Saturday, 28 July 2018

What is Time?

A recent post by William James Tychonievich has made me start thinking again about Time, and how to understand it. I first began considering Time some 20 years ago, after reading a book called Ceremonial Time (by JH Mitchell).

Furthermore, I am currently reading a new book by Jeremy Naydler (In the Shadow of the Machine), in the course of which he discusses the effect of the invention of the clockwork-clock on the mind of Men of the Middle Ages.

Naydler argues that the clock began as explicitly a model of reality (early clocks often had moving models of the planets). But soon the mechanical model usurped consciousness, so that it became regarded as real reality - and that situation continues today, in a modified form. This was a major step in the abstraction that utimately led to The Computer (or Information) - which nowadays provides (for many people) the 'reality' to which human minds can only aspire, can only subordinate themselves...

We naturally think of Time as a kind of 'physics', and tell time by engineering. Originally; this 'Objective' Time was astronomical, based on the day, lunar month and year; but now we regard astronomical time as deficient, because (by our engineering definitions) astronomical days, months and years do not fit together in neat fractions.

We moderns regard Time as abstract, external and Objective - to such as extent that we try to assert that Time has nothing to do with individual Men's consciousnesses; and it is impicit that we are each ideally and properly subordinated to Objective Time. In effect, Men make this Objective Time by our culture-bound philosophy, science, engineering... project it onto the Universe... and then regard ourselves as utterly bound-by-it!

In fact, this modern Objective concept of Time is incoherent (as demonstrated by advanced physics, as well as philosophy) - and in reality our Time is merely a practical expedient for the coordination and control of our kind of civilisation.

What strikes me (since reading Ceremonial Time) is that for young children, and for 'hunter-gatherer' early tribal Men, Time is a psychological concept - in the sense that it is something that exists in minds.

However, it is vital to remember that the 'psychology' of children and tribal people includes what would be regarded by modern science as religious, spiritual or supernatural aspects. Ceremonial Time could be termed Subjective Time; but the current divorce between Subjective and Objective is not a necessary aspect of reality; rather, it is a product of our materialist metaphysics.

To be more exact, we Westerners are currently but very temporarily inside an alienating delusion; the effect is that we try to live by an absolutely artificial, unnatural concept of Time.But if we are able to develop a more honest and coherent metaphysics, then Time could again become Subjective and Objective both

So what ought we to do about it? I believe that Men should live by Subjective Time - and that this is how Men live in pre-mortal and post-mortal life. Christians can look-forward to living by Subjective Time in Heaven.

But how about now? What ought we to be aiming at?

Well, I think we should be aiming at an adult version of that Subjective child state we all (presumably) went through. The child was immersed-in Time, unconscious of its existence, swept-along by it. Children share a unified subjective Time because they are unaware of its separate existence - it is like an invisible ocean inside of each child - each inner ocean connected with all others. Children are moved-by the tides and waves of this sea. 

In our striving we should not be trying to live by any different concept than the child's; rather striving to become aware of Subjective Time, to stand apart from it in thought, to contemplate and interact-with Time.

So, the reality of Time is in each of us; we can be aware-of and know the inner ocean; we can know our-selves to be distinct from it; and we can interact with it consciously - indeed, we cannot help doing so. We can re-connect with Time.

If Objectivity is that which makes a world shared and public and universal; then modern Man understands Time as something external that is imposed-upon everybody. All we can do as individuals is recognise this brute fact.

But our aim should be to understand Time as something that cannot be separated from the minds of Men, and therefore as something that with-which we each interact.

We are part of Time, whether we recognise this fact, or not - the child lives as part of Time but does not recognise the fact; the adult may recognise reality; if he so chooses. And in this recognition is freedom: divine freedom.


alexi de sadesky said...

I am re-reading The Future of the Ancient World right now. Naydler is so good, I've got to read more of his books.

Adamoriens said...

This is fascinating! I've never thought of it all this way.

Just the other day I heard someone grieving (in good humor) for the quickening pace of time he felt as he aged, his years passing in a blur - whereas one year for him as a child was an eternity.

By contrast - I'm still in my twenties, but the compressed intensity of existential growth and change makes even five years seem a century. I feel ancient, and not altogether in a bad way.

If a new sort of everyday consciousness could be adopted, one wonders whether the perception of time could be compressed, so that one consciously experiences again that "childhood eternity." This would be desirable!

Bruce Charlton said...

@Adamoriens - Once you start thinking about Time, it can become addictive.

The phenomenon you describe - of subjective time accelerating relative to objective time - is a large effect. Interestingly, I experienced this through my thirties, then had a family in my forties and - spending a lot of time with the children - I found that time slowed down considerably, accelerating as they grew older.

I think this time-accelerating is made 'worse' (feels worse) because we are tracking it against clocks and calendars - probably, it would feel natural and 'right' if we were all living in spiritual time.

Also, it is related into moving into what ought to be the pre-death, spiritual contemplative phase of life; which modern people refuse to do (because they think 'the spiritual' realm is unreal nonsense).

On the other hand, its hard to suppose that wise tribal elders would complain about it! And a conscious version of their state is what we probably shold be aiming for.

Chiu ChunLing said...

I suppose what you're saying may be related to the modern idea that the past is fixed and immutable in a way that the future is not.

In reality, our knowledge of the past (even our own personal experience) is not fundamentally different from our knowledge of the future, humans are famous for being entirely mistaken about both, and often to nearly equal degrees.

So the past is not fixed and immutable except in the same ways that the future must be. This is the entire point of physics, and a large portion of the driving motive behind any science, to make it possible to know the past and future with similar certainty by relying on the same methods to derive knowledge of either from what we can find in the present.

But just as there are those who seek to distort the past to fit their own agenda, there is also a constant pressure to ignore realistic predictions of the future in favor of what would be convenient for certain aspirations.

Learning to see the past and future both for what they really are rather than for what we wish so as to justify ourselves is a crucial aspect of moral development.

But I have no clear idea whether this is what you are talking about.