Wednesday, February 4, 2009


Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
(T. S. Eliot: Four Quartets)

Though there are still many believers in linguistically expressible absolutes, the context-dependency of what we call ‘truth’ is now appreciated in all disciplines by all who have some philosophical understanding. The meanings of words are related to the frame of reference in which they are used and the truth that they express is a truth that implies a relation of concepts to this frame of reference whether consciously chosen or not. Since the frame of reference is itself a conceptual structure, truth is a relation of concepts, and not some ultimate constituent of the universe.

Whereas in the past, some absolute relationship between speech and things was assumed, we now think differently and use language ‘relativistically’, that is to say that we postulate no necessary or favoured relation between a word and a thing but only a word’s ability to refer more or less illuminatingly to the relationship between our concepts, concepts that, themselves, only play a meaningful role in reference to a particular and limited intellectual scheme. Take one of the fundamental time-concepts: the word ‘present’. If, as is the case, there can be no absolute meaning to the concept of ‘simultaneity’ in the universe, then there can be no talk of ‘the universe’ as a single, present state of affairs that the observer is deemed to observe and, by observing, believed to know. A similar remark can be made about the ‘past’ and the ‘future’. We may assume that there are events in the universe that lie outside of the light-cone in which we find ourselves and that therefore presumably are unknowable by us – at least by the normal empirical methods. They lie outside of any measure of time that we can use; but that does not mean that they are by that token incapable of having any influence on us and our universe. It’s just that we have no everyday way of determining either the nature or the quantity of such events, nor their impact upon the universe that is in fact accessible to our observation. If this is the case, then any thought of a final ‘theory of everything’ is a pipe dream because it will be incomplete. And because it will leave something out, we have to put up with the possibility that it may leave the most important things out. The best we can achieve is a provisional account of what is in our range. These remarks are particularly appropriate in opening a brief discussion of time. What must be remembered, is this: the only constant in the universe is that the universe perpetually becomes what it was not. That is to say that the timeless potential achieves presence within a timebound series. The concepts of ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’ do not designate universal absolutes; they are indicators of our point of view and of the frame of reference created by that point of view.

Time is intrinsic to the structure of the intellect and our society has become accustomed to judging everything it considers as implicated in a time series. The whole of society is structured according to a historical consciousness. The whole of science, likewise. The entire body of our much-vaunted knowledge is inseparable from our awareness of its history. Education and culture are similarly dominated by the notion of temporal succession, beginnings, middles and ends and, crucially, by the belief in arrival one day at ‘the truth’. The entire cognitive enterprise of the human race is structured by this narrative. The fact that there is absolutely no possibility of any final destination does not stop us hoping for one.

All of these notions of temporal succession that structure our most important and most trivial activities are subject to a narrative, without which we would find it difficult to make sense of them or to value them. It is extremely difficult for us to conceive of timelessness for we strive to grasp even this as a time-series. And yet, it is necessary for us to consider the fundamental operation of the mind – by which is meant not ego-processes, but rather the mind’s ability to generate coherent novelty – as standing outside of a time-series. ‘Outside of a time series’ here means no more than ‘not subject to the irreversible succession of instants that measure the rate of change in the positions of 3D objects’. Without a conception of the creative intelligence as outside of the timebound order and as only becoming timebound when it expresses itself, we will be unable to understand ourselves and proceed to any new level of culture characterised by open-ended and continuous creativity rather than by some monolithic ‘truth’. If we do not understand our intelligence as timeless, we are condemned to operate forever with the delusions of the time-bound intellect and within the limits of its established methods. If we do this, we are condemned to a nonsensical, anthropocentric notion of truth as an acquisition situated at the end of our narrative and therefore at the end of time or history.

