Featured image: An artist's impression of spacetime. According to Albert Einstein's theory of relativity time's flow is relative and depends on my velocity through spacetime and the gravitational forces I am subject to. So my clock will tick slower than yours if I travel faster or if the gravitational field through me is stronger. While this phenomenon, known as 'time dilation', sounds like an absurd quirk, it is a widely accepted fact in the scientific community. In fact, it has been confirmed countless times on orbiting satellites that clocks tick slower farther away from Earth's gravitational pull. And since life on the surface is pulled through spacetime slower, you might want to choose your living quarters wisely: a top bunk in a high-rise building will come at the cost of your life. (NASA)
What is time? Time is a funny old thing. It never agrees to move backwards but it does insist on always moving forward. It ebbs and flows nonlinearly, galloping off when we want more of it, and resists movement when we want it to swiftly pass by.
As perceivers of the outside world, we only have a conceptual grip of time. We do not perceive time itself: we perceive events in time and represent it through the changing states of the Universe. Time, then, does not necessarily exist as an entity in itself.
Bygone civilizations determined that we should refer to orbits of celestial bodies for units of change known as ‘days’, ‘months’, and ‘years’. Now we track transitions in atomic states to reflect more-precise units of change, where our digital clocks are crude estimators of change used for personal convenience.
Pictured: Scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) work on an atomic clock. From one astronomical year to the next, the length of a day varies ever so slightly. So one second was redefined to mean 'the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium-133 atom'. But even this notion is a surrogate measure of time which comes with experimental imprecision, not an absolute measure. (NIST)
But there is something more perturbing than that because it concerns us: from unique perspectives, our experience of time is incongruous; we each feel time’s passing differently. What of that?
Let us go over some philosophy to clear up our understanding of time—if, indeed, that is possible.
The suspicion of metaphysicians (philosophers of metaphysics) is that it is not possible to define time in a way which is independent from events. Hence when we say, ‘Time has stopped’, what that might translate to is, ‘Things aren’t changing’.
Consider the following questions:
- Is it theoretically possible for time to stop (or 'freeze' or 'pause')?
- If time froze, how could we possibly tell what had happened after it unfroze?
- What is time's topology: would it uniformly freeze everywhere for everyone?
- Could we measure how long the freeze went on for?
In British children's show Bernard's Watch, inspired by an episode of The Twilight Zone, Bernard is able to make time stand still for everyone except himself using a magic watch. But a good, sceptical metaphysician will ask: 'Does Bernard stop time per se or does he 'freeze' events?' Further: 'If everything is put back into place after the 'freeze', did anything really happen?' And: 'Does Bernard get older as everyone else stays the same age? Bernard is left to face all kinds of moralistic quandaries. (CITV/YouTube)
Together, these questions raise an even bigger question:
- Is time an independent concept outside of events?
If the answer is ‘Yes’, time continues to pass even when nothing changes. Thus if events are at a standstill, as birds hang completely still in the sky and water droplets hover around them, time hasn’t been frozen: events have. And we might be able to measure how long a freeze goes on for.
Many philosophers, such as Aristotle and Gottfried Leibniz, have argued against this position (‘Reductionism with Respect to Time’). In their views, time is only a temporal relation between events that allows us to describe patterns. These relations helps us, as beings who consciously experience change, predict and understand how situations are likely to develop in ‘the future’.
In Click (2006) Michael Newman (Adam Sandler) is able to manipulate reality with a remote control. Scientifically speaking, does the remote control manipulate events (by controlling situations) or time itself (by slowing down, pausing, and speeding time up)? (Sony Pictures Releasing)
That time, as a concept, could be reduced to a relation between events is mind-bendingly counterintuitive. On the everyday surface of things we assume time is real, independent, and measurable—and this seems to work. Time, recorded as a recognisable number, allows humankind to organise itself.
However, we do this out of convenience. We say that time flies; that our time will come; that we made it in the nick of time. But we don’t distinguish what time is in its nature.
Sure, the questions above may seem irrelevant in that their answers may never matter in a way that can be known. Nonetheless, they warn us not to assume time’s simplicity as a concept.
Consciousness of time
Time can also be expressed as a conscious experience of things changing around us.
In ordinary conscious experience we are able to detect the passing of time because we are directly aware of change, persistence, and succession across intervals. As such, I am consciously aware of things happening around me through time in a real way that allows me to detect the patterns of things and interact with the physical world.
Assume a baseball is travelling through the air towards me right now as I prepare for its landing in my hands—oh, look, I caught the baseball. I can claim that the ball travelled from a bat to my hands because I was consciously aware of the ball as it travelled through its full trajectory. My consciousness, therefore, worked through time to correlate my mental states with external happenings in the physical world. Consciousness and time, then, are interwoven—but not perfectly.
