You have no doubt often heard someone say, “Are you finished yet?”
And the rejoinder comes, “No, not just yet. Just give me a little more time.”
What could we possibly mean by this? If you asked for a little more water, a little more bread, a little more sympathy or even a little more urgency, I could give you some reasonable reply. But asking for a little more time is a most difficult concept to come to grips with.
The French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard said that “meditating on time is the first step towards metaphysics”.
In my previous blog essay on time I provided my readers with numerous quotations from mystics and scientists that really underpinned Bachelard’s thought.
Saint Augustine, one of the most important figures in the development of Western Christianity, shared my quandary. He observed in the fourth century, “What is time? If no one asks me, then I know. But is someone questions me about it and it try to explain it, then I no longer know!”
And perhaps taking Bachelard’s statement a little further, time seems to be the intersection between physics and metaphysics.
In physics, it was Galileo who introduced the idea of time as a basic physical dimension in his study of moving objects. But it was left to the genius of Newton in the seventeenth century, in his laws of mechanics, to develop the first explicit definition of time. He defined the movements of bodies in space by specifying their positions and speeds at various moments in time.
Newtonian time was absolute and universal. It was assumed that anyone, anywhere shared the same time. And more than that, time’s arrow was unidirectional. Time passed only from a past to a present and then to a future. In Newton’s schema time stood outside space.
Einstein, of course, stood all these concepts on their heads, when he wrote his 1905 article on the Special Theory of Relativity. In Einstein’s scheme of things time was no longer absolute. Time, in Einstein’s view of the universe became dependent on velocity and even on gravity. In most of the situations of our mundane lives, these impacts have little effect and this is, of course, the reason that Newtonian mechanics still aptly describe most of the physical phenomena that we encounter day to day.
But consider this – if time loses its universality, then it isn’t the same for everyone.. What I am experiencing as my present could well be someone else’s past or future. As a consequence the word “now” has no definable meaning.
Einstein writing about the death of his lifelong friend Michele Besso in 1955 ( and less than a month before his own death) said “And now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That signifies nothing. For us believing physicists the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
Buddhism asserts that time belongs to the relative truth of phenomena, of experience. Time has no inherent existence because it does not exist in the present moment.
Subjectively we all know that time does not pass uniformly. There are those times when “time flies’ and those times when “time drags’! That’s because there is a distinction between psychological time and physical time. The time we subjectively experience is psychological time. We know there circumstances when time seems to linger interminably and there are times when we are engaged in what we are doing, and then time seems to pass so quickly and almost unwittingly.
As well we all experience the effect that time seems to go faster as we get older. And that’s not surprising because when we have a long experience of time each additional increment seems smaller than if we have a shorter experience of time.
Physical time however is tied to physical motion. The first emanations of physical time were derived from the earth’s orbit around the sun. This gave us the notions of the seasons. And that was augmented by the earth’s rotation on its own axis which gave us the concepts of day and night and those other markers of diurnal time, sunset and sunrise. The most accurate of our modern clocks rely on the vibrations of atoms to define discrete intervals of time. Without movement there is no physical time. This is why physicists tell us that there was no time before the “Big Bang”.
But if we go back to Saint Augustine, whom I quoted earlier, he said, very wisely, that “the only time was lived time.” This implies, rightly I believe, that time is not inherent in the physical universe but is an epiphenomenon related to Humankind’s experience of our consciousness. The quote above would suggest this was Einstein’s conclusion as well. And if this is the case with time what about the other three dimensions of the space-time continuum? Maybe a subject for a future blog!