Our intelligence cannot be time-bound. If it were it would have no conception of time at all. We might be conscious of time’s passage, but our consciousness would be the kind of consciousness we attribute to animals, which to our observation appears entirely constituted by the succession of events and lacking any notion of time past, time future and by comparison, time present. It would appear that the consciousness of an animal involves no distinction between perceiver and perceived: the flow of perceptions wholly constitutes the perceiver. A time-bound mind would be as tied to and unaware of the temporal flow as a stick floating on the current of a river. The timelessness of the human mind is attested to by our ability to contemplate past, present and future all at once without our being tied to any one of these. Awareness of time is awareness of the totality of time, beginning, middle and end, past, present and future, simultaneously and from some vantage beyond all of them. The timeless property of the mind is clear from its ability to stand above the flow and view it as a self-contained totality. To pursue the river-image, the mind is able either to consider the flow from the point of view of the floating stick carried by the stream of events; or alternatively, it is at liberty to view the course of the river from source to mouth as a single event. All conceptions of time are structured by a particular frame of reference; and the mind is always above and beyond this frame. The frame intrudes only when consciousness of time structures discourse. This timeless view of time is merely an aspect of the mind’s indeterminate simultaneity from which all its productions and all its actions are unfolded into temporality and spatiality.

If one drops one’s everyday prejudices about three-dimensional things and the three-dimensional space that we assume contains them, it becomes that much easier to take a critical look at our everyday commonsense conception of time. According to this, time is an absolute context of linearly successive instants in which each instant is simultaneously the same throughout the universe and follows the one before with perfect, mathematical regularity in an infinite sequence that goes back without beginning into the past and extends without end into the future. It is one-dimensional. Common sense cannot conceive of its ending or beginning; and it advances in an exact analogy to the infinite sequence of integers, like the ticking of some gigantic clock. That each instant adds itself to an already infinite number of instants means of course that time does not get any longer or shorter; so the finite local time that we experience is embedded in supposedly infinite universal time. This, of course, makes the succession very mysterious; for how can a series that strikes us as starting and finishing, i.e. as finite, also be infinite? But most of us happily overlook the mystery.

The physics of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the popularised versions of which still influence people’s minds, were dominated by such a conception of time, and for no good reason except that it was ‘obvious’ to everyone that that is how time is. It took a major genius with a childlike taste for indulging in imaginative fantasy about the behaviour of light to come up with a conception of time that was radically at variance with what was ‘obvious’ to everyone. Newton’s classical physics and the linear conception of time were not wrong; they were not wrong, because there is no absolute right. It’s just that they failed to explain all the phenomena that were encountered even though they were considered to be aspects of reality and not just theories. The classical conception of time was incompatible with certain inconvenient facts concerning the behaviour of light that would not fit into the theory. Of course, the fantastic success of Newton’s physics was extremely useful, it allowed a much more detailed description of the local universe and this description ultimately made possible the technology of the industrial revolution. But its truth was limited to a definite context that had to exclude many other possibilities, many other freedoms. Einstein was the genius who saw that there was no privileged point in the universe from which universal time could be measured and that time must always be measured in relation to a particular frame of reference, a particular vantage-point.

The upshot of this insight (that further demonstrates the timelessness of the human mind) was that time and the order of events always had to be considered as relative to a particular set of circumstances of relevance to a particular observer moving in a particular way. Another observer would not necessarily be tied to these circumstances and so would measure time differently. So, for example, for the first observer, events A, B, and C may come in that order according to his or her measurement of time. But to the second observer, the order could be quite different. The notion of simultaneity, i.e. of a universal ‘present’, turned out to have no absolute meaning, since there was no absolute standpoint from which this could be judged. Simultaneous events for one observer or set of observers would not be simultaneous for other observers perhaps moving differently and judging according to a different frame of reference. This view of things demonstrated conclusively that time is not the absolute, one-dimensional, universal context for everything that we think it is when we extrapolate from our immediate bodily circumstances to the universe as a whole. Your past may be future for another observer and your future already past for yet another. These considerations are sufficient to show that our everyday conception of time is not as ‘obvious’ as it seems intuitively to us. All time-considerations concern the behaviour of bodies. The mind is beyond this even though humans are embodied. Once we see how defective our ‘obvious’ ego-intuitions are, it becomes easy for the mind to suspend them or even to drop them altogether.
But we can rock the boat of common sense a little more by considering the measurement of time. We measure it in units of the same length – in days, months, years, nanoseconds etc. – and imagine that time proceeds (within a certain frame of reference, of course) according to this scheme: one unit following upon the previous one in mechanical regularity. We measure time with mechanical devices that are so designed as to oscillate, vibrate, or perform some other regular movement with a precise period, of which we then keep a record with a counting device – hands on a dial, figure on a display and so on. We imagine that just as the sun comes up every day after the same period of time (more or less) and the seasons follow each other after the same periods of time (more or less) so our more refined machines indicate the passage of precise units of time, one after the other. The smaller the units, we believe, the more accurate our measurement of the passage of time. Following our naive acceptance of the thing-ideology and its belief in the benefits of reduction to supposedly ‘simple’ components, we would like to arrive at ‘atoms’ of time, that are not further divisible. The trouble with this conception of time is that it raises more problems than it solves. Though it makes the mathematics involved in counting units easier, it does not improve our understanding of the nature of time.

