environment? In any few seconds, depending on the circumstances around us, the present can remain relatively similar (sitting at a desk typing on a laptop) or wildly different (riding on a roller coaster or skiing down a mountain).

Also, there seems to be a real personal relativity to our experience of the passing of Time. Activities we enjoy doing – having a tropical vacation, making love, a favourite hobby – seem to pass incredibly quickly, over almost before they’ve begun.

On the flip side of the coin, any child can tell you how long the last half hour of the school day seems to be – the second hand on the clock above the blackboard apparently frozen in place and the minutes passing like hours. Will we ever get out of here?

Or even more extreme, the huge elongation of apparent Time that occurs when one is about to have an accident.

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