Our relationship with time is complicated, for we can unconsciously ‘measure’ time, too. This is apparent from the fact I can become suddenly aware of a running bath being ready or of how much longer is remaining in a two-hour film. No one is really sure of how. Our awareness seems to inconspicuously dig at past mental states—many conscious; many unconscious—to help identify how much time has passed without our present consciousness being part of the process.
We like to think we are in control of what comes to the fore of our minds. Sometimes, however, as Marcel Proust described, fragments of otherwise-inaccessible memory are recalled to the conscious mind involuntarily—like when the taste of a childhood-favourite food heralds an old memory. The control over our minds, then, is more limited than we'd like it to be. (Picture-Alliance/Everett Collection)
Moreover, consciousness is said to exhibit no ‘temporal depth’. Since we are technically only ever directly aware of events now, ‘the present’ strictly pertains to a single immeasurable moment, something which is so tiny it has no interval. So when we write conscious narratives of what just happened in our heads, psychologically speaking, we have to infer memory by extending our consciousness backwards in a continuous episode: we guess.
We don’t even understand consciousness. Not only do we not know how to define time’s passing: we do not know how we track change to make us accurately aware of the past and the future.
I am so sure that the man in this photo just took a sip from his beer. Through my memory of the immediate past, I can consciously recollect the key events: he cracked a joke, looked sideways with a smirk on his face, and then raised the glass to his face to decant some of the orangey-brown liquid into his mouth. Hmmm, then again, I could be mistaken: the situation is more complex than that. (Forget everyday experience; this is philosophy!) For it is really not clear, even to the best neuroscientists, how my consciousness moves backwardly into time's passage. To know how much beer was left in this man's glass 10 seconds ago would require me to be aware of a whole episode of continuous conscious experience which stretches into the past, not a present infinitesimal flash like the one pictured. I can only offer a guess—make an inference—right . . . now.
Subjectivity of time
So far we’ve covered a few big concepts. Now let’s finish on the least intuitive stuff.
There is a large sense that time doesn’t flow very evenly within our immaterial minds. Depending on how preoccupied we are with our own conscious experience of the world, we each feel time’s passing—or, simply, events changing in the physical world—differently.
‘Time flies when you’re having fun,’ right? Being more preoccupied makes time accelerate, something which is particularly true when we don’t think too deeply about the things changing around us.
But ‘the clock is the enemy’, too. If we are bored, the clock slows down as we become acutely aware of time’s passing and measure change numerically. It seems to speed up when we accustom ourselves to monotony.
These observations, at least to me, don’t seem counterintuitive in terms of everyday experience: they feel right. Upon assessing time philosophically, however, an interesting story emerges.
On the one hand, time is a simple thing that can be defined simply and measured with ease, allowing us to live organised lives, during which we mark milestones with numbers that are meaningful to us. On the other, our minds lose track of time: we wake up one day and do not relate to who we were at a certain age or who we went through to be here and how we can connect the dots along with time’s passage in a coherent way. We’re out of sync.
Thus we have located and excavated the boundaries of consciousness in our inability to track objective change. Our subjectivity seems to warp time in an internal way, whereby the speed of time’s passing depends on what we experience, revealing a disjunct between our minds and the physical world.
From one point of view experience of time is neither directly replicable nor captured with measurement. Ludwig Wittgenstein distinguished two modes of time as 'information-time' and 'memory-time' in virtue of the fact that time can be represented objectively in physical features and represented subjectively in terms of memory. (Source)
Of course, time has objective features which can be represented rationally in our minds: we can compare how much time we think just passed to what was recorded independently on clocks, diaries, calendars, and so forth. But when we perform these rational procedures we begin to lose touch with our experiences’ subjective features and denature the fluidity of time—and this is the rich stuff we live for.
Until next time
Altogether, time is a slippery concept. How quickly—or slowly—it passes depends on how we define it and the preoccupations of our consciousnesses.
In some sense, then, time is alterable. I don’t mean to suggest that the passage of time is actually alterable—well, time is alterable in the sense that it is relative, as we each read from different clocks in line with Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. But that’s not the point! The point is that our experience of time is not objective.
In Interstellar (2014) the crew of spacecraft Endurance experience time slowly on Miller's Planet due to the gravitational presence of Gargantuan, a supermassive blackhole. For every hour of time that is measured to pass on Miller's Planet seven years passes on Earth. (Warner Bros. Pictures)
So as you look down at the clock on your phone or on your computer, know that this set of numbers is only a surrogate of something real and something measurable.
And, with that untimely thought, I will abruptly end this conscious thought process and wait for it to re-emerge next time, when I’ll explore the existentialism of time.