Imagine that time does proceed forward in little hops, nanoseconds or whatever. We have to ask ourselves what happens between the nanoseconds. Where does one nanosecond end and the next one begin? If there is no way of deciding this, there is no way of separating them. A nanosecond lasts a definite, finite, measurable period of time and thus must begin at one point and end at another. Ignoring the absurd concept of infinite accuracy, which is impossible and unnecessarily complicates the issue, we can assert that any gap between the intervals cannot arbitrarily be pronounced to be infinitely small. So if the nanosecond begins and ends, there must be something between each of them. If there is nothing between each of them, then they don’t begin or end. If they don’t begin and end, then there is no way of deciding whether each one is of the same length. The measuring device may record the passage of precisely ten nanoseconds, say, but if we do not know exactly when they begin or end, it might be the case that each nanosecond is actually of a different length. Indeed, to adapt Zeno of Elea, if each nanosecond is infinitely divisible, it may be of infinite length. The measuring device just records the passage of a definite number of units; it does not say whether each of those units was the same length.

Moreover, it may be that there is indeed something going on between each nanosecond: let’s say that the universe freezes into complete immobility for an indefinite period between each nanosecond, but because we are frozen and everything else in the universe is frozen for that period, no observer notices the passage of these periods between each nanosecond. This is a bizarre but not absurd possibility. To make this last – admittedly wacky – idea more imaginable and comprehensible, think of a computer display. Think of one of those geometrical designs that are used for screen-savers, a cube or something that gradually morphs into a spiky thing that then becomes a sphere and then back to a cube again. When we watch this sort of display – and indeed any series of ‘moving’ pictures, either on television or at the cinema – we have the illusion that the stages of the design or the stills of the movie just ‘flow’ into each other seamlessly. Of course they do not. It’s just that our eye is not quick enough to detect that what we have is a succession of static images. In the case of the screen-saver display, the computer generates a series of images, but it calculates, with a refresh rate that goes more quickly than the eye can detect, the new co-ordinates for a new design in the series, and the design jumps to that next still; but we do not detect the illusion. Between each of the stills, there is nothing on the screen at all. It is blank. So perhaps the universe is like that: it is blank between the nanoseconds, nothing happens, there is nothing. In that case, we have to explain how the universe gets from one still to the next. If there is something between the stills, then we really have a problem for we have no idea what it could be. On the computer-screen, the blank does not last long enough for us to detect it, but in the universe, the blank could last for the entire length of a universe and we wouldn’t notice. Of course this would be a fairly miraculous state of affairs, for the universe would have to disappear and then to be recreated miraculously either side of each blank. This strikes us as nonsense, but the view of time that we have, as a succession of identical instants, permits it as a possibility.

There is a definite similarity between the atomic conception of matter and the separate ‘moment’ conception of time. Both permit many helpful ways of thinking, but both create very great problems and, if pushed too far, unhelpful states of mind. If we think for a moment that both conceptions are mere midworld structures and that they are striving to portray to our imagination what happens in hyperworld, which is strictly unimaginable, we will be able to put them in perspective. But it is helpful to realise that the atomic conception of matter and the moment conception of time have this in common: they are attempts by our minds to identify fundamental ‘things’, invariable repeatable units to which we can reduce any complex process. This is a helpful realisation because we can see this habit of our mind as just that, a habit of our thought and not as a strictly necessary feature of the world, as not part of reality but as just a particular mental kink that we have developed. In the universal flux of reality, we just have to espy repetition and stability. That’s how we function. We’re programmed that way for our survival, but the exciting thing about humans is that we are not slaves to such conceptions. We are creatures that constantly overstep bounds set to our minds by nature precisely because the essence of the self is beyond space and time.

Dropping the linear and granular conception of time allows us to see that we do not have to assume that time advances in mysterious little hops as our unit conception of it suggests. If the timebound universe is perpetually, seamlessly and as a whole morphing into what is was not, we can imagine that events simply flow seamlessly like the water in a river and it is we who chop them up into changeless, stable bits for our convenience. Thus we can imagine that time flows seamlessly. Of course this means that we cannot guarantee that each instant measured by the clock is of the same length in reality, just because the clock counts them as such. Clock time, one identical unit after another, is an abstraction from the mechanical movements of clocks that we have made and not a feature of the world as a whole. Their ticking, the sign of their movement, tells us that the machine is doing something with a regular period; and it does that because we have made it that way. The clock incarnates our abstract commonsense notion. It tells us nothing about what is happening in the universe at large. Even when we choose a natural period such as the vibrations of quartz, we extract a convenient periodicity that suits us from the seamless flow and abstract its period as if it were intrinsically invariable. The seamless flow, moreover, is merely our take on the timelessness of reality. Ultimately, of course, there is no flow.

Subjective time is different from clock time. We all have the experience of long, sometimes interminable minutes and short years that flash by. Counting the units of time is irrelevant when we are completely absorbed by some activity. Creative activity has its own temporal flavour that both dilates and shrinks vulgar clock time. The self can lose all notion of the flow of time in its absorption. It seems unreasonable to say that because a machine records identical units, then each period of our time that we designate by the same word is necessarily of the same length in an absolute sense. In Relativity theory, there is no possibility at all of absolute universal agreement on the length of an instant, any more than on the dimensions or the mass of an object: different observers will judge these to be as different quantities. It seems clear that for us the objects of our experience occupy space and endure through time. It is just that the three-dimensional space that strikes us as so obviously the ‘way the world is’ is clearly more mental construct imposed upon reality than property of that world itself. The same can be said about our notion of one-dimensional time.

If commonsense time is no more than a measure of the change in the relative positions of a collection of objects of perception within a particular frame of reference and for a particular observer, then it is incomprehensible except from a timeless vantage from which all its instants are as if present at once. The impossibility of considering 3D objects as absolutely distinct and separate is added to the impossibility of understanding their movement as a series of immobilities (as in the computer-display) and the time taken in that movement as a series of instants separated from each other by intervals of timelessness. This granular structure of the way we experience and describe the world seems to be something that we find very difficult to do without in our effort to understand; but it is entirely possible that this tendency we have to view things atomistically is akin to a pair of coloured spectacles that we find difficult or are unwilling to take off, but that make us see the world in a particular light.

Spectacles that we cannot take off and that make us see the world as grainy, as composed of many identical little bits? Maybe we do have these on along with time and space spectacles; but maybe they are merely the result of long habit and maybe we can take them off as well. Perhaps when we take them off, one of the first things to happen will be the discovery of our ability to understand our selves as aspects of the absolute timeless simultaneity of all reality. There is after all no reason why from one vantage point the universe should not be a simultaneity while from another it is a succession. These two are not incompatible. In our commonsense frame of mind, this simultaneous reality has to be unfolded into a series, into a narrative, unfolded into the determinate realm of the timebound. But it is conceivable that this is only the result of our infirmity and that all narratives are simultaneously enacted with their past, present and future combined timelessly along with everything else that is not part of the series (although it might be part of a series belonging to a distinct and separate realm of time).

If creativity and creative living mean anything for humans, they mean the irruption into the realm of timebound narratives of what is atemporal. We could with a little stretch of the imagination call this process ‘incarnation’.

1 comment:

David Betterton said...

You might have ended with Eliot as you began: though it's pity to take these out of the full context, but hey!

The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled,
--- Dry Salvages (4 Quartets)